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

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
Let's return to the scenario again where you've deceived an enemy into believing you're an ally. Let's say you meet the guy in the tavern, chat him up, and crit on a Deception. He now believes you mean him no harm.

The next day, you encounter him again, walk up to him, and attack. You already did your Deception check yesterday. Certainly people aren't continuously doing Insight checks every time them meet someone again to see if they've had a change of heart and now intend to murder them. Does that succeeding on that one-time Deception check gain you the permanent opportunity to surprise that opponent anytime you like?

In order to keep that from happening, you'd have to presume that creatures are always using passive Insight to counter a possible Deception, but that sounds much less reasonable than using passive Perception to always be on the lookout for something hidden that's going to attack you. With something Hidden/Stealthy, it's already presumed that the fact that they're hidden alone gives suspicion that they might mean harm, and justifies why someone's passive Perception would be continually alert to anything and anyone coming at them with stealth.

But, that's not the case with Deception. Once successfully deceived, why would a creature be wary enough to justify countering with passive Insight? And would you have to do another Deception check the second time you encountered this creature if you intend to surprise them, even though they were previously deceived? With hiding, it's clear why you need to do a Stealth check before surprise, but with Deception it's not.

Another problem is that there's no clear point to do the surprise determination. Let's say the rest of the party is hidden and you approach a foe trying to deceive: "Hey, hey - I'm your friend here, you've misunderstood..." That calls for an out-of-combat Insight vs Deception check, since you could be trying to start a parlay with your opponent.

But when do you do this passive Insight vs Deception check to determine surprise? It's clear for Stealth - once everyone's hidden, surprise can be determined. The only point of determination for surprise with Deception would be when the creature being deceptive decides to attack, but at that point they've already done the check. Surprise is meant to be something done by hiding as a group, and it's not meant to have a "triggering" creature who must decide at what point they intend to attack before surprise is determined.

If surprise-by-Charisma could be a thing, why wouldn't high-Charisma characters want to do it more often for surprise rather than hiding? Would they have to be visible to do this Deception, or would it be enough to lie convincingly unhidden but still behind cover? Could you use the "message" cantrip to deceive an opponent and still be hidden at the same time, and take the best of your Stealth check and your Deception check?

If RAW intended these other mechanisms for surprise, the rule would have been written something like this:
"The DM decides who might be surprised based on whether they notice a threat. As soon as any combatant intends to attack, the DM asks for a skill check using the skill each creature is employing to keep from being noticed as a threat and compares that to the passive score of the opposing skill of each creature on the opposing side"

But that's not what it says, and to take the rule to mean that RAW is explicitly giving discretion under RAW to decide surprise by other means would have the DM required to decide on the spot both the checks necessary and the conditions that initiate surprise being determined, all without any guidance from the rules.

Look at Hiding, something the DM is meant to decide on the spot with only guidance from the rules. The rules make that clear, and they provide guidance in the form of the Hiding side-box on p. 177. If there was guidance in the rules as to how a DM should run surprise other than Hiding vs Stealth, then I'd agree that's what RAW intended, but there's not.

I've done my best to be open to idea and to try to give opposing arguments a fair shake. But, at least right now, I just find absolutely no persuasive argument that Surprise was meant to be determined as anything but by Hiding, and no rules to help me as DM to make sure I'm being fair to players who might build their character concept on Stealth when deciding surprise on anything but that basis.
 

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Jon Gilliam

Explorer
Well, no. You can replace "threat" with "foe" and that still works. However, you smuggled in "hidden" which doesn't appear in either.

Being hidden is specified in the rule the DM is to use for determining surprise, on p. 189 of the PHB:

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.

And the phase "being stealthy" is used in the Sage Advice Compendium (and that's what hiding is, being Stealthy):

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 could choose to make a lot of the word "usually" there, but I've already been accused of reading to much into a fine-toothed combing of the words of the rules, and the Sage Advice text isn't meant to be read literally as rules, but contextually as further explaining the rules that were published in the rulebooks. I think "usually" in that sentence just leaves open the possibility of being hidden by foes due to them being distracted. That's something Jeremy Crawford mentioned in the video - that you could be considered hidden and gain surprise when approaching foes who are dreaming about almond croissants or whatever his funny example was.
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
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)

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.

