Scaling Difficulty DnD 5e


DnD 5e is not a lethal game. In many cases, it’s not even particularly challenging.

5e only becomes consistently dangerous if your party can manage the content-rich “Adventuring Day” described in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, requiring 6-8 encounters of roughly medium difficulty (or 3 deadly if you’re exciting). Most groups find this to be an absolute slog of meaningless, uninteresting shin kicking, and 10 years into 5e’s lifetime I have yet to encounter a group that plays this way.

If you don’t lean into the DMG’s Adventuring Day pacing, players won’t be sufficiently strained for resources, so any challenges will be trivially overcome by spending nominally limited resources like spell slots. Without resource pressure, even high-level spells feel disposable on even the smallest inconvenience.

Without enough resource pressure to make the game challenging, much of what makes DnD fun is lost. If every lock, trap, puzzle, horde of treasure, and argumentative NPC can be disarmed by a single spell followed by a nap, why does anyone show up to the game session except for the Wizard? If you can walk into every combat situation, shout “bang”, and all of the enemies lie down, why bother playing DnD?

These problems get progressively worse as you add more players to your party. I commonly play in a party of up to 6 players, which is enough to massively unbalance encounters prepared for parties of 4. At the same time, small groups of 2 or 3 often struggle in encounters designed for a full party.

The daily XP budget presented by the Adventuring Day rules does account for this change in player count, adding or removing budget for each player. However, mathematically rebalancing an entire day’s worth of encounters on the fly because someone didn’t make it to a game session is an exercise in madness. This gets even worse when you’re running a published adventure because you need to reverse-engineer XP budgets.

Determining Party Strength

Take three measurements to gauge your party’s strength. We’ll describe this as “Power Rating”, but we’re inventing that term, so call it whatever you like. “Power Level” would also work, but we already use the word “level” for too many things.

Average level of the player characters: Add the party’s total number of levels together, divide by the number of player characters, and round down.

Average party level is your base Power Rating.

For example: In a party of 5 level 4 characters, our average level is 4, giving us an initial Power Rating of 4. In a party of 2 level 3 characters and 1 level 4 characters, the average level is 3 (3+3+4 is 10, divide by 3 to get 3.33, round down to 3) , giving us an initial Power Rating of 3. 

Number of players characters: Take a headcount. 4 is DnD’s base line, and having more or fewer players needs to be reflected in our power rating.

If your party has inconsistent attendance, estimate how many players you’ll have in a typical session. Some parties have near perfect attendance, while others have frequent absences. You don’t want to TPK simply because someone caught a cold.

PlayersPower Rating

The Power Rating adjustments are intentionally not one-to-one. Players frequently have abilities which are multiplicatively more impactful as you add/remove players, including things like auras and buff spells.

Crunchiness of the players: High, medium, or low. Players being more mechanically inclined prepares them to manage resource strain and difficult combat encounters.

Players with a less crunchy play style often aren’t building well optimized characters and may not be prepared for heavy mechanical challenges. If your players are reading RPGBOT daily, assume medium or high.

Otherwise, use your best judgment. This is more an assessment of preference than capability, and we’re not scorning anyone’s preferences here. Try to account for the group’s preferences so that the party is adequately challenged without being pushed to the point that the game isn’t fun. I have a lot of friends who would love to play at Low and still consider the game challenging, but my primary group would thrive at High.

CrunchinessPower Rating

This gives us our final Power Rating.

For example: A part of 4 level 5 characters who prefer Medium crunchiness has a Power Rating of 5. Very simple. But over time they lean into the crunch and add another player. A party of 5 level 5 characters who prefer High crunch now have a Power Rating of 7.

Scaling Difficulty

Power Rating is roughly equivalent to average party level for a party of 4, and can be used in the same way. A single CR X creature is a medium challenge for a party of Power Rating X, just as you would expect for a party of 4 level X characters.

It is important to understand that these numbers are a rough estimate. The CR system in 5e is already very loose, and I’m estimating these numbers based on years of experience with the game since there’s no way to firmly base this in math. Be prepared for these numbers to be somewhat incorrect, and be prepared to adjust things as you go.

Scaling Published Content

Power Rating is an easy metric for handling published adventures where it may be difficult to adjust the published encounters. Instead of adding a ton of manual work, use Power Rating in place of the party’s expected level. If the adventure says “the party should now be level 5”, compare that to the party’s Power Rating instead.

Playing at Low Level

Low levels present some challenges in his system because a party with Power Rating of Average Party Level +3 at level 1 is very different from that party at level 5. Level 1 characters simply aren’t built to handle CR 4 creatures unless you consider character “single use” and play DnD like you play Mörk Borg.

For low-level parties with a positive PB adjustment from party size and crunchiness, limit the PB adjustment to the party’s level in order to avoid having characters killed in one attack on a regular basis. For example: At level 1, PB of 2 is fine (APL+1). At level 2, PB of 4 is fine (APL+2).

