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Rules FAQ How Does Surprise Work in D&D 5E?

The unexpected attack is a common trope in D&D: Ambushes set by goblins to rob travelling merchants; Assassins sneaking into bedchambers to kill a sleeping mark; Treasure chest mimics, waiting to eat the curious and greedy; A doppelganger disguised as an old friend to attack when their target is most vulnerable. In all these situations, you might find someone is surprised once combat is initiated.

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Mimic by Gui Sommer from Level Up: Advanced 5h Edition


This is the part of a weekly series of articles by a team of designers answering D&D questions for beginners. Feel free to discuss the article and add your insights or comments!

Surprise
Surprise is described in the Player’s Handbook as follows:

Any character or monster that doesn’t notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter.
If you’re surprised, you can’t move or take an action on your first turn of the combat, and you can’t take a reaction until that turn ends. A member of a group can be surprised even if the other members aren’t.


Let's run through an example: Claudia the fighter and Sammy the ranger are walking down a dungeon corridor. A pair of bugbears wait hidden in an alcove to ambush them. As Claudia approaches, they leap out and attack!

Step 1. Has anyone failed to notice a threat at the start of combat? (Is anyone surprised?)

Did Claudia and Sammy notice the bugbears? In this situation the bugbears were hiding and the DM rolled Dexterity (Stealth) checks for each of them. Bunion the bugbear got a result of 13 and Krusher the bugbear got a 16.

To determine if the bugbear was noticed, compare the bugbears’ stealth results against Claudia’s and Sammy’s passive Perception.

Sammy has considerable experience with the dangers of dungeon delving, with a passive Perception of 14. As the encounter begins, she’s aware of a creature hidden in the alcove (Bunion). She isn’t aware of all hidden creatures, since she doesn’t perceive Krusher, but Sammy isn’t surprised at the start of the encounter, because she noticed a threat.

Claudia is oblivious with her passive Perception of 9. She is unaware of any hidden creatures, bugbears or otherwise, and before Sammy can warn her, the encounter begins! At the start of the encounter Claudia is surprised.

Step 2. Roll initiative

As a player, announcing your attack first, or surprising the other players and DM in real life, doesn't guarantee your character will attack first. It's up to the DMs discretion. Rules as written, any combat encounter begins with initiative rolls to determine who acts when.

In our example, rolls result in the following initiative order:
  • Bunion the bugbear rolls well and acts first in the initiative order
  • Claudia the fighter goes next
  • Krusher acts third
  • and Sammy acts last due to a bad roll
Step 3. The first round of combat

Unlike previous editions of D&D, in 5E there is no ‘surprise round'. Instead surprised creatures simply don’t get to act or move on the first turn of a combat.

Bunion leaps from the alcove! Moves up to the surprised Claudia and attacks with his morningstar. Having left his hiding place, Claudia sees him, so he makes his attack as normal, (without advantage - in D&D 5E surprised creatures don't grant advantage to attackers). He hits, and due to the Surprise Attack trait (Monster Manual page 33) he deals an extra 2d8 damage! Ouch! Bunion uses the last of his movement to get away from Claudia’s reach. Despite being hit, Claudia is still surprised and can’t take a reaction to make an opportunity attack.

Claudia’s turn is next. She’s surprised! She can’t move or take an action during the first round of combat, and her turn ends. At this point, Claudia is no longer surprised. Now she can take a reaction if the opportunity presents itself, and will be able to act normally on her next turn.

Krusher throws a javelin at Claudia from her hidden position. Krusher is unseen by Claudia so the attack is made with advantage. It’s another hit! Fortunately, Claudia isn’t surprised anymore, and doesn’t take any extra damage from the Surprise Attack trait.

Sammy’s turn is last in the initiative order. She isn’t surprised and can act as usual. She draws her longbow, takes the attack action against Bunion, and moves to take cover in another alcove.

