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D&D 5E 5e Surprise and Hiding Rules Interpretation

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
New FAQ!

  • If the party finds a trap at the entrance to a room where creatures are lying in wait to surprise them with an ambush, does that mean the party is immune to the surprise since they've noticed "a threat"? No, when the PHB says that any creature or monster that doesn't notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter, it intends that to be read in the context of the sentence that comes before, telling the DM how to determine surprise by comparing creatures passive Perceptions to their opponent's Stealth checks. For the purposes of surprise, "noticing a threat" exactly means perceiving a hidden opponent or being aware of an unhidden one.
 

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doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
Since you state this so assertively, have you watched the he Sage Advice video on beginning combat and in the Sage Advice podcast on hiding? And have you also read through the answers to the two questions on surprise in the Sage Advice Compendium? If not, go invest the time in listening to the designer of 5e discuss these topics, and see if you come away with the same opinion.

All of these cases confirm that surprise is determined through the mechanic of Stealth versus passive Perception. The Sage Advice Compendium has this to say:



Let's see what we have there... surprise is being
  • Caught off guard
  • Failing to notice foes being stealthy
  • Being startled by an enemy with a special ability
  • All of your foes catching you unaware
Even if you could be "caught off guard" by an opponent in a disguise, you still wouldn't be surprised if "even one of your foes fails to catch you unawares." What the language "notice a threat" intends in the PHB p. 189 when it says is to mean "failing to notice an opponent in hiding." That's apparent because that sentence comes immediately after the sentence describing how surprise is determined by comparing Stealth to passive Perception. To make "notice a threat" mean anything else, you have to pluck that second sentence out and read it in isolation, but that second sentence is even part of the same paragraph. You're stretching the rules and reading sentences out of context to give them the possibility of saying what you want them to say.
No, you are conflating distinct clauses in order to over-analyze and bend the meaning of the text.

You also consistently ignore language that makes it clear that most of these clauses are not absolute, because they are intended to require DM interpretation and discretion, and allow for creative play.
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
No, you are conflating distinct clauses in order to over-analyze and bend the meaning of the text.

You also consistently ignore language that makes it clear that most of these clauses are not absolute, because they are intended to require DM interpretation and discretion, and allow for creative play.

Nope, you're just not right - I've done no such thing. What you're doing instead is trying to justify your house rules as being RAW when they're not, and refusing to acknowledge official sources of where the designers of the game clarify what the intention of the words they wrote in the rulebooks were.

If you're playing under Rules as Written, it's the rules themselves that make it clear when the DM decides something and when they don't. For example, they make it clear that the DM decides the circumstances appropriate for hiding, and they intentionally do not provide a mechanic to determine that. Jeremy Crawford even talks about how 4e provided such a mechanic, and they decided against doing something like that for 5e because it was too complex.

With surprise, they make it clear that the DM only determines not decides who might be surprised, and they specify a mechanic to do just that.

You're also trying to imply that a DM can't decide to do something different than the Rules as Written, and that it's therefore draconian to decide what the rules say and that the designers intended a particular interpretation. And that's just not true - if you don't like what the designers intended, you can house rule whatever you want. But, you shouldn't pretend you're running the rules as written.
 

SkidAce

Legend
How do you give a hidden threat a Stealth score? Hiding a threat (pretending to be an ally) is Insight vs Deception, not Stealth versus passive Perception, and the mechanism the PHB tells the DM they should use for determining surprise is Stealth versus passive Perception, p. 189:

In the above example, I would do exactly THAT "Insight vs passive Deception".

Some flexibility is needed, but it works...it gives me a DC to base what may happen. A more skillful threat such as a master assassin might have a higher deception, and thus be more able to succeed at hiding their threat.
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
Here's a question we're wrestling with at the moment. Let's say you're unhidden in a lightly-obscured area, and another creature wants to try to target you with a spell attack that requires line of sight. Does that creature first have to do a Perception check to "see" you for the attack, even if you're not hidden (haven't taken the Hide action)? If they fail the perception check, do they still attack at disadvantage as per the Unseen Targets rule even though you're not hidden, or after failing the perception check are they not able to target you at all and can't cast the spell? If the creature doing a spell attack doesn't need to do a Perception check first, what's the point of Perception checks being at disadvantage in lightly obscured areas?
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
You're also trying to imply that a DM can't decide to do something different than the Rules as Written, and that it's therefore draconian to decide what the rules say and that the designers intended a particular interpretation.
You’re either trolling me right now, or didn’t actually read what I wrote.

