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Recently in a session, I almost caused our party to fight a lich at level 5. For D&D 5e, a lich has a CR of 21. There were a few clues to his strength that I missed, such as being locked in a room intentionally with a relatively powerful spell we managed to dispel, that he threatened to fill the room with gas (lich power), and that he was creating spell scrolls.

My party and I are relatively new to this. My DM told us he was basically an undead guy, but I had fought them before and wasn't much impressed. We later found out he was a lich after the session and my DM told us the various ways in which he would've fled while almost killing us all in the process. This was quite a shock and my party was a little concerned with my aggressiveness towards this random NPC that told us to leave rather than outright attacking us.

What are some ways my PC can find out how powerful an NPC is without prior knowledge of his CR and without the DM telling us explicitly what the creature is? I intentionally don't read the Monster Manual so that my character will be as clueless as I am in real life.

I generalized what the DM had described the Lich as because I felt it wasn't important, and I still feel that way because this is a player issue, not a DM issue. However, since a lot of you are commenting on the description, I feel I should clear the air a bit. Here is the context as best I can remember it.

We dispelled a magical seal on a door and busted into a laboratory with ancient tombs and alchemical stuff everywhere. There was a man at the end of a long room and he took no notice of our entrance, though he knew we were there. He was busy reading or writing something, it was hard to see. My character has a strong affinity for books, the arcane, and especially forbidden knowledge. I ran up to him and upon getting closer, noticed that his flesh was falling off of his body in a very undead sort of way. "Leave now or I'll flood this entire room with gas", said the man in an intimidating tone (effort #1 of my DM to discourage me as most characters are not role-played this way). Knowing nothing of Liches or undead that can speak in general, I, the player, kept forward, asking questions about who he was and what he was doing. As I came closer I noticed that he was writing a scroll of invisibility. I also then noticed, as he turned to face me, that his eyes were white and had a dead look in them (undead clue #2). I, the player, assumed some quick get-away with the scroll and perhaps some lever I could not see that would deploy the gas. I almost cast a spell on him to keep him there, but decided to ask him more questions, testing the limits of his patience.

It was at this point he told us he was a lich and he urged us to leave him be. Then we made some deals, we left, and the session ended. I do not feel my DM was inadequate in this matter, so much as I did not push him to find out who or what this man was initially and that we as a group play in a way that forces us to deal with consequences. He is not there as a safety net, and we as a group like it that way.

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There is no absolute way to tell, no spell that says "he's level 10/10 HD." You have to go with context clues and observation instead. That leads us to a two-part answer.

DM Description and Observation

Observe more closely and the DM should be more forthcoming with details. In many cases, higher level NPCs/monsters look different - think World of Warcraft, you can tell a high level person because of their crazy pimp looking gear and purple energy coming off them and stuff. Maybe he has ioun stones whizzing about his head, etc. Judicious use of detect magic, detect evil, etc. can tell you strength of auras. A DM should also think through setting up context clues per How can DMs effectively telegraph specific dangers in D&D? - like maybe someone powerful comes to mess with him and gets disintegrated while he's chatting amiably with the PCs.

Many high level characters are obvious - a gnome in a robe of the archmagi riding a dinosaur with all kinds of magical protection glimmering around him is obviously bad news. If all your gear is platinum and adamantite it means you're bad ass enough to keep a hold of it from random bandits and/or adventurers. Your DM should be conveying this detail, as long as you pause to take a look.

In some cases (monsters, undead) skill use may let you get a better read on what it is you're facing. In 3.X this was sadly routine (I will roll and you will tell me exactly what this is), in 5e this isn't as guaranteed a method of knowing exactly what's up and there's more DM discretion, but at least asking for a roll and getting hints might help.

It definitely sounds like your DM needs to be thinking through this more and giving more context. "Hey this dead guy looks a lot like that statue of Archmage Xulibraz back at the Acadamae..."

Play Smart

In some cases, a high level person isn't going to look/detect different from a low level person. This should be more rare unless your DM is a dink, though there are exceptions. A high level monk in rags looks like anyone else and a king might have super pimp gear despite being level 1 just because of daddy's money. Now, if you see the monk fight it should be like watching Jet Li and you should get the clear impression he could snap your neck and isn't some random yokel. But this is where the onus shifts to you. If you decide to just roll up on someone without knowing much about them, there's a good chance you're going to get owned one day. You have to be smart.

