Support this Site on Patreon
This is part 5 of 5 of the series: Custom Monster Building for Beginners

Attack of the Genericons: Challenge, Difficulty, and Monster Building

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Wow, that last article was a hell of a thing, huh? And considering it was a two-parter and the previous article was kind of huge as well, that whole thing was a bit of an endurance challenge. And now we’re going to do the same damned thing for Pathfinder: pick apart the monster math and then build custom monsters.

But I think we need to take a minute to rest first. Light up our cigarettes and just lay here under the covers. And maybe talk about where this whole relationship is going. See, based on some responses and e-mails and Twitter messages and random private threats I’ve received, I’ve come to two basic conclusions. First, I’m kind of an overly wordy asshole who is not half as smart as I think I am. Second, we’re still laboring under a massive misconception about challenge, difficulty, and balance.

That first conclusion is nothing new. People have been telling me that for five years. And I really can’t argue it. I AM a wordy asshole. I’ve never pretended I I wasn’t. And maybe I’m not as smart as I think I am. I can understand that. I think I am VERY smart. But even if I’m only half as smart as I think I am, that’s still really, REALLY smart (I have a huge ego). More importantly, it doesn’t matter how smart I am objectively. What matters is that, relatively speaking, I’m smarter than you. That’s what makes me useful.

I mean, does it matter how much smarter than you Albert Einstein is? No. Once he’s smarter than you, the actual difference is immaterial.

The second conclusion really bugs me though. Because I’ve written a lot about the nature of challenge and difficulty. The problem is, it’s always been this sort of “one off” thing. I always shove it into Angry Rants, which I think of the unimportant junk I’m willing to toss to the Mad Adventurers Society while I keep the really good stuff here for myself. Or else I make this throw away mention of it in some other article. And the problem is: challenge is a really central concept when it comes to running games. And not just in combat.

And it’s really important that we cover this. See, both D&D and Pathfinder have major problems when it comes to the idea of challenge and difficulty. First of all, both systems are founded on a massive lie. It’s not a sinister lie, just a stupid lie of omission, but it’s a lie nonetheless. Second of all, both systems offer these rigorous mechanics for certain types of challenges that only sort of work. They work better than most systems, to be fair. But they still only sort of work.

The real problem is that, first, most gamers have unrealistic expectations about what the challenge systems can and should do. And second, that most GMs understand challenge and difficulty about as well as a Galapagos sea turtle understands the theory of evolution. I’ve heard GMs say insanely stupid things like “you should challenge the character, not the player” or “challenge is for video games.” And those things are categorically wrong. They misunderstand the nature of why people play games and how challenge works. So, let’s have this out before we try to build monsters in Pathfinder, okay?

What is Challenge

In a game, a challenge is a situation whose outcome is uncertain and can be influenced by the skills, choices, and tactics of the players.

For example: a boulder comes rolling down a hillside. The player is told to make a Dexterity saving throw. Is this a challenge? No. No it is not. While the outcome IS uncertain, the player’s choices, skills, and tactics have no impact on the outcome whatsoever. It’s just a die roll.

In order for something to be a real challenge, it must include both an uncertain outcome (usually success or failure) and a way by which the player can knowingly affect the outcome. You might argue that the player had his say when he decided not to take the Lightning Reflexes feat and therefore he did affect the outcome. But people say all sorts of things. Some people say Fate is a totally good game and totally deserves to be called an RPG. Those people are f$&%wits. Saying something doesn’t make it true.

Challenge is an essential component in most games because players (a) enjoy the tension that derives from uncertainty and (b) hate randomness and need to feel like they have some control over the outcome. In short, players like to know that THEY have control over the outcome but also like to know they don’t have COMPLETE control over the outcome.

Of course, this will vary from situation to situation.

For example, imagine there’s a riddle trap. The characters enter a room and a voice speaks forth a riddle: “what is the beginning of eternity, the end of time and space, the beginning of every end, and the end of every race?” If they answer correctly, by yelling out “the letter ‘e’,” they get to continue on their way. If they answer incorrectly or don’t answer at all, the entire f$&%ing room explodes (no save) and the characters are never seen or heard from again.

That is as pure a challenge as you can get. The outcome is uncertain (success or failure) and it’s also dependant entirely on the players’ abilities to solve the riddle. Or their preexisting knowledge of riddles. Maybe one of the players has heard that one before. Technically, that’s okay. It’s part of the challenge. In this case, the players’ extensive reading of riddles and good memory are the skills needed to survive.

On the other hand, a GM can suck literally all of the challenge out of the room by asking for an Intelligence check to solve the riddle (thereby “challenging the characters, not the players”), which renders the scene impotent. That is not a challenge. Not at all. Not even a little bit. And while you occasionally will get a player who says “they prefer that style of play,” what those players are really saying is “I don’t like riddles” or “I’m not good at riddles and feel I have no chance to win at riddles, so a die roll is preferable.” If you find yourself doing that s$&%, what you really need to do is stop throwing riddles at your players. They don’t enjoy them.

You can find an analogue for this in almost every situation. The GM who demands Intelligence checks to see if you’re smart enough to answer – effectively overriding your skills and choices with your characters – that GM does the same thing. The GM who allows a Charisma or Diplomacy check without requiring any sort of description of how the character is persuading the subject is also robbing the game of its challenge.

Now, both of these points are sore points because you always get the morons who scream about playing characters more Intelligent and more Charismatic than they, themselves, are. And I’ve written about that before. You literally cannot play a character more Intelligent than you are because Intelligence is a lot more than factual recall. To properly play a character more Intelligent than you are, literally every decision you make would have to be made with a reference to the dice or to someone more Intelligent than you. It’s not just solving riddles. It’s also about tactics. You wouldn’t be allowed the freedom to choose which spells to cast and who to target because your character is too smart to be constrained by your dumb tactical decisions. You couldn’t even be allowed to figure out how to bypass an obstacle because your character would see possibilities and connections you don’t.

