CR = Combat Rating = Training Wheels = Fleeing From Gygaxian Naturalism

I was commenting on the Rambling Roleplayer’s “The Temple of Elemental Challenge Rating Calculation Evil” post when I realized my big problem with CR numbers.

It’s a set training wheels that I don’t need or want.

I’m used to playing 1e – there were no CR’s. I had to learn how to build adventures based on roughly equating Hit Dice to Level – sort of. Alternately, we could look at the old “Random Monster” tables for dungeon levels, which had a roughly accelerated version of that idea. Going one step further there was the old Wilderness Random Encounter tables which were Gygaxian Naturalism red-in-tooth-and-claw and had no correlation whatsoever to level, it was simply what you could run into “out there in the wild” (or in the city).

This might be because it is a game based on a wargame that predates the vast majority of “point build systems” that are so common today (the Citadel games, Ground Zero Games, etc.) It was rooted more in systems that replicated scenarios that were often less about “balance” and more about “interesting”. Could you survive as the British at Roarke’s Drift? Could you sink the Bismark? How would you handle Pearl Harbor? Can you do as well as Caesar at Alesia?

Instead of trying to build a “balanced scenario” players and DM’s really did engage in a least a little bit of “who can outwit the other” – in the same spirit as wargamers did. In fact, some of the joy of the DM was not so much in building a scenario that killed the players but in watching the players win against odds that were stacked against them.

That’s what made adventures like D3 so great – the idea isn’t to wipe out the entire city of Drow, it’s to sneak in and “win” by achieving the victory conditions. There is nothing “balanced” about the module at all in most respects. One of the most memorable adventures I played in as a players was similar, it was for essentially name level characters (9th-10th level) and was based on Stephen King’s novel Salems Lot – yes, it was a remote village that had been taken over by vampires. By “CR” standards it was utterly over the top and a level-draining, undeath-generating deathtrap, there was nothing “balanced” about it – but we still beat something like two-hundred vampires, along with the utterly evil vampiric version of Rutger Hauer’s character Étienne from Ladyhawke with the bastard sword that acted as a Ring of Vampiric Regeneration. Twenty-plus years later and I still remember that adventure, we had a great time, by finding and enlisting allies, some combination of Captain Kronus, Vampire Hunter and Vampire Hunter D by my recollection, plus finding a vampire-mesmerizing magical item (the Bloodstone) and then fighting smarter not harder.

There are some echoes of this concept in Rise of Tiamat, and that’s actually kind of cool. But it still talks about reducing Tiamat down from a CR30 threat to a more manageable CR18 for the supposedly ~15th level adventurers. I wish it simply talked about ways to allow a group of hopelessly outmatched 15th level adventurers to handle a CR30 threat. It bad gamer speak that robs, I think, the players of any real pride in the accomplishment of taking down Tiamat. “Sorry, that wasn’t the real Tiamat, it was the CR18 version – come back and brag when you vanquish the real one.”

As a long-term DM I don’t need the training wheels of a CR to tell me how to balance an encounter or adventure. Ultimately I’m not trying to build a balanced adventure. I’m trying to build a fun adventure, a challenging adventure, a memorable adventure, hopefully an adventure that my players will be talking about 20+ years from now.

I think the other potential problem with CR ratings is that it doesn’t actually account very well for exceptional players or “unbalanced groups” – I think I just witnessed that with the Cragmaw Hideout session. Three lightly armoured, high-magic characters essentially walked through the entire section by using stealth rather than what was clearly designed for a more “frontal assault” from the descriptions in the module.

The players job is to break the module, to shred any semblance of balance, and reap the rewards.

CR is a third and unnecessary wheel in that process.




Categories: Game Design | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “CR = Combat Rating = Training Wheels = Fleeing From Gygaxian Naturalism

  1. This sums up a lot of how I feel about the challenge rating system as well. I hated that 3rd edition forced you to use this system, and I hated even more that it was consistently so far off the mark when it came to determining what an “appropriate challenge” was. The “challenge rating” of any encounter is a moving target, with a lot of variables involved, not the least of which is player agency. Like you, I’ve been running adventures for years and I have a pretty good handle on what constitutes a balanced or unbalanced encounter, and I know when I want to have one or the other. That’s why I was thrilled to see that monsters have a static experience point value again in addition to the challenge rating. As long as the DMG has a reasonably intuitive system for calculating a consistent XP value for NPCs I will be set to just put together adventures the way I’ve always done.

    • Thank you!

      Compared to 1e I know that 5e is going to require a certain a mount of fine-tuning my own internal rubric for encounter strength – though I think this is going to be less an issue for low and low-mid level adventures. It’s the higher level adventures where it is going to really going to show up I think. The lack of the those massive, 1e 15-20 die Fireballs and Lightning Bolts that they’ve been nerfing since 2e in combination with the generally lower number of spells and the certainly higher HP of monsters due to the larger HD and Constitution bonuses.

      I can’t say that it should be a huge issue for a little bit at least – unless we convert some old characters over to 5e of course! In any case, I’m not going to worry overmuch until after the DMG comes out.


  2. Preach it! I have believed, for a while now, that the CR system gives Players an assumption that any encounter is a winnable encounter. Sometimes it isn’t winnable; sometimes it is a Kobayahsi Maru. I miss the 15+ die fireballs, maybe a tweak is in the making. Thanks for a great post.

    • LOL! Yeah, that’s the truth. What I think is interesting is that 5e has moved away from caster level as the metric for spell efficacy and moved it to spell level. This isn’t a bad thing, IMO, and in fact opens up a whole branch of magical items – namely spell focusers and spell promoters.

      I’m all about new goodies for PC’s.


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