CR, Challenge, and Engagement in 5e

I would like to take a moment to discuss a topic I see on the web in varying formats. The question is usually a DM posting:

“My party blows through everything so fast, how do I make my fights more engaging.”

~ Every DM at some point

I know I have experienced this feeling before and I’m so sure it’s a universal quandary, I thought I would elucidate some of my thoughts on the matter.


First, I want to talk about Challenge Rating. It is the metric by which the written rules of 5e measure the difficulty of an encounter. The details of how this system is used are found in the Dungeon Master’s Guide pg 81 – 87, but effective breaks down into a couple of steps.

  • Determine the difficulty you want the encounter to be (easy, medium, hard, and deadly).
  • For each character, look up the XP threshold for that difficulty (6th level medium: 600, 5th level medium: 500).
  • Calculate the party’s XP threshold by adding them all together. You will need this for all encounters for this party. You may as well calculate it for your party now, keep it around and update it when they level.
  • Calculate the total monsters XP. This is actual XP you are giving the PCs when they defeat that monster.
  • Modify the monster XP total for multiple monsters—a simple multiplication based on that table.
  • Compare the modified monster’s XP total to the party’s XP threshold.
  • There is more in the document about handling larger parties and creating an adventuring day budget. But the above is all we need to create a single encounter and get a metric of its difficulty.

My friend and author commented below about the Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, Building Encounters section. It is similar to the above (maybe with better math). You can find more about it in the video by Nerdarchy below:


To make encounters feel more challenging, you can add environmental hazards. Maybe a movement-altering wind, difficult terrain, or noxious gas. Also, there are some great resources on action-oriented design (check Matt Colville for details). Finally, Mobs in higher numbers are absolutely where the challenge rating multiplier happens, use it. A party is usually only challenged if the enemies meet or exceed the party’s action economy.

All that said, the real challenge of any encounter is built on the feelings of the players. How do they feel about the encounter? Your monsters may be on the ropes, but you can still raise the stakes using narrative and wordplay alone. I argue that the true feeling of the challenge is born, not in monster stat blocks, but in players’ engagement.


To really immerse players in a combat scenario requires a couple of things. 

  1. First, you need buy-in. The players need to be willing to engage with the combat as though there are real stakes. 
  2. Second, You need stakes. the stakes should be high enough that the players are legitimately tense about failing. The stakes should not always be “beat the baddies.”. Sometimes its save the NPC, “prevent the baddy from finishing the ritual,” or “protect the children from the baddy-caused hazard.”. Stakes define why the party fights and are critical for engagement. 
  3. Lastly, Narrative is essential to a compelling battle. We all know under the hood combat is a series of “hit, miss, hit, miss, save, damage, win,”. But the narrative of battle is a control lever for tension. How you describe the actions of the monsters or their reactions to damage matters. Describing how the claws of a beast pierce through the PC’s armor, like paper, adds tension.

I like to describe any attack that beats the unarmored AC of a character as a hit. Dealing 0 damage, deflected off the armor. Dinging the armor or loosening the buckles for non-damage combat gives doubly a sense of verisimilitude and drama. “Whoa, it hit my armor, I felt it. The enemy’s aim improves”. 

Also, You can add dramatic narrative by describing failed checks on the part of the adventurers in a believable way. Nobody believes that Robert Dobbs, a longsword wielder since he was a boy, rolled a 1 when attacking that bandit because he forgot how to sword. Instead, he turns to strike the bandit and sees the face of his childhood friend. Driven to stealing during hard times. Challenge the players’ hearts, and you will bind them to amazing storytelling.

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4 thoughts on “CR, Challenge, and Engagement in 5e

  1. AD Holm says:

    Interesting stuff. Do you ever use the rules from Xanthar’s for encounter balancing? I find it makes things so much quicker, but it doesn’t factor in the action economy issue which has lead me to a tpk or two.

    You know, in a sense, I kind of think that maybe the expectation of a balanced, challenging encounter can be a little limiting. I kind of like it when the PC’s steamroll some travelling merchant and take all of his level-innappropriate gold hoard, or come up against something they can’t possibly beat. Only trouble is the expectation of a challenging, but winnable fight occasionally leads PCs to charge into no win situations or makes DMs gun shy about narratively including anything the PCs can’t reasonable be assure to defeat.

    1. WatcherDM says:

      Great comment. Yes, there is a section in Xanathar’s guide, and I think it may be a quick math way to doing the same. However, I tend to stick to the DMG and PHB for answering questions online as it is a higher likelihood of being useful (it is in the book you already bought). And I may add it above.

      To your second point, you are absolutely right. I think knowing what the CRs are that you need to reach to make something unbeatable is useful. Also worth knowing how many small creatures the PCs should be able to swath through at a time in the opposite case. Of course, this does nothing for measuring the difficulty of social or exploration encounters, and I would argue that encounters where combat victory is not an ideal option, should be approached as such or at least provide affordances for those pillars.

    2. Fletcher says:

      Hey there. I too like the unpredictability that adding an unwinnable encounter brings. Players that think they are unbeatable diminish the quality of the wold immersion. Fear of character death adds realism and that fear is best created by inserting Uber-deadly encounters. The CR system works, but it seems to me that it is under powered when used with parties are created using Tasha’s or, even worse, using Unearth Arcana rules. I almost always beef up my encounters to compensate for those characters. One other note. Unleaded have a way of turning CR balancing on its head!


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