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.

You're missing my argument, which is from the intent of the designers. Given a certain theme or archetype of something from fantasy literature, the designers choose to represent that thing from a mechanics perspective and allocate it to a class or race, giving each class or race its set of "special" things that are supposed to be just that - special.

If the designers had intended for just any character with no necessary justification from an ability to setup what thematically constitutes a sneak attack by abusing an edge interpretation of the surprise rules, you have diminished the special features of characters who chose a particular race or class to be able to act out that theme in play. The designers also know that players are smart and always looking for ways to push the boundaries of what they can do, and they'd know if it was possible to setup surprise this way, that players will find combinations of spells or ability checks that they could bring out of the box and replicate.
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
Here's something I'd be interested in : does anyone here run official 5e Adventurer's League play? If so, have you ever had a case where you ended up running surprise in official play on any other basis than passive Perception vs Stealth?
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
By the time it took me to read and digest the whole thread, I could have probably run 100 ambushes scenarios, all of them awfully wrong by the RAW and yet perfectly fine for my players.

And if you're not enjoying the repartee, nothing's making you engage in this debate. My players, on the other hand, are very interested in the rules, what they mean, and how they can use them to their advantage as a player. I think that's a common affliction (tongue-in-cheek there).
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
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.



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 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.

No, assassins don't assassinate through the "surprise" mechanic at all, since their abilities that are themed to assassination do not require surprise to engage. If they happen to already have surprise, those abilities are even more powerful. You say that yourself, "Death Strike stacks on top of the surprise round."

It's difficult for me to not feel I'm being intentionally misunderstood here ... other characters and classes should not be able to encroach on the defined abilities of assassins and rogues by setting up edge interpretations of the surprise mechanic somehow on a Charisma basis to effect something thematically similar to their abilities. Surprise is a very powerful bonus in combat, and setting up edge-cases to gain it should not equal or dwarf the abilities of an assassin or rogue that are meant to represent those situations thematically, even if the assassin/rouge does gain additional benefit when a creature is surprised. Just any ole character should not be able to setup clever combinations of checks to gain the larger part of the bonus applicable to those situations and encroach onto the what makes those other classes special. If you want to be an assassin or a rogue, just be an assassin or rogue and play by the rules as written.
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
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.

No, the issue is balance among character classes, and preserving the qualities of the class that a player has chosen so that they can feel that they have a special thing that their character does that other characters can't do. If a player has chosen a Stealthy class and/or race (say you're a lightfoot Halfling rogue or assassin), your choices should be respected in play by the DM in that your character has lots of opportunities to Hide and initiate surprise with a Stealth check that uses your undoubtedly high Dexterity score and your proficiency in Stealth.

Deciding that surprise can be ran differently, without any guidance in the rules to how that should be done or even any indication that the designers intended that case, allows characters with other high ability scores and skill proficiencies to detract from the specialness of the classes and races that are supposed to be good in those situations.
 

Jon Gilliam

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



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



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


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.

Note that combat starts before saying "Roll Initiative" : see the "combat step-by-step" box on p.177 of the PHB. That's the 3rd step, after you've already decided combat has begun. The problem with having a "triggering character" for surprise who has deceived opponents that they're friendly in role-play is that surprise then isn't determined until they say they intend to attack. And once they intend to attack, they've already done the check that you would use to determine surprise.
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
Here's a further situation that wouldn't make sense : A high-charisma party member is parlaying with opponents in role-play in a situation where it wouldn't otherwise make sense for the whole party to suddenly be able to hide (let's say they came upon them unexpectedly). The high-charisma person by succeeding in a Deception check to convince the opponents that the party is friendly and not a threat, gives the rest of the party a chance to move to places to hide, and then that high-charisma player can then "trigger" a surprise determination by saying they intend to attack, using their Deception check in place of a Stealth check.

To me, this seems completely replicable. What keeps the party from attempting this every time they come across opponents unexpectedly?
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
Giving considerations to the opposing arguments (particularly the Orchestra scenario that was mentioned at one point), I'll shift the question from "What do I think the rules intend?" to "What would I do as DM?"