Step 4. Resolve the combat

The rest of the combat is resolved as usual. Being surprised only affects Claudia during her first combat turn. And that’s it!

Like a condition, but not a condition
‘Surprised’
acts like a condition. It alters an creatures capabilities; no actions, movement or reactions, and has a duration specified by the imposing effect; the first turn of combat. However, in 5e it doesn't appear in the list of conditions found in the Players Handbook (Appendix A).

In 4E D&D surprised did appear in the condition list, and also granted attackers advantage against the surprised target. This is not the case in 5E. It's important to recognise that attacking a surprised creature isn't a source of the advantage. But a creature is often surprised by hidden creatures, and being hidden is a source of advantage on attacks.

Once a fight begins, you can’t be surprised again in the same encounter. If another hidden creature enters a combat encounter on a later turn, no one is surprised, although the creature still benefits from being unseen, granting advantage to its attacks.

Any noticed threat? No surprise
A creature is only surprised if it is completely unaware of any threats at the start of the encounter. In an ambush situation, that means if anyone of the ambushing group is detected, the gig is up! On the other hand, "a member of a group can be surprised even if the other members aren’t.” so characters with low passive Perception are more likely to be surprised by ambushes, even if other members of the group aren't surprised.

This tends to favour monsters more than player characters, since groups of monsters are less likely to have as wide a range of ability modifiers to Perception and Stealth. An adventuring group will likely have a character wearing heavy armour, who'll consistently bring the group Stealth score down, likely ruining opportunities to set ambushes. Likewise, using single monster type groups means all the monsters have the same passive Perception, so either all of them will notice a threat, or none will.

In social encounters, in conversation, you'll almost never be able to launch a surprise attack. As soon as you make a move, they'll notice the threat. If however, you've built up trust over time, such as with a long friendly history with someone, you might surprise them with a sudden out-of-character betrayal.

What abilities interact with surprise?
There are abilities which specifically interact with surprise. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but here are some notable examples.

Monster abilities:
  • As mentioned in the example above, bugbears have a trait which deals extra damage to surprised creatures.
  • Creatures with the False Appearance trait (there are many) such as animated objects, mimics, ropers, and treants are undetectable as threats until they move, since they appear to be ordinary objects or parts of the terrains. They are a frequent source of surprise.
  • The gelatinous cube has the Transparent trait which specifies that a creature that enters the cube’s space while unaware of the cube is surprised.
Player abilities:
  • Most notably the rogue subclass Assassin has the 3rd level feature Assassinate which grants advantage against creatures that haven’t had a turn in combat and turns any hit into a critical hit against surprised creatures. Questions about surprise in 5e are almost always prompted by the assassin rogue.
  • A character with the feat Alert can’t be surprised as long as they’re conscious.
  • Although it’s not a specific interaction, the ranger subclass Gloom Stalker 3rd level feature Dread Ambusher (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything) only functions on the first round of combat, so being surprised is particularly bad for gloom stalker rangers, simply by denying them one of their most powerful features.
 
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Will Gawned

Will Gawned

"In 5e there is no ‘surprise round"

This is one rule for me that is slow and clunky. We dont ignore surprise but dont use it much either. For some reason its just confusing to me when I DM, I can never remember quite how it works when running encounters. I wish there was still a clear cut surprise round. Seems kind of one dimensional as it relies solely on the perception skill, with a bunch of other skills seems some should come into play now and then when determining who is surprised.
 

Stormonu

Legend
This is the one aspect of the game that gives me absolute fits and I really dislike how it is handled RAW, but I haven't been able to come up with a satisfactory response to handling surprise.
 

This is the one aspect of the game that gives me absolute fits and I really dislike how it is handled RAW, but I haven't been able to come up with a satisfactory response to handling surprise.
We rarely use it is how we deal with it. Im in the same boat as you. Id like to see a straight up surprise check rule. Preferably something quick and simple d20, no modifiers, DC10 check like a death save. Definitely one case in the RAW sticking to the skill system hurt the game.
 

