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.
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I feel your missing some huge things here. For one, CR is based around 4 PCs, for two, damage dealt is never perfectly distributed, for three, average damage is not the only damage, some creatures can crit and drop people in one or two blows. The data and therefore the conclusion is wrong here.
For what it’s worth, the data doesn’t look very different at 4 PCs – it’s still the same conclusions. I used 5 because it is the number I see most often at tables.
I think the article is far more right than wrong. It’s certainly in line with the experiences of thousands of very vocal playtesters, as well as my own experience as a many-decades roleplayer and DM.
5e has been designed as a professional commercial product. As such, it needs to scale, so it needs to be designed for a majority of players, not superfans. (Some products are all about superfans–but D & D has limited ability to capitalize on them, so they prefer a (more) mass-market strategy.) I suspect the majority of players don’t play regularly enough or often enough to get bored with romping through papier-mache monsters. Or their play experience is about optimizing builds or snarfling up the “world building” of various products. Plus, they don’t want to die, not really.
The game is no longer about managing resources, pushing your luck, and fighting dirty because fighting’s deadly. It’s also at least 10 times as popular as it was when it was about those old-school things. Me, I’m increasingly drawn to OSR type products, in part because oddly enough they tend to foster deep play and not spreadsheets.
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I think much of the problem starts at the Class design and play testing phases. As the recent survey of PHB Feats suggests, the designers seem too focused on asking what people like without considering the reasons, and feedback is heavily weighted to players vs. DMs. Some character options (subclasses, spells & feats) are objectively superior to others in typical play (i.e. combat), so players like these options more. Understandable, because no one wants to be the weak link, but if the game is designed to be challenging at the low end of the character design power curve, then it can’t be equally challenging at the high end too.
And unfortunately, I have conclude that while 5E is a good edition for new DMs to learn the basics, it doesn’t have nearly enough support to help those same DMs get better at their craft. There is no attention payed to monster tactics, nor does it go beyond a very basic approach to encounter design, or how to make non-combat challenges interesting (whether with ideas, game structures or mechanics). The best you get is a quick mention of the different approaches you might take, and the advice to just make it fun. I know DM focused content doesn’t sell as well as player content, but for an edition that’s over seven years old I would think that DMs would have more recent & better resources than picking through previous editions to find something we can adapt to make our 5E games better.
DMs are the weak link in the entire Dungeons and Dragons concept and have been since 1974. If WOTC could use a Ring of Three Wishes and get rid of them somehow, they would.
Back then, a DM fit much better with how leisure time worked: in sand table days, it was generally accepted that one of the guys wouldn’t play and instead would watch and adjudicate arguments over things like line of sight. It was a little like being that guest who cleans up after the party: lovely, appreciated, and rare. No party planner would ever count on such people. And yet Dungeons and Dragons has to.
Because a refereed game is weird now. Computers do it on Steam for you. Even boardgames, which for years required other players, are moving to the “automa” model where it’s possible for one person to play a procedurally-generated set of opponents with generated moves and decisions. It’s not necessarily a question of interest or even time: the big problem nowadays is social coordination.
So if all the stuff is going unplayed anyway, it makes sense to concentrate on players, not DMs, and churn out more stuff for them to drool over while they try (and often fail) to find an actual game.
TDW, your 2 comments here may the best simple summary of D&D I’ve yet seen. I too prefer older editions that required lateral thinking, and agree that DMs are a weak link because goods ones are too rare. I also suspect, but do not know, that many current D&D players are not “game players” in the general sense; i.e. want to play many games, whereas older players started as game players. As WotC is on record as wanting as many D&D players as possible, the current direction of player focus and homogenized gameplay is going to continue.
Very kind of you!
I think modern D and D players are indeed game players…video game players. Similar but not at all the same. And in other ways, the world is moving toward a sort of state of continual roleplaying–a giant LARP, or, better, a million highly unique LARPs. If you’re familiar with the “West End Caleb” Twitter furore of the past couple weeks…well, one writer suggests that the whole thing, and TikTok in general, is a kind of group roleplaying session (or improv roleplaying session). We’ll see it more and more, I think.
The WEC mention is on point, because what I meant by “not game players” is that many new players have other motivations for playing RPGs, and the rush from acting and potential online fame is a big one.
Interesting but extremely narrow take on what the DM does. If RPGs didn’t have the DM requirement I just wouldn’t be in the hobby; it’s certainly true that not all DMs are created equal, but the ability to DM is a lot more than adjudication, otherwise computer games would have steamrolled the hobby ages ago.