Here's my thoughts on that. If a character had infiltrated an opposing organization to get close to the head of it (maybe a crime boss in the thieves' guild), say resolving this as a Downtime Activity as per Xanathar's Guide between milestones, and then appears in a combat situation with the rest of the party pretending to be a member of the other side, I would probably allow that character to automatically succeed on their Stealth check for surprise purposes, effectively having them Hidden in plane sight for the start of combat. I would judge that they are "particularly surprising" due to the having succeeded at the Downtime Activity.

But, I'm not pretending that's RAW.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Being hidden is specified in the rule the DM is to use for determining surprise, on p. 189 of the PHB:
Yes, but not exclusively, as you note and try to handwave below.


And the phase "being stealthy" is used in the Sage Advice Compendium (and that's what hiding is, being Stealthy):



You could choose to make a lot of the word "usually" there, but I've already been accused of reading to much into a fine-toothed combing of the words of the rules, and the Sage Advice text isn't meant to be read literally as rules, but contextually as further explaining the rules that were published in the rulebooks. I think "usually" in that sentence just leaves open the possibility of being hidden by foes due to them being distracted. That's something Jeremy Crawford mentioned in the video - that you could be considered hidden and gain surprise when approaching foes who are dreaming about almond croissants or whatever his funny example was.
Yes, you dismiss "usually" and you add words that aren't there. You're making an argument based on how you interpret things and change the wording to match, but dismiss words that are already there that cut against your conclusion. This is usually called special pleading, but simply means that you're saying that something matters when you want it to but doesn't when you don't. In this case, it's the text of the rules. You've spiced it up a bit by borrowing text from other passages and also by shifting the word choices to better make your point, but it's ultimately just you claiming the rules work your preferred way while dismissing other clear readings. It isn't persuasive at all.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Here's a further situation that wouldn't make sense : A high-charisma party member is parlaying with opponents in role-play in a situation where it wouldn't otherwise make sense for the whole party to suddenly be able to hide (let's say they came upon them unexpectedly). The high-charisma person by succeeding in a Deception check to convince the opponents that the party is friendly and not a threat, gives the rest of the party a chance to move to places to hide, and then that high-charisma player can then "trigger" a surprise determination by saying they intend to attack, using their Deception check in place of a Stealth check.

To me, this seems completely replicable. What keeps the party from attempting this every time they come across opponents unexpectedly?
Ah, this appears to be due to how you play, not the rules. If you play such that a player can declare a deception check to do a thing, and allow that role, the problem isn't in how the surprise rules interact with this, its due to how you've chosen to adjudicate the initial declaration. The solution is to follow the play cycle on page 4 of the PHB, and then decide which of the three methods of dice usage you're using from the DMG. I recommend the middle path, btw. Further, if you use the NPC interaction rules (also in the DMG) you'd have a strong structure. This would solve this problem before you ever got to the surprise rules because the player would declare the intent and you, as GM, would determine if that was possible and had a significant cost for failure, and then ask for an appropriate ability check. If you think it's perfectly fine for a PC to meet hostile opponents (at least the PCs are planning hostilities) and that an attempt to derail combat into parley, cool. It then appears that the PC would need to move the needle on the NPC attitude a few steps, and then make a check to distract the NPCs while the party hides (I mean, I think even recently placated NPCs would be a bit on edge if the rest of the PC party suddenly vanished into hiding places). If all that succeeds, then, sure, ambush with surprise away -- it's not at all going to step on the toes of the stealthy characters and doesn't look even close to being easily replicible.

I mean, if you're going to be a stickler for the rules, don't present situations that only occur if you don't, you know, follow the rules.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Note that combat starts before saying "Roll Initiative" : see the "combat step-by-step" box on p.177 of the PHB. That's the 3rd step, after you've already decided combat has begun. The problem with having a "triggering character" for surprise who has deceived opponents that they're friendly in role-play is that surprise then isn't determined until they say they intend to attack. And once they intend to attack, they've already done the check that you would use to determine surprise.
It's irrelevant what the condition of the various combatants is. You can have someone who is totally asleep, and that person will roll initiative as soon as an attacker decides to attack. That means that the foe is the threat. Plain and simple. It can ONLY be the foe, since no initiative is rolled for any other kind of threat.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Giving considerations to the opposing arguments (particularly the Orchestra scenario that was mentioned at one point), I'll shift the question from "What do I think the rules intend?" to "What would I do as DM?"

