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5E How do you handle someone who is not surprised but is unaware of any threats?

auburn2

Explorer
One of the characters I am DMing for has an insane +11 to initiative and the alert feat which prevents surprise.

So how do you handle it when she does not see and is not aware of any adversaries, is not surprised because of the feat but goes first in a round?

For example at the last gaming session there were some ettercaps and giant spiders that snuck up on the party as they were searching the woods. No one in the party noticed them. In normal circumstances this is easy - everyone is surprised. The problem here is she can't be surprised but the round starts with her (she got a 27 initiative on this particular battle). So I have everyone roll initiative and ask her what she is doing since she goes first.

The way I have been handling it is "you sense something is amiss" with no further details and then let her move take an action, or whatever. Usually she draws a weapon moves to a favorable location and either takes a ready action (I attack the first enemy I see) or she takes a dodge action.
 

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Hriston

Adventurer
You have to describe the fictional circumstances around why combat is starting. Presumably the spiders and ettercaps are attacking the party, so describe the commencement of the attack, tell everyone else they're surprised, ask for an Initiative roll, and then ask the Alert character what they do before the spider and ettercap attacks are resolved. Keep in mind that the locations of the hidden creatures need not be revealed until their attacks hit or miss. More specific information would be needed for me to tell you what to describe.
 
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Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
They hear that ever-so-slight noise of a twig snap or smell something off in the light breeze or see the shadow of someone behind the wall.

Or just "you're spidey-sense is tingling" and it's basically a supernatural instinct.
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
There are a variety of ways to address this situation, and vehement disagreement over what works best.

I would recommend that you ask the player whether she prefers to go first in such circumstances, even without any knowledge of what is about to happen. If she prefers it the way it is, great! In that case you don't need to make any changes. If she is frustrated and feels that going first is wasted if she doesn't have enough information to act, then you can discuss possible changes.

Commonly suggested approaches on this and other forums include:
  1. Narrate the ambushing actions before initiate is rolled or the ambushing actions are resolved. This approach gives everyone full information about what is going to happen, at the cost of locking the ambushers into their declared actions. If any of those actions become impossible you may end up with some causality issues (e.g. the ambusher dies before actually shooting the arrow the high-initiative character was reacting to.)
  2. Automatically have all hidden creatures become non-hidden when initiative is rolled. This approach limits the benefit of hiding to achieving surprise in the first place, and is a nerf to stealth-based characters who have to re-hide after combat begins. (Note: I've only seen this approach advocated on GiantITP, not on Enworld.)
  3. When only one character wants to take a combat action, rule that they automatically win initiative and take the first action in the first round. Everyone else rolls initiative and acts subsequently. So in your example, whichever character is leading the ambush acts first, then the high initiative PC who got the 27 goes second and has a much better idea of what is going on. The basis for this approach is that initiative is used to resolve who goes first when the outcome is uncertain, but if only one character is trying to go first there is no uncertainty to resolve. This approach can make ambushes somewhat more deadly if the lead ambusher has a powerful alpha strike.
Personally I use option #3, but what works best will vary from table to table.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
You have to describe the fictional circumstances around why combat is starting. Presumably the spiders and ettercaps are attacking the party, so describe the commencement of the attack, tell everyone else they're surprised, ask for an Initiative roll, and then ask the Alert character what they do before the spider and ettercap attacks are resolved. Keep in mind that the locations of the hidden creatures need not be revealed until their attacks hit or miss. More specific information would be needed for me to tell you what to describe.
This. First step of how to play is the DM describes the environment. Something about the environment indicates an attack is in progress. Now the players describe what they want to do, when they're able to act.
 


Hey look, this thread again!

For example at the last gaming session there were some ettercaps and giant spiders that snuck up on the party as they were searching the woods. No one in the party noticed them. In normal circumstances this is easy - everyone is surprised. The problem here is she can't be surprised but the round starts with her (she got a 27 initiative on this particular battle). So I have everyone roll initiative and ask her what she is doing since she goes first.

The way I have been handling it is "you sense something is amiss" with no further details and then let her move take an action, or whatever. Usually she draws a weapon moves to a favorable location and either takes a ready action (I attack the first enemy I see) or she takes a dodge action.
What were the Ettercaps doing that triggered combat? Narrate that commencing in a way that is consistent and makes sense, and THEN call for initiative.