As for Charisma, Charisma doesn’t matter when it comes to describing actions. If you’re trying to Persuade the king to give you help, you need leverage. You need something to overcome the reasons why the king doesn’t want to give you help. Your character’s ability to present that argument convincingly lives in Charisma. But if you don’t have a solid plan BEHIND that persuasion, that’s like saying “well, I’ll Dexterity through the door.” What the f$&% does that even mean? Are you picking the lock? Are you trying to disassemble the door? Trying to wiggle through the space between the floor and the door? Squeeze through the keyhole?

And honestly, the more you allow your die rolls to cover, the more of the element of challenge you remove from the game. Once upon a time, GMs used to ask players where and what, specifically, they were searching in the room filled with furniture. Nowadays, we have the “one Perception check causes everything in the room to glow – red for traps, green for secret doors, gold for hidden treasure.” While that simplifies and streamlines the game, it also removes the element of rewarding the players’ cleverness.

Challenge is Everywhere!

In the previous speech, you might have noticed I talked about riddles and obstacles and interactions and NOT combat. And that’s because challenge is way more pervasive in the game than you might think. And challenge has almost nothing to do with numbers. Challenge has everything to do with choice and skill. Which is why it is so central to role-playing games, which are about the players making choices and dealing with obstacles.

Riddles are challenges. Social interactions are challenges. Investigations and mysteries are challenges. Puzzles are challenges. Moral dilemmas are challenges. Everything with an uncertain outcome where the players’ choices have an impact on whether the outcome is the desired one or the OTHER one is a challenge.

In fact, the closer you get to the numbers, the less challenge your challenge is. Challenging. As with the “roll a Perception check and I’ll tell you why if you succeed” and the “making a Saving Throw against boulder,” the more reliant the outcome on numbers and random die rolls, the less actual challenge you have.

And I’ll give you a perfect example of a challenge that involved no numbers.

Last week, my players ended up going on a rescue mission. They were saving a dwarven high priest from devil goblins. And they had along a dwarf from their hometown. And the dwarf represented a high degree of challenge.

See, the thing was, the town had been having some racial issues. The dwarves, elves, and humans who shared the town were increasingly biased against each other. The dwarves, in particular, were convinced that the humans and the elves only cared about human and elvish problems and the dwarves felt they could only rely on themselves. So they were starting to take the law into their own hands and do some pretty nasty things in the name of dwarven rights.

Now, the party included humans, elves, half-elves, a dragonborn, and a tiefling. And the elf was a dignitary, a priest of elfdom. So the dwarf was already pretty sure they didn’t give a s$&% about the dwarven priest. And she was also pretty sure the tiefling was evil because of the whole devil goblin thing.

The party decided to try and mend the racial tension somewhat by teaming up with the dwarf. They sold her on the idea that they really did care and they would help, they would put themselves in harm’s way for this dwarven priest. But the party had a rough couple of fights and they were forced to retreat. And the dwarf was incensed and eventually split from the party, feeling it was better to die doing what was right than retreat. Because that’s how dwarves think.

That situation was a challenge. And it involved no numbers. I mean, it might have involved a Charisma check here and there, but the real essence of the scene was that the party wanted one outcome (fixed racial relations, friendly dwarves) but they would have to prove themselves to the dwarf who was already inclined to stand against them. The way they dealt with the dwarf determined the outcome. Their choice to retreat, their choice of what to say, and what to let her do. Hell, even their choice to team up in the first place.

The essence of challenge is that there is a situation that could go in many different ways, some desirable, some not desireable. And the PLAYERS influence the outcome.

What is Difficulty?

Now, what makes this whole thing complicated is that GMs tend to conflate the word challenge with the word difficulty. Because we can use “challenge” as an adjective. We can call something “challenging.” And I try never to make that mistake. Because it confuses the issue.

When I talk about RPGs (and now, when YOU talk about RPGS), challenge will henceforth be a noun. It will refer to a situation whose outcome is uncertain and which can be impacted by the players choices, skills, and tactics. And now you will also NEVER talk about “challenge the characters,” because that phrase is meaningless drivel that basically means “not challenging anyone.”

Difficulty is a way of measuring and comparing challenges. A challenge is difficult if, relatively speaking, an undesirable outcome is more likely. For example, a fight against one goblin is less difficult (easier) than a fight against one dragon. A fight against a dragon is harder. Why? Because it is more likely, despite the best efforts of the players, that the outcome will be unfavorable.

But difficulty is actually a really complicated thing to discuss because, from situation to situation, many different things can affect the difficulty. What can affect the difficulty of a riddle? Lots of things. Maybe the language is obscure. Maybe its metaphorical instead of literal. Maybe it relies on esoteric knowledge. Maybe it’s too vague or too short. And that’s just a sort of “objective” difficulty. That’s the difficulty overall, on average, for most people. There’s also the possibility of subjective difficulty. A riddle that relies on wordplay or idioms will be much harder for a non-native speaker of a given language. The difficulty of some situations can vary from person to person.

Remember my dwarf example from above? Well, let me tell you how that story ended. The party killed the dwarf. The situation degenerated into violence, they enraged the dwarf, and they had to kill her. That, by the way, was the “bad ending.”

What created that difficulty? Well, first her inherent mistrust of the party. Second, the fact that the party was forced to retreat. Third, the character was brutally lawful-good and expected everyone else to live by that same code of noble self-sacrifice even in the face of probable failure. Fourth, the character had lost both her husband and her son and was suffering suicidal levels of survivor’s guilt to the point where she was actually self-destructive.