Esbee

Dungeon Master at large.
We rarely use it is how we deal with it. Im in the same boat as you. Id like to see a straight up surprise check rule. Preferably something quick and simple d20, no modifiers, DC10 check like a death save. Definitely one case in the RAW sticking to the skill system hurt the game.

Just brainstorming here, but how about something like this:

In the case of general surprise chances, where both groups are unaware of each other:

Both sides roll d20 against the best passive perception of the group. Natural 20 always indicates surprise, regardless of whether PP is over 20. Apply advantage/disadvantage if one is sneaking or not. But the core roll is simple.

If surprise is indicated, then the encounter distance is 3d6 squares, (modified for actual area as need be, more outdoors, fewer squares in tighter spaces etc)

If one group is already laying an ambush/aware of the other, then just use the normal stealth rules as written.
 

Amros

Villager
RAW, the only thing that has always bugged me is that is someone is surprising others with an opening surprise attack while hidden (like Krusher in your example, who throws a javelin from the shadows) he/she may in fact be the last one taking his/her turn due to a bad roll. Because in that case, no one would notice the threat because Krusher still didn't throw the javelin, but they are not surprised anymore...

Solasta: Crown of the Magister solved this by putting the opening attacker on top of the initiative list. I think it makes sense as a good house rule. But what do you think?
 

MarkB

Legend
RAW, the only thing that has always bugged me is that is someone is surprising others with an opening surprise attack while hidden (like Krusher in your example, who throws a javelin from the shadows) he/she may in fact be the last one taking his/her turn due to a bad roll. Because in that case, no one would notice the threat because Krusher still didn't throw the javelin, but they are not surprised anymore...

Solasta: Crown of the Magister solved this by putting the opening attacker on top of the initiative list. I think it makes sense as a good house rule. But what do you think?
It still makes sense. The opponents still didn't get to act first. Narratively, the person making the attack was slow enough to move out of cover and launch it that they became alerted even though the attacker was initially perfectly hidden.
 

Amros

Villager
It still makes sense. The opponents still didn't get to act first. Narratively, the person making the attack was slow enough to move out of cover and launch it that they became alerted even though the attacker was initially perfectly hidden.
Very slow indeed. But I think the quandary remains: even if the attacker took its time, how can you be not surprised if you didn't even hear the missile flying to you?
I just want to know your opinions; as DMs of course we can always come up with some narrative explanation.
 

Just brainstorming here, but how about something like this:

In the case of general surprise chances, where both groups are unaware of each other:

Both sides roll d20 against the best passive perception of the group. Natural 20 always indicates surprise, regardless of whether PP is over 20. Apply advantage/disadvantage if one is sneaking or not. But the core roll is simple.

If surprise is indicated, then the encounter distance is 3d6 squares, (modified for actual area as need be, more outdoors, fewer squares in tighter spaces etc)

If one group is already laying an ambush/aware of the other, then just use the normal stealth rules as written.
I do like the idea of a group surprise, and adv/dis on surprise.. I'm torn between whether if PP should be considered or eliminated for brevity. I don't bother much with encounter distance I just wing it.
 

But I think the quandary remains: even if the attacker took its time, how can you be not surprised if you didn't even hear the missile flying to you?
Yeah this doesnt work for me either and I think there are clearly times when no matter what a character will be surprised. The alert feat is nice but a little over powered regarding the fact that the character cant be surprised. If I were DM and a specific encounter warranted surprise or even automatic surprise Id make a player who had the feat roll for surprise. Common sense should trump RAW every time.
 

One iteration of Dnd Next had more filed out exploration rules and in thatviteration there was a readiness check to determine surprise. It was based on wisdom and probably was merged with perception to make it easier in play. I think it did not become easier and especially the interaction with the alert feat felt wonky:

Roll initiative. Why?
You don't know, but it is your turn now.
I also don't like the idea that a high level fighter might attack 16 to 18 times before the enemy can react (surprise and win initiative and double action surge). Of course it is a corner case, but I still don't lile the Idea.
 

