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5E 5e Surprise and Hiding Rules Interpretation

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
Would anyone like to comment on my interpretation of these rules for my campaign?

Determining Surprise and Start of Combat
  1. Only hidden creatures can gain surprise : Only creatures who will be hidden at the first round of combat are able to surprise other creatures.
  2. Players decide pre-combat if their character will be hiding : When a combat is about to begin, if it will be possible for characters to hide the DM will ask the players which of them wants their character to be hidden at the start of combat, and any who do will make a Stealth check. Note again that only characters who are going to be hidden at the start of combat have any chance to surprise other creatures. The DM decides whether it would be unreasonable for any particular characters who are already exposed to opponents in a combat zone to hide before combat begins.
  3. DM determines who is surprised : The DM next determines who is surprised by comparing the Stealth checks of anyone who will be hiding with the passive Perception scores of all of the creatures on the opposing side (and vice versa). Individual creatures on either or both sides may be surprised. Any character or monster whose passive perception is less than the lowest Stealth of all opponents doesn’t notice any threats, and is surprised at the start of the encounter. Characters or creatures who are surprised can’t move or take actions on the first turn of combat.
  4. DM asks for marching order and location preferences : The DM reveals the combat zone map, asks the players what their marching order is, and asks what they would like their general starting location to be for the combat. It does not matter whether that general location of preference is reachable in a round with the character’s movement speed or not.
  5. DM decides where characters are located : Taking into consideration marching order and the player’s preference for their character’s starting location, the DM will position the characters such that they are hidden from the opposing creatures with passive perceptions lower than their stealth rolls. The path that a character took to get to that starting location is not part of the combat and is narrated by the DM to reflect which characters will be trying to hide. Once a character reaches their starting position, they will always be hidden from the appropriate opponents as per their Stealth check. If there is not sufficient cover represented on a map to reflect how they are hidden, that cover will be narrated by the DM as a “theater of the mind” addition to the map.
  6. Characters hidden at their starting locations are as per the Hide action : Once combat commences, for characters whose players wanted them hidden at the start of combat, it is as if those characters have previously taken the Hide action with the same Stealth check as was made for surprise determination.
Hiding
  • Definition of being “Hidden” : Being “hidden” from an opposing creature means that the other creature was not able to notice you as a potential threat with the ability to attack them.
  • The DM decides when characters or monsters can hide : The DM decides when circumstances are appropriate for hiding, and determines what abilities or conditions would make it impossible for another creature to notice you are a potential threat (see PHB 1st Ed. errata, or PHB 2nd Ed p. 177). The DM would take into consideration things such as whether a creature is visible to another, whether they are making noise, whether the creature has some class or racial trait that makes them unnoticeable in certain situations, etc.
FAQ
  • Can I initiate surprise by deceiving an adjacent opponent into believing I’m actually an ally and then suddenly attacking? No, because surprise requires hiding and your opponent still notices you as something with the ability to attack regardless of your deception. This would be an initiative roll, but if your opponent who had been successfully deceived previously (Insight vs Deception check) wins initiative, they may choose to do nothing to counter your attack on their turn if they momentarily believe the initiation of your action is due to something else other than commencing an attack.
  • Can my character hide and initiate surprise by successfully impersonating an inanimate object and then attacking, even if I’m in plain view? Yes, because your opponents might then not notice you as something with the potential to attack them. A halfling in plain view might hide among a collection of dolls, or a character might hide in plain view among a collection of wax figures for example. This distinguishes itself from the ranger’s Hide in Plain Sight ability in two ways : the ranger ability provides a +10 bonus to the Stealth check, and it allows the ranger to do so in any natural setting instead of the very peculiar circumstances otherwise necessary.
  • If I hide by impersonating an inanimate object, can I then attack at advantage as per the Unseen Attackers and Targets rule? No. The rule explicitly states that your opponent must not be able to see you to gain advantage, and being hidden and visible are different things (for example, you can be invisible but not hidden).
  • Can I hide in a crowd of people and then initiate surprise by attacking opponents even if they would see me approach from the crowd? The DM would decide based on the circumstances. The DM can choose to allow a character to continue to be hidden as they approach a creature if circumstances would have that creature being distracted, as by a crowd (PHB p. 177, Hiding side box).
  • Can a ranger with the Hide in Plain Sight ability attack at advantage using the Unseen Attackers and Targets rule? No. Rangers with this ability may initiate surprise in plain sight because they are hidden, but they may not attack at advantage using the Unseen Attackers rule. The description of the ability only says that such a ranger is hidden, not that they are unseen, and the Unseen Attackers rule is based on sight.
  • Can rangers with the Hide in Plain Sight ability initiate surprise on attacking when in plain view? Yes, because their opponents might not notice them as something with the potential to attack which is what defines them as hidden.