In short, she was volatile, irrational, angry, and suicidal. It’s tough to get a good outcome out of that. The odds were stacked against the party. And when the tiefling continued to antagonize and insult her AFTER they discovered the priest had been killed, she flew into a rage and attacked the tiefling, unable to control herself. And the tiefling killed her.

It’s weird to think about “suicidal depression” and “irrationally self-sacrificing” as elements of difficulty, isn’t it? But you can see how the situation would have been easier to deal with as I removed each of those elements.

And THAT is how challenge and difficulty work. A situation relies on challenge when it relies on the players’ skills, choices, and tactics to affect the outcome. A situation is a strong challenge when the players’ have the most impact on the impact. It’s a weak challenge when the players’ have very little control over the outcome. A situation is difficult when the desired outcome is less likely to occur. And it is easier when the desired outcome is more likely to occur.

You HAVE TO understand this s$&%. It’s central to running games.

The Narrow View of the GM

Now, what makes this all very difficulty to deal with is the fact that any given GM actually has a very restricted view of challenge and difficulty. What do I mean?

Well, to some extent, it doesn’t matter how difficult that dwarf situation was in my game. Or the riddle situation. What matters, in the end, is that I only ever saw one party handle it. My group of players. So, it doesn’t matter how likely the outcome is. What matters is the outcome I saw, right?

It’s like, imagine I have a game where you insert a coin and if the number five shows up on the screen, you win. Otherwise, you lose. You have no idea how many numbers the game is choosing from or how likely a five is to come up. You only know either you get a five or you don’t.

On top of that, we – as GMs – tend to be averse to failure in the game. While we want the possibility of failure (without it, there is no uncertainty) and we want players to have a say in whether they succeed or fail (without that, there is no challenge), we actually don’t want to deal with failure. And the moment the players do fail (like when they have to kill a good dwarf), we immediately conclude we made the situation too hard.

It’s hard to be objective with only one data point. Especially when you have to look that data point in the eyes and tell them they f$&%ed up and their lives are much harder now. And they have two dwarven corpses to bury.

It is actually impossible to gauge the difficulty of any situation based on a single outcome. Just because the players lost that situation with the dwarf doesn’t mean it was “too difficult.” The real factor is comparing the outcome to the effort the players expended. The players at my table struggled with that situation. It was very difficulty and, when it was all over, it kind of brought the game to a halt. It was like they had run a marathon. But they still lost. That tells me the situation was a difficult one.

You have to stay objective, as a GM. You have to step back and say “yes, they won, but that doesn’t mean it was easy, that doesn’t mean it was TOO easy.” You have to say “they lost, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the situation was TOO difficult. Sometimes s$&% goes wrong.”

Challenge, Difficulty, and Combat

So, now, let’s look at combat. See, the trouble with riddles, puzzles, obstacles, and all that s$&%, is that it’s really abstract. Right? That dwarf thing? There’s no real way to know HOW difficult that is. But combat is nice. It’s numberful, right? Every monster has a Challenge Rating that tells us exactly how hard that monster is to deal with, right?

We’re going to ignore the fact that WE know that should be Difficulty Rating, not Challenge Rating, okay? Just accept that D&D and Pathfinder are stupid.

But now you should be suspicious of that. After all, CR is computed almost purely based on numbers. How long can this creature survive? How much damage can it dish out? How hard is it to hit? How likely is it to hit? Didn’t I say that the closer you get to numbers, the more you lose the sense of Challenge?

Well, it’s more complicated than that. Remember that a combat is a long series of decisions made by players and the GM about the actions of whole bunches of creatures over numerous rounds. If the fighter chooses to attack the ogre rather than the goblin, that might allow the goblin to get a sneak attack on the wizard two rounds later. If the wizard chooses a spell that involves a Dexterity saving throw instead of one that involves a Wisdom saving throw, that gives the creature a better or worse chance of failure. And on and on and on.

Which is also why people who complain that “misses in combat doesn’t mean anything” are f$&%wits. A miss is a huge issue. It’s lost resources. It gives the monster an extra round of life. The next thing the monster does only happens because of that miss.

So, combat is definitely a challenge. Every tiny choice has the chance to snowball. And choices in previous fights also have the chance to affect the current fight because now, you might be short on spell slots, or you don’t have that potion anymore. Whatever.

But challenge and difficulty are based on all of those choices, right? All of the tactics. So what does the Challenge Rating of a monster actually mean?

Well, you can look at it like this. If you only need one solid hit to down a goblin, and the goblin only does a couple of points of damage in a round, then that goblin isn’t going to have much impact on the party before it dies. And it doesn’t take much in the way of skill or tactics to down the goblin. Everyone can just choose to attack and that goblin will probably die before it does much damage. The dragon, on the other hand, needs a lot of attacks to take it down. And in the meanwhile, it is causing a lot of havoc. And it will also punish mistakes. If the party stays close together, for example, that dragon is going to blow them apart with fire breath. If they spread out, the fire breath is much less of a threat.

So, you COULD think about the Challenge Rating of the monster as the margin of error. If the Difficulty is high, the party is going to die if they f$&% up too much or make too many poor decisions or come in with too few resources. They don’t have much margin for error. Whereas if the Challenge Rating for the monster is low, the party can f$&% around and phone it in and they will still come out ahead. Right?

Well, sort of. There’s even more to this than that. Because every group also has a certain number of resources that dwindle throughout the day. Now, the rulebooks try to claim that Difficulty is basically a measure of the resource cost of the fight. If it’s an “easy” fight, the party will probably spend “10% or fewer of its resources.” The problem with that definition is that its utter horses$&% and also kind of useless.

