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D&D 5E Alternate rules for "Surprise Round"

Laurefindel

Legend
TL;DR: use Stealth/Perception for initiative.

I know, 5e has no surprise round per se. This variant doesn't either. This variant aims to provide an easy plug-and-play replacement for the RaW surprise rules. My dissatisfaction with 5e surprise rules are threefold:

It's a long(ish) process. Ok, It's not that long, but its an extra step where you have to roll for the attacker's Stealth check and compare each NPC with the passive perception of each PC (or vice versa). Once this is done, you roll initiative for everyone and apply the proper condition to the "ambushees".

It can lead to weird situations. This is mostly an artifact of 5e stealth rules and the turn-base nature of the system, but you can run into situations where PCs are aware of danger and not able to act on it because they do not see any threat (but have initiative). I guess PCs are entitled to some kind of "spider-sense", but I'd rather have that as a feat or a class ability.

Ambushes are hard to set-up. In order to surprise a creature, the Stealth checks of every attacker must beat that creature's passive Perception's DC. If the party wants to ambush monsters, all PCs must roll well otherwise all enemies are tipped off. Similarly, a surprise gang-up by a handful of goblins or bugbears is almost certain to fail against the PCs. There is some verisimilitude in the fact that high numbers are harder to hide, but there is a difference between a small band of brigands and a whole army of them. Group checks fix this to a certain degree.

So here's the variant houserule (concise version)

Ambushes
Some combats are known as Ambushes. To be considered an Ambush, a combat must be initiated by one side hiding from the the other in order to gain advantage of surprise. During an Ambush, all attackers are revealed at the beginning of combat. Note that foliage and/or conditions may grant attackers some degrees of cover or obscurement until they move out of it.

Ambush Initiative

Ambush Initiative determines the order of turns during combat. It functions like initiative in all regards except for which ability check is used to establish the order. The Ambush Initiative order is determined by the attackers' Dexterity (Stealth) check and the defenders' Wisdom (Perception) check. Combattants act from highest to lowest, regardless of which ability or skill they used.

Surprised Creatures
During an ambush, defenders are considered surprised until the start of their first turn. Until then, they cannot use their reaction or any other out-of-turn ability.

Looking-out for Ambushes
PCs may declare that they are looking out for ambushes when the situation makes it plausible. When they do so, they may make an Intelligence (Investigation) check instead of a Wisdom (Perception) check for the purpose of determining their place in the Ambush Initiative order.

What this variant does:

It Makes it Easier and Faster. Every creature has one roll to make, no need to compare active checks with passive scores, and no need to track who can act on their first turn and who cannot.

It's Backward Compatible. It respects the "against any creature that hasn't taken a turn in the combat yet" and "during the first round of combat" formulations in 5e for things related to surprise.

Stealthy Characters act First. If you are proficient in the Stealth skill, you have better chances of acting before your opponents, regarldess of your initiative score.

Perceptive Characters can React Quickly. If you are proficient in the Perception skill, you have better chances of acting before your attacker, regarldess of your initiative score. I'd suggest granting advantage on perception/investigation checks for characters with the Alert feat.

It's Easy to Adjudicate on the Fly. It's easy for the DM to give advantage or disadvantage to the attackers or defenders based on various exploration factors, as they deem appropriate.

What this variant does not fix:

Ambushers can still be beaten at their own game. It is theoretically possible for all defenders to get their turns before their ambushed attackers. That's one of my initial dissatisfaction that this variant does not fix, but it has more to do with the nature of the turn-based system that D&D uses.

I've never played with this houserule that - I must say - cannot be credited to me (altought I can't remember from whom or where i heard it first). Nevertheless, I'm interested to know what you think of it, and of what I didn't think of.

'findel
 

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Rabulias

Hero
Interesting ideas.

I recall a post somewhere (not sure if it was ENworld or Reddit or somewhere else) that gave examples of each ability (and various skills) being used in place of standard Initiative rolls. Like Charisma (Deception) used when in conversation/negotiation with opponents you intend to attack, or Wisdom (Insight) when you are on the other side of that scenario. Does this sound familiar to anyone else?
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
Interesting ideas.