  • Can creatures with the False Appearance trait such as mimics or gargoyles hide and initiate surprise on attacking when they are in plain view? Yes, because their special trait allows them to be indistinguishable from an inanimate object, which might not be noticed as something with the potential to attack.
  • Can creatures with the False Appearance trait such as mimics or gargoyles hide and then gain advantage as per the Unseen Attackers and Targets rule when they are in plain sight? No, because that rule is based on being unseen. The mimic or gargoyle can be hidden (not noticed as something with the ability to attack), but if they are in plain sight they are not unseen.
  • If my character chose to start combat hidden, can they attack the creatures who didn’t perceive them on the first round of combat at advantage as per the Unseen Attackers and Targets rule? Yes. If you choose for your character to be hidden at the start of a combat, the DM will position your character so that they are hidden (in almost all cases both unseen and unheard) by the creatures whose passive perception scores are less than your Stealth check. Your character can try to determine on their turn which of their opponents they notice can also see them and which cannot, possibly making an Nature check to assess the terrain in uncertain cases.
Rules as Written Reference
Stealth. Make a Dexterity(Stealth) check when you attempt to conceal yourself from enemies, slink past guards, slip away without being noticed, or sneak up on someone without being seen or heard.
(PHB p. 177) / “Using Each Ability” / Dexterity
Hiding Errata (p. 177). The following sentence has been added to the beginning of this section: “The DM decides when circumstances are appropriate for hiding.
The first sentence of the second paragraph now begins, “You can’t hide from a creature that can see you clearly…”
(PHB 1st Ed Errata) emphasis added on the new text
Using Ability Scores, Hiding Side-box:
You can’t hide from a creature that can see you clearly, and you give away your position if you make noise, such as shouting a warning or knocking over a vase. An invisible creature can always try to hide. Signs of its passage might still be noticed, and it does have to stay quiet.
In combat, most creatures stay alert for signs of danger all around, so if you come out of hiding and approach a creature, it usually sees you. However, under certain circumstances, the DM might allow you to stay hidden as you approach a creature that is distracted, allowing you to gain advantage on an attack roll before you are seen.
(PHB p. 177, Hiding side box) emphasis added on the last sentence
Combat Surprise Rules:
A band of adventurers sneaks up on a bandit camp, springing from the trees to attack them.
A gelatinous cube slides down a dungeon passage, unnoticed by the adventurers until the cube engulfs one of them. In these situations, one side of the battle gains surprise over the other.
The DM determines who might be surprised. If neither side tries to be stealthy, they automatically notice each other. Otherwise, the DM compares the Dexterity (Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of each creature on the opposing side. Any character or monster that doesn’t notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter.
If you’re surprised, you can’t move or take an action on your first turn of the combat, and you can’t take a reaction until that turn ends. A member of a group can be surprised even if the other members aren’t.
(PHB p.189, Surprise) emphasis added
COMBAT STEP-BY-STEP
1. Determine surprise.
The DM determines whether anyone involved in the combat encounter is surprised.
2. Establish positions. The DM decides where all the characters and monsters are located. Given the adventurers’ marching order or their stated positions in the room or other location, the DM figures out where the adversaries are–how far away and in what direction.
3. Roll initiative. Everyone involved in the combat encounter rolls initiative, determining the order of combatants’ turns.
4. Take turns. Each participant in the battle takes a turn in initiative order.
5. Begin the next round. When everyone involved in the combat has had a turn, the round ends. Repeat step 4 until the fighting stops.
(PHB p. 189) emphasis added on first sentence of the 2nd bullet
Unseen Attackers and Targets
Combatants often try to escape their foes’ notice by hiding, casting the invisibility spell, or lurking in darkness.
When you attack a target that you can’t see, you have disadvantage on the attack roll. This is true whether you’re guessing the target’s location or you’re targeting a creature you can hear but not see. If the target isn’t in the location you targeted, you automatically miss, but the DM typically just says that the attack missed, not whether you guessed the target’s location correctly.
When a creature can’t see you, you have advantage on attack rolls against it. If you are hidden–both unseen and unheard–when you make an attack, you give away your location when the attack hits or misses.
(PHB p. 193) emphasis added on the word “can’t”
Ranger’s Hide in Plain Sight ability
Starting at 10th level, you can spend 1 minute creating camouflage for yourself. You must have access to fresh mud, dirt, plants, soot, and other naturally occurring materials with which to create your camouflage.
Once you are camouflaged in this way, you can try to hide by pressing yourself up against a solid surface, such as a tree or wall, that is at least as tall and wide as you are. You gain a +10 bonus to Dexterity (Stealth) checks as long as you remain there without moving or taking actions. Once you move or take an action or a reaction, you must camouflage yourself again to gain this benefit.
(PHB p. 92)
Gargoyle Monster Description
Deadly Reputation.
Gargoyles have a reputation for cruelty. Statues carved into the likenesses of gargoyles appear in the architecture of countless cultures to frighten away trespassers. Although such sculptures are only decorative, real gargoyles can hide among them to ambush unsuspecting victims. A gargoyle might alleviate the tedium of its watch by catching and tormenting birds or rodents, but its long wait only increases its craving for harming sentient creatures.
(MM p. 140, emphasis added on 3rd sentence)
Gargoyle’s False Appearance trait
False Appearance.
While the gargoyle remains motionless, it is indistinguishable from an inanimate statue.
(MM p. 140)
 