First of all, that’s a statistical average. A wonderful thing to have when you’re designing a game for thousands of players but completely useless when you’re designing a game for ONE group. But second, it ignores the idea of efficiency.

See, if a party goes into a combat and handles it well (they don’t bunch up near the dragon, they control its abilities, they defend against its elemental attacks, and they take it down quickly through cooperation and good tactics), they will come out of that battle with more resources intact: spells, action surges, rages, hit points, potions, charges on magical items. An efficient party just spends fewer resources across the board than an inefficient party.

And THAT is what Challenge Rating is really about. How much do player tactics and player choices affect the efficiency with which they handle the combat.

BUT… that’s also kind of a lie.

See, here’s where it gets really complicated. The Challenge Rating of monsters in D&D and Pathfinder actually has to pull double duty. It is not just a measure of how much player tactics and player choices affect their efficiency in handling the fight, it also measures what level the characters should be to handle the fight efficiently.

That’s a subtle point because it SEEMS like those should be the same thing, right? A second level party can handle the same fight more efficiently than the first level party, right? So, if the fight is CR 2, the first level party is less likely to handle it efficiently. Well,… yeah… ish. Because the second level party can do things the first level party just can’t do. They have higher level spell slots, they have more abilities, and so on. But that second level fight also assumes they will USE those resources. When the party gets into a 3rd-level fight in D&D, the game is assuming they are going to probably burn a 2nd-level spell slot on scorching ray or something, right? And that means each level of difficulty assumes the party will use up it’s BEST resources first.

So Challenge Rating, BY ITSELF, doesn’t mean much beyond “this is the level at which the party can handle this challenge with some likelihood of success.” And that is why D&D and Pathfinder ADD the concept of Easy, Moderate, Difficult, and Deadly encounters on top of the CR. CR has to be both a relative AND an absolute measure.

Now, on top of that, D&D and Pathfinder CR are a little bit like that game machine that might spit out a five or it might spit out any other number. The designers fixated on some baseline level of “difficulty,” but we’ll never know quite what it is. Are the players supposed to win 99% of the time? 80% of the time? How often should a PC run out of hit points? How many new characters should a campaign demand? We have no idea what the baseline difficulty for a 2nd-level party against a CR 2 encounter actually is. And it really doesn’t matter. Why?

Well, remember when we talked about that whole subjective difficulty thing? Remember how different people bring baggage with them that further affects the difficulty of a situation. Like a non-native speaker trying to figure out English wordplay in a complex, idiomatic riddle? Well, there are also all sorts of things that affect the difficulty of the combat? And combat is an extremely complex situation. The higher the level, the more complex it is because there are more and more tactics available. And there’s all sorts of factors. Tactical skill is a big factor, but so is character building, and so is the synergy between races and classes, and the ability of the players to communicate and work together. For that matter, the tactical skill of the GM and the particular combinations of enemies also play a big role in the subjective difficulty. And that’s assuming everyone is trying their best to succeed. Add a GM who fudges things to favor the party for fear of hurting anyone and you’ve thrown off the whole balance even more. Add one f$&%wit who thinks role-playing is “making crappy choices that screw over the whole party because their character isn’t smart enough to live in this world” and it’s a complete mess.

The point is, no matter how precise the system claims to be, Challenge Ratings are, at best, vague estimates based on statistical averages and unknown criteria. And, they are conservative as hell. At least, I am assuming they are. I am assuming the designers always erred on the side of making things too easy rather than too hard. Because boredom is easier to fix than the frustration of murdered characters.

And in the end, CRs aren’t even based on much actual math, You might think they are, but they aren’t.

The Genericons: How CR Came to Exist

The first CR system in D&D came in D&D 3rd Edition (and that’s the system Pathfinder adopted and polished). And ultimately, despite how mathematical everything SEEMED, the truth is, there was almost no math behind it. The designers have actually told the Story of the Genericons several times since then. So I can safely repeat it here.

Basically, after the game designers finished designing all of the classes and numbers for the game based on the elegant d20 system and ability modifiers ranging from -5 to +5 and weapons that mostly did single dice of damage and spells that did basically scaling damage based on multiples of levels and single dice and all that other crap, they invented hordes of monsters called Genericons.

A Genericon was basically an educated guess at stats. Attack bonuses, damage bonuses, Armor Class, saving throws, and so on and so forth. The designers built all sorts of parties of PCs and all sorts of Genericons and had them fight over and over and over until they saw what stats were giving them the results they wanted against what levels of monsters.

Once they had the stats for Difficulty 1 and Difficulty 2 and Difficulty 7, they reverse engineered a system for monster building based on Hit Dice progressions and monster types and subtypes. All the s$&% you know.

Its also important to note that the monsters in the Monster Manual were, for the most part, playtested and had their CRs tweaked. And that’s why the stats in the Monster Manual don’t quite always line up with the monster building system.

Pathfinder absorbed this system with a few system specific tweaks. And again, most of these tweaks came from playtesting rather than rigorous mathematical systems. And again, Pathfinder reverse engineered a system for monster building that would give results close to what their playtests showed were the right numbers.

And, the thing is, there were known bugs in the system. Both the D&D system and the Pathfinder system. For one thing, the designers of D&D outright admitted that fey creatures always came out weak. They had no staying power. I think it was James Wyatt who admitted to pumping drow Constitution scores in his own games just to give the bastards some staying power. Things like that.

