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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

Mort

Legend
Take cover plus Search action might be good in some situations, sure. Or dropping prone if you think ranged attacks are coming.

Dropping prone isn't bad. Because even if the attacker was hidden instead of ranged -it's not like they get double advantage on you.

But, obviously, as you say, best is to find cover and duck behind it - if you can.
 

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iserith

Magic Wordsmith
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.
I think ultimately it's about the declared (or in the case of monsters, established) intent. Are you trying to gain surprise on your enemy - y/n? Then are you in the position to do that - y/n? If both answers are "Yes," make the ability checks and compare to PP, resolve.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
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 would rule that there isn't enough time for the assassin to be aware that he lost initiative before he begins moving. An assassin won't be able to just keep hiding and rolling initiative until he wins. Just look at many shows and movies. Sometimes the assassin wins surprise and the victim is dead before you can blink, other times the assassin leaps out and the victim is able to react and grab the assassins arm before the dagger plunges in.
 

Mort

Legend
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"?
That's one way to seriously mess with a 7th+ level barbarian!

DM: You sense imminent danger, like something is about to jump out at you!
Player: Ack! I fly into a Rage so I'm not surprised.
DM: Hmm, the danger seems to have passed - you don't sense any further danger.
Player: Hmm, that's odd. Alright.
DM (a moment later): You sense imminent danger, like something is about to jump out at you!
Player: Again? I fly into a Rage so I'm not surprised.
DM: Hmm, the danger seems to have passed - you don't sense any further danger.
Player: Oh come on!
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
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.
To clarify, I'm asking if what if the ambushers, having seen the Alert character move into cover, elect not to engage after all (or otherwise take actions that are not apparent to ambushees)? I'm curious as to how you personally would describe the situation at that point, given the apparent disconnect caused by an Alert character pre-emptively reacting to a stimulus that never comes?
 

That's one way to seriously mess with a 7th+ level barbarian!

DM: You sense imminent danger, like something is about to jump out at you!
Player: Ack! I fly into a Rage so I'm not surprised.
DM: Hmm, the danger seems to have passed - you don't sense any further danger.
Player: Hmm, that's odd. Alright.
DM (a moment later): You sense imminent danger, like something is about to jump out at you!
Player: Again? I fly into a Rage so I'm not surprised.
DM: Hmm, the danger seems to have passed - you don't sense any further danger.
Player: Oh come on!
But if the player is the assassin, would you force them to attack without their death attack?
I guess not. So this is why I don't like thise situations under current rules. Very niche cases, but I had all in games I played and at that time I was unsatisfied. Since that group is no longer active, problems are gone.
 

Horwath

Hero
5E surprise rules are wonky to say the least.

We used some hybrid of 3.5e and 5e for our combats.

if there is surprise set up and none of the ambushers is spotted by any of targets of ambush, then surprise round goes how ever the ambusher want to turn order to be.

Everyone have advantage on their attacks vs. surprised enemies. Assassins crit. Gloomstalker get their feature now instead of 1st round.

after all attackers are done, initiative is rolled, assassin now has advantage on any target acting after them. All attacks now are normal(unless you get advantage some other way)

Alert feat will prevent you from getting attacked with advantage assassin cannot auto crit you, you still miss acting on surprise round, but with initiative bonus, you have good chance to act 1st on the 1st round.
 

Mort

Legend
But if the player is the assassin, would you force them to attack without their death attack?
I guess not. So this is why I don't like thise situations under current rules. Very niche cases, but I had all in games I played and at that time I was unsatisfied. Since that group is no longer active, problems are gone.

Sure, this situation is quite fringe - but even here it's not all that weird.

If the PC assassin is hidden AND wins initiative they still get to attack with surprise and the assassinate feature. It's just that if they don't down the barbarian, he can then act (assuming he rages).

If the PC assassin doesn't win initiative AND the barbarian rages then the PC has to decide what to do from there.

Though, I don't think I'd ACTUALLY pull the keep having to rage stunt if it was such a short time frame (PC OR NPC) as the player (or NPC) is likely going to be alert to danger and not surprised (at the very, very least advantage on perception or +5 to passive perception).
 

Sure, this situation is quite fringe - but even here it's not all that weird.

If the PC assassin is hidden AND wins initiative they still get to attack with surprise and the assassinate feature. It's just that if they don't down the barbarian, he can then act (assuming he rages).

If the PC assassin doesn't win initiative AND the barbarian rages then the PC has to decide what to do from there.

Though, I don't think I'd ACTUALLY pull the keep having to rage stunt if it was such a short time frame (PC OR NPC) as the player (or NPC) is likely going to be alert to danger and not surprised (at the very, very least advantage on perception or +5 to passive perception).
I can handle it and would rule similar. But there different methods could be easier.