Definitely agree that 5e’s monsters are lackluster in the “oomph” department. The base Monster Manual feels like a collection of HP sacks. Volo’s sought to address this error, but the changes were not radical enough to compensate for player characters’ plethora of powers.
WotC has a vested interest in not making things TOO challenging for players, as character death is an impediment to adventure path play and a newer audience is likely expecting games that resemble Dragon Age more than they resemble Nethack.
Could the reason for these “easy” monsters be that WoTC is setting the difficulty to medium to cater to non optimised or low experienced players (ie new players)?
I imagine it must be really hard to balance monsters when player skill and build is such an unknown.
Almost certainly. Thing is, despite what everyone would like to think, this is a niche hobby. Except you can’t have a niche hobby owned by a modern corporation: there’s too much pressure to grow. So you make the product as easy to use as possible and hope the serious players won’t be too annoyed. After all, where are they going to go? To some amateur ruleset thrown together on a PDF? (Yes, some of them, but the lack of design coherence there can be as big of an irritation.)
I think Paizo makes a good contrast. Pathfinder 2E is extremely optimized and written with experienced players in mind, but as a result the difficulty curve is frustrating to many new players who pick it up, and its accessibility is therefore limited. D&D 5E assumes a DM who reaches high level play has got a grip on his group and will adjust encounters accordingly….though I agree it fails to provide as many tools as one needs for high level play, my own experience running the game at high level was rather nice (in contrast to prior editions) and I a neither casual nor green, been in the hobby since 1980 and I would much prefer D&D 5E’s approach which assumes that optimization is not a default requirement.
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Revisiting this topic on the day that Mordenkainen’s Monsters of the Multiverse releases individually to the public, including me:
–I’ve been playing RPGs since the late 1970’s, although most of my time in my first 30 years playing RPGs were in systems other than D&D: Tunnels & Trolls, Champions, Paranoia, Call of Cthulhu, Cyberpunk, Villains & Vigilantes, It Came from the Late Late Show, etc. I first started playing D&D regularly in 3rd edition, largely skipped 4th edition, and have really dived in and invested in 5E.
–My experience of earlier RPGs and 1st edition D&D was that roleplaying tended to be an afterthought given the frequency of character deaths. Rip up the character sheet, roll up a new one; don’t get too attached. RPGs had much more of a Game of Thrones feel than, say, the Marvel MCU.
–Other systems–for example, Paranoia & Call of Cthulhu–purposefully discouraged player knowledge of the rules in favor of a more roleplay-based experience, while others like Champions required players to adopt “Disadvantages” to their PCs that the GM could use to build roleplaying opportunities. D&D came late to that idea, and IMHO still lags behind in rewarding roleplay over combat mechanics.
–RPGs began to shift as video gaming became increasingly viable as an in-depth and satisfying combat-driven experience. Why sit around a table arguing about rules and attack modifiers when a computer could do it for you, instantaneously, and provide an enjoyable audio-visual experience as well? Again, D&D came to that awareness, if late, with 5E’s streamlined mechanics.
–As a DM in 5E, I absolutely agree that PC death is a greater threat at levels 1-5 than it is at any other point. By the time the players reach levels 11-13, depending on PC optimization, there are few if any published monsters that present a challenging-but-not-quite-deadly encounter as written. Faced with the prospect of introducing challenges purposefully built to thwart PC abilities–I’ll add Legendary Resistance and Counterspell at will to the BBEG’s stat block! I’ll give the BBEG henchmen specifically designed to break Concentration!–and purposefully nerfing others–I’ll ignore that this monster has Power Word Kill!–as a DM with 45 years in RPGs and 20 years in D&D, and with a fair amount of imagination, I struggle to make the story stay interesting. The PCs’ powers and abilities grow geometrically; the monsters and setting continue arithmetically. There’s no easy way to keep up. I’ve brought two campaigns to a close at PC Level 13 rather than break the story.
–I had hoped that MMM would at least begin to address the CR rating issue for monsters, as early reviews claimed was one of its principal purposes. It seems I shouldn’t hope for too much.
–On one hand, it’s possible simply to accept that after PC Level 13 or so, D&D 5E breaks down enough to make it not the same experience, and just accept that I’ll continue to wrap up campaigns when it makes sense to do so around that point. But that’s less than satisfying when the player materials dangle levels 1 to 20 before players; it makes me feel less than adequate as a DM–and as others have already said, there’s far fewer folks volunteering to DM than to play.
I’ll be interested to begin reading MMM for myself in the next few hours and days to get a deeper understanding.
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Mainly agree. Though I am not sure what specifically should be changed while remaining in the 5e paradigm. It WAS aimed at more casual play, after all…