In the last couple of weeks, I’ve had a couple of people message me who were having some issues with Challenge Rating (CR) in 5th edition. The thing that was frustrating them was they were forgetting that CR has taken on a slightly different identity in 5th Edition.
In D&D 5e, a monster’s Challenge Rating simply means “you must be at least this tall to fight this monster fairly”. In other words, if you have a group of characters lower than the monsters CR, then things could get messy quickly.
You CAN (and should) use the CR number if you’re looking to build a straightforward combat encounter where 4 characters (whose level matches the monster’s challenge rating) will be fighting that monster by itself, working together.
So how do you build encounters that aren’t that straightforward? Well, you spend an XP budget. The XP value of the monsters is like a price to use them in an encounter, and that’s truly what you need to be looking at to know if your encounter is balanced.
So let’s build an Encounter, and I’ll show you how the CR and XP work together to create balance.
Here’s a quick rundown on how you can spend your XP budget that we talked about above.
Step 1 – In spending our XP budget, we need to decide the encounter’s difficulty level. In the Dungeon Masters Guide (DMG) the options we have are “Easy”, “Medium”, “Hard” and “Deadly” (you could almost think of those as “Cheap” “Average” “Overpriced” or “Expensive” if you want to stick to budgetary terms). For the sake of this example, I’d like to use some Level 3 characters, and build a Hard (Overpriced) encounter for them.
Step 2 – How do we know how much XP we have to spend on this encounter? What’s our budget? You find this out by simply referring to a table in the DMG called the “Encounter Difficulty XP per Character” table. This is your price guide, and it tells you what you can spend. Since we’re building a Hard (or Overpriced) encounter, the table tells us that we get 225 XP to spend per character for what we’re trying to do. This means that our Total XP Budget for building this encounter is 900 XP, since we have 4 players (225 XP each).
Step 3 – There are some things that can make the cost increase as you’re spending your XP budget. Adding multiple monsters is one such upcharge. I’m not going to sugar coat it… adding monsters gets expensive fast. If you want to add multiple monsters, it can be tricky, but follow me here, and I’ll show you how to do it. The first thing you need to do is see how much of an upcharge adding more monsters is going to be. Simlarly to how we found out our initial budget, we’re going to referring to another table. This second table is called the “Encounter XP Multipliers” table. On that table, find the number of monsters you want to add to your encounter, and it will give you a multiplier. Once you have this multiplier, you go back to your Total XP Budget from Step 2, and divide it by this number. (So since our Total XP Budget was 900 XP, that is the number we would divide by the number we got off of the “Encounter XP Multipliers” table).
Clear as mud?
For example: Let’s say I want to use 3 to 6 monsters for this particular encounter I’m building. When I look at the “Encounter XP Multipliers” table, it tells me I need to divide my Total XP Budget of 900 XP by 2. This gives me my new budget. So instead of having the original 900 XP to spend, I now have 450 XP instead. Sure it’s a cut in budget, but now I can use multiple monsters (between 3 and 6, to be exact). Hopefully that all made sense. It’s pretty simple once you get the hang of it.
Step 4 – Hey remember the Challenge Rating from before? The one that started this entire conversation? Well here’s where that REALLY comes into play. Now that I can choose 3 to 6 monsters whose XP value is no more than 450 XP combined, I need to be sure not to choose any monsters whose Challenge Rating is greater than 3. Why? Because the party is made up of four 3rd Level adventurers.
OH! And here’s something really important: even though you’ve divided your Total XP Budget to create the encounter with multiple monsters, dropping it to 450 XP, your players still get credit for the full amount of the Total XP Budget you started with—so in this case, your players would still get 900 XP, not 450 XP.
Hopefully that all makes sense, and clears things up. It’s a pretty basic system once you get the hang of it, but it can be REALLY tricky at first. = )
May your dice roll high,