I recall a post somewhere (not sure if it was ENworld or Reddit or somewhere else) that gave examples of each ability (and various skills) being used in place of standard Initiative rolls. Like Charisma (Deception) used when in conversation/negotiation with opponents you intend to attack, or Wisdom (Insight) when you are on the other side of that scenario. Does this sound familiar to anyone else?
That's pretty much how PF2 handles initiative.
 


I usually see DMs running it like there is a surprise around. In the first round, only people who aren't surprised get to act and everyone who is surprised does not. Surprise ends after that first round.

This negates the brokenness of the default rules where a sniper can initiate a combat, lose initiative, and then choose to never shoot and initiate combat in the first place.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I usually see DMs running it like there is a surprise around. In the first round, only people who aren't surprised get to act and everyone who is surprised does not. Surprise ends after that first round.

This negates the brokenness of the default rules where a sniper can initiate a combat, lose initiative, and then choose to never shoot and initiate combat in the first place.
Basically, initiative occurs because someone declares an action that starts combat. Just like two hostile, angry and fully visible sides (no surprise) don't start initiaitive until someone is willing to actually throw the first punch, same in this case. You can't "undeclare" combat.

RAW what happens by the rules is that the sniper doesn't take their shot, combat continues and foes know they are in combat, even if they don't see with whom. When the next turn rolls around they can take actions, such as a looking for foes (instead of relying on passive perception), moving, taking cover, casting spells, etc.

Now, if you are trying to put more real world realism to it to try to do what you are suggesting, then you first need to confront the metagaming happening with "oh, they rolled higher on initiative so this mechanical thing won't happen" - neither of which the character knows. So nip it in the bud right there. Sometimes the shot just isn't as perfect as it can be, which is also real world realism.

Or just make a ruling - you are empowered to do that. If everything is waiting on attack of the sniper, and that will be the declaration of combat, just put them at the top of the round.
 

Plaguescarred

D&D Playtester for WoTC since 2012
This variant Ambush rule can lead to defenders attacking before their ambushers, which is something that i don't think ever happened in any iterations of D&D's surprised rules. It's easier to pull off but fairly weakened. Personally i prefer more difficult / impacting Surprise rules.
 

Rabulias

Hero
This variant Ambush rule can lead to defenders attacking before their ambushers, which is something that i don't think ever happened in any iterations of D&D's surprised rules. It's easier to pull off but fairly weakened. Personally i prefer more difficult / impacting Surprise rules.
That can also happen with the standard rules -- an ambushee who is not surprised and gets a higher Initiative roll than their ambushers.
 

Plaguescarred

D&D Playtester for WoTC since 2012
That can also happen with the standard rules -- an ambushee who is not surprised and gets a higher Initiative roll than their ambushers.
No it can't. Someone surprised cannot move or take action on it's first turn. In 5E, the only thing a surprised creature can possibly do in 1st round that it couldn't in previous editions is possibly react to things by taking a reaction after it's first turn.
 

Rabulias

Hero
That can also happen with the standard rules -- an ambushee who is not surprised and gets a higher Initiative roll than their ambushers.
Please note what I said. Not all ambushes are successful in surprising all defenders.

Edit: I may be misunderstanding the variant presented here, but I think it has the same effect. Any ambushees who roll a Wisdom (Perception) roll above the ambushers' Dexterity (Stealth) rolls would not be surprised by that ambusher, and could therefore act (just as per standard rules). This variant seems to make it impossible for someone who does not notice their ambusher to act before them. Now, with individual rolls, you might get a scattered Initiative lineup, with Ambusher A going first, then Defender X, followed by Ambusher B, followed by Defender Y, etc. Defender X saw/heard/sensed Ambusher B, but is surprised and thinks "Where did this guy come from?" when Ambusher A pops out.
 
