Sometimes an article is just a big tweet, and this is one of them. In this case, the bigness of the big tweet is however, beyond the boundaries of a mere tweet, so let’s go. The 3rd edition Challenge Rating system, which was replaced in 4th edition by the XP budget of each encounter, was hot garbage and nostalgia for it is at best rose-tinted glasses, and at worst a signal of complete mechanical illiteracy.
Let’s talk about the 3rd edition system for creating* balanced** combat*** encounters****, the Challenge Rating system.
* Sort of.
** Sort of.
**** Sort of?
If you’re not familiar with how it works, the Challenge Rating system was a system where to design an encounter, you had needed to pick an appropriate number of creatures with an appropriate challenge rating, and those values in aggregate would make up ‘enough’ challenge to consume roughly 20% of a party’s daily resources. This means that typically speaking, each encounter, if balanced out correctly, should be one of four daily encounters a player character group can have, and the system should have enough variance that that means there will be some very easy encounters that barely take any resources, and some that take a lot.
D&D 3rd edition resources were kind of all given to you at once, and they sat in a big bucket, and the ‘challenge’ of the game was often determining how you distributed what was in that bucket. Put a pin in that and we’ll get back to it, because for now we’re talking about the system as it wanted to be executed. The idea is simple: monsters have a rating determining how challenging they are, and you want to design an encounter to be appropriate to a group of adventurers, and that’s how you build them. The principle, then, is simple, and then the question is about whether or not you execute it well. It’s something you want to get right right at the start of the game system, to make sure that every encounter thereafter is able to use this good, well-designed, well-executed system.
Wanna see how that was executed?
I love how bad this table is. I love how bad it is because it technically, doesn’t even correctly cover information. Like, extenuating factors like environment and terrain are ‘extra challenge’ but you kind of have to eyeball what that means. You build an encounter out of these parts, but if you have a mixed variety of creatures, it didn’t quite work – a pair of drow hunters and two wolves, because they weren’t just a pair of creatures, required you to start doing more tabulated math, just to throw what looks like a fairly ordinary encounter at your players.
But don’t worry, it doesn’t matter that this table is pretty bad – because there’s another version of the system, on the same page in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, that explains how to do things differently. And then the next three pages are random tables to handle distributing the gear.
The problems with this are threefold, and they’re nested in one another like some kind of doll with a conveniently hackish metaphor of a name. See the problem with the 3e challenge rating system was…
Challenge Ratings aren’t consistently applied
The obvious example is dragons. Dragons are all ‘under-rated’ in the challenge rating system, where they are basically just more dangerous than anything else at their level. They have more attacks, higher armour classes, more hit points, better saving throws, and that’s just the basics. It gets bigger and more preposterous as you level up, where dragons eventually have the spellcasting ability of a high-level sorcerer with access to epic feats that are somehow also monstrously tough and strong and can make huge attacks with reach, all the time, and the reasoning behind this was that they wanted dragons to ‘feel challenging.’
Bonus: This means that by the rules, dragons give less XP than something that’s as hard to fight as they are. Some monsters are just ‘over-rated’ by the system because they’re meant to be easier, and if you actually use them to the formula, you wind up getting a grinder that mashes your players. The numbers break down at a lot of points, especially down at the bottom end, where the capacity of any given kobold to crit with a spear might explode a player character on their first hit.
And that’s because the challenge rating system as-is is broken because…
Enemy Abilities Vary Wildly In Application
There are other wonky oddballs of course. Most every monster book has a weird challenge rating, where something is remarkably higher or remarkably lower than it should be, or somehow relates to the challenge system weirdly. I pointed out the Grick from 3e, a famously hard to kill, rubbery enemy that you either melted quickly with good weapons or prep once you passed a threshold. There’s also the Mountain Giant, in the Monster Manual 2, a challenge rating 26 creature with a will save of a +10, meaning that the best save it can make against a whole host of will save abilities is a 30… and that’s not a hard number for even mid-level characters to smash. Which means that suddenly a level 26 threat worth buckets of experience can be trivialised by a character much lower level than should be facing it, and that character doesn’t need to build especially to this single threat.
A group that has bad Will Saving throws can be killed – very easily – by a single Mind Flayer, just because it can AOE stun them, eat the first player’s brain and then repeat before the rest are unstunned. A group that has strong will saving throws will surround that Mind Flayer and kick the shit out of it because Mind Flayers need some padding to protect them against raw physical attack. And you don’t know if you’re going to deal with that as a designer making monsters and giving them challenge ratings becauuuuse….
There’s No Baseline Floor Of Player Power
It is entirely possible, through well-intentioned character construction to have a level 5 character in 3rd edition D&D who has a +0 Fortitude save, or a +0 base attack. It’s equally entirely possible to have a character who at that same level has saving throws of +10. These are outliers, but all they require you to do is build in a way that the game lets you do and don’t require you to try to make mistakes. Similarly, a player character at level 5 might have eight hit points, or they might have seventy.
You have to basically work your way through the enitre structure of your party to know what they can handle, to know how every monster might work once you decide to use it in case your player characters have a weak spot to it, because you can’t rely on what a player characte has available to them.
There, that’s the problem. Challenge ratings were implemented badly, because they couldn’t rely on how monsters and players would interact because player characters were all wildly out of balance with one another.
In conclusion, the Challenge rating system delenda est.