As I said: probably the first round declare first then roll initiative could be a solution. A ranged assassin in that case would have a bonus to intiative and thus chances are very good that they might win and also since everything is already declared, you can actually tell the barbarian: you notice a sound and an arrow flying straight at you, what do you do? And then roll initative... Or something like that.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
To clarify, I'm asking if what if the ambushers, having seen the Alert character move into cover, elect not to engage after all (or otherwise take actions that are not apparent to ambushees)? I'm curious as to how you personally would describe the situation at that point, given the apparent disconnect caused by an Alert character pre-emptively reacting to a stimulus that never comes?
It's highly unlikely (bordering on impossible) that I would have the monsters do nothing or even do something that isn't noticeable - I would find it boring to do so. Chasing down the Alert PC would be, lacking any context that would inform my choice otherwise, an easy way to follow up on the PC's action. If I'm forced to give you an answer though, I would just describe the situation as being charged in some fashion, as if danger and violence hang in the air and ask "What do you do?"
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
It's highly unlikely (bordering on impossible) that I would have the monsters do nothing or even do something that isn't noticeable - I would find it boring to do so. Chasing down the Alert PC would be, lacking any context that would inform my choice otherwise, an easy way to follow up on the PC's action. If I'm forced to give you an answer though, I would just describe the situation as being charged in some fashion, as if danger and violence hang in the air and ask "What do you do?"
Thanks! I appreciate hearing your approach. I think such situations are more likely to come up at my table (particularly with the PCs in the role of the ambushers) so the question is probably more pertinent at my table than at yours.
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
That's one way to seriously mess with a 7th+ level barbarian!

DM: You sense imminent danger, like something is about to jump out at you!
Player: Ack! I fly into a Rage so I'm not surprised.
DM: Hmm, the danger seems to have passed - you don't sense any further danger.
Player: Hmm, that's odd. Alright.
DM (a moment later): You sense imminent danger, like something is about to jump out at you!
Player: Again? I fly into a Rage so I'm not surprised.
DM: Hmm, the danger seems to have passed - you don't sense any further danger.
Player: Oh come on!
You joke, but the 7th level Barbarian ability is problematic even in non-degenerate situations. If the Barbarian happens to win initiative when they are surprised, it is highly likely that their Rage will end immediately, as the hidden enemies can't be effectively attacked and the enemies haven't yet had a chance to deal damage to the Barbarian. So in exchange for a daily use of Rage, the Barbarian gets one turn where they can try to guess the threat and take a defensive measure or reposition themselves, and then their Rage ends. To me that's a very poor return on the resource expenditure.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Thanks! I appreciate hearing your approach. I think such situations are more likely to come up at my table (particularly with the PCs in the role of the ambushers) so the question is probably more pertinent at my table than at yours.
It would seem probable to me that this would apply more often to PC ambushers than NPCs, but then I don't give generally give NPCs feats so Alert wouldn't come up. It's possible there's a monster out there that is immune to surprise and could beat the hidden PCs in initiative I suppose, but I can't think of a single instance where this has occurred.
 

Mort

Legend
You joke, but the 7th level Barbarian ability is problematic even in non-degenerate situations. If the Barbarian happens to win initiative when they are surprised, it is highly likely that their Rage will end immediately, as the hidden enemies can't be effectively attacked and the enemies haven't yet had a chance to deal damage to the Barbarian. So in exchange for a daily use of Rage, the Barbarian gets one turn where they can try to guess the threat and take a defensive measure or reposition themselves, and then their Rage ends. To me that's a very poor return on the resource expenditure.

True, possibly problematic in fringe cases.

But, actually, if the barbarian wins initiative and sees nothing they (joking aside) wouldn't go into a rage, they'd do something defensive like look for cover or search.

If the barbarian loses initiative, and gets confronted with a threat? THEN they go into a rage so they can act the first round.

The ability doesn't ACTUALLY negate surprise - it just lets you act in spite of it (which in most circumstances is the same as negating it).
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
True, possibly problematic in fringe cases.

But, actually, if the barbarian wins initiative and sees nothing they (joking aside) wouldn't go into a rage, they'd do something defensive like look for cover or search.

If the barbarian loses initiative, and gets confronted with a threat? THEN they go into a rage so they can act the first round.

The ability doesn't ACTUALLY negate surprise - it just lets you act in spite of it (which in most circumstances is the same as negating it).
Except that if the Barbarian wins initiative and elects not to Rage because they don't see any enemies, they're surprised and can't do something defensive like look for cover or search since they don't get an action that turn. I think the basic problem is that the resource required to activate the ability to act while surprised (a use of Rage) isn't thematically appropriate considering that frequently* the Barbarian won't be able use the action they get on anything that benefits from, or qualifies to extend, their Rage.

*I say frequently since the Barbarian gets advantage on initiative checks at the same level.
 

Fallen star

Explorer
The article writer should add a note clarifying that the assassinate ability is not activated by a target being surprised. The only way for an assassin to get the advantage and auto-crit in the first round is to roll a higher initiative than the target.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
The article writer should add a note clarifying that the assassinate ability is not activated by a target being surprised. The only way for an assassin to get the advantage and auto-crit in the first round is to roll a higher initiative than the target.
Part of it is and part of it isn't. They get advantage on their attack if they beat their target's initiative, but to auto-crit, that target also needs to be surprised.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
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.

I explain it as Spidey Sense. You know something is wrong, just not what.

Haven't you ever had chills but not sure why? Like there's someone watching or you caught movement out of the corner of your eye?
 

Sabathius42

Bree-Yark
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.
I think the bad initiative roll translates in the fiction to the ambusher doing something that triggers the heros a second before they launch their attack.

Maybe they knock a few small stones loose as they shift for the attack and the PCs hears the noise. Or maybe the cleric got a burst of intuition from their god/dess. Or the half-orc smelled the attackers on the wind.

As a GM in the offerered dual bugbear scenario, I would probably have them both act on the same initiative I stead of rolling them separately to make the fiction work better.
 


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