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Wow! Obviously your group has issues with this, requiring a full discussion during session 0. I approve of taking the necessary steps to fill this out, but would also give it to your group for discussion.

The only thing I would majorly take issue with (I didn't read all the FAQ) is the starting location. The way this is laid out the players will know that a combat is coming, even if no threat is present, because you showed them a battlemap. I would give a description of the area (with or without a map, depending on if you use them for non-combat areas), then ask them what they're going to do. After they do so, then you place them on a map according to the actions chosen and the plans of the hidden creatures.
 


jayoungr

Hero
Supporter
  • Definition of being “Hidden” : Being “hidden” from an opposing creature means that the other creature was not able to notice you as a potential threat with the ability to attack them.
  • The DM decides when characters or monsters can hide : The DM decides when circumstances are appropriate for hiding, and determines what abilities or conditions would make it impossible for another creature to notice you are a potential threat (see PHB 1st Ed. errata, or PHB 2nd Ed p. 177). The DM would take into consideration things such as whether a creature is visible to another, whether they are making noise, whether the creature has some class or racial trait that makes them unnoticeable in certain situations, etc.
I feel like both halves of this section are too strict and will unduly penalize some characters.

Regarding the first section, my interpretation of "hidden" is that the opposing creature might know that the hidden creature exists and might know that the hidden creature is a potential threat with the ability to attack, but does not know exactly where the hidden creature is. I believe it is the more stringent definition of being "hidden" that leads to the more severe restriction on when you will allow players to attempt it.

Regarding the second section, I am playing a halfling rogue in a game right now (a lightfoot halfling, so @Mistwell 's point applies). Hiding so as to be able to attack from a hidden location and gain advantage (and therefore use sneak attack) is one of the main things I do when in combat. I do not believe it is too powerful, as (1) without sneak attack, my damage is far, far behind everyone else's and (2) using my bonus action to hide comes at the opportunity cost of using many other options, such as dashing, disengaging, or making an off-hand attack. Being at the mercy of the DM as to whether hiding is possible or not would really hamstring players of similar characters. Even non-lightfoot halfing rogues benefit from having the hide-and-attack option in their toolkit.

Keep in mind, too, that hiding is not an automatic action. The player still has to roll stealth to see if it works. So you have placed an additional barrier to an already uncertain outcome that comes with an opportunity cost--and from your description, it sounds like you would be defaulting to "not possible" unless there are good reasons why you think it might work.
 