Either way, you outlook and approach in this thread is very out there, and your responses to people pointing out flaws in your reasoning are...not great.

Enjoy your houserules, bud.
 


Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Here's a question we're wrestling with at the moment. Let's say you're unhidden in a lightly-obscured area, and another creature wants to try to target you with a spell attack that requires line of sight. Does that creature first have to do a Perception check to "see" you for the attack, even if you're not hidden (haven't taken the Hide action)? If they fail the perception check, do they still attack at disadvantage as per the Unseen Targets rule even though you're not hidden, or after failing the perception check are they not able to target you at all and can't cast the spell? If the creature doing a spell attack doesn't need to do a Perception check first, what's the point of Perception checks being at disadvantage in lightly obscured areas?
I'm going to be honest, here. If this is a question that's tripping you up, you should evaluate whether the objective in your OP is actually possible. RAW is absolutely clear on this matter. Light obscurement only applies disadvantage to WIS (Perception) checks. That's the only thing it does.

If you want to create a houserule that creatures must make perception checks to be able to see another creature in light obscurement, go right ahead, but RAW doesn't even suggest such a thing.

You might also consider that being hidden is not the only way to be an unnoticed threat. These are different sentences that do not reference or rely on each other. Being hidden is definitely one way to be an unnoticed threat, but not the only way. The structure of the surprise rules is that being hidden is inclusive, but not exhaustive. Being hidden is the most common way surprise happens, so it gets specific attention, but that doesn't make it the only way. This is clear because being hidden isn't the only way to be an unnoticed threat. The rules for 5e are not like 3e -- they do not cover in detail all outcomes/options. Playing as if they do will lead to dissatisfaction.
 

Sabathius42

Bree-Yark
OP: I don't really have an interpretation on your take of the RAW with surprise and hiding and all the stranger interactions between the two. My GM philosophy is that it is my job to adjudicate in a way that makes sense between what the players are trying to accomplish in the world their characters live in and the rules that govern how their actions are supposed to work in the game itself.

I am going to give you a good example of "When RAW only goes wrong" that happened to me in an actual D&D game (although this was many many years ago and in 1e).

In the story, our characters (the PCs) had captured a bad guy and tied him up in a chair. He was immobilized. He was just some low-level human thug who we were trying to question. During the questioning my character, a wizard, picked up a cocked and loaded heavy crossbow and pointed it at the thugs head and demanded an answer from him. When the thug refused to talk I said I was going to kill him with the crossbow.

RAW doesn't work #1: According to the rules of 1e, my wizard cannot use a crossbow. Despite having an 18 on my Intelligence stat, technically I am unable to pick up a loaded crossbow, point it at something I want to shoot, and pull the trigger to shoot it. Now, if you want to argue that doing so in a battle is different than shooting a guy tied up in the chair, I would 100% agree with you. It makes no logical sense, however, to not allow a character to shoot a tied up target at less than 1' distance when all they have to do is literally pull a trigger.

After finally arguing my case enough to shoot the NPC in the head with a heavy crossbow we get to the second point.

RAW doesn't work #2: I was asked to "to-hit" on the heavy crossbow. For a point-blank headshot on a helpless low level target. At a severe penalty because "wizards don't use crossbows normally". Really? OK fine, I hit AC5.

RAW doesn't work #3: I was asked to "roll damage" and rolled a 1. For a point-blank headshot on a helpless low level target I did 1 damage? Really? How about I throw down the crossbow, tell everyone to leave the room, and then just fireball the whole place because this is ridiculous.

******

The point of my anecdote above is to say that no set of RAW rules is going to make sense, or even be preferable to use 100% of the time. Your job as the GM should to apply the rules in the circumstances that make sense, go narrative when they don't, and even improv in the corner cases as they come up. I don't think its advisable, or good gaming, to expect that you can hammer out a flowchart to follow that will ALWAYS make sense.

That being said, if your gaming group prefers to play with a solid set of rules that are always followed instead of trusting you to GM a fair take, all the power to you and your players. I just feel that doing this actually opens you up to some strangeness that might get exploited (like in 4e when the darkness spell actually made light or the bag-of-rats.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
To give another reason why "threat" cannot be read so expansively and in isolation in the sentence "Any character or monster that doesn't notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter." : a trap is certainly "a threat", but disarming a trap as they approach an ambush doesn't inoculate the party from the possibility of surprise, even though they've noticed "a threat."
Sure it does. That trap cannot surprise the group any longer. Now the threat of the ambush that they don't notice... The sentence is clearly talking about threats noticed.
 

