Challenge Rating Equals Level? Maybe not

Something I’ve been noticing lately when building NPCs is that although the basis of challenge rating is that a character’s CR is equal to his level, in practice this is often not the case. Wizards of the Coast’s research and development team think the same thing:

The rule that says “an nth-level NPC is a CR n monster�?… well, let’s just say that the rule isn’t beyond reproach. It’s true of some classes within some level ranges, but it’s simply not accurate as a general rule. I don’t think any designer will tell you with a straight face that a 1st-level NPC wizard is a good challenge for four 1st-level PCs. (Better hope the NPC gets that sleep spell off, huh?)

One of the reasons is that the character classes are based on the players having them, and the players usually have oodles more magic items than their opponents - they spend almost all of their money on magic items and tend to steal other peoples’ equpiment with alarming regularity. The other reason is that a level 10 wizard is balanced assuming that he will cast his spells gradually over the course of several encounters and that he will do so with the support of the rest of his adventuring party.

At low levels, the formula holds up reasonably well. Compare a level 3 half-orc fighter with a challenge rating 3 ogre. The fighter, assuming generous ability scores, will have 27 hit points, +8 to hit with 2d6+6 damage, an armor class of 20 and saves of +6/+2/+1, with additional feats. The ogre at the same challenge rating will have 2 hit points and on average 2 damage more per hit, with 4 lower AC and a 2 lower Reflex save, and the added benefit of longer reach. The two are sufficiently close.

At high levels, things change. Compare the same fighter at level 11 to the CR 11 cloud giant. The fighter has 83 hit points to the giant’s 178, his AC is still 20 before magic items compared to the giant’s 25, and the fighter’s saves will be +10/+5/+3 against the giant’s impressive +16/+6/+10. The fighter’s improved Strength gives him an attack set of +17/+12/+7 with 2d6+9 damage before magic weapons are considered, but you can be assured that the giant will have a magic weapon improving his existing array of +22/+17/+12 each dealing a fearsome 4d6+18 damage. That’s an average hit of 32 with reach versus the half-orc’s 16 - exactly double. The half-orc, appropriately enough, is half as survivable and half as lethal!

The net result is that as player characters rise in level, human (or humanoid) villains simply aren’t up to the “challenge rating = level” rule, and in the absence of a reliable formula, ought to have their CR determined through ad-hoc ruling. It’s an elephant in the living-room situation where nobody wants to admit that the rule has been inaccurate all along, and so when writing adventures will often either ignore it or find ad-hoc ways to beef up the character. One such adventure had a sorcerer possessed by a demon such that his ability scores were basically all eighteens and he was granted various resistances, in addition to being behind bars. Another made him a ghost and had him effectively “possess” an earth elemental in order that he be survivable enough not to need endless minions, ad-hoc effects and terrain features to protect him.

Comments (8)

Sam (November 7th, 2007)

Your criticism has its points, but I think you simplified the problem so that it sounds worse than it is. Remember that your level 1 npc failed because it was a CR 1 encounter versus a CR 5 party (2 level one characters are a level 3 encounter, 4 level one characters are a level 5 encounter). Every time you double the number of creatures (assuming they are of the same level) increase the CR by 2 (unless the creature’s CR is a fraction).

An average encounter should be set at the level of the party, not the level of the characters.

Jonathan Drain (November 8th, 2007)

@Sam: By that logic, a level 1 party should typically face CR5 encounters. In this case, the dangers you face should, on average, have a fifty-fifty chance to kill you.

Lethal, but not how the Dungeon Master’s Guide recommends it.

Tobias (February 28th, 2008)

CR = EL, or Challenge rating = Encounter Level, and the EL is defined on the basis of a four player party at that level 4 lvl 10 PCs can easily deal with one lvl 9, 10, 11 NPC…well from my experience anyway. its all in the DMG

KasraKhan (July 19th, 2008)

CR means 4 balanced PCs could handle the situation ‘routinely’, routinely being the important word. PCs need to handle situations routinely in order to face multiple encounters and not die. A challenge rating 5 encounter should leave a party of 4 with some deaths (minimum 1, really, and of course a maximum of 4), but death is not what a DM is attempting to do. And I would like to point out that extreme low level combat is too luck based to really give EL too, so a better example would be more fitting.

