While the idea of letting players run into this range of adversaries is appealing to me, I wonder if other people have had success with this? How did you make players aware of the risk involved in the average man they meet with a sword when they could be a 0-level person, or 10th level fighter? If they are not dressed like a Lord, do not have obvious magic items, and are hanging around in a common sort of place do you give any hints to ensure the players don't unwittingly bite off more than they can chew?
Well, as long-time readers of this blog know, I’m more than happy to let my players bite off far more than they can chew anytime they feel like it. That said, my current 5e campaign is almost exclusively urban (we’ve been playing since September and I think they’ll have their first real dungeon-delve of the campaign in our next session or the one after). So I do have some recent observations to throw into the ring.
And this pretty much holds for the entire city: the pencil-necked alchemist could hire an expert duelist to call you out, the sailor just off the boat has his crew backing him up and the urchins travel in packs.
So violence, when it happens, tends to be very focused, very quick, and the PCs have to be all but pushed into it. (Of course, since we're playing 5e, that also means I've had to chunk the EXPs-for-murder mechanic the game is built around).
Now, I did front-load this by tying local knowledge into character creation, using their chosen backgrounds as opportunities to speak of the dangers of the Beggars Guild, the political alliances of the city, and tying the PCs into their own alliances (that are too useful to threaten by acting like jerks).
Another consideration going the other way, however, is the openeness of the urban environment. If they players haven't wandered into a well-planned ambush, they can almost certainly flee in multiple directions. So if they do get in over their heads, they can generally beat a hasty retreat, regroup and figure out who they need to pay off to make this problem go away.
Mr. Robertson adds:
I was thinking of the 'Rake' encounter from the DMG: 2-5 young gentlemen fighters of 5th to 10th level (d6 +4). The rakes will always be aggressive, rude, and sarcastic.
In this case, the NPCs are begging for a fight. If the PCs take the bait (the wood elf barbarian and feral, raised-by-wolves half-elf ranger in my current group absolutely would), what then?
Well, assuming they’re badly outgunned, they’re unlikely to suffer a TPK in a single assault. Even 10th level fighters can rarely do more than 20 points of a damage to a single individual in a single attack, and that’s only if they roll critical. (I think. Important caveat here: I've only played so much 5e and barbarian rage can be pretty scary.) So it’s unlikely even one PC will be KOed after the first round of combat. Even a wizard with no Constitution bonuses or defensive spells up has 14 hit points by 3rd level, and the party’s fighters will have 22 without Constitution bonuses. So they’ll get a single round of fighting at the very least where I can make clear to them the skill of their foes when describing the wounds they take. A smart party would hopefully see what’s happening and take the opportunity to flee, regroup, and plot revenge.
And if they don’t? Well, as Mr. Roberts points out, “The 5e rule where they could elect to make their attacks non-lethal might be helpful as well.” Why did the rakes start the fight? Maybe they just roll the PCs, lifting all their loose coinage and jewelry and leaving them for others (local clerics or the like) to rescue. Were they just trying to make a point to a patron or organization friendly to the PCs? Or do they drag them off for ransom? Sell them to the Temple of Shkeen? With a TPKO, the adventure’s just begun.