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I'm playing with a DM that usually makes us encounter strong enemies in the middle of nowhere. That's fine since we can choose to fight or not, but the real challenge is determining how strong the opponent is so we don't die a miserable death. If the enemy is a beast, it's fairly easy to determine the encounter's difficulty, but, when it comes to spellcasters, it's hard to determine how difficult they'll be to take in a fight at a glance. I tend to look for items the enemy has for hints, but that's not very effective.

Is there another way (or, at least, a smarter way) to determine an opponent's level or how strong it is?

The party is a human ranger, human paladin, half-elf rogue, and elf necromancer. All are level 5.

Conclusion

First of all, thank you for the comments, questions and advises!! I think RPG is great because of discussions like this one! I came with some conclusions myself after reading everything you guys posted, but there's a background here I think I should share with you guys before start it. Me and my party had this 1-year-long campaign that ended tragically after a silly bar-fight against high-leveled guys we came to encounter and occasionally didn't know their reputation. In fact the DM alerted us about the danger, but it doesn't seemed something deadly.. at a glace. That was fast, and painful. But it was our fault.

Since that episode, I've been trying to be more careful and think before engaging into senseless fights. So I thought it would be helpful to be able to check the level of the threat before we choose to do something (something we see in movies or cartoons when the opponent emanates something like an dark aura...). And after hearing from you guys and talking with our DM I end up concluding it's just not fun to be able to control situations in that way. Like some of you guys wrote above: the best way to approach this "problem" is by role-playing (talking, looking, interacting) and perhaps that's why abilities like Know Your Enemy and Insightful Manipulator are made for more leveled players. Such a way to check the opponent is not as easy as it might look like and that makes sense!

By the way, the threat my party encounter yesterday (the reason why I wrote the question) end up been something beatable! By having the conversation with the NPCs, we decided to fight and that was actually part of DM's plan to make us choose to change the course of the history or not.

Thank you again!

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This sounds less like a combat issue than a roleplaying issue.

If the DM is having a wizard show up completely randomly and they are attacking you, then you need to discuss with the DM. How are they tied to a story, why are they attacking you, where are they supposedly coming from etc.

However, if the DM is having a Wizard show up completely at random but the players are the ones immediately attacking then that's a problem with you guys. Try talking to the wizard. See if you can defuse the situation (if there is one) without violence. You may also get better clues about their background and capabilities through conversation.

Essentially the easiest way to know how strong someone is is to ask them. You have a Paladin who's presumably got decent charisma. Try talking.

If conversation and role playing through this issue doesn't work then the most obvious spell to me is Detect Thoughts:

For the Duration, you can read the thoughts of certain creatures. When you cast the spell and as your action on each turn until the spell ends, you can focus your mind on any one creature that you can see within 30 feet of you. If the creature you choose has an Intelligence of 3 or lower or doesn't speak any Language, the creature is unaffected.

You initially learn the surface thoughts of the creature - what is most on its mind in that moment. As an action, you can either shift your attention to another creature's thoughts or attempt to probe deeper into the same creature's mind. If you probe deeper, the target must make a Wisdom saving throw. If it fails, you gain insight into its reasoning (if any), its emotional state, and something that looms large in its mind (such as something it worries over, loves, or hates). If it succeeds, the spell ends. Either way, the target knows that you are probing into its mind, and unless you shift your attention to another creature's thoughts, the creature can use its action on its turn to make an Intelligence check contested by your Intelligence check if it succeeds, the spell ends.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Very much like this application of detect thoughts which is available to this group.... wait, is it? Only available for GOO Warlocks, as the generic warlock spell list omits it. (This makes no sense to me. Detect thoughts strikes me as a warlock spell). Maybe a pact of the tome lock can eventually find it and copy it into the book? \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Aug 1 '17 at 15:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I wasn't sure if "Elf Necromancer" was meaning Warlock or a Wizard focusing on the school of Necromancy. If you're right and its a Warlock then yeah only if they're Pact of the Tome or Great Old One. \$\endgroup\$ – RyanFromGDSE Aug 1 '17 at 15:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Whoops, my bad, why did I translate Necromancer into Warlock? Derp. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Aug 1 '17 at 15:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ You can only copy ritual spells into a warlock tome, and detect thoughts is not one. \$\endgroup\$ – Szega Oct 29 '17 at 8:19
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These are the ones that I can find (thanks to guildsbounty for pointing out the Rogue's Mastermind)

Battle Master: Know Your Enemy

If you spend at least 1 minute observing or interacting with another creature outside combat, you can learn certain information about it's capabilities compared to your own. The DM tells you if the creature is equal, superior, or inferior in regard to two of the following characteristics of your choice:

  • Strength Score
  • Dexterity Score
  • Constitution Score
  • Armour Class
  • Current hit points
  • Total class levels (if any)
  • Fighter class levels (if any)

However it's a 7th Level Fighter ability and only available to the Battle Master archetype, so it may not be entirely useful in your situation.