Low-level parties with a negative PB can be easily handled by increasing the party’s level. Whether or not you provide better equipment than that expected for a level 1 character is up to you, but our Practical Guide to Campaign Planning offers advice on magic items for new characters starting above level 1.

For example: A party of level 2 player characters who prefer Low crunch has a PB of -3, so starting them at level 4 would be appropriate for that same content.

A single level 1 player character who prefers Medium crunch has a PB of -4, so starting them at level 5 in content intended for 4 level 1 players will ensure that they have what they need to survive, but they’ll still be challenged. This may seem like a huge discrepancy in CR, but playing a 1-character party presents unique and unpredictable challenges. Rolling poorly on initiative can often mean death before your first turn.

Complications for Small Parties

Small parties get fewer actions, have fewer resources to expend, and have less diverse capabilities. Their defenses also function differently.

Use crowd control effects sparingly. Anything that prevents players from taking a turn will be a huge problem. Small parties are much more susceptible to crowd control effects. A party of 2 does not handle one incapacitated character nearly as well as a party of 4 because they’re losing proportionately more of their action economy.

At the same time, individual characters are capable of dealing and enduring relatively large amounts of damage compared to their Power Level, so individual characters are less likely to fall to 0 hit points.

Legendary Actions also function differently. Because Legendary Actions are taken at the end of another creatures’ turn, fewer player characters may mean fewer opportunities to use a Legendary Action. Most creatures with Legendary Actions get 3 per round, but in a party of 1 or 2 characters, they won’t be able to use all 3.

You can put other creatures in the encounter to enable more Legendary Actions, but be very careful when doing this or the action economy can overwhelm your players.

Large numbers of weak enemies present a disproportionate challenge for small parties, as they may have few options for handling crowds and for supporting and defending each other. A small group of enemies slightly below the party’s Power Rating is probably the most that they can handle safely.

Complications for Big Parties

Large parties present inherent challenges due to simple things like the action economy and spreading hit points across a smaller or larger group of creatures.

A large number of low-level player characters is more likely to have characters drop to 0 hit points in an encounter simply because each character is less durable relative to the party’s Power Rating. This is more likely if you’re using powerful single enemies because their attacks deal more damage. At the same time, those big single enemies are more likely to succumb to save-or-suck effects due to sheer volume.

You can instead scale encounters by adding a larger number of enemies. However, large numbers of enemies are more susceptible to multi-target damage from things like Fireball and Chain Lighting, making Blaster characters disproportionately impactful and frequently negating the additional challenge at little additional resource cost, if any.

Much of the time you’ll get the best results from a mix of weak minions and stronger elite enemies. The weaker enemies should be threatening enough to matter, but also easy to eliminate so that you can quickly reduce the number of actions taken in any given round. The elite enemies should be strong enough to meaningfully challenge an individual player character. This isn’t quite Doom-Style Combat, but it’s close.

Of course, the same encounter makeup will get stale eventually, so mix up the composition a bit. A single big enemy with Legendary Actions and a crowd of weak minions is an exciting boss fight. A crowd of elite enemies roughly equal in number and strength to the party can also be exciting. A large mob of weak enemies can be fun to cut through, but it rarely presents a real challenge unless the dice turn against you.

Instead of outright killing players with mass damage, consider using crowd control effects more often. Removing one PC from the fight is less of a problem when there are 8 of them. Of course, be mindful of the time between turns. Having 10 to 20 minutes between turns is awful, and losing a turn to being paralyzed or stunned feels awful. Try to keep combat fast.


As of this writing, I play in a party of 6 player characters, and we’re all somewhere between Medium and High crunch, making our Power Rating equal to our Average Party Level +2 or +3. We’re currently playing Dragonlance: Shadow of the Dragon Queen, and we’ve had few challenging fights through the whole campaign.

Optimized characters and a large party are more than the adventure was built to handle, and it shows. I can’t remember the last time we got to round 3 in an encounter, and we had a serious boss fight not long ago that almost made it to the end of round 2.

As of this writing, we’ve just hit level 11, and we continue to hack through encounters with little effort. If we were a few levels lower, combat would be much more challenging, and we would need to play things a bit safer rather than walking face-first into every dangerous situation because it’s faster than checking for traps. Level 8 would certainly be challenging for us.

But we also have inconsistent attendance. We’re a group of 30-something and 40-something parents with busy lives, and that means missing game sessions for sick kids, early work days, and other life events. We’ll happily play with as few as 4 of our 6 player characters present. A safer choice for our group would be to calculate our Power Rating based on 5 expected players. 

As much as I love a challenge, a Power Rating of Average Party Level + 2 is likely a better fit than APL + 3, provided that we want a fair shot at surviving the remainder of the campaign.