Observations on the CR System (long)

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There have been a lot of changes since D&D converted from second edition to third, one of the biggest being the way that experience points were given. Originally each monster had an individual XP value and no matter what your level you would gain that much XP from killing it. The theory at the time was that it would scale, but it neglected to factor in problems that came in, for example the infinite XP chicken farm that I’m sure a few of us remember. In 3.0 and 3.5 we now have the challenge rating system which gives a roughly approximate setup for what the party should get in terms of experience points from different encounters and what the rough challenge of each monster is. This system, while superior in many ways to the individual XP design, has a rather bad tendency of being improperly balanced.

There are some examples of grossly under-CRd monsters, the most infamous of them likely being the varied clockwork horrors. There have also been many complaints about the CR of creatures such as Horrid Rats or Runehounds. Beings that tend to make many groups question the validity of the CR system. One issue that often comes up is what constitutes a challenge. The DMG states that it is based off of what an ‘average’ 4 person party is capable of handling per day. The average party is assumed to be a Fighter, a Cleric, a Wizard, and a Rogue all made on 25 point buy. This method is somewhat of an anomaly as many groups have had odd mixings, use classes from various supplements, and also have differing numbers of players.

The first question in this is probably what properly constitutes a challenge. The standard definition is the question of expenditure of party resources, gold, charges, spell slots, and hitpoints. The idea is that there are supposed to be four encounters a day and those encounters will burn through 25% of total party resources roughly. This sounds fine in theory but will often find itself failing to work in practice. There are a slew of stories from DMs who have players either wiped out by something that should have been at or below their set CR, and there are also stories of groups stampeding through things of a much higher CR than they should be able to. The answers given range from the group being poorly prepared, played poorly, the DM not running the encounter properly…the list goes on and on and on.

The first rung of the problem is from what was mentioned earlier, the CR system works on the assumption that the party possesses a Wizard, Fighter, Cleric, and Rogue. These are the base classes and are likely the most versatile, the game assumes that the group is a group of four with one of each of these classes. The CR system may become skewed if something like the rogue, fighter, Wizard, or Cleric is missing or if the group has more or fewer members than the standard planned game is set to. However there are precious few guidelines on how to regulate this, except mentioning that a party lacking a cleric will likely find undead far more challenging and that certain monsters are far more difficult to defeat without the arcane firepower made available by a wizard. Also, a trapped tomb becomes far more difficult to navigate if the party lacks a rogue. With the new supplemental classes the number of options available simply exploded, all of a sudden you could be a Wu Jen, Hexblade, Samurai, Spellthief, Warlock, Shugenja, there were literally dozens of options. Expanding further were the new systems of magic, psionics, the tome of battle, Incarnum, the concepts and capabilities of characters multiplied exponentially. Mixing abilities, feats, skills, classes and prestige classes between these books someone could make truly incredible characters, as well as rather obscene monsters and NPCs.

This leads into the second rung, with all the options available many DMs felt a strong need to either ban these new materials, label them DM only, or allow them in without first making sure they fully understood what the rules for these new things were. I mentioned one of the problems with many ‘core only’ games was that they were really core only for players but DMs would pull from every book under the sun which I found rather unbalancing and also rather unfair to players. The problem became that the CR system got screwy again when a DM or player would misinterpret the rules for something, combine abilities through 15 books, or find some kind of perfect combination that would allow for total unmitigated victory. This isn’t to claim that the supplements are unbalanced or that DMs who don’t allow everything in are tyrants; this is to point out that some problems come from general unfamiliarity with something. A DM might forget that an Incarnate or Crusader bring different options to the table than a Fighter or Wizard do. The abilities aren’t necessarily stronger or weaker in overall comparison but they were different. A DM might forget that a player with a certain feat set could suddenly go from a fire sorcerer to an ice sorcerer and once again bring their arsenal to bear on the pyrohydra. Also, DMs who had more access to rules could create monsters that were likely far above their listed CR due to a combination of abilities or a combo that the DM discovered. The example I’ll use for my own side was when I made a half-troll ogre called Treebreaker, the group was supposed to hunt him down and get rid of him. He was a fighter/barbarian/frenzied beserker, after all of his adjustments his total CR put him at about 12. The party was around level 10-11, optimized characters, and six member of the party. My assumption was that they would take some damage, maybe lose someone, but that Treebreaker would be a worthy challenge. What happened was that Treebreaker wiped out nearly the entire party, most were just negative and managed to stabilize as he moved on to the next one from his initial leap attack into the fray. The feats I had given him and his weaponry made him grotesquely effective against the group, I hadn’t built him specifically to fight the group or anything in that vein, but he was simply tearing through them like tissue paper. The group managed to defeat him after a very long and painful fight, losing the Dervish and almost losing the knight and dragon shaman as well. The group had fairly strong teamwork, had appropriate wealth by level, and were at the very least moderately optimized, and yet this thing slaughtered them.

This next part relates to what I made, I believe that the first problem that the CR system faces has to do with how it is designed. It is a solid set of numbers, it does not waver at all. However one CR 3 monster does not equal another CR3 monster, their position on that level of the challenge rating system has to do with the amount of power they have, the way it works, and the theoretical amount of resources that the party will expend in battling it. However, each monster will damage the party differently and will require a different sort of resource when fighting it. The CR system does not have things in place to work out how to adjust it, and what adjustments would be appropriate, depending on the situation. Is a monster that is fighting in highly favorable terrain a greater challenge, and thus a greater XP reward, than a monster that is fighting the players on terrain that is neutral to both sides? The problem is that I’ve found that as the books go the power creep of monsters becomes rather noticeable. A Runehound can tear a level 3 party to bits if it manages to surprise them simply because of it’s capabilities. For this example I am going to use a standard party of 4, Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard. Example: Runehound senses party near territory, runehound moves into range (100ft) and fires away with it’s gluttonous goo shot which sticks a party member, let’s say cleric, to the ground, assuming average rolls for timing the runehound can goo again in 2 rounds. That is surprise round, party rolls for initiative. If the party can see the runehound the chances are better, the fighter shoots his bow, arrow doesn’t seem to deal any damage, runehound has damage reduction 5/silver. Runehound goes and shoots the ranger with it’s acid spit and deals an average of about 15 damage, and in two rounds it can fire again. 15 damage might not look like much, but that can be decent sized chunk of HP for a fighter. Also, at level three the group probably doesn’t have the money to purchase silver weaponry, or the opportunity never presented itself, or they never thought to. The runehound will now be shrugging off most of the damage that they deal, also the runehound possesses fast healing 3 a major protective factor when combined with the damage reduction. The runehound also has about 10 feet of reach in all directions, can attack in any of those squares melee wise, and has combat reflexes and a good dexterity. The rogue hides, hoping to sneak up on it and sneak attack it. The wizard lets fly a scorching ray, 12 damage average, not too shabby at all. Cleric attempts to free themselves, can’t do it, uses cure moderate wounds on the fighter to help restore hitpoints. The fighter very badly wants to switch to his melee weapon and move in to fight since that would be better for him, but the runehound is severely out of charge distance and he doesn’t want to move to fight without aid. The runehound knows exactly where the rogue is by the way, with a blindsense of 500 feet in all directions the rogue is quite visible. The party is very much in trouble. The wizard can try to bring it down with spells but those spells hurt, the runehound might simply decide to withdraw from combat and hunt the group later. Adding in that a runehound has a +20 to survival checks to track targets means that the group could get ambushed again. This monster hardly seems a CR 3, especially if compared to another CR 3 like the Ogre who is far more manageable to fight, has fewer special abilities, and is far more well known. The Runehound may be a CR 3 but it is on the higher end of it, similar to the races that are too strong to go without a level adjustment but not really worth an entire level lost.