Observe folks. Ideally, use time prior to the actual encounter. If you know about them way ahead of time then there's divination spells or sage research or "asking around on the street." See if you can observe them fight someone or cast a spell or use a skill to where you would see "holy crap they are about 500% better at that than I am." Have a backup plan. If you just kick down doors and attack people, 1 in 10 times you're going to bite off more than you can chew and you'll need a fallback. That floating thing could be a beholder or a gas spore. That undead could be a zombie or a lich. Knowing that there is that range of foes, it's up to you to decide whether you want to be all reckless and maybe die one day or whether you want to be super cautious with everything or where you want to fall in between - just like real life.

Conclusion

You have just learned a valuable lesson, and learned it without dying! Congratulations. The world is dangerous and it's not always neatly labeled or level appropriate. Let this inspire you to think about how to suss out your foes both from afar and when in direct contact with them. It'll keep you alive more than a fistful of plusses.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for answering this almost entirely from the player side. Also for pointing out that high-level characters tend to have better equipment, while low-level grunts do not. Especially mindless undead ones. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Jun 18 '15 at 0:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ In my DM's defense, he was role-playing "Serious business tone" for the lich and had planned to have him leave us, only really fighting if we ran after him (after he stopped time, filled the room with gas and maybe touched one of us on the way out). Very thorough though, I'll try and get context clues. Also in his defense, this is one of the 5e campaigns, so he wasn't really the one that put it there and we've been pretty much killing everyone in every dungeon until him. I may or may not let up on the gas for this one, though. I enjoy the danger and the consequences \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov Jun 18 '15 at 1:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ I hear you, but "I made it suck because it was written in the adventure that way" is not a legitimate excuse for a DM. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jun 18 '15 at 1:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ I wasn't really trying to make excuses, just saying it was more on me than him \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov Jun 18 '15 at 1:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ To echo and add to what @GMJoe said; not only did you come at this from a player's perspective, but you did it without metagaming. Very considerate of the OP who has avoided reading the Monster Manual. \$\endgroup\$ – Gavin42 Jun 19 '15 at 13:32
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The preferred way to get information about potential foes is careully listening to the DM's descriptions of the scene, as mxyzplk mentions. However, sometimes the DM is either afraid to give away too much information or maybe he just isn't experienced enough to be able to skillfully articulate the warning signs that may be present. There are some ways that players can be pro-active and use their own abilities to supplement what the DM chooses to reveal, or even convince the DM to spill additional information that was initially supposed to be secret.

First, the 2nd-level Cleric spell Augury is tailor-made for this situation. It is capable of being cast as a ritual so it won't burn up spell slots, it doesn't consume its material components, and it's available as early as level 3. The point is, use Divination magic to get advanced warning of major future threats. That's what it is there for. Wizards that specialize in the Divination school are especially handy to have around because at level 6 they get to recycle their spell slots that they use to cast Divination spells.

Second, in D&D if you encounter an undead humanoid which is capable of using magic, then you can safely assume one of two possible conclusions without any additional information: Lich or Vampire. This is less intuitive if you're not familiar with D&D, but just because the players lack this information doesn't mean the characters do. This is basically a prime scenario for using your knowledge skills. Perhaps a Cleric, Paladin, a Lore Bard, or anyone with the Acolyte / Sage backgrounds could make a Religion (INT) check to see if they notice tell-tale signs that could allow them to figure out specifically what kind of undead creature you are dealing with. Similarly, a Warlock / Wizard / Sorcerer, a Lore Bard, or a Sage could make an Arcana (INT) check to get a general feeling of how potent the creature's magic is. Seyres' answer further expands on the use of knowledge skills to identify enemies and refers you to a question with answers specifically aimed at helping players learn more information about monsters in-game.

Third, it's possible that a generous DM might interpret the Paladin's Divine Sense ability broadly enough that he might simply tell you "this guy is a Lich." While it's pretty clear that when the ability says that it reveals the type of creature it's referring to Celestial / Fiend / Undead / etcetera based on the examples that it gives. Since the DM probably doesn't want a TPK, and a Lich is ridiculously evil, he might show some mercy and give you just enough information so you don't mistakenly think the Lich is going to be the same level of challenge as your typical Zombie or Skeleton.

If you feel like the DM isn't giving you all the information you need to properly assess a situation, then you need to start asking yourself what actions you can take to get more information. Sometimes this is as easy as just observing the scene for a moment (possibly a Perception or Investigate skill check) or sometimes you might have to call upon your fellow party member's special abilities as I mentioned above. Either way, the burden is on the players to ask questions and approach potentially dangerous circumstances with the appropriate level of caution and common sense.