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Mistwell

Legend
Regarding the second section, I am playing a halfling rogue in a game right now (a lightfoot halfling, so @Mistwell 's point applies). Hiding so as to be able to attack from a hidden location and gain advantage (and therefore use sneak attack) is one of the main things I do when in combat. I do not believe it is too powerful, as (1) without sneak attack, my damage is far, far behind everyone else's and (2) using my bonus action to hide comes at the opportunity cost of using many other of my other options, such as dashing, disengaging, or making an off-hand attack. Being at the mercy of the DM as to whether hiding is possible or not would really hamstring players of similar characters. Even non-lightfoot halfing rogues benefit from having the hide-and-attack option in their toolkit.

Keep in mind, too, that hiding is not an automatic action. The player still has to roll stealth to see if it works. So you have placed an additional barrier to an already uncertain outcome that comes with an opportunity cost--and from your description, it sounds like you would be defaulting to "not possible" unless there are good reasons why you think it might work.
Agreed, the entire point of the lightfoot halfling ability is to allow them to be that type of rogue. It's the express purpose of the "hide behind an ally" to work with the "bonus action to hide" and get the advantage, because rogues only get one attack and that'a the only one chance to use their primary ability to sneak attack so advantage makes sense to make up for the normal multi-attack other melee attackers would get.
 

Benjamin Olson

Adventurer
"The DM determines who might be surprised. If neither side tries to be stealthy, they automatically notice each other. Otherwise, the DM compares the Dexterity (Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of each creature on the opposing side. Any character or monster that doesn’t notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter."

To me the first and last sentences here are not wholly dependent on the middle two. I don't think being surprised intrinsically has anything to do with hiding, it's just covered here as the most common scenario. Whatever the results of weighing of stealth, perception and/or lack there of, whether or not they are aware of each other's presence, it all comes down to not noticing a threat in whatever form that might take due to the totality of circumstances. It does not matter if someone notices something which is, in fact, a threat, it matters if they notice it as a threat.

The surprised condition is there to model someone being unable to respond as quickly as a normal initiative roll might allow them to, whenever the totality of circumstances warrants their slow reaction. If an enemy is sufficiently convinced that I am not a threat then they are surprised when I strike whether they see me or not. Walking up to the guards as a heavily armed adventurer and making some good persuasion checks should not result in surprise if I attack unless they are truly terrible at their jobs, but bringing them a cask of ale and making friendly chit chat over drinks with them for an hour with all my weapons hidden probably should.
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
"The DM determines who might be surprised. If neither side tries to be stealthy, they automatically notice each other. Otherwise, the DM compares the Dexterity (Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of each creature on the opposing side. Any character or monster that doesn’t notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter."

To me the first and last sentences here are not wholly dependent on the middle two. I don't think being surprised intrinsically has anything to do with hiding, it's just covered here as the most common scenario. Whatever the results of weighing of stealth, perception and/or lack there of, whether or not they are aware of each other's presence, it all comes down to not noticing a threat in whatever form that might take due to the totality of circumstances. It does not matter if someone notices something which is, in fact, a threat, it matters if they notice it as a threat.

The surprised condition is there to model someone being unable to respond as quickly as a normal initiative roll might allow them to, whenever the totality of circumstances warrants their slow reaction. If an enemy is sufficiently convinced that I am not a threat then they are surprised when I strike whether they see me or not. Walking up to the guards as a heavily armed adventurer and making some good persuasion checks should not result in surprise if I attack unless they are truly terrible at their jobs, but bringing them a cask of ale and making friendly chit chat over drinks with them for an hour with all my weapons hidden probably should.
If you're running Rules as Written, surprise requires hiding because the only rule given for determining who is surprised is based on hiding:

PHB p. 189 : "The DM determines who might be surprised. If neither side tries to be stealthy, they automatically notice each other. Otherwise, the DM compares the Dexterity (Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of each creature on the opposing side. Any character or monster that doesn't notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter. "
 


Benjamin Olson

Adventurer
If you're running Rules as Written, surprise requires hiding because the only rule given for determining who is surprised is based on hiding:

PHB p. 189 : "The DM determines who might be surprised. If neither side tries to be stealthy, they automatically notice each other. Otherwise, the DM compares the Dexterity (Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of each creature on the opposing side. Any character or monster that doesn't notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter. "
As I see it, RAW the rule is "The DM determines who might be surprised." The rest is commentary.