The next problem has more to do with what happens if the monsters listed in the monster manuals are modified in any way shape or form. A simple example can be adding classes or templates, sometimes both, to a monstrous opponent. Most people agree that, short of dragons and Tarrasques, the most powerful opponent that a player can face is another classed character of some sort. This opponent can bring out a great deal of variables, their weaknesses aren’t glaringly apparent with a knowledge roll, they can be expected to be roughly as optimized as the group, and they can theoretically use the same sorts of tricks that normal players do. Classes have a tendency of messing with the set CR of a monster, some of it comes from using the elite array, point buy, or rolling to generate the new monsters stats, but also come classes synergize incredibly well with a monstrous NPC and that CR 6 might average to an ECL of 14 for a player depending on the combination. If the monsters are in groups this can get even more complex, a party rarely has a character like a marshal in it but what if the hobgoblin tribe has a pair of martial directing the battle. Or, to remain core, a pair of bards beating war drums chanting the histories of the storied clan. This can throw of the CR system even moreso because their abilities provide power to a large group rather than just one or two, so how much does it affect the challenge rating? Even mixing up the beings in the encounter can alter the challenge rating. Imagine a group of kobolds supported by a runehound as an artillery piece. Or, more believable perhaps, an aboleth using its intelligence to direct its more physically powerful servants, setting them up to support one another and aid each other against its enemies would that affect the overall challenge rating? The final part is this, the NPC the group faces is probably not going to be around forever and doesn’t need to worry about getting his/her/its throat torn out by a random encounter or anything like that. What this means is that the BBEG or general enemy can effectively nova. Throw their strongest stuff into this fight since if they don’t they will likely lose and die. The group will be doing the same but will likely be facing them after having trudged through multiple earlier encounters bleeding them for charges, potions, spell slots, and hp. The enemy faces the encounter fresh, possibly got warning and enough time to buff themselves or have readied actions for when the party kicks down the door. This isn’t a balance issue per se but the certain knowledge that you don’t have to worry about running out unless things go nuts and that your power and versatility are properly built means that you can strike hard and fast and do a lot of damage to the group. The treasure that they have at their disposal is also an issue of note, which is the next rung on the problems that the CR system has.

Treasure is the next area, now you’ll notice most of what I’ve done here is focus on the DMs side with monsters and things like that, there is a reason for that. The player side of it is relatively easier to spot than on the DM side and the fact that the DM can throw the CR system overall for a loop with a few modifications here and there to monsters or other opponents. The treasure problem actually has several areas so I’ll deal with them piece by piece. The first area is a pretty simple spot but oftentimes it is forgotten, the power of ‘needed’ items for a character. A common complaint people have about ‘built at level-X’ characters is that their feats, skills, and gear are all optimized to the character right now whereas the more organic group has some items that aren’t as good of a fit at that time. This problem is usually directly proportional to the level that the character starts at, at level 6 a character will likely be stronger out of the box than an organically made one in the game simply because of equipment differences. Mind, in my games the wealth by level charts are more of a guideline than set in stone and usually the organic characters will have slightly more than the guy who just comes in but that also depends on what they did and how they did it. This problem also exists for NPCs, if the DM makes a BBEG said BBEG as well as minions thereof will likely have optimal equipment to make them effective, the best stuff for what they do that they can have at their level. This again aims the power problem slightly in the favor of the NPC. The secondary problem has more to do with the nova effect that I mentioned earlier. Make an NPC three ways, in one give them only non-charge items, things that give flat bonuses, can be used X/Day or things like that; The second way involves giving them all charge items such as scrolls, potions, wands, rods and staves; The third option involves some combination thereof. The nova effect doesn’t necessarily alter the CR of the opponent but it does alter their treasure reward as each charge, potion, or scroll consumed will decrease the overall haul and increase the power of the person using it, thus giving the players diminishing returns yet again. The equipment available also has something to do with it, the NPCs will probably not use equipment that they are not proficient in, but the party might not be able to use the spiked chains, greatspears, or other exotic items wielded by their foes; The other side of the equation has more to do with the items being unsuitable due to alignment placement or types of gear. At that point the item is either traded, sold, or (if the party has an artificer) drained of XP so the party can make new gear. Another problem is more from a recent trend of Wizards giving the set treasure for monsters in their books. I am against this mostly because it doesn’t show what tables were being used to make it and I don’t like blindly fumbling around, trying to adapt treasure, and also having to wonder if by changing the treasure/gear of the monster that I’m radically adjusting its CR since the treasure was likely factored into it. This is the end of this for the DM side for a while as we are now going into the player realm and how the players, both intentionally and unintentionally, screw up the CR system.

From treasure we go to equipment, this is where the party can get incredibly nasty for the CR system especially with certain tweaks. The first area is likely common ground, equipment creating a planned or unplanned synergy with other abilities leading to an overpowering character. The other areas though are a bit harder and a bit less common and screw with the CR system both ways. The one way that it can happen is through item creation. This isn’t the simple item creation either, the scrolls and such, this goes more into items like weapons, armor, staves, wands, rings, rods, and wondrous items. The first obvious problem comes in if the group focuses heavily on item creation, making custom equipment and because of how much cheaper making items is they can sneak ahead on the power curve so long as the creator maintains XP. This can put the group ahead of the wealth by level charts, so does the DM then award them less XP in combat encounters? If so then the crafter is unfairly penalized as they now take a hit from using XP to craft the items, sinking a majority of their feats into item creation, and now getting less XP for their trouble. It can make challenges easier for a time but depending on the way that it is dealt with it can mess up things for everyone and also make players swear off playing item crafters. The other side of the coin is the nova gear player, they are the fighters who have below average weapons, armor, and/or wondrous items but instead chug potions at the start of each fight and wade in to destroy, the rogues who have a ton of boosting potions, generally speaking most of their money is dumped into one shot items. The first problem that this causes is that you have sudden bursts of power in fights, possibly overshadowing others and again messing with the CR system, but then the other side of it is when you run out of potions suddenly you’re weak and the group has to expend more resources to keep you alive and functioning than they would if you used gear with more staying power. Equipment feeds into two other areas that players can cause trouble with, one is the specialization problem and the other is the class options problem,

Class options are the next area that players can screw up the CR system, this one is somewhat of a tricky area though because of the nature of the problem. In some cases the issue isn’t that a class/prestige class/feat chain/whatever is over or underpowered, the problem is that this variable can have several strange effects on the game. The first issue is how familiar the DM is with this option in terms of what it brings to the table and provides the group. An opponent might fall quickly because the player used a tactic or ability that the DM wasn’t ready for or didn’t realize could work. This might make it seem overpowered but the truth was more that the DM simply didn’t realize that what the player had was capable of doing what it did and thus didn’t factor it in when designing challenges. Also, some classes are simply better at some things than others, in a grinding type of scenario a warlock or binder will make regular casters look less powerful even if the reverse is true simply because that sort of encounter or game style makes those classes far better than they would be normally. The other area dovetails with equipment, imagine that one person of each class at level 10 is captured and stripped of their equipment. The cells are identical, the spontaneous casters, monks, martial adepts, incarnum users, psions, warlocks, binders, Dragonfire wielders, etc. are going to have a better chance of getting out and escaping than the fighters, rangers, paladins, and book based casters because of the loss of their gear crippling them due to their dependence on certain parts of it. A wizard that loses their spellbook is in a lot of trouble, so is a fighter that lost their magical weapons and armor, an incarnum character might not use a whole ton of gear and instead have a small number of buff items or a special weapon, overall not that much to repair or replace, they escape, get some lesser replacements and are good to go, otherwise they may need to bust their way out and try to gather up as much of their equipment as is possible during this lovely trip.

