Welcome to a new series of articles I like to call Gaming Masters Class. While I'm still going to be writing for the GM's Toolbox (man I need to update that list) these are tips are tricks for GMs with experience under their belts. I'm not saying a new GM can't learn anything here, but be warned that these tips are for making richer but MUCH more challenging games. This also means inexperienced GMs or Players can lead to character death and even TPK. If you're scared of that then you have been warned.
Now on to our feature presentation, a little discussion on CR or Combat Ratings. I will be completely honest here, I've never been a huge fan of the idea of CR when it comes to writing stories. Why does the bandit leader that is organized enough to put an entire town in a panic only have two lackeys with him when the heroes arrive? Because that's what the CR says they can handle. I'm sorry but that's dumb unless those lackeys are his best of the best for some reason. He should have whoever would be around him and if that's a fight the players can't win then they better find a way to thin the herd or get him alone. To me this is just another part of the challenge the adventure brings and something the players can choose to be smart about or run in head long and hope things work in their favor.
This is actually a big reason I'm such a big fan of D&D 5e and Savage Worlds. They both have systems for CR (Yes even Savage Worlds though its optional), but as long as you don't become flat out unfair players at least have a chance to pull off fights that are leaning heavily against them. This is also why I became disillusioned in games like D&D 3.X and Pathfinder as DCs, Armor Classes, and Attack Bonuses inflate so much throughout the game that unless you play in their CR system players ether walk through low end fights without a threat or faces obstacles that are utterly impossible. I want to make t clear, I have nothing against people who play these kinds of games and see their appeal, especially for the players, but they don't offer the kind of game I want.
Now on to the part that keeps this from being a slaughter. If you noticed the example I gave involved how many of a relatively low end (At least compared to how powerful epic monsters and what not can get) enemy there are an not something like "Well why can't the bandit captain have a red dragon pet?" The CR systems do have their place, it's just not as big of a place I feel they've taken. CR is a good way to quickly look and see if a single enemy is going to squash your players. There is no thinning the herd when it's a massive dragon, that's just called pissing him off.
Most games suggest not to let players face a CR higher than them (Either their current level in the case of D&D or their combined calculated CR in Savage Worlds) and while not a bad rule of thumb if you're just throwing things together it's still not really true for a well trained group of players, but I do take that as advice. Instead though I try not to have more than one enemy in a group (and no I don't mean a fight but the actual group that includes people that can be pulled into a fight via alarms or run away goons) that's higher, but not more than a couple points of CR higher, than the players and no more than two if they are directly on part with the players. Anyone considered below them however I put in as many as there should be. Yes this can make things dangerous and deadly, but it also forces players to think and be smarts.
There s one last piece when it comes to this to make sure things play out as far as possible. If you're more or less ditching CR and just putting what make sense then have you enemies make sense. They have motivations and agendas and smart players should be able to exploit those. Most threats don't just mindlessly rush a threat and whale on it till ether they are it is dead. Thugs can be bribed or scared away, monsters can be tricked exploiting their base instincts, and even smarter enemies can be reasoned with and possibly made allies if they players put n the effort and succeed. Sometimes that means you're going to have to wing a few things like if Greg the Barbarian just lopped off the bandit king's leg in his first swing the entire fight can change. The bandit king is probably on the ground not wanting to die, his bandit followers just saw their leader just crushed in one on one combat are no probably ether respect the player, fear the player, or ONE OR TWO OF THEM might think this is an opportunity to get to the top. Yes I did all caps because not every bandit will go for this, that would just mean if the leader falls anarchy breaks out. Ok some situations this might happen but they are fewer and far between, plus that anarchy doesn't mean they rush the heroes it means it's not a last man standing with anyone gong to the place of power being a threat and that means bandit on bandit action.
I'll wrap this up with two recent examples of fights that by the numbers were unwinable, but cleaver players not only got through, but got through without a single death.
The Yeti Cave:
This is a group of three level five characters, to give you some idea on CR ratings the book says fighting two CR3 monsters is a hard fight three of them is deadly and a single CR7 monster is deadly.
They were ambushed by incredibly cleaver Yetis (CR 3 EACH) that used harpoon ballistas to tether their air ship as it passed by their mountain. The initial combat was just two yetis climbing the harpoon ropes to get on the ship. The yetis knew what they were doing and can climb faster than most players can walk to this is on their turf and it didn't matter because players were sky pirates and this is just up their ally too. So the playing field was level but the CR was "hard". Those yetis died in about three rounds and the players got little more than a scratch or two. Fast forward through more fights that should be deadly to impossible (That one was 6 yetis they snuck past) and the players are hiding as the cave is finally alerted to the dead yetis outside and go on alert waking up their king (CR7 and deadly by himself). The players ambushed him from the shadows before his followers could get there (You know those 6 more yetis they snuck past). He went down n two rounds dealing some hurt, but nothing deadly, that's also when the 6 Yetis came in. They could have gone into a rage and bum rushed the heroes, but all they knew is their family on guard is dead and now their king is dead in the time t took them to run to him called for a meeting. That's enough to make a few think twice. When you add n that the heroes were waiting and too out three of them as they came in the survivors knew this isn't a fight they would win and fled.
The Wyvern Nest
That same session the players got to a Wyvern(CR 6 EACH) breeding grounds looking to steal an egg. They encounters 4 full grown wyvers and an alpha (Counts as two with double the actions and double the health). This s not a winnable fight, but they weren't looking for a fight. Our sneakiest players zips in unnoticed, but sadly the party had picked up a tribal paladin of only level 3 that didn't think stealth was necessary. He got swooped in on hit and dropped to dying on one stroke. Notice I say dying and not dead because that's a big difference. The more experience party rushed in but not under the stealth of shadows. Instead they used spells and magic items to simulate a massive storm and trick the beasts into protecting their nests from lightning. At that point they could rush in much easier and save the more brash character. I point this one out in particular because it both shows how clever players can get around threats while unprepared ones with face the wrath of such a challenge.
I know these sound like playing in a punishing game and you aren't wrong. The CR system is designed for fights that can be tough, but all in all are winnable. More importantly the system is designed for players fighting three or four times a day and if you're in a dungeon that can happen easy, but if you're exploring or playing a story the involves social or political conflict then that might not be the case. As long as you don't make the fight literally impossible and let the players have of make ways to get out if things get too tough then go for it. If the players then choose to rush in without planning and fight to the death rather than regroup that's their choice and can either learn to not do it again or that games that actually test them over rewarding them simply because they are playing might not be their thing. I know this isn't the type of game for everyone and that is exactly what it's a Master's Lesson and not just a general GM Toolbox item.