I'm hoping to run my own game at some point, but need a little advice about CR. I know it's only a guideline, but I would still like some help.
For a simple encounter, it's fairly easy to figure out. If a party ran into a pack of wolves, I would just add the wolves' individual CRs up until I hit the difficulty level I want.
Assuming a party of 5, all level 3, then a Hard CR would be 5. If each wolf had a CR of 1/2, then I would put in 10 wolves.
But what about a pack of bandits? Humans don't have racial HD, they have levels. How do I figure out the CR of each bandit?
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Actually, that's not correct. CR isn't directly additive - it's logarithmic, and there's a table (CR Equivalencies) that details how adding creatures changes the CR. To make CR 1/2 creatures into a CR 5 encounter, you'd actually want 6 of them.
For creatures with no racial HD but PC classes, their CR is equal to their Level -1. NPC wealth is less than PC wealth, so even if they're the same level, NPCs should be a bit weaker. (If a character has the equivalent of PC wealth, their CR equals their character level, just like players.)
That said, I strongly recommend reading this guide. It details the CR system in exquisite detail, explaining how to create challenging encounters, adjust for unusual party sizes, and so on.
One thing to remember - actions matter. The difference between 4, 5, and 6 wolves can change difficulty a lot. Whenever the enemy outnumbers your players, they have action advantage. This means that 6 wolves vs a party of 5 is going to put up a lot more fight than 5 wolves or even 5 creatures of a slightly higher CR.
By "average", I think that part means "50/50", in that there's roughly split odds of either side coming out on top. (That's a pretty serious chance of failure.)
A "normal" average fight is the same CR as the players - or, basically, 1/4 their power. A well-built party will defeat a same-CR foe in one round, so they're not much of a challenge.
Well, for regular encounters like the wolves example, I can learn from each encounter and adjust the next one.
The ones I really need to figure out will be the BBEG encounters. I have 2 major ones in the story. There will probably be more as I work on the plot and as the plot changes during gameplay.
The first encounter will be a level 9 BBEG with PC wealth and his minions. His minions will not have PC wealth.
The second encounter (which will be the climax) has 2 level 15 BBEGs with PC wealth and their minions. Again the minions will not have PC wealth.
I hope to have 5 players and of course I will be making adjustments to the BBEGs when the time comes.
Ok, I read that guide and I'm still confused. CR+4 is average? According to the table on d20, that's epic.
A few things for you to know...
First and probably most important is to recognize that every group of players and every group of characters is different. Experienced players who have optimized characters will often mow through encounters that are 3 or 4 CRs above the average party level. Inexperienced players who don't play tactically (using cover, using choke-points, using combat-control spells) who have cool-but-not-synnergized characters will often find encounters either level or one higher difficult.
Second, how "spent" a group is plays into things, especially at low-level. Your first encounter of the day you've got 100% of your abilities available, so you can go "all in" and survive an encounter higher than you could later in the day when your best spells are spent and party members are injured etc.
Third, the higher level you get, the more forgiving the variance. A 1st-level party against a CR5 is going to have a tough fight. A 15th-level party against a CR20 has a much higher chance of survival. Access to powerful abilities and save-or-die spells, and feat-chains that have finally completed all play in to make a more powerful party.
Point is... as you know... these really are guidelines.
If you're starting out, I'd recommend that most encounters should be designed at your party's level or one higher, with a sprinkle of APL (average party level) +2. Maybe a quarter of encounters. Then boss fights (maybe one in ten or twenty) could be APL +3. As a DM, you should know in a session or two how the party does, and can adjust upwards or downwards as is necessary.
Final new-DM comment: don't over-prepare. Seriously, if you design out five sessions worth of material in a haunted castle, your players will screw you and decide to investigate the murders in the nearby town you only briefly mention in session #1. Design no more than one session's worth of material at a time, and have a little bit of idea in your head what's "nearby", so you can improvise a little. In the example I just made up, if the players leave the castle and head to town, open up the Bestiary and run a couple encounters on the way there. Some highway-robbery, a troll under a bridge, and maybe a random dragon flyby attack could buy you time to make it to the end of the session, and then you can design the town in between sessions.
One thing to keep in mind when working out CRs for multiple creatures.
The rules for working out CRs for multiple creatures under 4 CR below the party simply don't work. You can pretty much throw them out the door unless the creature has some special attack that can credibly threaten your PCs.
Regarding Combat encounters basically if you throw 16 CR2 creatures against a 9th level Party it would be a CR 10 encounter according to the tables.
In reality it will be little more than a road bump for the party as they wipe the floor with little effort, risk or expenditure of resources.
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What I like to do is have reinforcements ready for encounters. I plan the encounter to be average or easy, but if it turns out the encounter is TOO easy, the reinforcements show up.
For example, if 4 1st level PCs are fighting 4 wolves, and they mop the floor with the wolves, I add a couple more wolves. Then a couple more if needed.
If the 4 wolves are getting in some lucky shots and the PCs are struggling, I don't add the reinforcements.