Giving consideration to Challenge Ratings
There are certain things you take for granted with the various iterations of Dungeons & Dragons. You start out in a bar somewhere, talking to a sketchy old man who wants you to do something he’s too lazy or dysmotivated to bother undertaking himself, and more often than not, you end up in a dank hole in the ground, debating what is the accepted amount of murder required to get you back to that bar where you started. For whatever reason, there are always an assortment of old, dangerous ruins to be plumbed, bringing into question the civic works agenda of the local baron or lord, and a plethora of non-human creatures whose own aspirations or goals are mainly distilled down to being in the way of whatever treasure map you’re following to its logical end. There are variations to the theme, but you get the general idea of where I”m going on this.
One thing that doesn’t normally enter into this is the adventure where the player characters are given a plot hook of one sort or another, only to run directly into an ancient dragon that summarily barbecues the entire party in the space of a round. And if this is the sort of adventure you end up on, it’s not one that you’re going to retell with any amount of joy. Smaug didn’t show up in the Shire while Bilbo was tending his garden. And you didn’t have to defeat Alduin to advance beyond the opening village in Skyrim. Likewise, first level adventurers in D&D shouldn’t have to deal with 16HD monsters when they walk out of the tavern with a map of the Old Ruined Abbey. It isn’t fair, it isn’t fun, and it doesn’t do anything beyond frustrate your players.
You would think this should be something of a ‘gimme’ in adventure design, right?
Oddly, I’ve run into a surprising amount of opposition to this sort of understanding. Between discussions with an old friend of mine about a GM he knows, perusal of various defenses of OSR philosophy and a couple of published gaming products, there’s a strong undercurrent of wanting to do away with or ignore CR (Challenge Rating) balancing. Or the local equivalent in pre-3.x D&D. There’s a tacit belief that it makes the game ‘less realistic’ or that it ‘imposes too many restrictions on the creativity of the GM’ or something.
Let’s start with the obvious nature of this situation. If an encounter is absolutely unwinnable through normal means for the player characters, it’s not going to be any fun to play out. Yeah, the GM may decide that, for whatever reason, the monster is ‘tactically oblivious’ or ‘not paying attention’ in an attempt to depower the encounter, but that sort of solution is outright patronizing. No amount of ‘this monster would normally kill you outright, but it’s totally drunk’ makes the situation all right. It’s not the efforts of the characters that resolve the conflict, but the questionable grace of the GM. And the players know this. Situations like this distill down to the GM narrating a scene while the players sit around powerless. It might as well be written down and read to the players.
It also smacks of railroading. Illusion of free will is a necessity in role-playing games, to the point that accomplished GM’s make a point of finding multiple avenues to pull the PC’s into a plot, even if they seem to otherwise outright refuse to engage it. If they have to force the players to follow a narrow path, we’re back to the written narration model again, especially if high level monsters wait just off the prescribed path.
So, what about the limiting of creativity? After all, in Forgotten Realms, you could run into Elminster in the local food co-op in Shadowdale. That’s awesome, right? It totally shows the low level characters that the suspiciously Gandalf-esque Mary Sue wizard has to get parsnips just like everyone else. And why wouldn’t the big, badass ogre in my homebrew game live just outside of town? Who’s going to stop him, anyway?
Ed Greenwood aside, sprinkling high end monsters into low level settings actually doesn’t make a lot of sense. Or more to the point, it doesn’t make any sense for a low level character to show up in this sort of area. It raises too many questions that cannot be adequately answered. Are the villagers in thrall to the creature in question? If not, why has it not wiped them out already? What is the creature’s role in the local geography or ecology? Why does it tolerate smaller, less effective monsters – the type that a starting group of adventurers would actually stand a chance against – rather than summarily wiping them out as threats to its power?
I’ve always held that, the more powerful a monster or a player character is, the less likely they are to hang around in plain sight near small towns. An old enough dragon begins to isolate itself, either by seeking a high mountain top in which to build its lair or by laying waste to a certain section of land to maintain its privacy. A wizard of sufficient power builds a tower and shuts himself away, either because he’s tired of dealing with the mundane aspects of normal interaction or because he’s undertaking dangerous experiments or journeys that are best kept secret. On both accounts, the higher level the individual, the less likely that it’s going to be hanging around with what amount to be mayflies. If nothing else, they likely view their time as being a bit to valuable to be distracted by something that poses no threat or interest. It’s a theory that’s supported in fiction and makes sense for the segregation of powers.
And this is what the whole concept of CR works to support. Mechanically, it’s a maths-based equation that tries to calculate the general odds of a given encounter, balancing it against the rough expectations of what characters of an equivalent level would be able to readily deal with. A more cohesive group of characters with a better tactical sense will prevail over slightly higher CR monsters, where an average group may have a bit more trouble. At the end of it all, it’s trying to make sure that the players have fun, more than anything else.
I guess that’s what becomes the sticking point for me. I’m a creative guy. But I’ve never seen any logic to throwing unkillable opponents into my games. Depending on the game, my agenda is either to tell a grand and epic story or to simply entertain my friends. At no point do I need to rub their noses in how weak their characters are in comparison to what the world is capable of digging up and throwing at them.