Example:

You (as DM)
: As you search the woods, you suddenly hear high pitched chittering coming from all around you. You think you can see movement in the woods, but you cant pinpoint it. You are all surprised, aside from you [player of Rogue with Alert feat]. Roll initiative.
Player of Rogue with Alert feat [not surprised, rolls high enough to go first]: Can I see the monsters?
You: No, they're currently hidden from you. You cant pinpoint them. The sound seems to be coming from all around. You can try and pinppoint them with the Search action if you like?
Player of Rogue: Ok I'll jump behind a tree and take the Dodge action/ I'll take the Search action to find them and then move to the tree and Hide with my cunning action as a bonus action/ I'll pull out a potion and drink it etc etc etc
 

DMMike

Guide of Modos
So how do you handle it when she does not see and is not aware of any adversaries, is not surprised because of the feat but goes first in a round?
Start by figuring out how "not aware of any adversaries" equals "not surprised." ( Because they sound like opposites to me.) Or stop using " surprised" when in D&D you actually mean "misses first round." Then things might make more sense.
 

NotAYakk

Legend
Or "you saw something out of the corner of your eye in that (waves over psrt of the battle mat) area of the brush."

Or "you hear a twig snap and a muffled curse".

"You hear the twang of bowstrings" (and you get to act before they hit).

"In the rustling of the leaves you hear a whisper; danger."

"You see a squirrel-hawk stop its pursuit of a rabbit-turtle; it saw something."
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
One of the characters I am DMing for has an insane +11 to initiative and the alert feat which prevents surprise.

So how do you handle it when she does not see and is not aware of any adversaries, is not surprised because of the feat but goes first in a round?

For example at the last gaming session there were some ettercaps and giant spiders that snuck up on the party as they were searching the woods. No one in the party noticed them. In normal circumstances this is easy - everyone is surprised. The problem here is she can't be surprised but the round starts with her (she got a 27 initiative on this particular battle). So I have everyone roll initiative and ask her what she is doing since she goes first.

The way I have been handling it is "you sense something is amiss" with no further details and then let her move take an action, or whatever. Usually she draws a weapon moves to a favorable location and either takes a ready action (I attack the first enemy I see) or she takes a dodge action.
Alert doesn’t mean you know there is danger before it strikes. It just means that you are able to respond to ambush without hesitation.
 

Or "you saw something out of the corner of your eye in that (waves over psrt of the battle mat) area of the brush."

Or "you hear a twig snap and a muffled curse".

"You hear the twang of bowstrings" (and you get to act before they hit).

"In the rustling of the leaves you hear a whisper; danger."

"You see a squirrel-hawk stop its pursuit of a rabbit-turtle; it saw something."
The Ogre charges from its place of hiding, bellowing a war cry as it does so. Roll initiative.

You hear the click of a crossbow being fired from somewhere nearby. Roll initiative.

As you walk through the forest, arrows start to rain down all around you, and a trumpet blast fills the air. Roll initiative.


A personal pet peeve of mine is when a DM asks for initiative, but doesnt tell the players why (fails to narrate the switch to narrative to combat time).

In the case of a hidden, ambushing enemy that is a little more tricky (narrating the transition, without revealing the monsters position), but it's always possible.
 

Voadam

Hero
The way I have been handling it is "you sense something is amiss" with no further details and then let her move take an action, or whatever. Usually she draws a weapon moves to a favorable location and either takes a ready action (I attack the first enemy I see) or she takes a dodge action.
That seems perfectly reasonable. They get their speedy action in the surprise round and ready their counterattack or take their generic defensive action or cast a spell without knowing specifics like the hidden enemies.

I have not seen alertness in play in 5e yet but I expect I would handle it the same.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
The Ogre charges from its place of hiding, bellowing a war cry as it does so. Roll initiative.

You hear the click of a crossbow being fired from somewhere nearby. Roll initiative.

As you walk through the forest, arrows start to rain down all around you, and a trumpet blast fills the air. Roll initiative.


A personal pet peeve of mine is when a DM asks for initiative, but doesnt tell the players why (fails to narrate the switch to narrative to combat time).

In the case of a hidden, ambushing enemy that is a little more tricky (narrating the transition, without revealing the monsters position), but it's always possible.
In 90% of cases this is true in my campaign, maybe even more. Being surprised by the enemy is quite rare, although not realizing someone is going to attack (you thought you were just chatting) is more common.
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
This conundrum arises because perception and reflexes are separate things in D&D and reacting to a threat really requires some degree of both. In this case I would rule that you see the spiders before they are able to strike and you react fast enough to act before they do anything meaningful.