And once again "doesn't notice a threat" can be read as "doesn't notice something" or as "doesn't notice something and recognize it as a threat". Strict adherence to the first reading is required to make surprise entirely a function of hiding.
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
I feel like both halves of this section are too strict and will unduly penalize some characters.

Regarding the first section, my interpretation of "hidden" is that the opposing creature might know that the hidden creature exists and might know that the hidden creature is a potential threat with the ability to attack, but does not know exactly where the hidden creature is. I believe it is the more stringent definition of being "hidden" that leads to the more severe restriction on when you will allow players to attempt it.

Regarding the second section, I am playing a halfling rogue in a game right now (a lightfoot halfling, so @Mistwell 's point applies). Hiding so as to be able to attack from a hidden location and gain advantage (and therefore use sneak attack) is one of the main things I do when in combat. I do not believe it is too powerful, as (1) without sneak attack, my damage is far, far behind everyone else's and (2) using my bonus action to hide comes at the opportunity cost of using many other options, such as dashing, disengaging, or making an off-hand attack. Being at the mercy of the DM as to whether hiding is possible or not would really hamstring players of similar characters. Even non-lightfoot halfing rogues benefit from having the hide-and-attack option in their toolkit.

Keep in mind, too, that hiding is not an automatic action. The player still has to roll stealth to see if it works. So you have placed an additional barrier to an already uncertain outcome that comes with an opportunity cost--and from your description, it sounds like you would be defaulting to "not possible" unless there are good reasons why you think it might work.
The second section about the DM determining the circumstances that allow a character hide is Rules as Written though - you can find it in the errata for the PHB (or in the text of the second edition):

Hiding Errata (PHB p. 177). The following sentence has been added to the beginning of this section: "The DM decides when circumstances are appropriate for hiding."
 

jayoungr

Hero
Supporter
The second section about the DM determining the circumstances that allow a character hide is Rules as Written though - you can find it in the errata for the PHB (or in the text of the second edition)
Fair, but you sounded like you're really planning to crack down on it. Especially with your original statement that says "hidden" means that the target can't even be aware that a potential attacker exists. If that requirement is loosened, then there would be a lot more potential situations where hiding would be possible.
 
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Jon Gilliam

Explorer
As I see it, RAW the rule is "The DM determines who might be surprised." The rest is commentary.

And once again "doesn't notice a threat" can be read as "doesn't notice something" or as "doesn't notice something and recognize it as a threat". Strict adherence to the first reading is required to make surprise entirely a function of hiding.
I think if the second sentence giving the surprise determination rule were commentary, it would have been made more plain. Say if that sentence started with "For example, the DM might compare...". But it asserts this as an imperative: "the DM compares..."

I think what the first sentence, "The DM determines who might be surprised." means is that the DM determines if the circumstances are appropriate for either of the opposing sides to hide for an ambush.
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
Fair, but you sound like you're really planning to crack down on it. Especially with your original statement that says "hidden" means that the target can't even be aware that a potential attacker exists. If that requirement is loosened, then there would be a lot more potential situations where hiding would be possible.
I'm engaging with conversation among my players in my group where I've DM'd off and on for 7 years, so it's not a matter of cracking down (I don't run that type of campaign), but of trying to come to a common agreement on the exactly what the rules are intended to mean.

Currently we have this:
  • Definition of being "Hidden" : Being "hidden" from an opposing creature means that the other creature was not able to notice your presence as a potential threat.
  • Definition of "noticing a threat" : When used in the context of surprise or hiding, noticing a threat means being aware of the presence of something believed to be able to take the attack action.
But I'm persuaded that knowing location should be included in the definition, but we're still mulling that over.
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
Wow! Obviously your group has issues with this, requiring a full discussion during session 0. I approve of taking the necessary steps to fill this out, but would also give it to your group for discussion.