Specialization is another area where the player can screw with the CR system, or at least it will appear that way. Specialization can go many routes and this can become abundantly clear if the entire party is doing it. The example I’ll use in this case is that the players go to the DM before the new campaign starts and say they want to do dragon slayer characters. They want to fight dragons and have that be the main focus of the campaign. The DM agrees, thinking that it would be a fun sort of campaign and dragon slayers are an archetype of fantasy. A side effect of this decision is that the group will be specializing with their characters. Their entire goal in this game is to be the greatest dragon slayers in the world, thus the combat characters get dragonbane weaponry, if someone plays a ranger they have favored enemy: Dragon, they focus their feats and designs for fighting dragons and taking prestige classes like Dragonslayer, Dragonstalker, Hoardstealer and things like that. The casters will focus their spell repertoire on fighting dragons, taking elemental damage spells, things that ignore spell resistance, and debuffs that specifically target dragons to make them weaker or to harm them more than normal spells. The game progresses and the DM gets concerned, the party is fighting dragons and the DM is worried because the party seems to be taking on dragons far more easily than the CR system says that they should. The DM questions if perhaps he is running the dragons incorrectly, or maybe the group has too much gear, or maybe they’re simply far too powerful. The DM makes the decision to alter the CR, give the group less XP for the dragons and alter the treasure horde, give the dragon more gear for itself that only it can use, use more lair wards so the group gets less treasure and less that they can use or sell. This can work but the other side of the coin is that if the group were to face an aboleth, a storm giant, or something like that they might get hurt badly or even wiped out by something of equal or even lesser CR simply because they are so focused on dealing with dragons that they have trouble dealing with something that isn’t one. If this same party runs into a slew of aberrations on their way to fight a deep dragon and the DM sees how much trouble the party is having on things that were supposed to be relatively simple challenges would they then raise the XP rewards to compensate? Specialization now hurts the party, the casters lack the spells that would give them an edge here because most of their focus was fighting dragons, the weapons and other equipment used by party members is suddenly far less powerful and potent because it is now not being used against dragons.

The final problems of the CR system have to deal with areas that are more of a subjective area that have a problem between player and DM, areas that deal with things such as tactics, styles, and preparation. The tactics are the first area in the analysis, the tactics are aimed at certain styles of combat. Tripping is the first one, tripping is an annoyance when the players face it, it can even be a major problem for the whole party if they deal with a massive number of trippers but generally they will be an annoyance for the party rather than a major problem. The tripper if built as a fighter for example can be the ultimate tripper and can be a lot more dangerous as a PC than as an NPC. This is a side note but it is also a fact I have seen that certain races are far more dangerous as NPCs than as PCs and vice versa, at low levels warforged can be something that makes the party shake and shudder but it isn’t really as good as a PC at low levels comparatively. The other issue of style is sundering, I know very few people who play sundering characters simply because sundering is generally very unprofitable to the PCs. Broken weapons sell for basically nothing, that magic item that could have gotten thousands is now junk. Sundering might make a fight somewhat easier but unless that item is frankly murdering the party then the best course is to try to tough it out and take down the person using it, or at the very least disarm them of it. On the DMs side of the screen sundering is a very powerful tool, it can permanently disarm a fighter of a useful weapon, reduce the threat of a rogue, and get rid of the mage slaying weapon that you fear being used against the caster opponent you made. Sundering will hurt the players more than the DM because the DM has an infinite supply of gear, the player does not. The other area that can alter CR in one favor or another is damage reduction. There are currently multiple types, dealing with how the weapon deals damage, universal principles, and the materials the weapon is made from. A fighting character that is a melee type that wants to overcome all forms of damage reduction will have to golf bag weapons, and if they want the weapons to be at least moderately effective and the wealth by level tables are followed strictly they will likely never have a weapon that goes beyond +6 and that total will belong to their main weapon. Damage reduction the players may have will matter less because most of it is either incredibly easy (X/Magic) or impossible (X/-) to overcome and if the group faces forces that know of them they will likely have dealt accordingly. Preparation is another big one, a group prepared for an encounter will have an easier time than one that is not, but that again begs the question of how the CR system imagines combat. Is combat assumed to be on a flat plane with the opponents having clear view of each other within 30-60 feet?

The last aspect is the trickiest one because it can’t really be quantified beyond knowing it when you see it, but the biggest thing that affects the CR is group cohesion and teamwork. One of the biggest complaints made towards classes has to do with how they compare to another class in terms of power, damage, etc, but very little attention is given to how they will affect or contribute to the group as a whole. The biggest thing that people often forget is that the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. I have seen groups that were composed entirely of one man shows who at best would work parallel get their asses handed to them by mildly optimized cohesive teams simply because the one man shows were not ready, willing, or able to work together while the team was so well organized that if one persons nose twitched they would all sneeze. The game probably assumes some teamwork, but how much does it really expect? In general I see an evolution of group tactics and teamwork, in the beginning it is every man for themselves, next it evolves into parallel combat, they all work in the same direction but they are each on separate tracks, third level is closer to a race all of them are now in the same direction but now they may interact, maybe occasionally aid each other or try to block someone else, the final level is akin to a battalion of tanks, individually they are effective, together they are near unstoppable. In a game that I ran my players attacked a hobgoblin camp, the hobgoblins were well organized and their leader had a powerful and cohesive entourage. The party ended up being all over the place, rather than focusing and trying to support each other they all tried to fight the enemy as individuals and were getting creamed. The sad thing was that all except the leader and two clerics were lower level than them, the clerics were equal level and the leader was 3 levels higher. There were many instances where they could have done well if they had tried working as a group, instead they seemed to all sort of fight like a confused mob and it nearly killed the whole group. Do I increase the CR of the encounter then because they were getting so badly hurt or do I maintain it because they need to learn to work together? Does the cohesiveness of the goblins factor into their CR or not?

I need to explain here that my goal isn’t to destroy the CR system or to say that it’s unworkable, what I mean is that we likely expect far too much of it. The CR system is actually fairly simple and straightforward so long as you literally do not deviate, advance, or in any way alter the monsters, treasure tables, and keep the game completely and totally impartial, keep everyone on 25 point buy, and are sure you can properly simulate the tactics of every creature and properly simulate the proper intelligence and abilities of each type of monster. In other words it’s nearly impossible, the trick is to remember that the CR system is not a straightjacket, it’s a guideline. The problem is still there that certain things will change the CR system, not having a cleric can make every encounter much more difficult but if the group has no fighter but two clerics it might be arguably stronger. The real problem is that the CR system is very simple and precise while the game has grown in complexity and capability.
First, let me congratulate you on a very well written and thought out article.

