• COMING SOON! -- Level Up: Advanced 5th Edition! Level up your 5E game! The standalone advanced 5E tabletop RPG adds depth and diversity to the game you love!
log in or register to remove this ad

 

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.

mimic - Gui Sommer.png

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.
 
Last edited by a moderator:

log in or register to remove this ad

Will Gawned

Will Gawned


log in or register to remove this ad


iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Part of it for me is that surprise is based on perception and generally only when stealth is involved. It doesn't account for any other situations such as a sucker punch that starts a bar brawl.
Does it need to? The DM can just make a ruling in those cases.
 

Mort

Legend
The weird thing with the Alert feat is that you can go first in the initiative, not be surprised, but still be completely unaware of the thing you're not being surprised by.

Hmm, that works for me - essentially it's a danger sense. You don't know the exact threat but you know there is one and can do something- probably defensive.
 


Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
Take cover!
Out of curiosity, how do you personally handle the situation where the Alert character taking cover renders the the action declaration that triggered initiative impossible or unwise? Do you allow the ambushing character to change or abort their action in response to the changed circumstances? If so, how you do you personally choose to narrate the Alert character taking cover in response to an action declaration that never happens?
 


iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Out of curiosity, how do you personally handle the situation where the Alert character taking cover renders the the action declaration that triggered initiative impossible or unwise? Do you allow the ambushing character to change or abort their action in response to the changed circumstances? If so, how you do you personally choose to narrate the Alert character taking cover in response to an action declaration that never happens?
Action declaration occurs on the monster or PC's initiative count, not before. Initiative isn't really "triggered" by anything in particular. The DM just says combat is starting. Are you referring to PVP here?
 

MarkB

Legend
Out of curiosity, how do you personally handle the situation where the Alert character taking cover renders the the action declaration that triggered initiative impossible or unwise? Do you allow the ambushing character to change or abort their action in response to the changed circumstances? If so, how you do you personally choose to narrate the Alert character taking cover in response to an action declaration that never happens?
This can happen even without the Alert feat - like the Assassin rogue who fails to win initiative, and decides on their turn that they'll just try again later.

Personally, I would rule that the attacker is committed to the initiating action of the fight. If their attack is invalidated, it still happens but is an automatic miss - the Alert character dodged into cover with unnatural speed.
 

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.)
That is a good guideline. But the alert feat does not play too well with that, also laying an ambush can sometimes result in strange situations:

I ready an arrow to shoot on the next one who opens the door.
That should be something surprise should handle, as the one opening the door should have the chance to be faster.
But if the shooter has extra attack, there can be up to 9 arrows in a single round flying at you, before you could react.
In that case, probably combat has already begun and you use actions and accept that the one on the other side might shoot first. Maybe a stealth check could get you in and allows you to shoot first...

Another weird situation is the assassination scenario. A thief/assassin beats the passive perception. But then the enemy seems to become aware that something is strange (wins intiative and loses surprise). The assassin now won't attack but probably leaves.
The enemy does never know that the assassin was there at all...
when does surprise "reset"?

I think it was easier to roll for surprise. Only unsurprised PCs roll initiative at all, you get a single free shot.

I still want to try following: in the first round of combat you announce first and then initiative is rolled. Surprised characters just don't announce what they want to do. Then apply modifications from the variant initiative page of the DMG. The one with alert (and low perception) who notices nothing, maybe should just announce first what to do.
 


Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
Action declaration occurs on the monster or PC's initiative count, not before. Initiative isn't really "triggered" by anything in particular. The DM just says combat is starting. Are you referring to PVP here?
I wasn't thinking of PVP, no. I used "character" for both sides just because I meant the example to be generic regardless of whether PCs or NPCs are doing the ambushing.

To revise my question to better fit your approach to action declaration... how do you personally choose to narrate a situation where the alert character moves to cover, and then no other combat actions are declared?
 


Mort

Legend
Except Dodge!

You've rolled initiative and the DM tells you it's your turn. You perceive no threat but are near certain one is there (and also that you are not surprised) -why can't you take the dodge action?

edit: I mean, initiative doesn't even have to be rolled really. If the DM asks you what do you do? You can say dodge, even out of combat (you might look a little silly etc. but so what - and heck that's one way to role-play a character with something like PTSD, they take the dodge action at completely inappropriate times).

Am I missing something?
 

Laurefindel

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.
One quick and dirty way to handle it that I heard is that attackers roll Stealth, and defenders roll Perception; that's your initiative order for the combat. The end.

I'd add, characters on active lookout (i.e. expecting an imminent fight, but not knowing from where) can make a Search check instead.

It has the advantage of being stupid simple to implement, but it puts even more stress on Perception as the uber skill of D&D.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
That is a good guideline. But the alert feat does not play too well with that, also laying an ambush can sometimes result in strange situations:

I ready an arrow to shoot on the next one who opens the door.
That should be something surprise should handle, as the one opening the door should have the chance to be faster.
But if the shooter has extra attack, there can be up to 9 arrows in a single round flying at you, before you could react.
In that case, probably combat has already begun and you use actions and accept that the one on the other side might shoot first. Maybe a stealth check could get you in and allows you to shoot first...

Another weird situation is the assassination scenario. A thief/assassin beats the passive perception. But then the enemy seems to become aware that something is strange (wins intiative and loses surprise). The assassin now won't attack but probably leaves.
The enemy does never know that the assassin was there at all...
when does surprise "reset"?

I think it was easier to roll for surprise. Only unsurprised PCs roll initiative at all, you get a single free shot.

I still want to try following: in the first round of combat you announce first and then initiative is rolled. Surprised characters just don't announce what they want to do. Then apply modifications from the variant initiative page of the DMG. The one with alert (and low perception) who notices nothing, maybe should just announce first what to do.
I'm not sure I follow your first example. I can't tell who is attempting to surprise whom.

I don't see an issue with the assassin example. It's up to the assassin to attack or not. If they are hidden and remain so, they can just leave and try again when the DM decides the conditions are appropriate to do so.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
You've rolled initiative and the DM tells you it's your turn. You perceive no threat but are near certain one is there (and also that you are not surprised) -why can't you take the dodge action?

Am I missing something?
What I mean to say is that you can Dodge, but it's only effective against attackers you can see. So it's not of any use against a hidden attacker.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Or look around for another chance at seeing the attacker... but since being unseen offers no advantage anyway, it usually is better to just dodge.
Maybe you can at least get between the wizard and the attacker so they have at least +2 AC.
Take cover plus Search action might be good in some situations, sure. Or dropping prone if you think ranged attacks are coming.
 

I'm not sure I follow your first example. I can't tell who is attempting to surprise whom.

I don't see an issue with the assassin example. It's up to the assassin to attack or not. If they are hidden and remain so, they can just leave and try again when the DM decides the conditions are appropriate to do so.
In the first example, probably the one behind the door will ambush the other one, or why should they ready their bolt...
but of course, stealth fron the one on the outside could surprise the enemy behind the door, even if they are generally aware of foes... This is why I find the situation so difficult.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I wasn't thinking of PVP, no. I used "character" for both sides just because I meant the example to be generic regardless of whether PCs or NPCs are doing the ambushing.

To revise my question to better fit your approach to action declaration... how do you personally choose to narrate a situation where the alert character moves to cover, and then no other combat actions are declared?
Sorry, I'm still not sure I'm following. Are you saying the monsters, having seen the alert PC move to cover, don't attack? If so, then they can just move in, ready, or any other number of things which may be apparent in the scene to the PCs.
 

Visit Our Sponsor

Level Up!

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top