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    \$\begingroup\$ More broadly, spellcasting enemies tend to be more powerful than non-spellcasting ones, undead or otherwise. This isn't because spellcasters are inherently more powerful than non-spellcasters; It's just that most settings make spellcasters rarer and more powerful than martial types, and this tends to mean that hostile spellcasters tend to be a couple of levels higher than their non-spellcasting peers. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Jun 18 '15 at 0:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ Your second point is innacurate: the 5th edition Death Knight, Mummy Lord, and Variant Revenant are all humanoid undead that can all cast spells. \$\endgroup\$ – Lexible Sep 16 '15 at 16:21
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I read a very good solution for this in another post some time ago.

It is suggested that, depending on the type of monster, the GM asks for a check of Arcana, History, Nature or Religion in order to identify the creature.

I take this as using the specific skills to figure out the in game knowledge. So, for example, I would organize it loosely in the following way:

  • Arcana - Use this skill to discover more about elemental creatures, creatures of pure magic, arcane creations, and creatures of other planes

  • History - Use this skill to learn more about creatures that play prominent roles throughout history. For example, goblins, kobolds, and most other humanoid races play significant roles in history.

  • Nature - Use this skill to learn more about creatures tied directly to nature. Most often, this means animals (wolves, bats, etc.) but it could also be tied to druidic creations, or guardians of nature.

  • Religion - Use this skill to learn more about creatures of religious creation. Servants of deities, undead, and other holy or unholy beings would be described with this skill.

In terms of setting the DC, use your best judgement based on the typical DC table found on page 174 of the PHB. For example, if you are in a town ravaged by kobolds consistently, it would be fairly easy for someone to know the few different roles they have in battle, so I'd give that a DC of 10.

Here's the link for the complete question and answer: Does D&D 5e have a rule for character knowledge about monsters?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Link-only answers don't make for good answers on Stack Exchange. We encourage answers to actually answer the question independently of their links, which usually means extracting the key information from that link and citing it. This is partly because of link rot, partly so that people get shown straight-up what the solution is instead of having to poke around in links. Imagine if the link goes dead tomorrow: what do you need to include in this answer for it to not be totally useless? You may want to summarise the other answer: what part is relevant? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jun 17 '15 at 23:21
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My DM told us he was basically an undead guy, but I had fought them before and wasn't much impressed.

I think there are definitely two sides to this problem here.

A Lich simply doesn't "look like an undead guy". Most undead have very low Int and general awareness. A Lich is neither of those things, it is both highly intelligent and highly aware. Seriously a Perception check of 10, maybe 15 would have identified that this is not a normal undead (unless it was somehow "drugged").

And this brings up the issue of skills. There are lots of skills available to PCs that would provide important information. Between Arcana, Religion, Dungeoneering or just Perception, you probably need a single 15 to recognize that this is not a normal undead. Even if you're not sure what it is. However, you do need to ask for that information on behalf of your character.

Lastly, there are spells. If you have access to Dispel, you also have access to Detect Magic. Casting Detect Magic on a Lich's prison would probably light up with more magic in one place that your players had seen anywhere, ever. I mean, at the least there would need to be an Anti-Magic field.

Of course, the game does have two sets of people. If you did all of these things and got no information, then maybe there is a miscommunication between you and your DM.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "unless it was somehow 'drugged'", or, unless, you know, it was simply being quite still and observing so as to assess the power of the party for its own purposes. Nothing says a lich can't fake it's own identity for its own benefit. :) \$\endgroup\$ – Lexible Jun 19 '15 at 15:26
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I think you got too focused on the DMs description and jumped to a conclusion here.

While the guy might have looked like a typical undead guy he was talking and apparently a caster--neither of which are actions of your typical undead guy. Right there that says that he's more than he looks like.

It sounds to me like the DM gave you all the information you needed, just not on a silver platter.

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Knowledge checks, played out in 5th as Intelligence checks with Arcana, History, Nature and Religion being the skill proficiencies available. If the creature is large, strange, or powerful-looking do what most people would do, run away as fast as your legs can carry you and go consult the nearest sage or library. Alternatively, spend some of that hard earned gold on a book of monsters. The DM probably won't let it cover every single one but it's a start.

Generally displays of wealth are an indicator that you should be cautious. Even if the monster/NPC is not powerful in and of themselves, they tend to have connections or minions that might well be. You generally wouldn't damage Bill Gates' house even if you felt that you could take him in a fight.

Strange stuff is also a good indicator. Do you character's or party's perceptions seem to change suddenly? If so, that's a sign that you should try to exercise caution. Is the weather odd? Did the light change? Do there seem to magic effects about (Arcana is the key skill here). Insight is also a good skill for non-Int types.

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Knowledge.