4 level 7’s versus a CR 9 is a tough encounter, but doable without losses. The same party versus a CR 11 leaves the victor in doubt, but versus a mere CR 7 the party will clearly win.

Falconer (September 2nd, 2008)

i have a small question as to whether or not my DM is trying to play a deathmatch against the party.
at level 4, a group consisting of a psion, a fighter, a rogue(me), and a wizard, we faced off with a
mummy lord (CR10) without access to it’s spells. this was after a long and harrowing dungeon/ruin that left the party low on HP, out of potions, and most spells expended. we had no safe place to rest, and time was against us,
as my character was in danger of having his soul used as a spell component in 3 days. it was a day’s ride there, and a days ride back. the dungeon consumed approx. 3/4 of a day. we survived, albeit barely. the fighter and the psion were at -9HP, i was at 1HP, and the wizard had about 4 HP left, and by some gods grace, we made it back in time to retrieve the characters’ soul. we haved faced ramping challenges ever since, the most recent being a zombie deathknight blackguard 7, which required DM intervention to survive. should i find a new DM, or am i not playing a rogue properly?

halfpuppy (April 16th, 2009)

Falconer: It sounds like you just barely made it through, which means your DM is doing a good job of keeping things exciting. Occasionally, a DM needs to intervene to prevent a TPK. A really good DM will intervene without letting you know (s)he’s intervening. Everyone makes mistakes though. If the DM wanted to kill your character, your character would be dead. It sounds like your DM just likes to keep you on your toes. It comes down to this: If you’re having a good time, you probably have a good DM. If you’re not, find another game.

Ghost (April 17th, 2009)

I realize the original post is almost 3 years old, but I totally agree. The way I understand it is that a single monster with a CR of X means that it is an even match for a party of 4 characters that are class-level X as well. That’s a 1 to 4 relationship that holds true until that monster is converted into a classed NPC. By wizards initial ruling of CR= Class level, that would mean that a single fighter of level X would be able to take on 4 players of level X? That just doesn’t make sense.
So it was suggested to me that the NPC’s should be rated the same as the PC party, so a classed NPC of level X should have a CR of 1/4 * X, so that 4 of them would be an even match for 4 players of level X. But that doesn’t work either because PCs need to manage their resources to try to last through potentially many encounters in a day, while the NPCs could just spam everything they’ve got in a single encounter, making it far more difficult.
Perhaps classed NPC challenge rating should be (X + 2)/4? or something like that.

Quicksilver (August 24th, 2009)

Falconer, on the off chance that a year later you’d read this… please read the following paragraph to Jonathan on that exact same subject for your answer.

Jonathan and Ghost, in the book it states that a CR of equal level to the average level of pc’s is a breeze for the party to fight through, while a CR that is 5 higher than the parties average level is a “special occasion” where you are very likely to have someone die in the encounter.

This and more is stated on page 49 of the DMG (3.5). An EL (or CR for single monster) that is the same as the parties level should take up 20% of the party resources for that fight in the day (never reach 100% unless you want the party to wipe). So a big encounter that is 5 higher than your parties level, should take up almost all your resources and likely kill someone.

The table on the lower right of DMG pg 49 shows how often that should happen in your game. And thats really dependent on how the game is setup, as not all GM’s (or parties) will follow that rule. Sometimes your party will be weaker for the situation so the EL should be considered higher (undead fight with 0 clerical help), and sometimes you’re at an advantage (fire feat spec’d evoker vs ice elementals). Someone in Falconer’s position should talk to the other players and the GM about whether having encounters like that is fun for everyone or for him. If indiana jones encounters aren’t your play style, you may want to switch games.

So yah, EL +5 is possible, and is recommended Rarely by the book. Big boss fights and running like heck, or escaping the pyramid deathtraps on the way out since everyone else is already dead.

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