View Full Version : D&D 5e/Next Players Estimating the difficulty/challenge of a monster or group

2015-12-01, 02:16 PM
Hi Playgrounders,

Sorry if this thread exists elsewhere, but I didn't get much in the way of results when trying to do a search.

My question is this:
Does anyone have an elegant/easy way for Players to estimate the difficulty of an encounter or monster by observing them?

As a DM I like the idea of occasionally placing some some non-level appropriate challenges in the paths of my PC's as foreshadowing. I want them to see the threat, but not necessarily think it's a good idea to engage just yet. This gives them a chance to ask around for rumors, or do some research.

I've considered various ideas such as a knowledge check, or some sort of perception check. Maybe if someone is proficient they just know roughly how dangerous it is? Would the feedback be based on monster CR? Like if CR is 4+ levels higher than the party they get a generic response that the opponent looks "very deadly"? If the CR is 4+ levels lower then something like "trivial"?

I want to try to keep the mechanic simple, not have any sort of feat tax, but also make sense in the world. Maybe something like proficiency in Arcana (away from books, sorry if it's called something else in 5e) would give automatic information about dragons, magical beasts, aberations, etc? Nature would give info on normal beasts and elementals. Religion for Undead and extraplanars. (and so on until all creature types are covered)

Anyone feel like brainstorming with me?

2015-12-01, 02:45 PM
My question is this:
Does anyone have an elegant/easy way for Players to estimate the difficulty of an encounter or monster by observing them?

Yeah. You don't need a strict mechanic though you can handle it with framing.

When describing it, you can get a bit colorful by adding some words to it's description:

"Looks like it could probably kick your ass"
"Looks like it'd really be difficult to take on"
"Looks way more dangerous than what you were facing before"
"Looks like it's easily twice as a strong as [insert monster that recently gave them a tough time]"

You can place it in a context that establishes it's power:

"Looking around the room you can see him sitting on crudely fashioned throne made of dragon bones. There is an especially massive ogre polishing his boots, it seems cowed and fearful"
"You arrive where the merchant says the caravan was attacked. The wagons are in tatters, off to the left is a pile of gold coins the heavy steel chest holding them seems to have been torn in half. Heavy footprints lead away from the scene, the crushed remains of a guard's skull is rotting in the nearest one. It seems like one of the horses might be missing for a moment until you look up, where you can see it impaled on the top of a tree"

You can have someone tell them a story as preface to the adventure:

"I only survived by hiding. After it punched a hole in the church wall, The town guard tried to stop it.But after it killed six of them with some strange flash from it's eyes, the rest of them ran. My brother tried to make a run for it on his horse but it made a leap clear across the field faster than anything I've ever seen. When the monster struck them, he and his horse were blown all the way into the trees... I really hope he made out, I didn't have time to check on him."

2015-12-01, 03:41 PM
Thanks for the very good feedback. Those suggestions will all work great to scare players off from attacking the threat right away.

A problem I sometimes have is players get too scared. They never get a sense that they should be strong enough to tackle that challenge at their current level. Sometimes it feels like spoonfeeding or railroading to get them to face the challenge again, rather than letting them know that they've matured enough and are now powerful enough to tackle the situation.

That's what was initially making me think about a system that would give them a sort of "sizing up" ability. Most people wouldn't think their level 3 or 4 party of characters would be up to facing a mature dragon, but when would be a good time? How would they know that they stand a pretty good shot of success once they've reached L12 for example?

2015-12-01, 04:30 PM
In my next game, I'm planning to straight-up give my players an estimate of the difficulty of a group of enemies, as per DMG: easy, average, hard, deadly. This of course doesn't include enemies or traps they can't perceive, tactical advantages, etc. I'll probably frame it in some sort of narrative if possible, but I want them to have the information either way.

Mark Hall
2015-12-02, 12:53 PM
Mechanically, I'd suggest a Knowledge check.

2015-12-02, 03:11 PM
I agree with Mr.Moron, adding colorful descriptions is a nice way to let the PCs know, this thing will kick your butt.
For example, I have three level 1 players who wanted to charge into a fight with a homebrew monster of mine, and it was one of my more powerful one. I described it this way: "You see, in the center of the arena, a massive beast standing at the height of 4 men with a gruesome double headed battleax. Blood soaks the sand around the beast, and you see several city guard armor lying in tatters (City guards from this area were pretty strong) and dry, broken bones strewn about the arena. The beasts eyes are menacing, a cold, lifeless red. Its armor covers almost all of its body, and you can smell the stench of death."
I used the comparison of the fallen guards to show the power of the beast, and I added the words 'massive' tattered' 'gruesome' 'tatters' 'menacing' and 'stench of death' as word cues to tell my PCs, "You guys really, really, do not want to do this, rethink this plan."
I allow myself as the DM to run the risk of having them still not get the message and decide to still charge the beast, thinking that they can take it on with no problem. In my case, the PCs charged and one was knocked unconscious in one hit first round, they then retreated.
If you'd like a mechanic for them to be able to tell, I would say a low knowledge roll on obviously stronger foes, and maybe a higher roll would be required to tell if another humanoid or small beast would be too much to handle.

2015-12-03, 12:35 AM
When I faced my players against an abomination of a shambling mound (shambling horror; lovecraftian homebrew variant, with insanity potential^2) and their characters wouldn't have any chance of knowing the creature, even with a knowledge check, I think my colorful description did the trick. They did their best to avoid making contact with the thing, until they were trapped and had no choice but to fight or die trying. Additionally, it might be due to the preassumption I'd made of the outside world and its dangers, which might have had a play on the matter.

So, as a conclusion, when a knowledge check is not possible, or when it fails, colorfulness and the right context is the key, in my honest opinion.

2015-12-04, 02:08 PM
Thanks for all the great suggestions everyone. I'll go with flavour text for now, and will experiment with some ideas I'm bouncing around. I got inspired by the professions homebrew and will likely use the proficiency modifier as a benchmark for what people just automatically know.

I'll post back here if I find something really plays well with my group.

2015-12-14, 09:50 AM
I'm considering doing a Combat-as-war campaign, and i'm having difficulties with this, too.

I fear exaggerating the descriptions would not as well. Especially since in dnd something that definately kills you at level 1, will be a pushover by level 5. You can't describe it "killing dragons" if it's a level-5 threat.

I've been thinking i need to adapt something from MMORPGS, where enemies are color coded and the color you perceive is based on your own level.
Three "yellows"? Hard but doable
Four "reds"? I'll come back later, but they are red, so probably will be "yellow" in 2-3 levels.

This of course kills immersion unless it's done well, possibly with magic.

2015-12-14, 10:23 AM
You could expand Battlemaster's Know Your Enemy ability. (lets you observe combat stats, AC and hitpoints of a target). I think Mastermind also gets something similar?

Not to make it class-dependent, you can extrapolate. If there's a band of undead milling about, then maybe the Cleric or Paladin can do some sort of assesment check... Or if it's an aberration/fae/demon, maybe an arcane caster can eyeball their power.

Battlemaster will need some sort of different power though.

If you don't want to give out exact AC and HP (unflavorful), you can go descriptive. "Their armor looks to be mass-produced and is worse than yours (low AC), but they move like highly trained individuals (big attack bonuses) and look to be ready to fight (high HP, can be hard to narrate so it's useful...) They outnumber you two to one and are in a fortified position, so it will be very hard (here you can actually include the in-DMG word for the encounter XP) to face them head on."