What about D&D 5th Edition? Well, if you watched the open playtest, you know that monsters and PCs were being developed in tandem. So, they seemed to have some idea from early on about where the monsters should fall. But I’m not sure I believe there was anything as rigorous as the system they presented in the DMG. Instead, I’m fairly sure that they used a similar system of Genericons to tweak educated guesses before they started sharing monsters through open playtests. And after after the open playtest ended, I know there was a closed playtest that continued, but I signed a piece of paper that said I can’t talk about that. So I am legally not allowed to say much.

But I can say that there’s a reason some of the monsters in the D&D 5E Monster Manual don’t QUITE follow the rules for monster building and setting out challenge as described in the DMG.

For example, someone noted after last week’s article that the CR of goblins is too low if Nimble Escape is really worth a +4 AC and +4 attack effectively. And that is true. And I can’t say why because of that piece of paper. But D&D 3E and Pathfinder had similar situations and there’s probably a clue in there. Wink, wink.

My gut tells me Nimble Escape is overrated. I understand the logic, that it’s based on the assumption that the goblin hides every round (because it can). But me, I’d probably assume that, for practical purposes, the goblins are only going to be able to hide half the time at most and scale it down to +2 AC and +2 attack. But that’s just me.

I Ain’t Down on This

Now, listen, this is important: I’m not trying to say that D&D and Pathfinder suck because they lie about their CR system. I know a lot of people like to scream that “it’s broken!” And most of the people screaming that it’s’ broken are hardcore gamers, the bloggers and the Tweeters passionate enough to give a s$&%. And most of those are the sort of people who are bringing all sorts of excess baggage and assumptions to the Challenge/Difficulty thing. Those are the skilled ones and the creative ones most likely to f$&% with the system.

The system isn’t broken. It’s just a very rough estimate based on erring on the side of the lowest common denominator. The weekend warriors, the game store casuals, the teenage game club kids. But it is LITERALLY impossible to do any better. For all of the reasons I’ve discussed.

The reason I’m willing to waste so many words on this topic is because I promised mathematical rigor. I swore that you could build a creature to the exact right level of challenge every time and work your way into that using the system math that the game provided. And I delivered. But I kind of forgot that not everyone understands that the system itself can only promise so much rigor. And it’s unrealistic to expect it to do better.

Pathfinder and D&D both have VERY USEFUL tools for assessing challenge. But they aren’t perfect and they aren’t meant to be used without tweaking. Experienced GMs are totally encouraged to f$&% with the numbers because they won’t work for every group. And if you’re willing to read tens of thousands of words on custom monster building, you’re probably leading one of the groups they won’t work perfectly for.

The worst thing I will say about the CR systems in D&D and Pathfinder is the same thing I say about most of the systems in D&D and Pathfinder: they aren’t well explained. And that’s why I have to write these long, drawn out responses after I try to use those systems and then get blamed because people have the wrong expectations of the systems?

Anyway, that’s it. That’s Challenge, Difficulty, and Combat in D&D and Pathfinder. Now, I have to get back to picking apart the math of Pathfinder and explaining how it informs monster design. And that is way more of a mess than you might think.

28 thoughts on “Attack of the Genericons: Challenge, Difficulty, and Monster Building

  1. The genericons thing is fascinating (and I wish they had put that in the DMG so you knew what you were getting into when mucking around with monsters in 3rd edition). Are there any articles or interviews where they talk about this?

  2. I thought I’d share something I tried once with my group. About half of them liked difficult puzzles, and the other half really loved to just bash things over the head. So, I gave the party a REALLY hard puzzle to solve, while at the same time a bunch of low-level thugs were summoned at regular intervals into the room. The puzzlers hunkered down to solve the puzzle, and the bashers…well, they bashed. The longer it took the puzzlers to figure out the puzzle, the faster the thugs showed up. AND…to give the bashers a way of helping the puzzlers, I added a big button on the wall that would simultaneously summon a bigger, badder, thug and reveal a hint for the puzzle. The whole party worked together to overcome the challenge, each in his own preferred way. It worked really well, and the players enjoyed it.

  3. I appreciate your remarks about challenge and difficulty. Do you think “fairness” has relevance to the discussion?
    In one sense, a fair fight or obstacle is one where the liklihood of sucess and failure are as close to even as possible, that is, neither easy nor difficult. But that’s rather redundant with describing the difficulty. It occurs to me that the fiarness of a challenge is a relationship between the stakes and the difficulty; spcifically the are more fair as the inverse the relationship. An even challenge should have moderate stakes (to be fair); a hard challenge should have lower stakes (to be fair).
    Example: Level 1 party leaves town, encounters level 10 dragon, dragon wins and kills them = unfair, because of high difficulty and high stakes. Level 1 party leaves town, encounters level 10 dragon, dragon wins, swats them aside and razes some villages, leaving the party alive but injured and hungry for revenge. High difficulty paired with low stakes = fair challenge. Similarly, if the level 10 party encounters a level 1 goblin assassin and loses to it, it is perfectly fair for the goblin to slit some throats.
    Not all challenges have to be fair, for example the finale should probably be high stakes and at least average difficulty, but that’s narratively resonate.

  4. Further compounding the issues with CR is that situational modifiers in combat have a very large impact on how difficult a fight is.

    For example, facing a handful of goblin archers in a generic battlefield is probably fairly easy for most parties. But put those goblin archers at the top of a 30-foot cliff, and the parties at the bottom, and that fight is much harder. Put the goblins on top of a 30-foot wall, behind arrowslits, and now the fight is significantly harder still.

    The designers should at least mention this in the CR calculations for a combat encounter. Maybe include a table of situational modifiers like “Enemies have the higher ground” and “enemies have three-quarters cover” and the like.

    • Hm. If you can figure out the AC and DPR advantage a creature has based on its positioning, you should be able to factor that into its CR.