Here's my thoughts on that. If a character had infiltrated an opposing organization to get close to the head of it (maybe a crime boss in the thieves' guild), say resolving this as a Downtime Activity as per Xanathar's Guide between milestones, and then appears in a combat situation with the rest of the party pretending to be a member of the other side, I would probably allow that character to automatically succeed on their Stealth check for surprise purposes, effectively having them Hidden in plane sight for the start of combat. I would judge that they are "particularly surprising" due to the having succeeded at the Downtime Activity.

But, I'm not pretending that's RAW.
Or, in any way, addresses your complaint about character balance, as you're giving class abilities away to a PC that doesn't normally have them based on a few skill checks. Leaving aside that this is really necessary only because of how you've chosen to houserule surprise, it directly runs afoul of what you claim is your concern above!
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Let me take a moment to unpack, here. I am not bothered at all by how you choose to play at your table. I think your rules, if your table likes them, are the absolute best way for you to play, and wish you all of the luck. However, if you come to a message board for advice/critique and then dismiss everything pointed out to you about how the rules work, that's annoying. Still, I wish you the happiest gaming possible.

I, also, have a deep love for tearing apart games to see how they actually work -- what about them does what? This, to me, isn't about a slavish attention to the rules, but more about understanding how the game is intended to work versus how it actually works. This allows me to avoid the potholes when I run that game by making sure that intent and mechanics work in the best way possible and that I can present that game is a way that takes advantage of its strengths. Or, I can make the right changes to the game mechanics to better achieve what I want. When I see someone writing pages of "clarifications" for a game that is as direct as 5e in many cases, it's a red flag. It usually means that the person posting has a mismatch between their expectations of the game and what the game actually does, and so the "clarifications" or houserules are being added to bridge the gap. This often matches with a misunderstanding of what the rules are actually doing.

5e surprise rules, in this case, are very simple. Usually, people hide, and, if successful, cause the other side to be surprised. But, the rules are also pretty clear this isn't the only path. But, following 5e's design principle, they don't spell out all of the other possible ways, instead relying on natural language and the GM's judgement to make the call in other cases. What I see you doing to trying to apply a different design principle to the 5e rules, one more closely aligned with 3e or 4e, which is the exhaustive listing of how surprise happens. This is a mismatch -- you're not reading the 5e rule as intended but are instead reading it through the lens of your assumptions. Hence why you've received almost universal pushback on your claims in this thread. There's nothing at all wrong with your houserules, if that's the game you want to play. The problem here is that you're claiming that the 5e rules as written are aligned with your houserules. And, to do that, you dismiss the really operative words in the 5e rules that align with its design intent, like 'usually' and 'notice a threat'. I'd prefer that you really grasp how 5e is doing this before you start changing the rules, because that's the best way to make sure your changes align with your intent.
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
Yes, but not exclusively, as you note and try to handwave below.

Yes, you dismiss "usually" and you add words that aren't there. You're making an argument based on how you interpret things and change the wording to match, but dismiss words that are already there that cut against your conclusion. This is usually called special pleading, but simply means that you're saying that something matters when you want it to but doesn't when you don't. In this case, it's the text of the rules. You've spiced it up a bit by borrowing text from other passages and also by shifting the word choices to better make your point, but it's ultimately just you claiming the rules work your preferred way while dismissing other clear readings. It isn't persuasive at all.