Mastermind: Insightful Manipulator

Starting at 9th level, if you spend at least one minute observing or interacting with another creature outside of combat, you can learn certain information about its capabilities compared to your own. The DM tells you if the creature is your equal, superior, or inferior in regard to two of the following characteristics of your choice:

  • Intelligence Score
  • Wisdom Score
  • Charisma Score
  • Class levels (if any)

At the DM's option, you might also realise you know a piece of the creature's history or one of its personality traits, if it has any.

9th Level Rogue ability for the Mastermind Archetype, available in the SCAG.

Of course, you could always cast Wish and ask to know the power level of any creature you encounter, but we all know how casting Wish usually turns out..

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Right now that we are in a campaign with no fighters.. TT_TT \$\endgroup\$ – Felipe Felix de Luca Aug 1 '17 at 8:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @FelipeFelixdeLuca that is unfortunate! Could you edit your question with your party make-up? I'll see if I can dig up anything else! \$\endgroup\$ – Jamie Brace Aug 1 '17 at 9:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ From the SCAG, the Mastermind Rogue Archetype gets Insightful Manipulator at level 9...it determines approximate level. \$\endgroup\$ – guildsbounty Aug 1 '17 at 13:31
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This is not a purely mechanical answer, but is more focused on how I run my games.

I try to give my players information via flavor text when possible...I want them to have a sense for what they are up against. But, as you say, this is hard to do with a spellcaster. (Unless you're up against someone like Mordenkainen, whose eyes crackle with eldritch power when his emotions run high)

So I let them make Wisdom (Insight) checks to determine the mood and temperament of their potential opponent. In short, the characters are trying to get a read on how this individual is assessing them. And by reading the attitude of their potential opponent, they can get a sense of how powerful that opponents thinks they are, relative to how powerful they think the party is.

Someone who thinks they are in for a tough fight is going to be tense, all keyed up. They're ready to act and ready to move because they know their life depends on how well this fight goes.

Someone who thinks they are in over their head is going to be looking for an exit. Darting eyes, nervous behavior, a more defensive posture--or perhaps even a non-violent one.

On the other hand, if someone does not regard your party as a threat...they are going to look relaxed or lazy. Unimpressed. Possibly bored. Possibly just annoyed that you're in their way. Even if they look keyed up for a fight, it'll be the predatory sort of "I'm going to enjoy destroying you" sort of attitude instead of the bold caution of someone who thinks they are in for a 'good fight.'

Think of the sort of behavior you see in movies when bandits are holding up people they don't think can fight back...that laid back, smug, "give me what I want and maybe I'll let you live" sort of attitude.

So, in short...I let my players make an Insight check to see if they can figure out how much of a threat their opponent thinks the adventurers are. And by that, they can try to get a sense for how dangerous this foe actually is. I've generally found this to be reasonably effective as a DMing technique, especially because it can be wrong sometimes...since it is based on how your enemy thinks of themself.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good DM advice. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Aug 1 '17 at 15:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Excellent advice. As a player, you can definitely push your DM to provide more and more of this information as the encounter goes on, but before violence has ensued. \$\endgroup\$ – ThunderGuppy Aug 1 '17 at 16:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ And how would the NPCs be assessing the PCs' power accurately? Wouldn't there have to be some more objective basis as well, especially with D&D's tall & steep power curves? \$\endgroup\$ – Dronz Aug 1 '17 at 17:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Dronz It's not a 'precise' measurement either. But with the PCs, they tend to display their magic items clearly, and tend to include a mix of characters whose prowess may be a little more obvious (like a Fighter, Rogue, Paladin, or Monk) than a dude leaning on a stick. \$\endgroup\$ – guildsbounty Aug 1 '17 at 18:02
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Level 7+ Battle Master Fighters have the ability Know Your Enemy which lets them observe a creature outside combat for one minute and then get to know if the target is better, worse or equal than the fighter in some aspects like total class levels and current hit points.
It is up to the DM if the enemy spell casters are built roughly like a PC and have class levels in, say, Wizard, or if they are just monsters that have spell casting abilities and no class levels. Also the DM might buff the normally low hit points of a caster, so the correlation between class levels, hit points and spell casting ability can be low. You would need to experiment.
If you don't have a Battle Master Fighter you might convince your DM to let you buy Goggles of Enemy Knowing or a Wand of Detect Spell Slots.

