As part of setting the math at the foundation of a Dungeons & Dragons edition, the game’s designers target the number of rounds a typical fight should last. Fifth edition aims for 3-4 rounds. Monsters deal enough damage to feel threatening to level-appropriate characters over those 3 or so rounds. In a deadly fight, that damage might match the characters’ hit points.
|PCs||Avg HPs/PC||Party HPs||CR of 4-5 monsters, barely deadly challenge||Avg MM/Volp’s Dmg, monster of that CR||Avg Dmg/rnd, 4 monsters||Rounds to defeat all PCs|
|Five Level 2 PCs||17||85||5 x CR 1||10||50||1.7|
|Five Level 4 PCs||31||155||2 x CR 1
2 x CR 2
|Five Level 8 PCs||59||295||5 x CR 4||25||125||2.36|
|Five Level 12 PCs||87||435||5 x CR 6||35||175||2.485714|
|Five Level 16 PCs||115||575||4 x CR 6
3 x CR 5
|Five Level 20 PCs||143||715||4 x CR 9||45||280||2.553571|
According to a table calculated by freelance designer Teos “Alphastream” Abadia, fifth edition lands that 3-round target . At most levels, a deadly group of monsters needs about 2.5 rounds to slay typical characters. That number assumes every monster attack hits, and that the characters never bother to heal while failing to kill a single foe. Short of terrible luck, most groups will survive 5 rounds or more, finish their foes in 3-4 rounds, and win a potentially deadly encounter.
Fifth edition’s linear math seems sound, but as characters level, they keep adding on extra abilities that resist, block, and heal. Character power doesn’t grow linearly, it surges. As levels climb, that linear increase in monster damage becomes increasingly ineffectual.
From player feedback, the D&D team learned that monsters often fail to bring as big a threat as their challenge rating suggests.
Combat encounters can be fun for many reasons: Sometimes players relish a chance to flaunt their characters’ power by destroying overmatched foes. Sometimes players think of an ingenious tactic that leads to an easy victory—everyone loves when a plan comes together. But for most players, such romps would become tiresome if the game never offered hard battles. Difficult fights challenge players to fight smart, work as a team, and stretch their characters’ abilities. Tension builds until the group almost always wins. Fifth edition’s design makes hard fights feel more dangerous than they are. That’s one of the edition’s best features. But fifth edition lacks monsters able to consistently deliver fights that feel hard at higher levels.
When a battle falls short of expectations, we all feel disappointed. Teos writes, “The worst games I encounter are those where the story of the game, and the expectations of players and DM, don’t match the challenge level. It’s supposed to be the cinematic clash with the great demon, but it’s lame. It’s an ambush by a terrifying beast…that can’t deal any real damage.”
Sure, DMs can swap tougher monsters, but as levels rise, the options dwindle. And the game’s weak monsters force changes to every published adventure not aimed at low-level characters.
DMs can always add more monsters, but that approach suffers drawbacks too. More monsters means more mental load and more time running foes for the DM. all that adds more idle time for the players. More monsters also take more damage to defeat, potentially turning a slugfest into a grind. Fewer monsters mean faster paced, more exciting fights, as long as the monsters can threaten.
To help DMs run foes at the threat set by their challenge rating, Monsters of the Multiverse changes some monsters. These changes mainly appear in monsters that cast spells. Rather than burying the best combat options in a spell list, the new stat blocks spotlight the most potent powers with full descriptions. This helps DMs run a creature effectively during its typical 3-4 rounds of survival.
Still, better tactics can only do so much. If every monster book included a copy of The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, the poor creatures would still prove overmatched.
The problem circles back to how the monsters’ linear rise in damage fails to match the characters’ escalating ability to heal, block, and avoid damage. Somewhere in tier 2 the monsters start falling behind and the gap widens as levels increase.
So I hoped that Monsters of the Multiverse might update monsters to close the gap by increasing damage. The book does not.
To be clear, extra damage doesn’t aim to kill characters. At low levels, the designers assume players have little invested in their characters and will accept a few casualties. But for experienced characters, fifth edition boasts a design that makes deaths rare. By level 5, revivify makes total-party kills more common than individual deaths. By level 9, raise dead and more powerful spells can make death a dramatic choice. Players only fear disintegration. Extra damage does make players feel jeopardy though, even in a game that makes death a mere setback.
So what are the D&D designers afraid of? Why no changes?
Are the designers aiming for a game where monsters just serve to help PCs show off? I call this the Washington Generals style of game, and it offers a perfectly fine style for folks who enjoy it. The Washington Generals were the deliberately ineffective opponents who enabled the Harlem Globetrotters to showcase their basketball skills.
Are the designers afraid of making the game too dangerous for newer players who happen to play mid- to high- level games? Ironically, the game causes far more deaths at 1st and 2nd level. Just look at the 1.7 rounds 2nd-level characters survive a near-deadly encounter. Every fifth-edition character I’ve lost died at 2nd level.
Are the designers wary of side effects? For example, in games I’ve played where monsters automatically deal double damage, concentration spells become much weaker. I love wall of fire and spirit guardians and want them to last.
Do the designers want to avoid trashing their challenge rating spreadsheet and the game’s assumptions so close to an edition update coming in 2024? Surely the designers take some pride in their game and feel reluctant to change the math behind its monsters. The designers know DMs can adjust their games to account for what might seem like matters of taste. Besides, most campaigns hardly reach the levels where monsters fall seriously behind.
Obviously, DMs have the tools to adjust, just like we adapt all our games to the taste of our players. I just wish the D&D team had seized the chance to offer us better monstrous tools.