On high level CR-appropriate encounters

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On high level CR-appropriate encounters

Post by Tshern on Mon Feb 16, 2009 2:04 pm

According to many, most D&D 3.5 games take place at very low levels, ending way before halfway of the normal progression. At these levels it is relatively easy to keep encounters challenging for the party, because there are not enough instant win buttons and creative use and modifications can make certain monsters very dangerous. However, past level 12 or so, a huge problem becomes more and more evident: Most monsters have absolutely nothing to contribute to the fight.

Challenging high level adventurers essentially means the DM has to use outsiders, dragons or NPCs.

Dragons come with a good number of hitpoints, excellent saves, good mental ability scores, flight and sometimes their own spellcasting. Their breathweapon can be turned into a powerful weapon by good feat changes and giving a dragon five levels of Abjurant champion makes them potent dispellers as well. Often the party has to fight the dragon on its own terms, which naturally makes them harder to defeat. Smart DMs can also use dragons' treasure to keep the challenge lethal enough.

Outsiders, on the other hand, come with an excellent number of spell-like abilities, good caster level, great ability scores and decent saving throws. A lot of them can keep up in melee with Fighters if they ever want to, but the real key to victory is abusing their SLAs, that usually keeps a party busy. Feat choices for outsiders are often crappy though, so modifying them is almost mandatory. Just like dragons, outsiders can survive easily by taking their racial HD, no class levels required.

NPCs then. We all know what optimized characters can do and now the DM has an optimized spellcaster with all the time in the world for preparations and he can even use very exact knowledge about the player characters through divinations and previous encounters his minions have been in. Elaborating on this, I believe, is quite unnecessary.

But the other creature types. Afraid of oozes at level 15? No, I didn't think so. They don't fly, they are slow and often are very vulnerable to some of the most basic tactics like attacking their dexterity. Believe it or not, they are not even immune to that. The best thing they have coming for them is the good defense against melee attacks and good number of hit dice. The other creature types fall to the very same trap. Quite a few of them can even be decimated with melee characters too.

Something I left out on purpose until now is the infamous undead subtype. Pretty much anything can be made undead with little or no trouble and the CR system for zombies and the like is wonky. Throwing skeletal hydras at a party that doesn't have flying spells or movement-impeding attacks is close to genocide. The Nightshade line of monsters is decent as well. However, most undead monsters found in, for example, Libris Mortis are little more than cannonfodder.

The only possible fix I can come up with requires some work, but it is the best I have: Subjective CR. The DM, before the encounter, modifies monsters as he sees fit and gives them a CR value appropriate to the party level, their optimization level and the skill level of each player. Hard to do with a bunch of new players, but if the group is somewhat the same every time, this should work nicely.

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Re: On high level CR-appropriate encounters

Post by Reverend Red on Mon Feb 16, 2009 6:03 pm

How I approach this ridiculous problem is that I know what the players are capable of, pit them against monsters I feel are a good challenge (well, except in occasions when the players are obviously against a weaker or stronger foe, I'm sure anyone reading this can imagine situations for both without my elaborate explanations) and then reward them somewhat according to the CR table. Meaning, I just toss out the whole EL thing and replace it with fair challenge + fair price, much more according to my own logic than that given out by the DMG or the Monster Entry.

I suppose this is how a lot of DMs do it. This benefits the game in that it disregards the video game-ish grinding concept, meaning, constantly challenging monsters that give "good XP" and no struggle, instead keeping the encounters interesting for both the players and the DMs, while rewarding the players at the pace of the DM's choosing. The DMG says that the conditions of combat should not necessarily be taken into account when determining the challenge rating of the encounter (DMG3.5, pg. 50) but that doesn't mean, even in a more strict observation of the game design, mean that you should diligently follow the exact coordination of the DMG and Monster Entries when planning an encounter. 4 Purple Worms are not as challenging as one Planetar at level 16, and I don't think we have anyone here who can't piece together why that is. By logic, there's no reason to reward the same XP for two encounters out of which one is a cake walk, where Overland Flight lets you end the combat by literally dropping rocks, and one is a challenging struggle with 9th level spells used, respectively. I'm now discussing a fight-to-death situation, mind you, the challenge CAN be made equal by forcing environmental and quest changes.

So this brings up two options, either disregarding the CR system and taking it by stride (bringing us closer to story telling type of adventure design) or modifying each encounter to match its CR.