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As the others have already said Battle Master Level 7+ (Which is no option for you atm)

Is your GM throwing random encounters at you which you simply can't beat?

  1. You might want to discuss with him that throwing deadly random encounters at you is not what you want if you can't determine the enemies power level.
  2. If your GM insists on keeping the encounters as they are maybe he can figure out a homebrew rule which assists you and is not overpowered.

I don't see any other options except the items listed by nwp.

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If the DM wants to kill you he easily can buff a rat to one shot you. The hard part is designing an encounter that is challenging. But sometimes it's fun as a DM to put an unwinnable encounter in to keep the players on their toes.

The short answer is it really is up to the DM if he gives enough hints. So if you feel you don't like having to be careful who you attack or not, then you should talk about that with your DM.

Questions which can help:(ofcourse insight helps against lying)

  • What kind of mage?(robes, staff known design from a region or city?)
  • What kind of clan/order does the mage come from?(The order could be known to have strong mages?)
  • Is it an Old or Young mage.(Mostly old mages are stronger then younger ones)
  • Maybe you could ask the mage to join you on an adventure(Let him fight something else instead of you)

There are lot of ways to find out if a mage is strong or not. It all rests on if the DM wants to play along.

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You can always ask your DM in the game "what do I know of this creature?" Depending on the DM you may be able to preform a knowledge check to determine characteristics and your DM may give you clues. But this is very dependent on how the DM runs a game.

For instance if my players come across a beast then they can make a nature check to see what they know about this animal. For instance say they get a 20 on a nature check about owlbears. I may say something along the lines of:

You know owlbears get a vicious reputation for protecting their young and are known to fight to the death if their young are in the local area. They have strong attacks with their beaks and claws that are known for dismembering creatures. But they are generally only a serious threat to commoners, new guards, or unprepared caravans.

From there the players can determine if they wish to engage in the fight, maybe they know that at first level they are probably unprepared for a fight like that. Maybe at later levels they interpret it as they are sufficient to defeat this threat. Or maybe they make sure a group of traders they are protecting give the owlbear nest a wide area so they don't have to fight just creatures in the woods.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Hello! And thank you for your comment! As I mentioned in my question, I think it is fairly easy to identify how threatful a beast (like a owlbears) is by nature checking, etc. My problem is precisely when we encounter humanoid spellcasters that may not be as garish as a dragon or something else... \$\endgroup\$ – Felipe Felix de Luca Aug 2 '17 at 2:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ There are other intelligence checks you can preform. Maybe they are wearing something, history check to see if you know what that symbol or tattoo represents. Maybe they have some sort of staff or other focus and you can do an arcana check on that to maybe get some information about some arcane order. The point is if your DM doesn't provide you with information you can always ask "what does my character know about X?" \$\endgroup\$ – chaoticgeek Aug 2 '17 at 13:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah! That's what I'm trying to do now :) \$\endgroup\$ – Felipe Felix de Luca Aug 3 '17 at 1:15
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In addition to the other responses, as a very rough barometer the Elf Necromancer could cast the Minor Illusion cantrip spell to create the illusion of a monster with known stats.

You could then size up your opponent by observing his reaction to the illusion (assuming the illusion holds up, that is). For example, if he is alarmed by a Beholder illusion but nevertheless stands his ground, you know you're facing a formidable foe with a CR around 13.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Hi @RobertF. Thank you for your post. I was trying to check the opponents power level before engaging in a fight. Maybe if I use a spell like that it will sounds like a threat to the other party and that will get us in trouble hahaha. Besides, a Minor Illusion would only show a miniature of a Beholder, I guess.. since it's a large creature. \$\endgroup\$ – Felipe Felix de Luca Aug 2 '17 at 3:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @FelipeFelixdeLuca I got the impression that you're encountering enemies, who by definition would already feel threatened by the player's presence. If your opponent isn't intimidated by a Beholder illusion, then perhaps the party should flee. :) True, the Minor Illusion spell limits the caster to an illusion no larger than a 5 foot cube in size. However, there's nothing stopping the caster from creating an illusion of perspective, so that it appears the beholder is full size but some distance away from the opponent. \$\endgroup\$ – RobertF Aug 2 '17 at 14:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Maybe I could try it sometime :) \$\endgroup\$ – Felipe Felix de Luca Aug 3 '17 at 1:17

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