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If you're lucky enough to live near a Wizards Play Network store that participates in our early release program for D&D, you probably already have your hands on the Starter Set. If you're as crazy as I am, you might have even already completed Lost Mine of Phandelver, the Starter Set adventure. What's next for you?
Well, we've heard a number of calls from DMs for a preview of the guidelines for designing and balancing encounters, so let's take a look at those rules this week. You can use these guidelines with the monsters in appendix B of Lost Mine of Phandelver to continue your campaign or create new adventures.
Warning: These are not final rules. Although they've been playtested thoroughly, you can expect some adjustments before they debut in the Dungeon Master's Guide in November.
To start with, remember that these are guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Challenge ratings and XP budgets are tools to help DMs judge the difficulty of a combat encounter or an overall adventure. But there are so many variables involved in D&D that it's impossible to perfectly balance everything. Experienced DMs often run their campaigns simply by eyeballing difficulty, or by placing creatures and threats based solely on the needs of the setting or adventure.
In other words, treat this like any other piece of DMing advice we offer. Use it if it improves your game. Ignore it if it gets in the way.
Challenge Rating: A monster's challenge rating is a guide to its overall power. As a general rule, monsters with a CR higher than a party's level pose a significant threat. They might have abilities that easily outclass the characters, or so many hit points that they can wear the characters down even in a straightforward battle.
Unless you're looking to create an intentionally difficult—or even deadly—encounter, it's best to focus on creatures with a challenge rating less than or equal to the average level of the characters in the party.
Experience Point Value: You can judge the difficulty of a battle by comparing the total experience point value of the monsters to the party's level. Here's the current state of the experience point budget table. Multiply the XP value listed on the table by the number of characters in the party to determine your total budget. That budget gives you a guideline for the total XP value of creatures in the combat.
Challenge Rating Versus Experience Points: It's important to remember that challenge rating and experience points work in tandem to help you balance a combat encounter. A creature with a CR higher than the party's level might easily fit into the budget, but such a creature could present a deadly threat to the party. For example, an ogre is worth 450 XP and is a CR 2 threat. A party of five 1st-level characters should expect to face about 500 XP worth of monsters for a challenging fight. Sounds like the ogre is a good fit, right?
However, the ogre is a CR 2 creature because its damage is enough to drop most 1st-level characters in a single hit. That doesn't mean you shouldn't ever throw an ogre at a 1st-level party. (One of the most memorable games I played in featured a running battle between 1st-level characters and an ogre.) But it does mean you should be ready for a tough fight—one that requires a mix of good luck and smart play for the heroes to emerge victorious.
The Monstrous Horde: Sometimes outnumbering the characters gives monsters a big tactical advantage. If you're creating an encounter with monsters that have a relatively low XP value compared to the XP budget for the party's level, you might end up with twice as many monsters as characters. However, if you looked at our preview of the hobgoblin, you'll have seen that even lower-CR monsters can become more dangerous when they fight as a group. As such, large numbers of monsters can skew the balance of an encounter.
To account for this, multiply the XP value of an encounter by 1.5 if the monsters outnumber the adventurers by two-to-one. If the monsters outnumber the characters by three-to-one, multiply the XP total by 2. For a four-to-one advantage, multiply the XP total by 2.5, and so on.
The Adventuring Day: As a rule of thumb, the game assumes that characters of a particular level can defeat a total number of creatures with an XP value equal to two hard encounters before needing to take a long rest. That's not a perfect measure, since the adventuring day is subject to strategic considerations that can swing encounter difficulty from overwhelming to trivial, and back again. As a guideline, though, it's a good way to gauge when you can expect the party to start running out of resources.
Winging It: This system is designed to help DMs gauge combat difficulty. It's not an assumed part of the game, in the sense that we don't expect DMs to follow these rules in building adventures the same way that players follow certain rules when creating characters.
In my own games, I tend to use only challenge rating to gauge monster power, then wing it from there when designing encounters. Players with a bit of experience with the game know to avoid fights where the characters are outnumbered, and to keep a low profile around creatures that they know are out of their league. I've also converted adventures by simply replacing original stat blocks with their fifth edition versions, using the indicated number of creatures and not worrying about CR or XP budget. I ran a successful play-through of The Forge of Fury this way, and found the action to largely mirror my experience of running that adventure in third edition.
You might find that you'll use this system of challenge rating and XP budgets to familiarize yourself with fifth edition encounters and combat, then slowly dial it back as your intuitive sense of the party's strengths and your own personal DMing style take over. And as with any tool, you might end up using these guidelines in ways that their creators could never have predicted. Have fun, and make the rules your own.
Now, let's see if anyone manages to use this article and the material in the Starter Set to hit 20th level by GenCon . . .