I agree that you have several strong points, which all lead to (at least imho) the question if maintaining the CR system "as-is" is worth it. You pointed out so many possible factors that influence and modify the effective CR of any given encounter that it becomes nearly impossible for an average DM to adjust the XP rewards accordingly, and more often than not they'd just give normal XPs. If on the other hand all these factors were included, there would basically be little difference between that and giving out ad-hoc XPs as the DM sees fit.

Also, I don't think that lowering an encounter's CR based on situational factors such as equipment, spells, etc. was a good idea. After all, the game is supposed to be fun for all. And when -- after an intense battle against the BBEG, his lieutenant, and his minions where the players saved the kingdom, rescued the princess, and screwed the necromancy ritual -- the DM says "sorry guys, but the 2 crits Bob made with his direpick made the combat much too easy, so you only get 2/3 XPs" the fun is quickly over.
I am personally against effectively punishing players for playing out their best cards right, such as a caster using a "save-or-suffer" spell to instantly end an encounter, or a barbarian using the dreaded Power Attack + Leap Attack + Shock Trooper + Combat Brute combo to deal an obscene amount of damage.

Therefore, my opinion is that it was best to leave the CR system (at least for determining XPs) and move to the "old" or static system. To accurately calculate the CR of an encounter if you considered all factors would either be too complicated or take too much time, and if you just "hand-wave"d and "ad-hoc"ed XPs, why bother with a mathematical system at all? And a static system is not necessarily a bad thing. For a very good static reward system, take a look at EarthDawn.
For awhile, I adhered to the CR system, but I too found it wonky. When two level 4ish fighter-types went on a journey against what I felt were appropriate CR kobold casters and skeletal minions, the group slaughtered them with ease, gained a level, and nearly got a second from about 5 encounters!

-EE
Therefore, my opinion is that it was best to leave the CR system (at least for determining XPs) and move to the "old" or static system. To accurately calculate the CR of an encounter if you considered all factors would either be too complicated or take too much time, and if you just "hand-wave"d and "ad-hoc"ed XPs, why bother with a mathematical system at all? And a static system is not necessarily a bad thing. For a very good static reward system, take a look at EarthDawn.

My own point was that the CR system wasn't necessarily broken or anything, just that I believe that we honestly expect too much of it. Proper challenge is difficult to ascertain as each person has a different idea of it. Also, working out individual sets is going to be more problematic than I want to think about simply because I remember the infinite chicken farms in 2nd edition.

Thank you for reading it and I'm glad you enjoyed it. I never reduce XP for what the party has, the trick I mentioned was when I sent them against an NPC that did that uber charge assault.
My own point was that the CR system wasn't necessarily broken or anything, just that I believe that we honestly expect too much of it. Proper challenge is difficult to ascertain as each person has a different idea of it.

I know and I was just presenting my opinion on that topic. I am sorry it looked as if I was misreading you.

Also, working out individual sets is going to be more problematic than I want to think about simply because I remember the infinite chicken farms in 2nd edition.

How would you get XPs from a chicken farm? To get XPs for a monster, the monster has to present a threat to you. And please let me ask the question, how much of a threat is a typical chicken?

Thank you for reading it and I'm glad you enjoyed it. I never reduce XP for what the party has, the trick I mentioned was when I sent them against an NPC that did that uber charge assault.

In my opinion the CR system is inherently flawed, as it works under the "basic4" assumption (cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard). For example, let's take a typical CR 13 encounter and two adventuring parties.

Adventuring party #1: warforged paladin with racial substitution levels, human ranger with favored enemy (constructs) and human cleric.

Adventuring party #2: half elf bard, changeling beguiler, sorcerer.

Typical CR 13 encounter: iron golem.

Party #1 will waltz over the golem as if there was no tomorrow. Party #2 probably faces a TPK. Yet both are supposed to receive the same amount of XPs?

I know, this is just what you said in your article, I just wanted to emphasis that imho the CR system breaks down at exactly that point: the party make up. What works fine for party #1 is horrible for party #2 and the other way round. So, the moment the party make up deviates from the basic4 the DM is basically forced to adjust and modify the XP rewards.

Also, the CR system leads to some very frightening sights, as watching your DM pull out the MM1 and ask "on what page's the lich?" I am of the opinion that no, No, NO DM should ever run an encounter without having at least taken a look at the involved monsters before. And just as a note: for exactly that reason I vehemently oppose the new NPC/monster format, as it "makes it easier to run monsters out of the book".

Finally, even if the CR system worked fine without the obvious problems there is still one issue left. That the game designers horribly err when they assign a CR to a monster. Yes, I'm looking at you, adamantine clockwork horror from MM2.
The chicken farm trick was back from 2nd edition. Back then technically everything had an XP listing. Following RAW if you killed it you got the XP. Now why the infinite chicken farm got bad was that the chicken gave the highest XP/difficulty. The trick was that, back then, all spells could be made permanent. If a wizard made a permanent regeneration on themselves first then they could literally permanency anything. What happened was that they would basically create regenerating chicken coops of haste. Chickens go in, do their thing, lay eggs, full grown chickens come out and get killed. Sure, it might take a while but if it was done you could get in excess of thousands of XP, as well as enough food to feed an army.
First of all, bravo. Second I am in agreement with the majority of your points. Ultimately any system that doesn't do away with CR is, by definition, a patch. A possibility I see that would allow a favourable solution on all sides is, if you want a mechanical answer:

At any times the characters go under revision the DM looks over their items, their special abilities, their feats, and skill and spells and synergies with one another. In a system based somewhat on Epic Spells or Feature Points the DM comes to a number that represents the parties total combat related "resources".

An encounter is run, while the DM or players he has delegated, keep track of the "resources" they use. After the battle the DM sees how many resource points have been used uses this to derive a total percentage of resources used.

Based on this percentage the DM has two main options



Even in the second case, the PCs should never be aware that they are being penalized. After all such thinking is metagaming in all its grandeur. Crying that your 6th level swordsage didn't get enough XP for defeating an illithid should be responded too with something similar to "Your use of terrain and your maneuvers together made the challenge simpler. Don't think of it as a penalty, as you have more resource points left than you would have and are still capable of defeating many more illithids."

I myself can see approximately a dozen flaws with my proposed system. And this simply reinforces that getting meaningful use out of the CR system as-is cannot be quantified and fixed with a patch but rather requires a degree of ad-hoc DMing.
One interesting side note was that recently I also found out how dangerous that debuff spells could be to players. The group ran into a dragon that had four sorcerers, four dragon shaman, Dragonfire Adept, and Warblade acting as guardians and the group was getting slaughtered due to debuffs. But then debuff can also be helpful to players too so I guess that one can balance out.
In my own gaming experience, on both sides of the Great and Holy Screen, I've had problems with the existing CR system, most falling in line with what you've mentioned Archangel. In that, I agree that the system needs a little working.

In fact, in that light Obsidianjaerc brings up a pair of points that I particularly like and feel are particularly relevant.

