For the past week or so I’ve been talking about different aspects of the Dungeons & Dragons 5e core rules set that make it a great RPG. The different game mechanics like advantage, inspiration, and character backgrounds. So today, I thought I would switch it up a bit and talk about an aspect of the D&D 5e system that isn’t so great (at least in my opinion), the challenge rating system suggested for building balanced encounters.
Does anyone actually understand and use the Dungeons & Dragons 5e challenge rating system when building encounters? The challenge rating system is completely foreign to me. Back in the day, we didn’t use a challenge rating system. We developed encounters based on a general knowledge of monster strengths based on damage rolls, hit points, and abilities combined with an intimate knowledge of a parties strength based on player style and skill. At the end of the day there was no mathematical formula for building encounters, and if you over or under estimated party strength you simply improvised on the fly. Does the encounter feel too lethal? Pull out a few monsters, or decrease their damage rolls or hit points. Does the encounter feel too easy? Add a few monsters, or increase their damage rolls or hit points. It wasn’t a mathematical equation. It was an art, not a science.
Since beginning to play Dungeons & Dragons 5e though I hear quite a bit about maintaining game balance. I read a lot of articles outlining how to use the challenge rating guidelines for designing and balancing encounters and awarding experience point value and the like, and I’m going to be really honest here… I just don’t get it. I’ve tried, and I really don’t.
I mean, I get that challenge ratings and XP budgets are tools to help DMs judge the difficulty of a combat encounter or an overall adventure. I get that challenge rating and experience points work in tandem to help you balance a combat encounter. But it seems like a lot of work for not much return. I mean in the end, you’re probably just going to improvise anyway right? Like I said before, DM’ing is an art, not a science. Regardless of challenge rating, you’re going to end up adjusting up or down because there are simply too many variables involved. Does the encounter feel too lethal? Pull out a few monsters, or decrease their damage rolls or hit points. Does the encounter feel too easy? Add a few monsters, or increase their damage rolls or hit points. In my mind, it’s still not a straight mathematical equation. So why jump through the hopes if you’re just going to end up adjusting on the fly anyway?
Personally, I find it easier to look up the monsters I want to use in the Monster Manual, gauge their hit points, the number of attacks, damage rolls, and special abilities against those of the party and just make a guess. If I’m really unsure, I’ll play through a couple of dummy encounters just to be sure, but honestly, I don’t have to do that very often. The key is to know your party and their strengths and weaknesses.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m oversimplifying it? Maybe I’m doing it wrong? But it works for me. How about you? Do you use the Dungeons & Dragons 5e challenge rating system for building balanced encounters and awarding XP? Do you like it? Do you find value in it? Most importantly, can you explain it to me like I’m five? Because I really don’t get it… Let me know in the comments!
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I don’t like CR, either, and have found it doesn’t always do much for balance.
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Are you still using it in your game? I’ve stopped using it when creating encounters. I tried in the beginning, but now I just trust my gut. I think creating a balanced encounter is more about knowing your players and their capabilities than it is referencing a chart. Besides, if you’ve judged the encounter incorrectly you can always adjust on the fly (either adding more monsters, a second wave or alternatively reducing the number of monsters, or their damage).