I dismiss "usually" because it's written in Sage Advice, which is an aide to interpreting the rules but not meant to be read as the rules, and also because Jeremy Crawford in his video explicitly calls out the distraction scenario. Y'all can't have it both ways (recognizing that there's more than one person, and you're not all making the same arguments) : you can't object to over-interpreting individual words in the rules, and yet want to over-interpret one word in a Sage Advice meant only to help interpret the rules.
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
It's really very simple : Deciding surprise based on anything other than passive Perception vs Stealth is not rules as written because whatever procedure you use to decide surprise in that case isn't in the rules.
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
Ah, this appears to be due to how you play, not the rules. If you play such that a player can declare a deception check to do a thing, and allow that role, the problem isn't in how the surprise rules interact with this, its due to how you've chosen to adjudicate the initial declaration. The solution is to follow the play cycle on page 4 of the PHB, and then decide which of the three methods of dice usage you're using from the DMG. I recommend the middle path, btw. Further, if you use the NPC interaction rules (also in the DMG) you'd have a strong structure. This would solve this problem before you ever got to the surprise rules because the player would declare the intent and you, as GM, would determine if that was possible and had a significant cost for failure, and then ask for an appropriate ability check. If you think it's perfectly fine for a PC to meet hostile opponents (at least the PCs are planning hostilities) and that an attempt to derail combat into parley, cool. It then appears that the PC would need to move the needle on the NPC attitude a few steps, and then make a check to distract the NPCs while the party hides (I mean, I think even recently placated NPCs would be a bit on edge if the rest of the PC party suddenly vanished into hiding places). If all that succeeds, then, sure, ambush with surprise away -- it's not at all going to step on the toes of the stealthy characters and doesn't look even close to being easily replicible.

I mean, if you're going to be a stickler for the rules, don't present situations that only occur if you don't, you know, follow the rules.

I see nothing in the Social Interaction rules that mitigates the issue. RAW, you don't decide surprise on social interaction - you decide it on a skill check. So, even if you use Starting Attitude or Conversation (which we normally use), as soon as you're down to the surprise mechanic, you have to decide how and when the skill check was made that decides surprise.

And my point still stands : when determining surprise from Stealth versus passive Perception, it's completely clear when the Stealth check is rolled : when the DM decides where the characters are located, whether their circumstances are such that they can attempt to hide, and whether they choose to hide.

When determining surprise from some enduring state of mind, such as with Deception, instead of a transient trait of those surprising (whether they're hidden at this exact moment), you no longer have certainty about when the skill check should be performed, and you have to house-rule some criteria that's not in the rules.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I dismiss "usually" because it's written in Sage Advice, which is an aide to interpreting the rules but not meant to be read as the rules, and also because Jeremy Crawford in his video explicitly calls out the distraction scenario. Y'all can't have it both ways (recognizing that there's more than one person, and you're not all making the same arguments) : you can't object to over-interpreting individual words in the rules, and yet want to over-interpret one word in a Sage Advice meant only to help interpret the rules.
Taking "usually" at it's meaning is not over interpreting the word. If you read that as "most of the time, it'll be stealth, but sometimes it might be something else" is literal, not over interpretation. I don't have to do anything other than refer to the dictionary to read that sentence. This is not a strong argument -- you've set up a false binary where your side is that "usually" can be safely ignored as irrelevant but anyone that doesn't ignore "usually" must be over interpreting the word. There's a clear middle ground were you just take "usually" to mean usually.

It's really very simple : Deciding surprise based on anything other than passive Perception vs Stealth is not rules as written because whatever procedure you use to decide surprise in that case isn't in the rules.
See, this is where it's clear that your bringing a previous edition's way of thinking into this game and analyzing it according to that set of assumption. Or, perhaps, a different game altogether, but this reads so close to 3e and (some) 4e thinking that it's pretty clear you aren't evaluating 5e according to 5e. For instance, the core play loop, on page 4 of the PHB, is that the GM describes the scene, the player announces PC actions, the GM determines if that action succeeds, fails, or is uncertain. If uncertain, the GM calls for whatever ability check they think matches the uncertainty, and the player rolls. The GM, in all cases, then narrates the results and the loop restarts.

Note, in this play loop, there's nothing that says, "unless we also print a specific rule in the book, it cannot be done." This is because 5e doesn't work like that -- it's not a game of prescribed rules. Instead, it provides useful, general rules to deal with things. This is why the surprise rules give a concrete example of how stealth works but leave it open to other options which aren't detailed -- it's because all of the ways you would do it are already enumerated on Page 4 of the PHB. Even the stealth example is just that loop, only dealing with a specific set of circumstances. Arguably, you don't even need that example bit of rules -- it's all still the play loop.

If you really want to have 5e work well for you, you might want to step back and re-read the rules on how to play the game. Not because I think you're doing it wrong -- fun is the only right way to play anyway -- but because the way 5e is presented is very well crafted to enable that play loop, and lots of rules areas that appear grey or enumerated are actually quite simple if you follow the core guidance. I'd recommend Page 4 of the PHB, and the sections in the DMG on the use of dice. I'd recommend adopting the Middle path, as well, but that's preference -- it works very well for me.
I see nothing in the Social Interaction rules that mitigates the issue. RAW, you don't decide surprise on social interaction - you decide it on a skill check. So, even if you use Starting Attitude or Conversation (which we normally use), as soon as you're down to the surprise mechanic, you have to decide how and when the skill check was made that decides surprise.