The first is the mention of "resource points," and my interpretation of it (or Obsidian's, if I simply didn't read correctly the first time). This would be purely in the hands of the one running the game, and would help better track the amount of resources expended by the players. I believe the final product would look similar to "x charges were used from various items, that's 4 resource points...", and the total resource points used would determine the experience points the group attained. In this case, "Challenge Rating" becomes a bit more arbitrary, something that might be fudged around with a little (and something that isn't as important in general); in fact, CR would really just help the GM running the game determine approximate power of encounters, where the "resource points" would determine the experience points gained.

Second, an idea actually derived from a specific phrase: "Even in the second case, the PCs should never be aware that they are being penalized. After all such thinking is metagaming in all its grandeur." I believe, in this vain, that the entire experience-point-gain process should be kept behind the DM Screen (with actual "leveling" taking place outside of the game session; before or after, or during a break). When leveling occurs, the opposite of "level drain" (bonuses in those various areas) can be offered to those who level in game until the game can come to a pause. Regardless, and more to the point, the players shouldn't be worried at all about experience points; that's the GM's job, and metagame thinking.

-Shadow Mage
I've been idly thinking of a similar system. Never even tried to use it, since my group would hate it, but I've been thinking it over. Where was it now?

Ah yes. "Relative Experience Rewards" Use the CR system, but modify the EL as follows:

Relative difficulty
-4 Effortless
-2 Easy
-1 Not too hard
0 Average
+1 Moderately hard
+2 Difficult
+3 Very difficult
+4 Almost impossible

Then, after the XP is worked out:

Risk
10% No Risk
50% Minor Risk
100% Normal Risk
125% Moderate Risk
150% Extremely Risky
200% Suicidal

It takes more work, since you have to evaluate each situation, but it does allow interesting situations. Here's an example:

A party of 4 characters, all at level 8, takes on a behir, a CR 8 monster. Now, normally, they'd expect to get 2,400 xp from it, but, if they are able to, without any significant planning on their part, effortlessly defeat it with no risk to themselves, what have they honestly learnt? Nothing really. Which is why, in this case, they'd only receive a total of 60 xp.
On the other hand, if they were still recovering from a series of earlier battles, and were not only out of healing, but also out of most of their other tricks, this would make it moderately hard and extremely risky - after all, a behir hits pretty hard. Without those tricks, they've got a problem.
As a result, they receive a total of 5,400 xp. Pretty good, assuming that they survive.

In a nutshell, this rewards players who face real challenges, and penalises those who simply
go for overkill. Don't forget to reward ingenuity however - that's a completely different thing.

Of course, as I said, this has never been tested, but it's an idea that I like. It corrects for both strong and weak. If someone is able to handle something far more easily than they were predicted to, they didn't learn much, so they get little XP. If something proved to far tougher than expected, they earn more. I like it.
I've been playing another RPG a long time, which was in many ways like D&D but it had a simpler XP concept: At the end of the session, the GM would hand out 1 to 4 XP, depending on how challenging the adventure was, how well the PCs performed and how fast he wanted PCs to get stronger. That's it. No XP per kill. Sessions still weren't much different from D&D, as it was still high fantasy, and players still had heaps of fun in the fight.

The wisdom of this: If D&D would not have a CR system, it would still work fine. As it stands, it is still a nifty tool for the DM to approximate the difficulty of an encounter. It's just that a CR system that would take into account every single possible factor in determining the difficulty of an encounter would have to be as complex as the whole body of D&D rules itself, plus taking into account every possible gaming group and every possible situation in the game. And it would be so bulky nobody would want to use it.

A good GM does not slavishly hand out XP according to CR rules. He awards XP to players for creative thinking, for vivid descriptions of battle, for canny tactics, for heroic actions, and for contributing to the fun of gaming. If he does that, players will feel rewarded whatever the CR was. If the players know the DM only uses CR as a guideline, they simply stop caring about it.
[...] In fact, in that light Obsidianjaerc brings up a pair of points that I particularly like and feel are particularly relevant.

The first is the mention of "resource points," and my interpretation of it (or Obsidian's, if I simply didn't read correctly the first time). This would be purely in the hands of the one running the game, and would help better track the amount of resources expended by the players. I believe the final product would look similar to "x charges were used from various items, that's 4 resource points...", and the total resource points used would determine the experience points the group attained. In this case, "Challenge Rating" becomes a bit more arbitrary, something that might be fudged around with a little (and something that isn't as important in general); in fact, CR would really just help the GM running the game determine approximate power of encounters, where the "resource points" would determine the experience points gained. [...]

I'd like to comment on that a bit.

While it looks like a really great idea on paper, there are -- as Obsidianjaerc him- or herself already said -- several problems associated with such an approach.

First, all save-or-die effects are just screwed up under such a system. Why should a wizard use finger of death or cloudkill+forcecage when he get's less XPs for it than just slamming at the enemy's HPs with metamagically abused scorching rays?

Second, all effects that are either permanent or at-will also mess with that system. How would you factor in a warlock's words of change? Or a Kensai's weapon enhancements? How about a swordsage's highlevel strikes?

Third, calculating items also becomes extremely difficult if classes like artificer or warlock are allowed in the game, as they can easily manufacture almost any item they want by virtue of their class abilities. They can build items more easier, quicker, and more efficiently than the traditional wizard crafter, and thus also throw a stick into your calculation's wheels, so to speak.

As said, I find the idea interesting and it might be a good approach for creating a different system of measuring an encounter's difficulty and calculating the earned XP rewards for the party. But it is just not as easy as you would think.
I'd like to comment on that a bit.

While it looks like a really great idea on paper, there are -- as Obsidianjaerc him- or herself already said -- several problems associated with such an approach.

First, all save-or-die effects are just screwed up under such a system. Why should a wizard use finger of death or cloudkill+forcecage when he get's less XPs for it than just slamming at the enemy's HPs with metamagically abused scorching rays?

Second, all effects that are either permanent or at-will also mess with that system. How would you factor in a warlock's words of change? Or a Kensai's weapon enhancements? How about a swordsage's highlevel strikes?

Third, calculating items also becomes extremely difficult if classes like artificer or warlock are allowed in the game, as they can easily manufacture almost any item they want by virtue of their class abilities. They can build items more easier, quicker, and more efficiently than the traditional wizard crafter, and thus also throw a stick into your calculation's wheels, so to speak.

As said, I find the idea interesting and it might be a good approach for creating a different system of measuring an encounter's difficulty and calculating the earned XP rewards for the party. But it is just not as easy as you would think.

One thing that I think would help a lot is this, an understanding of what the CR system is supposed to be overall. A simple example would have to be seeing how frequently deaths occur at first to fourth level. The idea of a 'challenge' does seem to change. The arguments in the classes forums on casters against fighters seems to be worth that sort of discussion alone. With new spells and abilities the CR system does change quite a bit. The way to fix this might be if we got a clearer idea from WotC what they considered a proper challenge and how they modify the CRs accordingly.
This is very interesting discussion. I'm a bit late posting to it, so hopefully it won't go unnoticed.

A few things regarding CR's.

1. Regarding the power of spell casters. If the Vancian (or whatever they call it) system is adhered to, then the spell casters strike me as quite balanced. Unfortunately, many players like myself do not care for it and so use a spell point system. Which adds a certain level of flexibility the casters did not have in the first place. This can be mitigated, but the formula for doing so is a whole topic of debate in and of itself.

2. There seems to be some general guidelines missing from the DMG which would rectify some of the things you were mentioning. Although, these guidelines might leave a DM playing it by ear in some cases.

