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Are PCs able to judge, innately or via some skill check, how difficult a fight will be?

My assumption is that the adventurers have some knowledge of certain beasties and baddies, and can understand the inherent danger of the situation at hand.

I've never fought a lion in real life, and I don't know its AC or HP — but I can assume it will go badly for me. My players aren't super-experienced in the lore of D&D, so they might not have a clue what an owlbear is like or how dangerous a Rakshasa can be.

Part of the responsibility here as a DM is to throw manageable encounters at them — usually — but there are times when you want something trivial, or something impossible.

Can they ask, or should I signal "this is a deadly encounter", "this seems trivial", "this seems manageable"? Should they roll for it?

For the sake of this question, lets just limit this to the Forgotten Realms, and the world that revolves around the official wizard adventures.

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Mechanically, there are a few ways.

The Fighter has a "Know your Enemy" class feature (PHB 73):

Starting at 7th level, if you spend at least 1 minute observing or interacting with another creature outside 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:

These choices include Strength, Dexterity, AC, HP, and class levels.

Moreover, you can call for various intelligence checks to determine how much a character knows about a creature. For example, (PHB 177-178, emphasis added):

Your Intelligence (Arcana) check measures your ability to recall lore about spells, magic items, eldritch symbols, magical traditions, the planes of existence, and the inhabitants of those planes.

Your Intelligence (Nature) check measures your ability to recall lore about terrain, plants and animals, the weather, and natural cycles.

As a DM, you have other tools.

By using these abilities and checks, characters might be able to glean some insight into how powerful an enemy might be.

However, other times PCs have no idea how strong a particular creature might be. For example, a plainclothes person with a satchel might be a commoner, or a powerful archmage--both could look identical in appearance, and you'd only know the difference once you fought them.

If you want to telegraph something non-mechanically, you can do so with context: a lair that's full of dead birds might not be threatening, but a lair full of the bones and armor of adventurers might be. Likewise, if there is advance notice, the characters can choose to do research on the creature in question.

Ultimately, as a DM, I use a mix of these strategies: sometimes, I let the characters make a check to know that a particular fight will be easy or hard, sometimes, I give the players no clue as to how strong a creature is, and other times, it's patently obvious (e.g. a giant flaming balor).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1; in particular, the second to last paragraph is an important part of this answer, that you can imply a creature is deadly based on how you describe it and it's surroundings, without directly telling the players how hard the fight will be. \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Nov 2 '17 at 15:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a good answer. I just wish there was something a bit more concrete about how a character would view these things. A nature check doesn't cover how hard this check is based on what creature, so on. \$\endgroup\$ – oxide7 Nov 2 '17 at 15:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @oxide7 Unfortunately that's something you will have to decide in your own campaign setting. One campaign world might be full of magic creatures, whereas another might have almost none--the DMG allows for these and everything in between. \$\endgroup\$ – Icyfire Nov 2 '17 at 17:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ To add to your second section, you could have the players come upon the NPCs in discussion. One of the NPCs could one-shot something that is a known difficult thing to fight, giving them a frame of reference. "That guy with a sword just one-shot a Giant" or something. \$\endgroup\$ – Jeff Nov 8 '17 at 19:18
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This is one of the main purposes of Intelligence ability checks. Choose an Intelligence skill proficiency based on what the creature is (beasts and monstrosities in the natural world are Nature, creatures of a magical nature are Arcana, celestials and fiends are Religion, etc.), and a DC based on how obscure the creature is. For things that are particularly common to the point where it would be unreasonable for the character to not know, you might skip the check. Same for things that the character would have absolutely no way of knowing about (someone without very specialized knowledge wouldn't even know that mind flayers exist, let alone how strong they are), they don't even roll.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This makes sense. Is there an easy way to tell what roll to use for what baddies, or what baddies just are too unknown and such? Or should I just judgement call it all? \$\endgroup\$ – oxide7 Oct 31 '17 at 17:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ So the less you know about something, assume the more dangerous it is, lol \$\endgroup\$ – Fering Oct 31 '17 at 17:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Editions past have used DCs based on hit dice, but that is an unsatisfying method for multiple reasons. A small, 3-4 entry table for each monster showing knowledge checks and what is gleaned from each DC has been on my wishlist for some time. \$\endgroup\$ – Michael W. Oct 31 '17 at 18:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ This seems reasonable, but I can't find a section in the rules that explains this. Just "Your Intelligence (Nature) check measures your ability to recall lore about terrain, plants and animals [...]". \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Oct 31 '17 at 18:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MichaelW. 4E had exactly that, but suffered from a "Bear Lore" problem ("DC15: Cave bears live in caves."). \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Oct 31 '17 at 18:21

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