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Laurefindel

Legend
This variant Ambush rule can lead to defenders attacking before their ambushers, which is something that i don't think ever happened in any iterations of D&D's surprised rules. It's easier to pull off but fairly weakened. Personally i prefer more difficult / impacting Surprise rules.
This is no different than RaW

In RaW, if the ambushers don't roll well on Stealth and don't beat the player-characters' passive perception DC, they'll be seen and the ambush fails. Then, if the PC roll better than the ambushers on their initiative, the defenders will act before the ambushers. So it's happening already, and failed ambushes have been part of D&D since the beginning.

In this variant like in RaW, if you roll badly on your Stealth, your ambush will fail. The main difference is that in RaW, it is possible to fail the ambush but act first in combat (not possible in this variant), and with this variant, the ambush can also fail if the PC roll well on Perception (check is made against flat DC in RaW rather than contested roll).

[edit] also by RaW, a lucky ambusher can have two full turns before their opponents. This variant does not allow that.
 
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jgsugden

Legend
Note that some DMs (not this one) use group checks to determine success of stealth for an ambush situation. So long as at least half of the PCs have a stealth roll that exceeds the highest passive perception, the entire party gets the benefit of surprise.

When a PC gets to go in initiative order before the ambushers have revealed themselves, I hint at their presence without clearly revealing what will be revealing itself. "You hear whispered voices saying, 'Attack' from somewhere in the trees," or "You hear footfalls in the darkness to your left - you're not sure exactly where, but they are charging towards you," or "As you move forward you notice the air in front of you is distorted, as if something was bending the light. You just notice it for a moment, but it puts you on edge. Do you want to do something?"
 

Plaguescarred

D&D Playtester for WoTC since 2012
This is no different than RaW

In RaW, if the ambushers don't roll well on Stealth and don't beat the player-characters' passive perception DC, they'll be seen and the ambush fails. Then, if the PC roll better than the ambushers on their initiative, the defenders will act before the ambushers. So it's happening already, and failed ambushes have been part of D&D since the beginning.

In this variant like in RaW, if you roll badly on your Stealth, your ambush will fail. The main difference is that in RaW, it is possible to fail the ambush but act first in combat (not possible in this variant), and with this variant, the ambush can also fail if the PC roll well on Perception (check is made against flat DC in RaW rather than contested roll).

[edit] also by RaW, a lucky ambusher can have two full turns before their opponents. This variant does not allow that.
If all sides notice each others, there is no ambush RAW since no Surprise occur.

RAW it's impossible to have two turns before an opponent since every creature in combats gets 1 turn. A surprised creature still gets a turn even if it doesn't act or move and get to use reactions after it's first turn.
 

Laurefindel

Legend
If all sides notice each others, there is no ambush RAW since no Surprise occur.

RAW it's impossible to have two turns before an opponent since every creature in combats gets 1 turn. A surprised creature still gets a turn even if it doesn't act or move and get to use reactions after it's first turn.
By RaW, you could surprise your opponent and win initiative. Round 1, you act and your enemy doesn’t because surprise. Round 2, you take your turn before theirs; therefore having two turns before your ambushee’s first turn.

[edit] never mind; I got it. Still, you had two rounds worth of actions, they had one reaction after their first turn

and in this variant, if the ambusher fails to beat the defender’s perception, there is no surprise (against that creature at any case). Just like in RaW. The only big difference between this variant and RaW is that it doesn’t allow to fail the stealth approach but still act first in combat (through initiative). Either you succeed on your ambush and act before your opponent (who get no reaction), or your ambush fail s and your opponent acts before you.

at least that - and the double-turn against surprised enemies with lower initiative - is the main difference with RaW. Unless I’m missing something, which you seem to suggest I am (which is probably the case).
 
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I would add some monsters the special trait Ambusher.
This trait come with a DC for a wisdom perception check. Other check may be allowed or required, such as wisdom insight, intelligence investigation.
The characters that fail the check are surprised by the ambush set by the monster(s).

The DC for the ambush is not related to the stealth bonus of the monster and can be as high as a trap.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
@Laurefindel any changes to the Alert feat? It seems compatible. The +5 bonus to advantage can still apply regardless of what else is modifying the roll, and the "you can't be surprised while you are conscious" would continue to mean that you don't suffer surprise, even before your initiative.

 

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