The greatest and most important thing to note is that the Knowledge skills can be utilized to determine what type of creature you're fighting and you can use this information gleaned from the knowledge skill to react appropriately to the potential threats. I don't know how many times the DM's tells have been really weak and didn't pass along a lot of information and a knowledge check cleared that up really fast by giving more specific information.

Different knowledge skills normally correspond to different threats, for liches normally that used to be the field of Knowledge(Religion) which is attained through intelligence rolls. With other types of monsters like plants and beasts going through others like Nature. With a good enough knowledge roll you can quickly and easily realize just what it is you're fighting, and whether or not you can actually fight it.

Other options

Divinations are practically made for this kind of thing, spells like Augury, Divination or Speak with dead can be used to glean information that could let you know of a potential threat. After all, who would be more willing to talk about their killer than someone who died from the very threat that may attempt to render you lifeless?

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This is related to player agency, please see My PCs have a plan that will get them all killed; how and why should I save them?.

Repeating what I said there:

Agency is Players making informed decisions that have reasonable consequences

There is an inherent information imbalance between the DM and the players. Specifically, he knows, they don't. It is the DMs role as impartial referee to ensure the players have access to all the information they need to make an informed decision.

If the DM does not do this, that is not fair!

How much information must be given depends on the skill and experience of the players. From what you have described, there was enough information given for an experienced player to say "Oh s**t! A lich, let's get the hell out of here!"

For inexperienced player's there was too little information given. Talk to your DM about the level of experience and knowledge you have. He may (should) give more information, something like: "There is an undead humanoid creature with tightly stretched skin: it could be a zombie which would move slowly and mindlessly and presents little danger, an X which would do Y and presents some danger, an A which would do B and is highly dangerous or a lich which is highly intelligent and purposeful and extremely dangerous. What do you want to do?"

It is then for they players to ask about how it is behaving or what it looks like so they can put it into a category and react accordingly; they should be able to get this wrong but it would then be their mistake, not the DMs.

IMO a DM should always answer a direct question with either a) the information requested if it is available to the PC or b) methods by which the information can be obtained. For example: Player: "Who is the head of the thieves guild?" DM: "You don't know but you do know their HQ is on Stable Street, the Bunch of Fives is a thieves guild bar and Lefty and Joe (NPCs the player knows) are both members" They now have several avenues to pursue to get the info they want.

A more pertinent example: Player: "Is it a lich?" DM: "You don't know but if you are still alive in 2 rounds then probably not." My DM says this to me, I am outa there!

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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer isn't wrong, but it contains very little actionable information for a player who's less experienced at interpreting hints than the GM expects. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Jun 18 '15 at 0:32
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Read Fiction, play computer games, watch movies.

It is pretty much expected that, even without specific knowledge skills to that effect, people in any universe know the general order of 'how scary are things generally'. We know that we would rather fight, in order: gerbil, dog, lion, brown bear.

Similarly, characters in a fantasy setting should know that goblins will raid a small village, and dragons will level large cities. Zombies are a threat to a peasant, but a lich is a threat to the world.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I did address how the character knows it. It is assumed knowledge, just like characters know that fire is dangerous, and falling off a cliff is dangerous and holding your breath is dangerous, they know that a lich is dangerous. The rules don't really cover exactly what is assumed knowledge, they leave skill checks up to the DM to determine what is so trivial as to not require a check at all. So yes, this is purely a lack of descriptive detail around appearance on the DM's behalf. \$\endgroup\$ – Scott Jun 19 '15 at 1:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ The thing is, you don't really need specifics, and you probably shouldn't get specifics. The question was specifically about how 5th level characters avoid CR 21 fights, not about how 5th level characters avoid CR 8 fights (which probably would involve some rolling vs knowledge skill). In terms of dragons, I would say people know that bigger dragons = bigger killing potential, so the red dragon would be known to even peasants as a bigger threat than a white dragon of the same age class (they wouldn't identify them by their age class, but upon seeing both would be more afraid of the red.) \$\endgroup\$ – Scott Jun 19 '15 at 4:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sure, but how do you apply this, in practical terms, as a player sitting at a table? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jun 19 '15 at 14:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ My character also does not know that this guy is a lich just because he could talk. He may be relatively dangerous, but our group is 5 level 5 characters, and having cleared the rest of the dungeon, we had no reason to assume this creature was outside of our capacity to fight him. We (I) assumed things incorrectly, but knowing that a Lich is powerful doesn't help me identify a creature as one. Humanoids specifically are deceptive in their power levels at first glance unless they are covered in obviously powerful armor. There are ways to distinguish a peasant from a warlord, but how? \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov Jun 19 '15 at 18:56

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