And my point still stands : when determining surprise from Stealth versus passive Perception, it's completely clear when the Stealth check is rolled : when the DM decides where the characters are located, whether their circumstances are such that they can attempt to hide, and whether they choose to hide.

When determining surprise from some enduring state of mind, such as with Deception, instead of a transient trait of those surprising (whether they're hidden at this exact moment), you no longer have certainty about when the skill check should be performed, and you have to house-rule some criteria that's not in the rules.
You absolutely can decide surprise using social interaction rules. Just because you're stuck on stealth because that's the only thing that the rulebook explicitly outlined a play loop for you doesn't mean you can't get there other ways. Nothing in the surprise rules is exclusionary. It's why I pointed out that even changing "threat" to "foe" doesn't make a difference, it's only when you add "hidden" that causes problems.

As for the social rules, I laid out that path -- the "ask" is to get the opponents off guard through social interaction. Presumably, they start at "hostile" so you have a long road ahead of you to get that to at least "indifferent." I don't know about you, but someone hostile to me isn't going to accept a friendly gesture from a foe that causes them to drop their guard -- they are hostile after all. So, any attempt to do so fails, no roll needed. You'd have to improve relations, and do so while no one else in the situation does anything at all -- a case I'd certainly not allow happen because that's weird that your party pseudo-diplomancer can freeze everyone in place while they have a long chat. But, assuming that the PCs do get thing to indifferent, and then do make the "ask" roll to get the other side relaxed and off guard (at a minimum a group check, because everyone has to do the deception, here), then giving the party surprise seems quite valid. I mean, it would have been a heck of a lot easier and quicker to just hide and ambush the other group. I don't see your conjecture being anywhere near gamebreaking unless you include a lot of other non-RAW assumptions about how the game works, like a PC can declare a check to get the hostile other group off guard AND hide his friends. That's just not a doable thing unless you allow it, in which case the problem is, again, not with the surprise rules but with how you've chosen to run your game. And, if it's fun for you, it's not even a problem; but, you shouldn't need to rewrite the surprise rules, either, so I'm guessing this isn't fun for you.
 

Jon Gilliam

Explorer
Taking "usually" at it's meaning is not over interpreting the word. If you read that as "most of the time, it'll be stealth, but sometimes it might be something else" is literal, not over interpretation. I don't have to do anything other than refer to the dictionary to read that sentence. This is not a strong argument -- you've set up a false binary where your side is that "usually" can be safely ignored as irrelevant but anyone that doesn't ignore "usually" must be over interpreting the word. There's a clear middle ground were you just take "usually" to mean usually.
You're missing my point - I hope not willfully. The rulebooks are meant to be read as rules - each word examined for how it's defined and what it means. The Sage Advice Compendium is an aide to help you understand and interpret the rules - they're not rules themselves, and they haven't been written to be read like rules. And, I haven't said it can be ignored. Have you watched the Sage Advice video yet with Jeremy Crawford where he talks specifically and a length about opponent distraction and alertness factoring into whether you can be hidden for surprise determination? It seems reasonable to me that in a video specifically talking about surprise that he would call out those edge case circumstances, and that's exactly what he calls out.

See, this is where it's clear that your bringing a previous edition's way of thinking into this game and analyzing it according to that set of assumption. Or, perhaps, a different game altogether, but this reads so close to 3e and (some) 4e thinking that it's pretty clear you aren't evaluating 5e according to 5e. For instance, the core play loop, on page 4 of the PHB, is that the GM describes the scene, the player announces PC actions, the GM determines if that action succeeds, fails, or is uncertain. If uncertain, the GM calls for whatever ability check they think matches the uncertainty, and the player rolls. The GM, in all cases, then narrates the results and the loop restarts.
You seem to be making some assumptions about my background being influenced by 3e/4e thinking. I played AD&D in high school and college (yes, I'm that old), and didn't return to D&D until 5e came out. I don't know if you're familiar with AD&D, but the rules were so scanty and unworkable as written that you practically were required to house rule a lot of things to make the game playable.