  • Surprise - If the monster gets to charge or gets any free actions before the party can do anything, I automatically add 1 to the CR.
  • Special Abilities which the party has little means of overcoming. Fighting ability draining creatures without anyone who can cast Restore.
  • Special Abilities which the party is specifically equipped for. As in a cleric with improved turning in the party when facing undead. Subtract one from the CR.
  • Planning time. If the creature is able to improve it's combat abilities before encountering the party then I will add 1 to the CR on top of the +1 the monster would get for surprising the party.
  • Party is out of juice. All of the available magic has been expended. Add 2 to the CR.


In a way some of these items are tactically dependant. Often a party can be overwhelmed if it is surprised, especially when the party is resting. These kinds of guidelines seem to be missing from the DMG. The downside to this kind of thing, the DM is left having to have some way of working out encounters that leave them somewhat adjustable..... or you could just fudge a few dice rolls ;)
You’ve really got to remember EL though. even if a party is only fighting a single monster with an appropriate challenge rating, any favorable or unfavorable conditions that a monster may possess may change the CR of that monster. if you have a party fighting something with DR 5/cold iron with no cold iron weapons, then the CR may be a little higher than normal.

Not every monster's CR would have to be adjusted; it's not meant that you have to throw a monster at your players that they always have the resources for, but if that monster has a lot of abilities that make it tougher than the average monster of that CR without the proper equipment, then consider adjusting it.

And remember EL!! Just because a monster with a CR of 3 is supposed to be easy pickin’s for a party around level 5, if they've already used enough of their supplies and magic and hp against a CR 4 or 5, then it'll be a little tougher than normal to deal with that monster of CR 3.

Look, some things are obvious: if you fight a few zombies and you have a cleric, it won't be as hard. Lower the CR. if you fight a few zombies without a cleric, it's about the CR listed. if you fight a few zombies after using up some of your spells earlier, lost a bit of hp, and you still don't have a cleric around, then raise the CR. hell, just raise the CR if the zombies happen to begin the battle right on top of you if you want.

Remember DR and fast healing can make something a lot tougher. just look at what the books say; if the party can't do any real damage to it and the monster does way more damage than would be appropriate against your party (and live), then it's harder than you think. ADJUST THE CR. Just use common sense. Don’t take the listed CR as dungeon mastering gospel. Like you say, it's based on that same party of four with the same generic basic classes that are pretty much evened out and yadda yadda.

If you give something a CR and it turns out to be much harder than you thought, give it a higher EL and give them XP based on that. If it turns out to be easier, obviously you were wrong when you gave it the CR you did. knock the EL down a step. You didn't tell the players the EL when you introduced the monsters, so you're not technically cheating. You just thought it would be tougher. Turns out you were wrong. It’s less of a challenge. Reflect that in the EL and CR you gave it, thus adjusting XP. Don’t do this for lucky rolls or bad rolls on your part or theirs. That just life and wouldn't be fair.

This would only entail the general abilities of the characters and their levels and such and the natural abilities of the monsters. If you threw something at them that you thought was so big and bad and just rolled a 2 at the wrong time, don't get mad and give them less XP when they kill it. If you made them fight something that just messes with their system (pretty much making anything they could throw at it futile, like certain DR that would make any damage they could dish out too little to hurt it or abilities that make their own useless), then it's harder than the suggested CR for that non-existent party that it was based on. Consider a bigger EL unless they do something creative to defeat the monster despite their lack in abilities. For instance, remembering that there is a trap door down the hall, leading the monster to it and activating it and the monster gets kerplunkt-ed. That is something you weren't expecting and didn't factor into the challenge at all. Creativity like that wouldn't affect the EL, but it might reward some extra XP for the sheer cunning of it.

You should know your players. If they seem to have been doing okay against something of a certain CR because they can just wear it down and shoot things at it, then putting them against a monster with the same CR doesn't mean that it'll be met with the same ease. If this new monster has abilities that makes sure that the rogue can't sneak attack and weapons that can't let anything else get close enough to hurt it, plus it has DR that won't let anything that can hurt it damage it, or if spells are the only thing that can hurt it (and they run out far too quickly in situations like this), then they're pretty screwed, especially if they have already been in a fight that day. That’s not the same as fighting something that just has a lot of hp and a big weapon; therefore, not exactly the same CR. ADJUST ACCORDINGLY, based on your own players' abilities.

The CR lists are guidelines. As a DM, use it responsibly and intelligently based on the players you have been making those wonderful little adventures for. Adjust where it fits. Pay attention to what a monster can do to your players, and remember what players aren't capable of doing to monsters (and just how much harder beating that monster would be, or if it wouldn't affect it much at all). Just do your homework.
DMs need some sort of ruler to which he can put challenges and encounters to to gauge how likely PC's are to succeed against the challenge. Whether it's called the threat-o'-death meter or CR, you need a basis of some kind.

So what does CR tell us? That a party of the "classic four" of this level can defeat the challenge with moderate difficulty. It's pretty specific, and the DM has to know where his party lies in relation to the CR to get any use of out it. The two big problems are: What if the party is non-standard, with different classes? How do I know if the party is over or undergeared?

For the first part, I think, truly, that CR may need to be broken into subcomponents, like the breakdown of AC. This would give DMs a slightly better gauge to tell them how certain tactics might fare against the creature.

For example, a troll could have a melee CR V, ranged CR W, stealth CR X, social CR Y and spell CR Z (just examples, the CR could be broken out differently as needed - for example, you might want to give animals a special CR considering their ability to be influenced by Rangers and Druids). If the DM has an idea of what the party will utilize against the Troll, he can get a better sense of how challenging it might be for the characters to defeat the encounter. Using the above with a mix of 2 melee fighters, a sorcerer and ranger (archery), he'd add together the melee CR twice (for the two fighters), the spell CR (for the sorcerer) and the ranged CR, then divide by 4, which should give him an indicator of how much trouble the creature will provide. Going back to the Iron Golem encounter and the bard, beguiler and sorcerer would be purely facing off against the Iron Golem's spell CR.

The second component, figuring whether the characters are above or below the "standard" level curve would require a lot more work - almost empathic insight into the developer's minds. We have some of the components already - Standard Wealth by Level, and the example characters in the old Enemies and Allies book (which I understand are used for actual playtesting of WotC material - at least at one time). Further, we also know that the 25-point-buy is considered the gaming standard.

If a DM is willing to invest the time to 1) calculate the PC's wealth and 2) compare the character's equipment & abilities to the baseline PCs and 3) compare the character's stats to the standard 25-point buy, he should have a good idea where the party stands in relation to the standard CR system, whether the party is a few CR's above or below the standard. If the DM can conduct this analysis ahead of a coming adventure, he/she should have a excellent feel for how tough the party is, and what they should be able to handle.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way for this second, yet critical, portion of the analysis of the game. And, it can take some time to do all that math. A smart DM, however, will have the players do these calculations for him, and just plug them into some table that we or others iron out, giving the hapless DM a quick adjustment to what is appropriate CR. It won't be perfect, but it should get things closer to the bullseye.
As I mentioned before, the biggest problem of the CR system is that it tries to do too much and we expect too much from it. Flat XP doesn't work well either and I already pointed out all the ways that a CR can get wonky. But I want it to be understood, my goal here wasn't to destroy the CR system, just to get us to look at it more closely and consider these factors when designing adventures.
Also, the CR system leads to some very frightening sights, as watching your DM pull out the MM1 and ask "on what page's the lich?" I am of the opinion that no, No, NO DM should ever run an encounter without having at least taken a look at the involved monsters before. And just as a note: for exactly that reason I vehemently oppose the new NPC/monster format, as it "makes it easier to run monsters out of the book".