The DM controls the narration.
 

dnd4vr

The Smurfiest Wizard Ever!
I love cases like this and I guess we just do things a bit different. :) This is because we narrate and play the game with the mind set that most things in the round are actually underway at the same time. For example, today a monk wanted to move to engage an ogre and attack it. They were sixty feet apart (far enough, neither could move and attack, except with Step of the Wind (not employed). However, I understand that from the moment the round begins, actions begin. Both opponents were moving towards each other and met roughly in the middle. The monk, who had the higher initiative, simply got his attacks in first.

So, if the players all fail perception such as in this case, (IMO) there is no twig-snapping, no seeing something out of the corner of your eye, etc. because if you think about it, the enemy is still hidden and hasn't acted yet. With a failed perception, the PC has no idea where the attack is coming from or what is out there. But this is where the idea of simultaneous action comes in. I'll give you an example with some initiative totals:

Alice got 27.
Andy got 19.
Brenda got 16.
DM got 15.
Bob got 9.
Chuck got 3.

DM narrates after initiative is rolled: "Alice, you see bushes part and leaves fall as several giant spiders and two ettercaps emerge for hiding, moving towards the party to attack! (Note: the monsters are starting their actions, but none get resolved until their initiative comes up.) The rest of you fail to notice the threat."
Alice: "I move to the edge of the path, back to the tree, and wait for the first enemy to come within reach so I can attack it."
Brenda: "I'm not surprised now, so I can cast Shield if I have to."
DM: "Yep. Ok, Alice, a giant spider strides past you, heading towards Bob!"
Alice: "I lunge out an stab it!"
(Alice hits!)
DM: "Good damage! The spider staggers and sticky goo clings to your blade as you pull it back. Brenda, an Ettercap jumps towards you, biting and clawing! The bite hits!"
Brenda: "I throw up my hand, casting Shield."
DM: "The ettercap's attack glance off of the shimmering barrier, but it eyes you with a hateful hunger."
(and so on...)

So, technically, once the action begins and the monsters are moving (no longer in stealth and hidden), Alice is aware of them and able to act quickly enough. But, until that moment she wasn't. We don't play it as a sixth-sense or anything else, but that it perfectly fine, too. Others might play this as:

(After initiative is rolled.)
DM: "You sense something is wrong, what do you do?"
Alice: "I don't see anything yet, so I'll move to the edge of the path near a tree and get ready to strike."
Brenda: "Nothing, huh? Well, I trust her instincts and have my Shield spell if I need it."
(and continue as before...)

Obviously both work fine, we just prefer to have the action more "all at once" most of the time if it makes sense since although the rounds are discrete, the action usually isn't IME.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
In 90% of cases this is true in my campaign, maybe even more. Being surprised by the enemy is quite rare, although not realizing someone is going to attack (you thought you were just chatting) is more common.
Wouldn’t a sudden attack in the midst of a chat make for a surprised enemy?
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Wouldn’t a sudden attack in the midst of a chat make for a surprised enemy?
Being surprised in the sense of ambushed by creatures you can't see is rare in my campaigns. If you're having a conversation with someone and they decide to attack (or enemies in the tavern, bad guys pretending to be customers and so on), you see them you just weren't expecting violence is slightly more common.

It's just personal play style and preference. It's rare that someone is going to be lurking in the shadows effectively enough and in large enough numbers to challenge a group of adventurers.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
Being surprised in the sense of ambushed by creatures you can't see is rare in my campaigns. If you're having a conversation with someone and they decide to attack (or enemies in the tavern, bad guys pretending to be customers and so on), you see them you just weren't expecting violence is slightly more common.

It's just personal play style and preference. It's rare that someone is going to be lurking in the shadows effectively enough and in large enough numbers to challenge a group of adventurers.
No I get that, though it surprises me given a lot of the others things you’ve said about your campaign.

What I was asking was if someone making a totally unexpected attack in the midst of a conversation would have a chance of causing the target to be surprised in the ensuing conflict.
 

aco175

Hero
I tend to describe some sort of action before asking for initiative. I never just ask for initiative with the players struggling to figure out what is up. There may be PCs being surprised, or never surprised in this case, but the players do know that something is going on.
 

aco175

Hero
What I was asking was if someone making a totally unexpected attack in the midst of a conversation would have a chance of causing the target to be surprised in the ensuing conflict.
I would likely give the PCs an Insight check to notice that something was up. I cannot see a completely random person talking one minute and then attacking without something to act as a tell. Now, the bad guy may be skilled in deception to counter the insight check.
 

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