      The bigger problem is that such conditions are prone to change during a battle, which means you need to somehow account for a variable CR. Maybe average of multiple situational conditions?

    • Yeah, 3rd edition had a system for awarding extra XP for more challenging encounters, but my group’s difficulty is that we’ve gone the “Who’s Line is it Anyway” route with awarding XP and leveling- it’s arbitrary and the totals don’t matter. At low levels, GM’s have the players level every other session and at higher levels, they may level every three sessions. The take-away is if the combats are interesting and challenging, that’s awarding enough without having to mince over 275 or 300XP. -Nerdarchist Ryan

    • Im sad to have missed your comment. You are perfectly correct. Zombies might be trash in 5E, but drop them from the ceiling so they land all around your level 5 PCs, in a narrow, immobilizing corridor, and suddenly those ankle biters are a huge threat, at least for the squishies before they turn all their attention on the lonely paladin/fighter who’s nice AC won’t last long.

      Same is true of the Ettin. 12 AC is so bad, yet it’s considered a CR 3 or 4. Clearly there’s going to be so many good hits from a party of 4+, but if there was only 1 or 2 PCs, they’d get mopped up. If there was some healer for the ettin, 4+ PCs are now going to have a fight for their lives on hand.

      CR makes complete sense in the most simple 1:1 scenario, 1 PC to that 1 monster. People say it breaks down at high level in 5E. If my intuition about it holds true, I say it does not break down. A dragon in an open field is an easy target for PCs equal level to the CR of said dragon. In a hemmed in cave, that dragon has 4 tasty snacks. Against a single character in an open field, its a seriously hard fight. I bet then the CR is meaningful once more

      CR breaks down because of scaling, and wrong or right environment, imo. It can only be taken as literal in a vacuum of 1:1 PC to monster fights in an average size space with average obstacles or paths.

      If anyone doubts this assessment fundamentally, I just have two words: Tucker’s Kobolds.

  5. I have a bad habit of building a encounter and wondering how my players will win. Lucky for me I am really good at eyeballing a encounter and tweaking it to run well.

    For example I am playing NWOD tonight and my players are raiding a cult hideout. I have thrown in 12 cultists of about average combat stats with a “Boss”. Mathematically my players are doomed, However I think in the end they will handle it.
    I suspect this kind of encounter planning makes me kind of a shitty GM but man I enjoy the rush of not knowing.

  6. The big advantage PF has in it’s CR system is that the base guideline of a PC of level X is a CR of X (assuming he’s properly equipped for his level). That actually helps immensely for getting an idea of how difficult something should be. Since basically you just compare this monster to a PC of the same level as its CR and see how it measures up. And fighting 1v1 versus a monster of level = CR should generate about a 50% winrate. Granted you have to factor in that some classes will be better versus some monsters and vice versa, but it’s a nice guideline to eyeball. It also creates a nice hard limit to challenge, where putting the PCs against an encounter of an equal power to them is probably as high as you should ever go and even then use very rarely if ever. In other words if the PCs fight their clones they’d have a 50/50 shot assuming tactics are even.

    But 5E really seems to miss that since there’s no direct equivalence between PC and NPC. In fact you basically never fight another PC mechanically. NPCs aren’t burning the lucky feat or using the divination wizards roll swap against PCs. By and large there’s quite a few PC only powers that really throw the balance off. With 5e I find things much tougher to eyeball and estimate since monsters are so asymetric to PCs and to my knowledge there’s no easy equivalence between PC level and CR. You really just have the table and the numbers to go by. And even then well it doesn’t mean much. My PCs routinely chew through “deadly” encounters, so deadly doesn’t quite seem as bad as it was in PF where deadly generally meant a high probability of party wipe.

    • That’s because PF’s CR system is a lie. The rules state that a PC has the CR of his level, but that is clearly not true if you take into account things such as class, builds, optimization levels, or even just armor/weapon choice! 5e is more honest about it and says hey, PCs use inherently different math because they engage with the game in a different way than NPCs. All that really matters for the CR of an NPC is the combination of its offensive and defensive capabilities. If you want a PC-like NPC, you can do it and then apply 5e’s monster math to it to see where it lands in terms of its actual capabilities.

      You can see the results of this in PF all the time. People often use Wizards as good boss fights and rarely use Fighters. Why? Because the mechanics of a Wizard are powerful for an NPC that will usually only be involved in one fight whereas Fighters longevity doesn’t matter at all. Or another example, an NPC could have the ability to regenerate 1 hp a round and this would be perfectly fine on a monster you fight at level 1, but would way too powerful on a level 1 PC.

    • My rule of thumb. Eyeball it. If the fight is too easy, use better tactics from the monsters. If the fight is too hard, use worse tactics. If it’s a single monster, add some additional elements.

      Think of zombies in 5E. They’re awfully worthless at range… but if they drop from the ceiling with a lot of rough and blocking terrain features, so that your PCs can’t really move away from them, now these zombies have combat advantage and are a much larger threat.

      Its similar to starcraft in a lot of ways. I keep going back to that game as a reference for concepts. In that game, if a map is too open, one race has a clear advantage over others. Same here. If the map is too open, supposed CR 1’s can be mopped up by PCs without breaking a sweat.

      I reckon when we hear stories about CR being so crazy inaccurate, monsters dying too easily, the fight being too easy, monsters being too hard, a critically overlooked aspect is the map and terrain.

      Normally when people fight a dragon in a dungeon, you’re looking at highly limited space, so you’re trapped in Hell in a Cell mode with something that is given a CR 17 by stats, so it might actually be truly a CR 25 in that situation, where TPK might really occur.

      In an open field, that dragon’s mince meat by the same party.