The only thing I would majorly take issue with (I didn't read all the FAQ) is the starting location. The way this is laid out the players will know that a combat is coming, even if no threat is present, because you showed them a battlemap. I would give a description of the area (with or without a map, depending on if you use them for non-combat areas), then ask them what they're going to do. After they do so, then you place them on a map according to the actions chosen and the plans of the hidden creatures.
It's not a confrontational setting - my group has been meeting for over 7 years, and I've DM'd off and on for over half that time. But, we're re-examining how we've played in the past and trying to get a complete understanding of the rules as written.

The document we're coming up with is a work in progress. Here's what we have now for the procedure for the start of combat after incorporating our discussions to-date:

  1. The DM determines if it is possible for the party to hide for the start of combat : The DM determines the circumstances under which hiding is possible, taking into consideration the availability of cover in the combat zone, the state of awareness or alertness of opponents at the start of combat, light conditions, whether the party was already in plain view of their opponents, and anything else the DM considers relevant. Either the entire party engaging in the first round of combat will be able to hide prior to combat or none of the party will be able to do so.
  2. If hiding is possible, players decide pre-combat if their character will be hiding : When a combat is about to begin, if it will be possible for characters to hide the DM will ask the players which of them wants their character to be hidden at the start of combat, and any who do will make a Stealth check. Note the all of the characters in the party have to be hidden prior to combat to have a chance to surprise any opponents, because otherwise the unhidden character will be noticed by all opponents as a threat.
  3. DM determines who is surprised : The DM next determines who is surprised by comparing the Stealth checks of anyone who will be hiding with the passive Perception scores of all of the creatures on the opposing side (and vice versa). Individual creatures on either or both sides may be surprised. Any character or monster whose passive perception is less than the lowest Stealth of all opponents doesn't notice any threats, and is surprised at the start of the encounter. Any character or monster who notices the presence of even one opponent (one threat) is not surprised. Characters or creatures who are surprised can't move or take actions on the first turn of combat.
  4. The DM asks for marching order and location preferences : The DM reveals the combat zone map if the characters are not already located within it, asks the players what their marching order is, and asks what they would like their general starting location to be for the combat. It does not matter whether that general location of preference is reachable in a round with the character's movement speed or not.
  5. The DM decides where characters are located : Taking into consideration marching order and the player's preference for their character's starting location, the DM will position the characters such that they are hidden from the opposing creatures with passive perceptions lower than their stealth rolls. The path that a character took to get to that starting location is not part of the combat and is narrated by the DM to reflect which characters will be trying to hide. Once a character reaches their starting position, they will always be hidden from the appropriate opponents as per their Stealth check. If there is not sufficient cover represented on a map to reflect how they are hidden, that cover will be narrated by the DM as a "theater of the mind" addition to the map.
  6. Characters hidden at their starting locations are as per the Hide action : Once combat commences, for characters whose players wanted them hidden at the start of combat, it is as if those characters have previously taken the Hide action with the same Stealth check as was made for surprise determination.
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
Here's our updated FAQ list - some items have been added, and after discussions we've changed our opinion on some others:

  • When does combat start? Combat starts when two opposing parties are aware or are about to become aware of the presence of each other, and the DM judges that at least one side seems reasonably inclined to do violence (or some other undesired action) to the other.
  • If one party is parlaying with an opposing party, can I attack unexpectedly and get the first turn in combat? No, activity in combat is always ordered by initiative. As soon as you tell the DM you'd like to attack, initiative is rolled, and your allies and your opponents who have greater initiative scores would act before you do. These other combatants could do an Insight check to determine that your character intends to attack on their turn.
  • Does all of one side of an impending combat need to hide to have surprise? Yes. If even one opponent (one threat) is noticed by a member of the opposing side, then that creature is not surprised. All opposing creatures will perceive the presence of an unhidden party member as a threat and will therefore not be surprised. Since surprise is determined prior to the DM establishing the location of the characters and monsters, characters who do not declare they are hiding will be assumed to have their presence perceived by their opponents in determining who is surprised.
  • Can I initiate surprise by deceiving an adjacent opponent into believing I'm actually an ally and then suddenly attacking? No, because surprise requires hiding and your opponent still notices you as something with the ability to attack regardless of your deception. This would be an initiative roll, but if your opponent who had been successfully deceived previously (Insight vs Deception check) wins initiative, they may choose to do nothing to counter your attack on their turn if they momentarily believe the initiation of your action is due to something else other than commencing an attack.
  • Can rangers using the Hide in Plain Sight ability lie in wait and initiate surprise on an ambush? Yes, because their opponents might not notice their presence as something with the potential to attack which is what defines them as hidden.
  • Can a ranger with the Hide in Plain Sight ability attack at advantage using the Unseen Attackers and Targets rule? Yes. Rangers with this ability may be in plain sight, but they are not seen because their presence is not perceived. Camouflage disrupts the visual processing of the eye, in effect giving the ranger a very limited kind of invisibility. When using this ability, opponents with passive Perceptions lower than the ranger's Stealth check not only do not notice their presence, they cannot see them without actively searching.
  • Can my character hide and initiate surprise by successfully impersonating an inanimate object and then attacking, even if I'm in plain view? Maybe, in very specific circumstances if your opponents might then not notice your presence as something that could attack. Perhaps a halfling in plain view might hide among a collection of dolls, or a character might hide in plain view among a collection of wax figures for example. The precedence would be the gargoyle's False Appearance trait, but the DM would decide if that's possible given the circumstances and what penalty to the Stealth check might apply given the difficulty of remaining motionless.
  • Can my character who is not a ranger hide in plain sight by camouflaging themselves? Maybe, since there is the ranger's ability, Hide in Plain Sight, as precedence, although doing so would not provide the other bonuses associated with the ranger ability and would carry all the limitations. The DM would decide if this is possible given the circumstances, how long it might take to set up the camouflage, and what penalty to the Stealth check might apply given the character's amateurish attempt and the difficulty of remaining motionless.
  • Can my character hide for surprise by disguising themselves as a rock? Yes, but only by the disguise keeping your opponents from perceiving your presence by physically hiding under that disguise. In this case, the disguise is no different than if you crawled under or behind a crate or box.
  • Can I hide in a crowd of people and then initiate surprise by attacking opponents even if they would see me approach from the crowd? The DM would decide based on the circumstances. The DM can choose to allow a character to continue to be hidden as they approach a creature if circumstances would have that creature being distracted, as by a crowd (PHB p. 177, Hiding side box).
  • Can creatures with the False Appearance trait such as mimics or gargoyles hide and initiate surprise on attacking when they are in plain view? Yes, because their special trait allows them to be indistinguishable from an inanimate object, which means their presence might not be noticed as something with the potential to attack.
  • Can creatures with the False Appearance trait such as mimics or gargoyles hide and then gain advantage as per the Unseen Attackers and Targets rule when they are in plain sight? Yes, but only until they move. The mimic or gargoyle can be hidden in plain sight because their False Appearance trait allows them to remain motionless impersonating an object, and their presence as a threat is not noticed. In effect for those whose passive perceptions are less than the gargoyle's Stealth check, the gargoyle is in plain sight (visible), but their presence as something that could attack is not seen, which makes them hidden.
  • If my character chose to start combat hidden, can they attack the creatures who didn't perceive them on the first round of combat at advantage as per the Unseen Attackers and Targets rule? Yes. If you choose for your character to be hidden at the start of a combat, the DM will position your character so that they are hidden (in almost all cases both unseen and unheard) by the creatures whose passive perception scores are less than your Stealth check. Your character can try to determine on their turn which of their opponents they notice can also see them and which cannot, possibly making an Nature check to assess the terrain in uncertain cases.
 

Benjamin Olson

Adventurer
I think if the second sentence giving the surprise determination rule were commentary, it would have been made more plain. Say if that sentence started with "For example, the DM might compare...". But it asserts this as an imperative: "the DM compares..."

I think what the first sentence, "The DM determines who might be surprised." means is that the DM determines if the circumstances are appropriate for either of the opposing sides to hide for an ambush.
Yes if you want to read it so narrowly as to make surprise as a condition that can only ever be generated by the stealth v. perception contested check minigame, then you can certainly read it that way. That approach essentially lays out a clear path towards generating surprise for players, so I understand how it would be more appealing to some people.