You seem pretty close here to arguing that there is no such thing as "rules as written" in 5e, but I think that's a fringe opinion if that's what you're arguing. My opinion, on the other hand, is that if you have a long-term group that have played together for years now, like I do, that if you DM enough you'll encounter these edge cases, and if you haven't worked out a consensus along the way about what the rules mean, you'll have continue to have tense moments in-game where players feel you're being unfair.

I'll give an example from early on in our play from a few years back. My closest friend of many years was playing a ranger who was parlaying from a distance with opponents in pre-combat role-play conversation, and suddenly says he's going to shoot an arrow at him. I ruled that initiative should be rolled and he came up like next to last in the order, and was very upset at the time. In fact, it wasn't until the Sage Advice Compendium came out that I feel he truly felt comfortable with that being how that situation should have been ran.

I'll give another example where it turned out I was wrong, also from a few years back. In a homebrew addition to Tyranny of Dragons, I had the party repelling down the side of a subterranean cliff-face in Undermountain, and there were caves with opponents along the way as they descended down. As they reached the first cave going down, I did a surprise check, some characters were surprised, and they took some damage before they could continue to descend. One of the monsters which was able to climb followed them out and continued to attack them as they descended. When they came to another cave opening with more opponents, I did another surprise check. After the session, one our players was very upset, and this is the one and only time I lost a player over a rules dispute. Maybe I'm scarred from it lol.

Anyway, again it took the Sage Advice Compendium to come out before I recognized I was wrong. To me, it was the same as if the party had gone from one room to another in a dungeon, regardless of the fact that the movement was vertical instead of horizontal. But the fact that that one monster followed them, and that they therefore remained in initiative order, meant that this was one combat session, not two. And by the rules as written, I shouldn't have done a second surprise determination.

Note, in this play loop, there's nothing that says, "unless we also print a specific rule in the book, it cannot be done." This is because 5e doesn't work like that -- it's not a game of prescribed rules. Instead, it provides useful, general rules to deal with things. This is why the surprise rules give a concrete example of how stealth works but leave it open to other options which aren't detailed -- it's because all of the ways you would do it are already enumerated on Page 4 of the PHB. Even the stealth example is just that loop, only dealing with a specific set of circumstances. Arguably, you don't even need that example bit of rules -- it's all still the play loop.

To me, you're continuing to argue that there's no such thing as rules as written. But, if there is no rules-as-written, the DMG wouldn't say you're free to ignore them. I think there's a very good argument to be made, one that I agree with, that exceptions should be made to surprise in support of character development and skill. I replied earlier about how I would incorporate that into the surprise rules if a character had infiltrated an organization that the party then meets in combat. But just because the rules intentionally give the DM leeway to flex them doesn't mean that there's no way to determine when the DM is doing that and when they're not.

If you really want to have 5e work well for you, you might want to step back and re-read the rules on how to play the game. Not because I think you're doing it wrong -- fun is the only right way to play anyway -- but because the way 5e is presented is very well crafted to enable that play loop, and lots of rules areas that appear grey or enumerated are actually quite simple if you follow the core guidance. I'd recommend Page 4 of the PHB, and the sections in the DMG on the use of dice. I'd recommend adopting the Middle path, as well, but that's preference -- it works very well for me.

You absolutely can decide surprise using social interaction rules. Just because you're stuck on stealth because that's the only thing that the rulebook explicitly outlined a play loop for you doesn't mean you can't get there other ways.

I do find some irony that a conversation spurring by our group stepping back to re-read the rules elicits a response that implies we're in dire need of doing so. Here's a quote from the DMG, mentioned in light of adapting the rules to a particular campaign setting (DMG p. 41):

"Flavorful descriptions of actions in the game don't change the nuts and bolts of the rules, but they make all the difference in the feel of the campaign. Similarly, a class doesn't need new rules to reflect a cultural influence; a new name can do the trick."

