D&D tends to get more combat heavy than many other roleplaying games and dungeon masters can use a game mechanic call CR or Challenge Rating. I don’t use CR and here’s why. 

Ok, picture this: 

A party of adventurers is trekking down a dark corridor in a long-forgotten dungeon, one filled with cobwebs, litter and a few monsters. The party’s rogue scouts ahead, avoiding a pitfall and an old trap, set there long ago by whomever created the dungeon. She spots a movement in a large side-room and stealthily moves closer, where she notices a couple of strange orange insect-like creatures, both with large antennae and a weird looking tail. The creatures seem to be eating rusted pots and pans.

After studying the monstrosities for a while, the rogue sneaks back to the group and describes the monsters in detail to the fighter, cleric and sorcerer. “Yikes,” the dwarven fighter says, “dem be rust monsters and I don’t want me armor nor shield be eaten by dem. He raises his steel shield, emblazoned with the holy symbol of Moradin. Can’t we get past dem?”

“Oh, come on,” answers the sorcerer, “rust monsters are like challenge rating 3. We can easily take a couple of them down!”

The problems I have with CR

This was the moment when I decided to stop using CR or challenge rating to build encounters. First of all, I, just as any other game master, am not all that fond of players meta-gaming or when they know the monster manuals by heart, which in this case was mostly the problem. For this kind of players, CR is like some sort of scale, by which they evaluate encounters and their chance of survival.

Secondly, CR is a tool for dungeon masters to create level appropriate encounters. However, since 3rd edition, the CR has been, at least to my experience, way off, especially when you start hitting high levels, where the characters have achieved near-god like power. As the characters progress, the CR becomes less and less reliable and I feel that this is just as true with 5th edition, especially when you have a group of experienced roleplayers, who know how to make the best use of their character’s abilities. 

Finally, CR has no relation to the narrative. Sometimes, and quite often to be honest, I find myself in a place where I need to choose between an encounter that is level appropriate or one that more suits the narrative, be it way too easy or little more than quite-seriously-deadly-and-needs-to-tackled-with-something-else-than-sword-swinging-and-spell-slinging.

The meta-gamers 

Let’s face it. As long as there will be roleplaying games there will be meta-gamers. Of course, much as that kind of gaming behavior is looked down upon, there will always be gamers that use either their gaming experience or knowledge of game mechanics in-game, to ensure the success of the party or their character.

There are many ways to bypass the meta-gamers, as Helgi talks about in this article about re-skinning monsters and changing the pace of the game. However, many meta-gamers will, no matter what, evaluate every encounter and try to figure out its CR, since it also affects how much XP there is to earn. 

Finally, I’ve also discovered that some of the meta-gamers I know seem to use meta-gaming to eliminate uncertainty, because it can make them feel uncomfortable not knowing what to expect. The CR system is therefore for them some sort of a built-in defence mechanism, to ensure that everything is in its right place. 

The power-players

Just as there will always be meta-gamers, there will be players who love to build powerhouse characters. The CR system doesn’t always take this into account, and I’ve had groups where the appropriate CR was the average character level + 5! And that’s not taking magical items into account. 

One power player can easily upset the group appropriate CR, not to mention if there are two or more in the same group. The encounter difficulty mechanism is adjusted to 3-5 characters of same or similar level, though it isn’t hard adjusting the mechanism to a different size of groups since it is all explained in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

The problem I have, however, isn’t the mechanism itself, it is the players who upset the balance. When you have players that are outliers in terms of group’s power level, the imbalance makes it hard to create encounters that are equally challenging for all characters.

The narrative

I wrote a module called Trouble in Ironboot Mine (if you don’t mind me tooting my own horn), where the characters need to enter a den of kobolds to save a group of dwarves. Earlier in the module the character can hear rumors of a red dragon in the same area. Now, kobolds bow easily to their more powerful brethren…

When the adventurers enter the den, they should be 2nd level, but the red dragon, who has her lair there as well as the kobolds, is a young one, which is CR 10. The dragon isn’t meant to be fought, it’s there to provide narrative synergy.

Sometimes, the CR mechanism stands in the way of the narrative and can break players suspension of disbelief. After all, from the narrative’s perspective what are the odds that a group of adventurers only encounter monsters and villains that fit the group’s power level? 

Dealing with trivial matters or running away from dangerous opponents is also a part of being an adventurer. Also, there are other ways to dealing with encounters than combat, like using skills, roleplay or simply outsmarting the adversaries. In my experience players tend to be more open to using the other tools in the box, when the encounters seem either too easy or too difficult.

Sorry CR! It’s not you, it’s me…

I decided a while ago to stop using CR for encounters and focus more on what kind of encounters would be fitting for the narrative. I have nothing against the CR game mechanics as such, I’ve just found out that it doesn’t suit me or the groups that I play with.

I tell my son, who is trying his hand at being a dungeon master, to use it for his games. It can help you plan encounters and give a sense of what is appropriate for your group. Every now and then he comes over to me and asks if this or that is too weak or powerful, and I always answer the same way: Try it and see what happens. Make a note of it and learn from it, because that’s how you become a better dungeon master.

I think that as you get older and more experienced you slowly let go of mechanics like the CR and let the narrative guide you on. You get to know your players, what they expect and how to make the game interesting, challenging and, most of all, fun for all participants.