The Sage Advice Compendium provides the following response by the 5e designers to clarify what that meant:

To be surprised, you must be caught off guard, usually because you failed to notice foes being stealthy or you were startled by an enemy with a special ability, such as the gelatinous cube’s Transparent trait, that makes it exceptionally surprising. You can be surprised even if your companions aren’t, and you aren’t surprised if even one of your foes fails to catch you unawares.

Surprise is:
  • Being caught off guard
  • Failing to notice foes being stealthy
  • Being startled by an enemy with a special ability
  • All of your foes catching you unaware
And see my replies to others above. The designers didn't intend "threat" to read as anything other than "an opponent on the other side of combat," and surprise was intended to represent an ambush where all of one or both sides are hiding with Stealth to catch the other side unaware and startle them.

Your second bullet point is a misrepresentation. You say "Failed to notice foes being stealthy" - but the actual thing you are trying to summaries starts "Usually". Which means that there are explicitly times that the rest of the sentence doesn't cover. Also your bullet points lack indenting so they provide a misleading representation.

A better summary would be
  • You are surprised when you are caught off guard. This can be because:
    • You failed to notice foes being stealthy
    • An enemy has a special ability that surprises you
    • Other unusual circumstances that are not covered by the above two options.
  • Surprise works at the level of the individual not the group; one person can be surprised when their allies aren't and vise-versa
  • If one foe alerts you the attack is coming you are alerted.
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
You might think that if the designers meant for "a threat" to just mean an opponent or a foe, that they would have clarified that, maybe in the second edition or the errata. But, I think they did in fact clarify that - they just did it in the Sage Advice Compendium.

The original wording in the PHB was : "Any character or monster that doesn't notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter."

The Sage Advice Compendium in response to the question about surprise, used the following language : "You can be surprised even if your companions aren't, and you aren't surprised if even one of your foes fails to catch you unawares."

Notice how the Sage Advice restates the same thing that the PHB did, but uses the word "foes" instead of "a threat".

It does it again in this sentence: "In other words, once a fight starts, you can't be surprised again, although a hidden foe can still gain the normal benefits from being unseen."

That clearly implies that what initiates surprise is "a hidden foe." In fact, the Sage Advice response meant to clarify surprise doesn't use the language "a threat" at all.

Read the last sentence of that response : "You can still try to hide from your foes and gain the benefits conferred by being hidden, but you don't deprive your foes of their turns when you do so." That clearly is presuming that you gain surprise by being hidden.
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
The reason Assassins don't assassinate via surprise is they have the Assassinate and Death Strike abilities, which gives them a bonus IF their opponent is surprised. If the assassin's assassinate ability was meant to be surprise-based, it would assume your opponent was surprised. Instead, these abilities are written from the perspective of IF the opponent is already surprised (implying that's likely by something else, not the assassination attempt itself) then the assassin gets an additional bonus.

Losing a round in combat is Huge ... it's one of the most severe penalties you can incur in 5e, and it can be the determining factor in a boss fight. So, surprise shouldn't be easy to come by, and a single character shouldn't be able to initiate surprise.

My primary objection is that allowing just any character to make what is in effect an assassination attempt via some improvised surprise rule (since the rules don't give any way to decide surprise other than by Stealth), gives them a bigger bonus (their opponents losing a turn) than the Assassinate ability itself, and a bonus almost as powerful as a Death Strike.

It's all out of proportion to the requirements to attempt it. All you need is a good Charisma score. And it makes it impossible for the DM to then decide who is and is not surprised using the rules. Nowhere in the rules does it say you can compare a characters Deception score to, I don't know, "passive Insight" to determine surprise.

If the designers had intended characters to initiate surprise via Deception, and particularly if they intended Assassins and Rogues to routinely do this as a fundamental part of their class characteristics, they would have written a rule that allowed the DM to know what they're supposed to do when that happens.
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
Returning to the case where you're adjacent to an opponent who you've deceived into believing you're an ally, and you want to initiate surprise by suddenly attacking. To me, that sounds awfully close to how a rogue's "Sneak Attack" ability is described: "you know how to strike subtly and exploit a foe's distraction."