Esbee

Dungeon Master at large.
I do like the idea of a group surprise, and adv/dis on surprise.. I'm torn between whether if PP should be considered or eliminated for brevity. I don't bother much with encounter distance I just wing it.

I do like keeping the passive perception, personally, because then it's still relevant. Just only use the highest active value, as opposed to everyone's.

Most average PP scores that I've seen hover in the 13-14 range (barring outliers for Observant etc), so you're looking at a roughly 30% surprise ratio which is akin to 1e, where surprise chances are a flat 1-2 on d6... but alert characters like Rangers are only surprised 1 in 6, andt it applies to the whole group.

Regarding the Alert feat, I would simply rule that it only applies to the character in question, and does not translate to the group. Surprise can still happen but they are immune.

I shall have to think more on it, because I only really dabble in 5e so am not as versed in the system as I am with 1e. But like many others, am not happy with surprise in 5e. It seems rather tame.
 


MarkB

Legend
Very slow indeed. But I think the quandary remains: even if the attacker took its time, how can you be not surprised if you didn't even hear the missile flying to you?
I just want to know your opinions; as DMs of course we can always come up with some narrative explanation.
It's not that you didn't hear the missile flying towards you. It's just that you weren't aware of your attacker before they acted.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Reading some of the responses, I'm wondering if I'm missing something. DM rolls Dexterity (Stealth) checks for all monsters trying to surprise the PCs. Compares the lowest result to all the PCs' passive Perception. Anyone with a lower PP than the lowest Dexterity (Stealth) check is surprised. On round 1, surprised PCs (if any) take no action and don't get reactions till the end of their turn. (Reverse if PCs are surprising the monsters.)

That seems pretty simple to me. In my experience, it doesn't come up much (not all monsters nor all PC parties try to be stealthy) and, when it does, surprise doesn't often happen when there are a lot of Dexterity (Stealth) checks since at least one is bound to be bad. So monsters or PCs are surprised pretty rarely so far as I can tell and that feels about right to me. (Obviously it may occur more often if the DM is using a lot of sneaky monsters or the party is built/prepared for stealth.)
 


I do like keeping the passive perception, personally, because then it's still relevant. Just only use the highest active value, as opposed to everyone's.

Most average PP scores that I've seen hover in the 13-14 range (barring outliers for Observant etc), so you're looking at a roughly 30% surprise ratio which is akin to 1e, where surprise chances are a flat 1-2 on d6... but alert characters like Rangers are only surprised 1 in 6, andt it applies to the whole group.

Regarding the Alert feat, I would simply rule that it only applies to the character in question, and does not translate to the group. Surprise can still happen but they are immune.

I shall have to think more on it, because I only really dabble in 5e so am not as versed in the system as I am with 1e. But like many others, am not happy with surprise in 5e. It seems rather tame.
I liked how 1E & 2E handled initiative. Id prefer something simple like that, even a d20 + perception vs. DC would work for me.
 


Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
In social encounters, in conversation, you'll almost never be able to launch a surprise attack. As soon as you make a move, they'll notice the threat. If however, you've built up trust over time, such as with a long friendly history with someone, you might surprise them with a sudden out-of-character betrayal.
This part appears to be speculation, rather than an inference from the text. The text itself is silent concerning the situation where a threat is unnoticed because a visible creature isn't recognized as a threat--it only specifically addresses the situation where the threat is hidden.

Since the text doesn't offer any guidance at all, I think the only inference that can be drawn is that it is up to the DM to determine whether being surprised by a non-hidden creature is possible, and if so, how easy it is to achieve. Accordingly, I think it's more reasonable to warn players to expect a large degree of variation from table to table, rather than making a definitive statement that getting surprise in such circumstances will "almost never" be possible.
 


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