As a player, I can't see myself giving much weight to the speed at which my DM gives XP, since I'm playing a game of his design and can assume that the challenges are tailored according to the XP given - so the DM decides the pace and I assume that upon joining, I've either agreed to his decision on the progression rate, or can parlay on it later. Therefore, I'm completely fine with subjective rewards for subjective encounters, both as a player and as a DM.

However, actually writing down changes for every encounter makes gives an interesting benefit - the fact that it rules out metagaming entirely. If the Trcieratops has been turned into an optimized charged build that flies and shoots SUPERLASER from its horns or some shit, I certainly am not going to know the relative power level. The only thing I can then hope for is that by doing my best I'm able to defeat it, and then be rewarded in a neutral, non-antagonizing way. In this case it's a subjective CR and an objective reward, which may sound funny, but upon inspection, eventually, pans out as a fairly decent option.

In both cases we're expecting modified, subjective challenges, and both styles lend to each other, obviously. This is rough. At this point we're omitting to a danger of pitting the player's mechanical design against the DM's, turning it into some sort of a contest of building skill. I'm not saying this happens or has even happened to me, I'm saying there's a risk that it becomes an optimization contest of sorts, where both are trying to come up with ways of completely overpowering the other's creation. This, I think, is always mediated by the fact that a good game is always at the mercy of the one founding principle: it's played so that everyone will have fun.

I guess that's what all this rambling is boiling down to. Sure the CR mechanics are broken, and I'm the first to vouch against following it, but this is not a difficult factor in a D&D game. The game is played by people who gather together to have fun. It's not some neutral, robotic game where no-one present has any power over its mechanisms. I find little distrubances like this non-factors for the functionality of the game. There are simply too many monsters to entirely fix the system - so why not just disregard that and return to what's important AND brilliant about the game.

Whoo, that was a huge and fucking contentless response. I guess I just felt like writing something for you to guys read when you're bored.

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Re: On high level CR-appropriate encounters

Post by Reverend Red on Mon Feb 16, 2009 7:37 pm

Just something CR-related I just found...

Note that in most cases (any time the difference between the monsters' individual Challenge Ratings is greater than 3), the Encounter Level matches the more powerful creature's Challenge Rating.

What the hell.

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Re: On high level CR-appropriate encounters

Post by Tshern on Mon Feb 16, 2009 10:09 pm

The problem with subjective CR-system is, once again, the balance between players. A guy playing a Crusader makes an excellent tank, one of the best possibilities in the game, but he is still utterly screwed against certain monsters that can feel like a nice stroll in a park for the Cleric standing next to him. And the problem that issue causes is that challenges are not the same for individuals, thus the XP should not be the same. If you adjust the XP given to each character... Well, you are again screwed.

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Re: On high level CR-appropriate encounters

Post by Reverend Red on Mon Feb 16, 2009 11:48 pm

But then, the game itself already assumes that you're venturing in a party and that everything they do is a group effort. Of course, that doesn't hold true every time... I suppose you could just reward everyone for surviving an encounter.

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Re: On high level CR-appropriate encounters

Post by Tshern on Tue Feb 17, 2009 12:05 am

The game itself also assumes that the existing challenge ratings are accurate and usable and, I believe, that has been proved to be bullshit. Knowing something about the real power levels really encourages casters to help the weaker ones and I don't even want weak classes to be thrown out of the game, because they can often pull their weight and sometimes beating monsters is fun.

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Re: On high level CR-appropriate encounters

Post by MisterSinister on Wed Feb 18, 2009 10:40 pm

This is all true, Tshern, and you make a valid point. In practice, after level 12 or so, the DM pretty much has to make his own encounters without recourse to the monster entries as being that much more than guidelines, simply because PC power relative to CR goes completely out of whack by that stage.

This is also precisely where your argument fails a little, because it's not simply a case of not being able to use most monsters as-is at those levels - it's just that EVERYTHING needs modification to be competitive. The scalarity here is by how much, not if it needs it or not.

However, that said, I do agree with much of what you have said. It would be interesting for a few people to post optimised versions of certain monsters. I could certainly think of a few... Twisted Evil
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Re: On high level CR-appropriate encounters

Post by Tshern on Wed Feb 18, 2009 10:56 pm

Yes, that is true, though the ones I suggested to be the best ones don't need too much editing and, to be exact, NPCs don't need at all, you just create them to be awesome from the very beginning. Someone on another forum said the problem with melee NPCs could be solve by gestalting the character if the party is decently optimized and I agree with that idea.

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