I support the new format because it makes combat run quicker. I also don’t normally use the whole MM at the table though either (printing the monster from e-tools and taking that sheet also simplifies and prevents the "what page is that lich on?" syndrome because I have that lich handy. ) Anything to ease the planning and running of encounters I am for, especially now that there are a few simple "module" adventures out there for busy working types who play the game can grab and run. That is why when the MM binder was introduced with AD&D 2nd Ed. I liked it, it was just put together wrong to allow for expansion. And it is the expansion problem, with multiple books that drive me nuts.
Quite a long read, but well thought out. I agree that people do expect too much from it, and find that it is better used as a "first glance" eyeballing tool rather than what most people expect from it.

I use it to help look for monsters, but I always imagine how much it might destroy, or be destroyed by the party members based on my past experiences with them.

I honestly, don't think it can be much more than that, with all the different party combinations, class combinations, items and situations that go into an encounter that you can't simplify down to a single number for every possible combination of parties.
Thou art the god of the CR system. Thank you so much for writing this. It took a long time to read, but it was worth it.

I just wanted to comment on the runehound thing. I had planned to use one in a game of mine when I noticed the infamous DR that you mentioned. To somewhat counter this and balance the encounter, I created an NPC named Bertron the silversmith. He loaned the PCs some silver weapons for the adventure and told them that they could either return them to him afterwards (assuming they were still in good condition) or buy them with the spoils of their quest (I made sure to give out enough gold to allow them to buy the silver weapons).

I haven't run it yet, but I'll let you know the outcome of my plans after the fact.
Thou art the god of the CR system. Thank you so much for writing this. It took a long time to read, but it was worth it.

I just wanted to comment on the runehound thing. I had planned to use one in a game of mine when I noticed the infamous DR that you mentioned. To somewhat counter this and balance the encounter, I created an NPC named Bertron the silversmith. He loaned the PCs some silver weapons for the adventure and told them that they could either return them to him afterwards (assuming they were still in good condition) or buy them with the spoils of their quest (I made sure to give out enough gold to allow them to buy the silver weapons).

I haven't run it yet, but I'll let you know the outcome of my plans after the fact.

Thanks and I hope they do well. The Runehound is a favorite example for me because they, and horrid rats, are a sort of running gag in my campaigns. In one Eberron game I had the group in it rose to lofty heights and became major celebrities, but they still remember the battle they had with a runehound, one that they would argue was their first, and probably most dogged, recurring nemesis.

[Ha, dogged nemesis! I see what you did there! –Regdar]
Let me make a few comments.

I guess the main insight is to realize that the CR system is a simple guideline to find a starting point for adjusting/designing encounters of the desired EL. In fact as has already been stated XP rewards are given according to EL not CR. While the two can be the same in the most simple case (e.g. random encounter, iconic core party) most of the time they are not and all the points that were very well pointed out by the OP describe the difficulties you face when making the transition from CR to EL (to XP). From this it is also clear that the EL of an encounter can only be guessed beforehand and it can be fixed only after the encounter played out.

From a purely mechanical point of view this can work actually quite well. You take a monster make first guess about the probable difficulty based on its CR and your knowledge of your party and the encounter circumstances. After the encounter you "measure" the resource drain off the party and award XP accordingly. The simplest method of "measuring" would be something like "how often could they have done this if we repeated the encounter all over". As to the question if this is fair to the PCs, this of course depends on your own definition of fairness. So, given a game of the complexity like D&D if you would expect a simple and easy to use system to precisely adjusted challenges, you would indeed expect too much, but as a starting point the CR system performs not so bad actually. More importantly, well designed encounters (still) require a skilled DM (even for a however "perfect" CR system)

As a side remark: D&D has a funny backhanded kind of moral built into its XP awards system. While the standard method of advancement is killing other (most of the time) sentient creatures, it does not award you for defeating them but for the suffering you endured doing so. Seems a bit masochistic, doesn't it ...;)
In fact as has already been stated XP rewards are given according to EL not CR.

I'm not sure what you are suggesting. According to RAW, XP points are awarded based on the individual creature's CR rating, not the EL of the encounter. Yes, XPs can be modified based on difficulty, but they are awarded per monster, based on the CR.

I hope that I am not misunderstanding your position?
I'm not sure what you are suggesting. According to RAW, XP points are awarded based on the individual creature's CR rating, not the EL of the encounter. Yes, XPs can be modified based on difficulty, but they are awarded per monster, based on the CR.

I hope that I am not misunderstanding your position?

Sorry for being unclear. You are right in that strictly speaking the CR determines the base XP award. EL describes the effective CR for multi opponent/challenge encounters and then there is the "difficulty" which gives a modification to the XP awarded. So XP~EL+difficulty modification. I used the term EL a bit sloppy in the (often used) sense of an effective CR of an encounter including all modifications due to creature number, circumstances, etc. which sums up the "formula" given above and in the end determines the number of XP awarded. The CR itself is often actually not more relevant for the amount of XP than the modifications which can often lead to +/- 100% change in XP or more (for the +) and this was (one) point I wanted to make.
I know exactly what you mean. I have a group that is very small: A fighter who is designed to hit often, and deal little damage. However, his weapon deals 1 negative level per hit, and at level 12 he is hitting about 2 or 3 times per round. He is a hexblade and uses Haste often. The other is a warlock that routinely deals ~70-80 damage per round, at range.

So when I throw them up against a pair of CR 9 or so creatures in an environment that favors the NPCs and the players massively destroy the two bad guys with no issue at all, do I still give them a large amount of xp?

Or what about the group who fights a gnoll hideout, with a very intelligent wu gen leader? The leader's CR is higher than the party, but does his higher CR compensate for the fact that he strategically placed the weaker, dumber gnolls? IE, archers high on ledges and such and spread out so as not to be fireballed and the like while the melee'rs hide behind a wall, and then use tactical fighting (as they were instructed by their All Knowing leader) such as one always disarming, another always tripping the disarmed person, and the others making sure that the rest of the PCs stay away while the gnolls wipe out their current prey?

Should I raise the gnolls' CR since they are under the guidance of a smarter and more tactical leader, or is it covered in the leader's CR? If not, how would I adjust it?

While the scenario of 3 gnoll archers and 5 gnoll melee fighters, immediately (but separated from the fight with) followed by a gnoll wu gen sounds like a moderately powerful challenge to a group of mid/low level characters, it becomes suicide when you correctly play out the wu gen's intelligence.
I know exactly what you mean. I have a group that is very small: A fighter who is designed to hit often, and deal little damage. However, his weapon deals 1 negative level per hit, and at level 12 he is hitting about 2 or 3 times per round. He is a hexblade and uses Haste often. The other is a warlock that routinely deals ~70-80 damage per round, at range.

So when I throw them up against a pair of CR 9 or so creatures in an environment that favors the NPCs and the players massively destroy the two bad guys with no issue at all, do I still give them a large amount of xp?

