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For a Basic/Expert game, I want to populate the campaign area with important and influential NPCs, who are doing their things independent of the player's activities. The goal is to have the players adapting to their situation with the resources they have instead of tailoring opponents to the strength of the party, so I want to assign fixed classes and levels for the NPCs in advance.

But I don't want to make any of the NPCs invicible and impossible to defeat. Having little experience with the system beyond the very first levels, I am not sure how to pick levels for them.

Given surprise and superior numbers (say an ambush or assassination), could a group of PCs defeat an NPC of significantly higher level, or is it unlikely that they will be able to do significant harm before being wiped out?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ What sort of level difference are you talking? Expert takes characters up to level 14, basic limits characters to levels 1-3. \$\endgroup\$ – Rob Apr 26 '16 at 12:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't have anything specific in mind. The question is about how much of a difference players might get away with and at what point an NPC might become effectively invulnerable or invincible. \$\endgroup\$ – Yora Apr 26 '16 at 12:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ That depends a lot on the NPC. Alone or with some hirelings/henchmen? Spell caster or martial? Your question is kind of broad because the details matter, and as with any game using d20 combat can be swingy. (There's a wide variation in results depending on if the dice are hot or cold). Please specify "how low is low" and "how high is high" to better scope the problem you are having in design. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 26 '16 at 12:41
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A group 3rd- to 5th-level PCs in B/X and compatible games can defeat NPCs 2 to 3 levels higher than the PCs, and maybe even NPCs of higher levels than that if the PCs scout ahead, plan the engagement, possess the necessary equipment, and have the element of surprise. Remember that one-shot magic items such as scrolls and potions can vastly amplify the party's capabilities!

Obviously, in a straight-up fight, the PCs would surely lose (except at my table where I always roll poorly for bosses yet exceptionally well for their weak underlings). PCs should be given fair warning about the possibility of their own defeat. If the PCs can't knock down the NPC quickly, the NPCs will retaliate, and that could result in the death of a PC or two, but that's possible against evenly matched foes, so it's not really that big of a deal.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site. Take the tour. I edited your answer to tidy it up just a little. I hope that's okay, and, if it's not, you can change the answer back or edit it further. It might be a good idea to include with this an example encounter from your own experience and what, exactly, the DM should look out for when planning such encounters so that there's a little more depth to the answer. Thank you for participating and have fun. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Aug 8 '16 at 18:24
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Success in B/X D&D combat is hugely situational. Parties who prepare for a fight and use their spells, ranged weapons and the terrain wisely can easily wipe out groups of enemies who are 3-4 levels higher.

In the public game of B/X D&D that ran in my city for a few years, a party of levels 1-4 soundly defeated a 6th level NPC Magic-User, his six bugbear henchmen and a large wolf. If you're not familiar, bugbears are 2 HD monsters and the wolf is probably 1-2 HD as well (I can't remember). So that's a combined 19-20 HD/levels of bad guys against 5 PCs whose total levels were about ~14 (possibly less, I can't exactly remember whether the majority of the party was 3rd or 4th level).

Through a combination of stealth, planning and luck, the party triumphed over the bugbears and wolf, a Wall of Fire, an Enlarged, Invisible Wizard who Charmed one fighter and killed another with a Fireball.

You can read the gory details at Red Box Vancouver, but suffice to say that the combination of lower ACs for NPCs and a try-hard attitude is usually enough to mop the floor with higher level bad guys.

One thing to note is that a 1st level party is extremely fragile. In B/X the average hit points is 3.5, and a sword does 4.5 per hit. That means that even one hit will kill a 1st level PC. Once they start hitting double digit hit points it gets better (although a run of bad luck can still wipe a party... that's why combat is so situational).

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Level difference is a dangerously big factor.

It's been a few years1 since I played Basic and Expert D&D (We never reached Companion/Expert level in our games) but similarly to most other versions of (A)D&D a few levels difference can bring a massive power change. The Magic User and Cleric classes especially have some fearsome spells by character 5th level (Spell 3rd level) that can blow away a host of lower level characters with a single spell2.

This isn't to say that the characters can't defeat NPCs of higher level, but it will be exceedingly dangerous and very very hard. They can level the playing field a little with clever tactics (although tactics and bonuses in B/X D&D are very limited, I highly suggest giving circumstantial bonuses to your players) But certain classes like Magic Users can be exceedingly fragile if caught by surprise and can be defeated, but the magical equipment that these NPCs have (which your PCs will then loot!) will also make a big difference as well, powerful NPCs with exceedingly low ACs may mean that the party Fighters and Dwarves (and other combat types) cannot even hit the NPCs they are facing.

I highly suggest that if you want Important higher level NPCs for the party to face to give them intermediate minions of a level or two below so they can work out secrets of the more powerful ones and have a chance of defeating them by gaining experience from beating up their lower level goons as well as collecting gear to help them get more powerful. It's how I worked when I cut my teeth gaming with B/X D&D and it's served me well ever since.

E.g.
In a level 1 game Big Bob the Crime Boss is a mighty level 6 fighter, who would most likely easily wipe the floor with a group of level 1 plebs.

However Big Bob has several lieutenants of level 4 and they in turn command several level 2 Bruisers who run different businesses.
With this approach the party can work their way through the lower level goons before facing up to Big Bob with a better than zero chance of being able to hit and hurt him!

TLDR: When the party is level 1, facing solo opponents 2-3 levels above the party's levels is as much as you can risk really without risking TPK3. Characters are exceedingly fragile at these levels. Once the players hit levels 3-5 it gets a bit better but higher level opponents (4+ levels more) especially spellcasters can wipe the floor with lower level groups without even blinking.

1 cough, decades, cough
2 Fireball. d6 damage/level, level 5 is 5d6 damage which even with half damage will annihilate a party of levels 1-2.
3 Total Party Kill

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