To me, that says this : the rules are nuts and bolts. When you're wanting to give character's a sense of satisfaction when they try something thematic but potentially game-breaking if it's abused or repeated, the designers envision that your first option is to follow the rules you always do, but narrate the results in-line with the character's attempt. When the character attempts to "surprise" via Charisma, you do the narrate that at the table as if there were no mechanic behind it at all : "Your bard approaches the group of bandits disguised as a another bandit, but one says 'Hey, boys, when was the last time one of you cleaned under your fingernails, eh? He's not one of us.' And you do all of that without calling for a single check.

Here's what the DMG says about Rules Discussions (p. 235) " "You might need to set a policy on rules discussions at the table. Some groups don't mind putting the game on hold while they has out different interpretations of a rule. Others prefer to the the DM make a call and continue with the action. If you gloss over a rules issue in play, make a note of it (a good task to delegate to a player) and return to the issue later."

Nothing there about making up your own rules on the fly being sanctioned by the rules-as-written unless you're house-ruling something, making a call to have the game continue uninterrupted, or trying something out with the consent of the players as an experiment.

Nothing in the surprise rules is exclusionary. It's why I pointed out that even changing "threat" to "foe" doesn't make a difference, it's only when you add "hidden" that causes problems.

You're making that up. Nothing in the rules gives any indication that surprise rule is meant only as guidance to the DM. It says the DM determines surprise, and then in the next sentence tells the DM exactly how to do that calculation. The definition of "determine" that this clearly intends is this one: "ascertain or establish exactly, typically as a result of research or calculation." I don't add hidden, the rules do, and all of the interpretation help in Sage Advice presumes that surprise is being calculated as passive Perception vs Stealth. There's not a word in there that suggest it's presuming that the DM could be determining surprise any other way.

As for the social rules, I laid out that path -- the "ask" is to get the opponents off guard through social interaction. Presumably, they start at "hostile" so you have a long road ahead of you to get that to at least "indifferent." I don't know about you, but someone hostile to me isn't going to accept a friendly gesture from a foe that causes them to drop their guard -- they are hostile after all. So, any attempt to do so fails, no roll needed.
I'm on-board so far.
You'd have to improve relations, and do so while no one else in the situation does anything at all -- a case I'd certainly not allow happen because that's weird that your party pseudo-diplomancer can freeze everyone in place while they have a long chat. But, assuming that the PCs do get thing to indifferent, and then do make the "ask" roll to get the other side relaxed and off guard (at a minimum a group check, because everyone has to do the deception, here), then giving the party surprise seems quite valid. I mean, it would have been a heck of a lot easier and quicker to just hide and ambush the other group. I don't see your conjecture being anywhere near gamebreaking unless you include a lot of other non-RAW assumptions about how the game works, like a PC can declare a check to get the hostile other group off guard AND hide his friends. That's just not a doable thing unless you allow it, in which case the problem is, again, not with the surprise rules but with how you've chosen to run your game. And, if it's fun for you, it's not even a problem; but, you shouldn't need to rewrite the surprise rules, either, so I'm guessing this isn't fun for you.

Now, I'm no longer on board. I find it quite telling that nothing in the "Social Interaction" section of the DMG says anything about surprise. Nothing at all implying or stating that if you change an opponent's attitude from hostile or indifferent to friendly, that you can now suddenly attack and use the surprise mechanic to cause them to lose their turn. If that's what the designers intended, why not mention something so basic to the start of combat?

And if that's what the designers intended, after having defined these terms in the DMG, why not mention that in the surprise rule in the PHB? Say something like: "Any character or monster that doesn't notice a creature they deem as hostile or indifferent is surprised at the start of the encounter.". And something like "...the DM compares the Stealth checks of anyone hiding with the passive Perception score of any creatures deemed hostile or indifferent to them." But, that's not what the rule says, and I find nothing that implies it either in the PHB or in Sage Advice.

If I was DMing this situation, and PCs had convinced opponents they were friendly but then attack, I'd roll initiative as normal with there being no chance of surprise. If any monsters rolled a low initiative, I'd narrate their response as seeming very "surprised" on their turn. I might even have the previous change of attitude influence the opponents choice of actions on their round : "Since your foes were pretty convinced you guys were now friendly, monster X is very confused when you try to attack, and only tries to disarm you as they see your attack coming." I might even have them take the disengage action initially as they try to figure out what happened. What I wouldn't do is try to abuse the surprise mechanic.
 
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