I think if the designers had intended sneak attacks to be surprised-based, they would have done that in the rogue's ability. But if you read that ability, surprise doesn't even allow you to do a Sneak Attack. Sneak attacks only apply IF you have advantage on the attack roll on an adjacent enemy, and surprise doesn't give you advantage.

So my question is this : If even a rogue can't do a Sneak Attack on an opponent who is deceived into thinking they're an ally without extenuating circumstances (somehow acquiring advantage first), why should any ole character be able to improvise a sneak attack with a surprise round?

Just to put a finer point on that, the rogue's Sneak Attack is assumed to apply during a surprise round because the designers are assuming that if you surprise a creature, you're hidden from them, and already have advantage from attacking out of Hiding. So, that supports the case that surprise assumes Hiding, not Deception.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
You might think that if the designers meant for "a threat" to just mean an opponent or a foe, that they would have clarified that, maybe in the second edition or the errata. But, I think they did in fact clarify that - they just did it in the Sage Advice Compendium.

They did say it. They said, "Roll initiative" which you only do when facing a foe.

The Sage Advice Compendium in response to the question about surprise, used the following language : "You can be surprised even if your companions aren't, and you aren't surprised if even one of your foes fails to catch you unawares."

Notice how the Sage Advice restates the same thing that the PHB did, but uses the word "foes" instead of "a threat".

Probably because people tried to incorrectly apply "threat" and "surprise" to traps and such outside of combat, because they didn't understand the rules.

It does it again in this sentence: "In other words, once a fight starts, you can't be surprised again, although a hidden foe can still gain the normal benefits from being unseen."

That clearly implies that what initiates surprise is "a hidden foe." In fact, the Sage Advice response meant to clarify surprise doesn't use the language "a threat" at all.

You are assuming here. All that clearly states is that you can't be surprised by someone who hides once combat has begun.

Read the last sentence of that response : "You can still try to hide from your foes and gain the benefits conferred by being hidden, but you don't deprive your foes of their turns when you do so." That clearly is presuming that you gain surprise by being hidden.
No. It's only presuming combat has begun AND that hiding is a way to gain surprise. Nothing about those sentences indicates that hiding is the ONLY way to gain surprise.
 

The reason Assassins don't assassinate via surprise is they have the Assassinate and Death Strike abilities, which gives them a bonus IF their opponent is surprised. If the assassin's assassinate ability was meant to be surprise-based, it would assume your opponent was surprised.

No. Assassins assassinate through surprise when they can. Which is why when assassins assassinate through surprise they get automatic critical hits - which is a pretty huge bonus especially when you roll a lot of dice of damage. The ability is intended to encourage assassins to surprise people to make their assassination attempts.

The assassination doesn't hand the advantage of surprise but it does mean that assassins even more than other characters want to surprise their foes. They are just supposed to use the rest of their toolkit to handle that - things like their deception and their stealth skills, and teamwork.

My primary objection is that allowing just any character to make what is in effect an assassination attempt via some improvised surprise rule (since the rules don't give any way to decide surprise other than by Stealth), gives them a bigger bonus (their opponents losing a turn) than the Assassinate ability itself, and a bonus almost as powerful as a Death Strike.

Bwuh? Death Strike stacks on top of the surprise round. Advantage to attack rolls, triggering Sneak Attack and an automatic critical hit (which doubles the sneak attack) on top of gettting the free round is pretty clearly a far bigger bonus than just getting the free round. Assassins are intended to want to surprise their foes - and then put out a ridiculous amount of damage.

A level 3 Dex 16 assassin with a shortbow or shortsword will, on their surprise round, be attacking with advantage and do 6d6+3 damage if their attack hits. With their high dex it is likely that they act on the next round before their opponent, again with advantage, for a further 3d6+3 damage on whichever foe they choose to attack. That's really pretty good for a level 3 character - and far more than anyone else gets. Other people get the free round - but only the assassin gets free advantage and free critical hits so their free round is far better than anyone else's free round.

If the designers had intended characters to initiate surprise via Deception, and particularly if they intended Assassins and Rogues to routinely do this as a fundamental part of their class characteristics, they would have written a rule that allowed the DM to know what they're supposed to do when that happens.

If the designers had intended to cover every option they'd have written a very different game from 5e. They have however made clear (in one of the videos you presented) that catching someone by surprise does not require being hidden and can be done e.g. through an innocuous disguise when someone is not expecting trouble. They have written what happens in the case of surprise.