Or what about the group who fights a gnoll hideout, with a very intelligent wu gen leader? The leader's CR is higher than the party, but does his higher CR compensate for the fact that he strategically placed the weaker, dumber gnolls? IE, archers high on ledges and such and spread out so as not to be fireballed and the like while the melee'rs hide behind a wall, and then use tactical fighting (as they were instructed by their All Knowing leader) such as one always disarming, another always tripping the disarmed person, and the others making sure that the rest of the PCs stay away while the gnolls wipe out their current prey?

Should I raise the gnolls' CR since they are under the guidance of a smarter and more tactical leader, or is it covered in the leader's CR? If not, how would I adjust it?

While the scenario of 3 gnoll archers and 5 gnoll melee fighters, immediately (but separated from the fight with) followed by a gnoll wu gen sounds like a moderately powerful challenge to a group of mid/low level characters, it becomes suicide when you correctly play out the wu gen's intelligence.

This might also be tricky too, I mean high mental stats can do dangerous things with a group for monsters because it makes them capable of more advanced tactics.
Admittedly, I haven't read the whole article.

In the beginning, it seemed as though the author was basing his article on single-monster fights. Single-monster fights were not what the CR/EL system was designed for. If PCs were only meant to fight monsters one at a time, there would be no need for a CR/EL system, everything would be keyed to specific character levels.

The CR/EL system is designed to mix & match different kinds of monsters to find an appropriate match for a party.

I'll do a level-by-level breakdown of some good fights to run at the first several levels, since people seem to have a hard time figuring these things out. The CR system you're referring to, the one where a party "fights four times a day" is a load of hogwash. A party should easily expect to face1-1/2 to 2 times that. Just because the wizard ran out of spells doesn't mean the monsters stop coming. This is the reality we face. Plus, again, the CR system is weighted more towards the ACTUAL average-sized party, which is five, not four, which includes a fighter, wizard, rogue, cleric, and a bard. Whether that was intentional or not, it's the way it actually tends to work in practice.

At 1st level, use 3
See, the way I do it is this: The goal is 4 encounters a day that take 25% of the party resources, and 12 encounters to a level (assuming each encounter is at equal CR to the party level).

So, first I judge how difficult the encounter was - how much HP did people lose? How many spells were cast? Did charged items get used? How many charges? How many of their daily and monthly (charged items) resources were used?

If the answer is 10%, they get 10% of the daily (1/3rd of the needed exp to level) exp. 25%, they get 25% of the daily (1/3rd of the needed exp to level) exp. If it used 100% of their resources, they get 100% of their daily exp (1/3rd of the XP they need to level). But it gets more complicated. Because they do get penalties/bonuses depending on teamwork.

If, in the above circumstance, the encounter was difficult because they used exceptionally poor tactics, cut the EXP in half. If, in the above circumstance, the encounter was easy because they used exceptionally good tactics, increase the EXP by 1/4th.

Ultimately, a DM can give out EXP as they wish, controlling the level and the speed in which characters level as they please. The CR system is simply a guideline, one that is often out of date or inaccurate. Consider a Hydra with the Ghost Template (CR 6).
See, the way I do it is this: The goal is 4 encounters a day that take 25% of the party resources, and 12 encounters to a level (assuming each encounter is at equal CR to the party level).

So, first I judge how difficult the encounter was - how much HP did people lose? How many spells were cast? Did charged items get used? How many charges? How many of their daily and monthly (charged items) resources were used?

If the answer is 10%, they get 10% of the daily (1/3rd of the needed exp to level) exp. 25%, they get 25% of the daily (1/3rd of the needed exp to level) exp. If it used 100% of their resources, they get 100% of their daily exp (1/3rd of the XP they need to level). But it gets more complicated. Because they do get penalties/bonuses depending on teamwork.

If, in the above circumstance, the encounter was difficult because they used exceptionally poor tactics, cut the EXP in half. If, in the above circumstance, the encounter was easy because they used exceptionally good tactics, increase the EXP by 1/4th.

Ultimately, a DM can give out EXP as they wish, controlling the level and the speed in which characters level as they please. The CR system is simply a guideline, one that is often out of date or inaccurate. Consider a Hydra with the Ghost Template (CR 6).

True, but that's only part of the problem. I don't deny that the CR system is iffy, but what is needed is a better way to adjudicate things. I mean plenty of encounters I've run, many of them turn out relatively fine, but others end up with a near party wipe. Also, I do have to ask how does one define good tactics.

Recently I ran for a group at the college, they managed to free a demonic army. A result of this was that they were pursued by a group of rather angry hound archons. They all had class levels, one a paladin, another a cleric, two were fighters and the last was a marshal. They cornered the party on a mountain trail and had formation and good tactics. The party moved as a mob and we almost had a TPK. They argued about it afterwards, the truth was they could have won easily. But I do have to wonder, how much should teamwork and tactics fit the CR. If the enemy uses advanced tactics (which can vary greatly depending on opinion) how much does that alter their CR? Just saying that it might help if we had some general ideas on how to alter the CR setup.
True, but that's only part of the problem. I don't deny that the CR system is iffy, but what is needed is a better way to adjudicate things. I mean plenty of encounters I've run, many of them turn out relatively fine, but others end up with a near party wipe. Also, I do have to ask how does one define good tactics.

Recently I ran for a group at the college, they managed to free a demonic army. A result of this was that they were pursued by a group of rather angry hound archons. They all had class levels, one a paladin, another a cleric, two were fighters and the last was a marshal. They cornered the party on a mountain trail and had formation and good tactics. The party moved as a mob and we almost had a TPK. They argued about it afterwards, the truth was they could have won easily. But I do have to wonder, how much should teamwork and tactics fit the CR. If the enemy uses advanced tactics (which can vary greatly depending on opinion) how much does that alter their CR? Just saying that it might help if we had some general ideas on how to alter the CR setup.

This is especially apparent (and explicit) for ambushes and cases where the opponents have much more preparation time than the party. A carefully built ambush can be nasty. I once nearly killed a level 5 party with 4 Lizard Men just by doing an ambush on a bridge that restricted mobility and options.
They cornered the party on a mountain trail and had formation and good tactics. The party moved as a mob and we almost had a TPK. They argued about it afterwards, the truth was they could have won easily. But I do have to wonder, how much should teamwork and tactics fit the CR. If the enemy uses advanced tactics (which can vary greatly depending on opinion) how much does that alter their CR? Just saying that it might help if we had some general ideas on how to alter the CR setup.

Tactics are a part of a creature's CR.

A creature with a high Intelligence score should be played intelligently, or else the creature is weaker than its CR would suggest.

Likewise, a creature with a low Intelligence score (or an Int of 0) should not be using complex tactical plans, or else the creature will be stronger than its CR would suggest.
Tactics are a part of a creature's CR.

A creature with a high Intelligence score should be played intelligently, or else the creature is weaker than its CR would suggest.

Likewise, a creature with a low Intelligence score (or an Int of 0) should not be using complex tactical plans, or else the creature will be stronger than its CR would suggest.

Yes, but how do you define advanced tactics. Is the idea of taking cover advanced? How much does a race know to use its abilities? The forest trolls have an int of 8 but have smart tactics involving poisoning foes and skirmishing, taking advantage of camouflage and fast healing.