  7. I kinda wish for an article, or at least a point in a direction on how to playtest monsters vs. your specific party to get a more tailored result that you want to bring to your game.

    Also, so I could idealiscally pick up another system that doesn’t have a robust CR system and reverse engineer my own system for it.

    • I did that just recently. I assumed averages for all rolls, including d20s (11). I “rolled” initiative and went through combat in order with my PCs and NPCs. I assumed each PC would use his most powerful available attack in an attempt to end the fight early, and that they would focus fire on the boss. I learned that despite my planning, my PCs would reduce my boss to a hairs breadth of her life by the end of the first round.

      After tweaking her to make her a bit tougher, and increasing her CR to compensate, I ran through that first round again and she survived much better. By the third round my party had killed two of the six NPCs. One of my PCs was badly hurt (less than half hp), another was moderately hurt, and the rest had minor damage. The boss was getting close to death and most of her minions were badly hurt. The big brute NPC was still going strong. At that point I assumed the party would probably take the rest of them out in another 2-3 rounds, and didn’t bother simulating any more.

      We play in a couple weeks. I’ll let you know how it unfolds in reality.

  8. Wow, this is a mega article. I’m on my third read because it’s simply packed with good information. Thanks for the thoughtful analysis.

    You mentioned 3E was the first to have CR rules. I don’t think it was called CR back then, but I learnt the ropes of combat balance from the DnD Master Rules boxed set (1985). I spent many hours experimenting with the Master Rules combat balance guidelines which, despite the flaws, improved the way I ran games a lot. Just thought you might be interested that there was at least one iteration of the idea before 3E.

  9. Every time you trash Fate I reconsider wether I should be supporting your work. I realize this is a persona for you and that you don’t actually hate Fate. I do wish you would lay off it though as it only detracts from your otherwise good articles. I really don’t know why you try to tip toe around D&D’s faults but think ripping on other games unabashedly is cool. It might be contributing to why the industry won’t hire you.

    • I’m pretty sure the industry won’t hire Angry (aka Scott) because like many corporations, they can’t handle ANYONE being critical of their faults and want a bunch of bobble-headed, “yes” nodding drones, not people that *gasp* criticize and come up with better ways of doing things.

      • Big difference between criticism and inflammatory statements. Argue as you want over if Fate is a roleplaying game, the problem is when when you call the audience of a popular game “fuck wits”. What’s disappointing is that Angry has leveled fair criticism at other games (5th ed’s Dungeon Master’s Guide putting the cosmology of the universe up front and hiding the encounter rules in the back, for example).

        It’s like advertising, you can call your steak the best, but when you say it is better than someone else’s trash they call steak, now you have a huge issue. Keep your ego general and not specific.

        • I think some of that stems from the persona he has adopted, which was no doubt helpful in establishing early readership. At some point his work will stand for itself, and he will be able to lose the gimmick.

          For me, his body of work is already there; I wonder how many other people feel the same way.

          • Y’all never consider the fact that I like the shtick, do you. It wasn’t a choice I made to set myself apart or to attract readers. I find it funny and I find it fun. And there are other artistic reasons why I’ve chosen it. It’s probably not going away. It’s as much a part of my content as anything else.

          • I find it makes the reading more entertaining. There’s a lot of words to plow through and the swearing/attitude keeps it lively and shows a personality behind the words. And really, how could an “Angry GM” be otherwise?

          • I enjoy the shtick, too, but I had recently listened to a podcast (can’t remember if it was Potelbat or Happy Jack’s) in which I could have sworn you said that sometimes the persona gets in the way of the message. So I had that in mind when I posted.

            But for my patronage, as far as I am concerned you don’t have to change anything.

        • First, I have made the decision easier for you. I have removed you from my Patreon supporters. I do not know if you have been charged for the current month yet because the Patreon system is currently processing payments, but if you have and would like a refund, please contact me. You are free to like or dislike my opinion, to agree or disagree, to read or stop reading, to support me or choose not to support me or to stop supporting me at any time. But you don’t get to dangle your support in front of me and say “I don’t know if you deserve this because you’re saying stuff I don’t like anymore…” I have far too much integrity to respond to that crap. Thank you for your support thus far, but please, find someone else to support.

          Second, I call my entire audience f$&%wits, dips$&%s, and so on. I call anyone who disagrees with me nasty names. “If anyone tells you differently than what I’m saying, they’re a stupid f$&%wit who doesn’t understand RPGs.” I call out specific arguments and specific subsystems all the time and call those who use them nasty names. And it’s always funny until it’s the thing YOU care about. If you can’t take it, there are many wonderful sites filled with gaming advice out there. You don’t have to read mine. Again, your choice. And I’m fine with that.

          Third, it’s not a persona thing. I mean, the hyperbolic overstatement that “anything I don’t like is wrong or stupid” is part of the persona. But I truly, deeply dislike Fate. And what bothers me is that it is frequently held up by large segments of the community as a good example of how to build character- and story-driven mechanics. And I don’t agree. I think those ideas are pulling role-playing games in the wrong direction.

          Fourth, I don’t tiptoe around any of the flaws of D&D. Any article I write about D&D starts with the “well, here’s how D&D f$&%ed up and here’s how I – being so much smarter and better than WotC – will fix it for you.” I spend more time ripping on all editions of D&D than I do on anything else. But then, I spend more time playing and running D&D than I spend playing or running most other games. I’ve had to actually issue apologies to WotC TWICE for taking shit too far and going from humorously overstated criticism to insults/harassment. And I have issued said public statements and apologies without reservation. Because I believe they were deserved. I stumbled into major chaos recently for ripping apart the way WotC supports the Adventurers’ League. That turned into a very ugly battle, most of which stayed in the background. But you can see the fallout on EN World and at the Mad Adventurers Society if you look hard enough.