I prefer surprise to just be a DM discretionary condition applied wherever it seems appropriate to simulate the fact that sometimes in life creatures are caught off guard at the beginning of a fight and thus are slow to act, something that covers both broader and narrower circumstances than literally not seeing the attacker.
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
I'm engaging with conversation among my players in my group where I've DM'd off and on for 7 years, so it's not a matter of cracking down (I don't run that type of campaign), but of trying to come to a common agreement on the exactly what the rules are intended to mean.

Currently we have this:
  • Definition of being "Hidden" : Being "hidden" from an opposing creature means that the other creature was not able to notice your presence as a potential threat.
  • Definition of "noticing a threat" : When used in the context of surprise or hiding, noticing a threat means being aware of the presence of something believed to be able to take the attack action.
But I'm persuaded that knowing location should be included in the definition, but we're still mulling that over.
You know, the reluctance I'm having to adding location to our definition of Hiding, is that the word "location" doesn't appear anywhere in the side-box on Hiding on p. 177 of the PHB. Words I do see are "signs of your presence", "can't be seen", "make noise", "signs of passage", "stay alert", "creature notices you". The closest thing to location there is "you give away your position".

I'm contemplating the following:

  • Definition of being "Hidden" : Being "hidden" from an opposing creature means that the other creature was not able to notice your presence or determine your position as a potential threat.
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
Yes if you want to read it so narrowly as to make surprise as a condition that can only ever be generated by the stealth v. perception contested check minigame, then you can certainly read it that way. That approach essentially lays out a clear path towards generating surprise for players, so I understand how it would be more appealing to some people.

I prefer surprise to just be a DM discretionary condition applied wherever it seems appropriate to simulate the fact that sometimes in life creatures are caught off guard at the beginning of a fight and thus are slow to act, something that covers both broader and narrower circumstances than literally not seeing the attacker.
I understand and I think that's a fine approach. Just to frame what my group is doing, we're trying to figure out what our interpretation of Rules as Written is, at least for this subset of the rules ... not only to come to a consensus on what we believe the designers meant by the rules, but also to make sure we feel that interpretation is consistent. It doesn't mean that we might not decide to deviate from that later, but having a consensus on what we're deviating from seems like a good thing.
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
Yes if you want to read it so narrowly as to make surprise as a condition that can only ever be generated by the stealth v. perception contested check minigame, then you can certainly read it that way. That approach essentially lays out a clear path towards generating surprise for players, so I understand how it would be more appealing to some people.

I prefer surprise to just be a DM discretionary condition applied wherever it seems appropriate to simulate the fact that sometimes in life creatures are caught off guard at the beginning of a fight and thus are slow to act, something that covers both broader and narrower circumstances than literally not seeing the attacker.
Actually, though, I think I'm in disagreement with what you say surprise is meant to simulate. I think surprise is meant to simulate an ambush - characters lying in wait and jumping out to attack. There's numerous cases where the word Ambush is tied to surprise in the Monster Manual, from the gargoyle's description to the Kenku's Ambusher trait. So, I think that's the archetype the 5e designers were going for.
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
More discussions ensued among our group! I brought up the insights of all of you here - thank you for your help! I think we've arrived at a final interpretation of the Hiding rules that we all agreed on in our group. We punted a bit, as we went with a more operational definition, and based on people's feedback here we agreed that the rules intend to give more authority to the DM. Does anyone here feel this is not where it needs to be yet?

Hiding

  • Definition of being "Hidden" : Being "hidden" from an opposing creature means that you could attack that creature without them being able to perceive that your attack is coming.
  • Definition of "noticing a threat" : When used in the context of surprise or hiding, noticing a threat means perceiving the presence of something believed to be able to take the attack action.
  • The DM decides when characters or monsters are hidden: The DM decides whether or not you are hidden from another creature by taking into account the following considerations:
    • any specific traits or abilities
    • whether the creature can see you
    • whether the creature can hear you
    • whether the creature can perceive your presence in any way
    • whether the creature is distracted
    • whether the creature is able to determine your position
    • whether the creature perceives your presence as a potential attacker
 

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