The only thing they have not done is given set DCs for all the ways you can catch someone by surprise.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
You might think that if the designers meant for "a threat" to just mean an opponent or a foe, that they would have clarified that, maybe in the second edition or the errata. But, I think they did in fact clarify that - they just did it in the Sage Advice Compendium.

The original wording in the PHB was : "Any character or monster that doesn't notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter."

The Sage Advice Compendium in response to the question about surprise, used the following language : "You can be surprised even if your companions aren't, and you aren't surprised if even one of your foes fails to catch you unawares."

Notice how the Sage Advice restates the same thing that the PHB did, but uses the word "foes" instead of "a threat".

It does it again in this sentence: "In other words, once a fight starts, you can't be surprised again, although a hidden foe can still gain the normal benefits from being unseen."

That clearly implies that what initiates surprise is "a hidden foe." In fact, the Sage Advice response meant to clarify surprise doesn't use the language "a threat" at all.

Read the last sentence of that response : "You can still try to hide from your foes and gain the benefits conferred by being hidden, but you don't deprive your foes of their turns when you do so." That clearly is presuming that you gain surprise by being hidden.
Well, no. You can replace "threat" with "foe" and that still works. However, you smuggled in "hidden" which doesn't appear in either.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Returning to the case where you're adjacent to an opponent who you've deceived into believing you're an ally, and you want to initiate surprise by suddenly attacking. To me, that sounds awfully close to how a rogue's "Sneak Attack" ability is described: "you know how to strike subtly and exploit a foe's distraction."

I think if the designers had intended sneak attacks to be surprised-based, they would have done that in the rogue's ability. But if you read that ability, surprise doesn't even allow you to do a Sneak Attack. Sneak attacks only apply IF you have advantage on the attack roll on an adjacent enemy, and surprise doesn't give you advantage.

So my question is this : If even a rogue can't do a Sneak Attack on an opponent who is deceived into thinking they're an ally without extenuating circumstances (somehow acquiring advantage first), why should any ole character be able to improvise a sneak attack with a surprise round?

Just to put a finer point on that, the rogue's Sneak Attack is assumed to apply during a surprise round because the designers are assuming that if you surprise a creature, you're hidden from them, and already have advantage from attacking out of Hiding. So, that supports the case that surprise assumes Hiding, not Deception.
Cool, now do this for a non-rogue. Or, in other words, you've chosen the rogue as your example because it can be bent to your argument, even if through special pleading. Surprise is not rogue specific, so however you imagine a rogue that's not the general case.

It appears that your underlying issue is that you think surpruse is too strong an advantage so limitations on PCs gaining it are appropriate. I would take this as an opportunity to point out that GMs have inifinite dragons, so even if PCs get surprise all the time, it diesn't really impact the GMs ability to create challenges. Think putside your box, don't just try to make the box smaller.
 

Returning to the case where you're adjacent to an opponent who you've deceived into believing you're an ally, and you want to initiate surprise by suddenly attacking. To me, that sounds awfully close to how a rogue's "Sneak Attack" ability is described: "you know how to strike subtly and exploit a foe's distraction."

Close ... but no cigar. I think that this is meant to be one of the things that makes an assassin an assassin. The assassin of course does have advantage. The assassin can do it on their own, but the rogue needs just that bit more help (like an ally)

So my question is this : If even a rogue can't do a Sneak Attack on an opponent who is deceived into thinking they're an ally without extenuating circumstances (somehow acquiring advantage first), why should any ole character be able to improvise a sneak attack with a surprise round?

They can't - and no one ever claimed they could. Sneak Attack is a specific rogue class ability. Everyone can exploit a foe's distraction, but a rogue gets specific bonuses for doing it.

Just to put a finer point on that, the rogue's Sneak Attack is assumed to apply during a surprise round because the designers are assuming that if you surprise a creature, you're hidden from them, and already have advantage from attacking out of Hiding. So, that supports the case that surprise assumes Hiding, not Deception.

Except that a rogue's Sneak Attack isn't assumed to apply during a surprise round. The assassin on the other hand can pull some really interesting shenanigans because they don't need to interact directly with the hiding rules to get their super-sneak attack off. For example 80' away and round two corners, taking advantage of dash and a thrown dagger. And assassins but not rogues getting serious danger from pretending to be e.g. a drunk or a civilian or even committing murder on the dance floor is not something I have a problem with.
 


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