          Fifth, I know WotC won’t hire me and I know exactly why. And its not like they are hiring anyway. They are too busy laying anyone off. I don’t want to work for WotC. I also know Evil Hat won’t hire me because I represent the exact opposite of their company values. But I never asked them too. And for exactly the same reasons, I don’t want to work for Evil Hat. Their company culture is the exact opposite of everything I believe in. But I also never applied to work for WotC or Evil Hat. Or, frankly, any other RPG company. I’ve never sought employment in game design. And the couple of freelance contracts I’ve done or am doing now for future release? I didn’t seek them. The people involved sought me out and asked me to do the job. I haven’t been looking for a job in the RPG industry. And when the time comes to publish (which is already approaching), I’ll publish under my own goddamned label. From a business standpoint, the RPG industry is a mess. Every business (except apparently one) is either run by suits who don’t understand their market or creatives who don’t understand how to run a business. I think I can do both. So, I’ll go it on my own at this point. Succeed or fail on my own merits. That’s not because I’ve hurt too many feelings in the industry. Some people love me, some people hate me. I’m polarizing. But I’m not universally reviled either. The reason I don’t have a job in RPGs is because I never sought a job in RPGs. I’m an accountant.

          Sixth, I can level fair criticism of Fate if you’d like. I generally try not to spend more than a sentence on something unless I have a way to fix it and an interest in fixing it. That’s why bashing Fate is a throwaway remark. The trouble is, each time I start talking about Fate and trying to present fair criticism, the fans go absolutely apeshit. There are two game systems out there that, for whatever insane reason, attract the WORST fanbases in the history of RPGs. These people won’t shut the fuck up for one minute: Dungeon World and Fate. Personally, I love Dungeon World and I hate Fate. But the fans of both annoy the motherloving shit out of me. Everytime you talk on social media about doing something in D&D, you get the zombies screaming “use Dungeon World, use Fate, that’s why I quit mainstream games, that’s why I stopped playing d20, FATE! DUNGEON WORLD!”

          I used to bash Dungeon World a lot for precisely that reason. To annoy the obnoxious fans and keep them from responding to every one of my criticisms with “just use Dungeon World.” Eventually, I rant into Adam Koebel at GenCon and he very politely asked me what I had against Dungeon World. And I told him the truth. I loved the game but I hated the fans. And we had a good chat after that. So, Fate isn’t the only game whose feelings I’ve hurt. But right now, it’s Fate’s turn on the rack. I also used to dig after Dungeon Crawl Classics.

          Now, I’ve given this comment far more attention than it really deserves. Because, frankly, the moment you said “I’m considering pulling my support because you bash this game too much,” I was inclined to just respond with “I deleted you from the Patreon, good day.” But, I got on a roll and I wanted to dispel a few of the things you said and set the record straight. Meanwhile, if you’re curious about the “fair criticism” I have about Fate, I do a weekly column (well, it was on hold for a little while while scheduling chaos settled) where I answer people’s questions. You want me to talk about it, fine. I’ll talk about it. And frankly, if it offended you and you had just said so, this would have been a different conversation. I’ve backed off on stuff before. Apologized on stuff. I got called out for bashing Wil Wheaton by a fan who found it obnoxious and stopped doing so. I backed off on Dungeon World after talking to Koebel. In fact, I wrote an article praising some of what Dungeon World did when it became appropriate (combat). I’m responsive when people say I take something too far. Hell, I’m going to lay off on Fate now. Precisely because of this criticism. But had I cancel your Patreon support at the same time to show that I’m doing it because of the feedback, not because you put a gun to my wallet and held it hostage.

          And that’s that.

          • I vote with my wallet regularly. I also say something before I do something. Pulling my support with no comment made gets me back four bucks a month, whoopie-do. I’d rather have it be known and taken seriously that there is an issue. I know a past time of gamers is being passive aggressive assholes who will do anything to avoid any type of conflict. At least I’m not afraid of conflict.

            If you want to write that piece about why you dislike fate I would be interested to read it. Personally Cortex+ is more my bag than fate when it comes to games from hippie land.

            Also, pretty sure my support would have canceled on its own. Had a fraud issue on my account. No beuno. Its all fixed, now its just going to be the weeks of discovering what subscriptions I forgot to reup. Not as bad as having your place broken into for sure. Also, I’ve been meaning to ask you if you have a charity you favor. After your comments on your break in I want to make a donation in your name.

          • What the hell. I come here to read the ANGRY GM, not the completely reasonable and respectful GM.

            Just kidding, of course. Thanks for taking the time to address these comments in a thorough way.

  10. >And honestly, the more you allow your die rolls to cover, the more of the element of challenge you remove from the game. Once upon a time, GMs used to ask players where and what, specifically, they were searching in the room filled with furniture. Nowadays, we have the “one Perception check causes everything in the room to glow – red for traps, green for secret doors, gold for hidden treasure.” While that simplifies and streamlines the game, it also removes the element of rewarding the players’ cleverness.

    I have to say a big fucking thank you for this article. It not only will help me in the future, I’m sure it’ll help others.

    I run a game right now and the players want to decide literally everything by chronic dice rolls. I call it Chronic Roll’s Disease.

    I basically spend 5 minutes watching them roll every single check in the game to determine if something’s there, and its boring to me and I needed ideas to get away from this dumb rote behavior to more intelligent, interesting behavior.

    Last night a wizard was trying to search some room, and I had a planned trap, so I had to ask him specifically how he was searching it out, in order to make a decision of whether the trap would spring or not.

Comments are closed.