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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

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
How you all handle legendary actions and surprise. Do you allow them on surprise round, or only after the creature has gone?
I only allow it after the creature is no longer surprised. A legendary action is still an action.
 

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Mort

Legend
How you all handle legendary actions and surprise. Do you allow them on surprise round, or only after the creature has gone?

If it's the creature with legendary actions that's surprised - no legendary actions until it can act (so 2nd round).

If the group is surprised by a legendary creature - the creature gets the legendary actions in the normal course (after each PCs turn up to its allowed # of legendary actions), the surprised PC gets a turn, it just can't act on it. So this is potentially VERY nasty.
 


ad_hoc

Hero
If it's the creature with legendary actions that's surprised - no legendary actions until it can act (so 2nd round).

If the group is surprised by a legendary creature - the creature gets the legendary actions in the normal course (after each PCs turn up to its allowed # of legendary actions), the surprised PC gets a turn, it just can't act on it. So this is potentially VERY nasty.

It can act after it has taken its turn. There is no surprise round. Surprise ends on a creature after their turn (in which they did nothing).
 

ad_hoc

Hero
I would like to see a discussion of group checks in the OP.

I always use group stealth checks. Basically the stealthier characters can assist the clumsier ones.
 

Mort

Legend
It can act after it has taken its turn. There is no surprise round. Surprise ends on a creature after their turn (in which they did nothing).
I didn't mean to imply a surprise round, but of course you are correct (I just wasn't thinking about what happens in the round after it "would" have acted).

It can use legendary actions after it's turn - so likely can use them in the first round unless it got a very low initiative.
 

MarkB

Legend
I would like to see a discussion of group checks in the OP.

I always use group stealth checks. Basically the stealthier characters can assist the clumsier ones.
The PHB description of surprise doesn't really allow for group checks. It talks about comparing the passive perceptions of each ambushee against the stealth check of each ambusher.

The rules for group checks don't really feel appropriate to a situation like this either. With a group check, if at least half the group succeeds, they all succeed, so in this case, providing at least half the group beat Opponent A's passive perception, everyone in that group is hidden from them - and if fewer than half the group beat Opponent B's passive perception, the entire group is visible to Opponent B? This despite them being hidden at various points around the room? It gives a weirdly all-or-nothing dynamic to their hiding attempt that doesn't really suit the situation.

The most I'd tend to allow is a player with a high Stealth skill attempting to balance out another's low skill by using the Help action, providing a better hiding spot to their companion at the cost of their own situation. So the low-stealth character rolls with advantage, and the high-stealth character rolls with disadvantage.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
The PHB description of surprise doesn't really allow for group checks. It talks about comparing the passive perceptions of each ambushee against the stealth check of each ambusher.

The rules for group checks don't really feel appropriate to a situation like this either. With a group check, if at least half the group succeeds, they all succeed, so in this case, providing at least half the group beat Opponent A's passive perception, everyone in that group is hidden from them - and if fewer than half the group beat Opponent B's passive perception, the entire group is visible to Opponent B? This despite them being hidden at various points around the room? It gives a weirdly all-or-nothing dynamic to their hiding attempt that doesn't really suit the situation.

The most I'd tend to allow is a player with a high Stealth skill attempting to balance out another's low skill by using the Help action, providing a better hiding spot to their companion at the cost of their own situation. So the low-stealth character rolls with advantage, and the high-stealth character rolls with disadvantage.

The DC is set by the Passive Perception of those they are opposing. If the monsters have a stealth score of 14 for example then some PCs can fail while other still pass. It isn't all or nothing.

Group Checks:

"When a number of individuals are trying to accomplish something as a group, the DM might ask for a group ability check. In such a situation, the characters who are skilled at a particular task help cover for those who aren't."

That all checks out.

"Group checks don't come up very often, and they're most useful when all the characters succeed or fail as a group."

This is basically what stealth is. The entire party can fail as a group and often will because of the clumsy character in plate. Also I think it is entirely valid to have each PP check be counted as a separate challenge. (Even if we're reading stealth as something that the entire group doesn't pass or fail on this doesn't say they can't be used when the characters don't succeed or fail as a group, just that it isn't as useful).

The entire group can beat PP 12 by having half the group succeed but they could also fail against PP 14 in the same situation.

This is supported in the rules though not called out under stealth specifically.

I think it is valid though up to the DM of course.

I use group checks whenever the group is attempting something together (unless it is 1 character helping another). For example, when the group is involved in a social encounter and a charisma check is called for I call for a group check as everyone is involved and having an impact. I think it's within the spirit of the rules too as the game was designed with the intent that every character can attempt just about everything as opposed to previous design such as 3e.

Having the entire group fail because of 1 low roll is what the group check mechanic is meant to avoid in other words.
 

MarkB

Legend
The DC is set by the Passive Perception of those they are opposing. If the monsters have a stealth score of 14 for example then some PCs can fail while other still pass. It isn't all or nothing.

Group Checks:

"When a number of individuals are trying to accomplish something as a group, the DM might ask for a group ability check. In such a situation, the characters who are skilled at a particular task help cover for those who aren't."

That all checks out.

"Group checks don't come up very often, and they're most useful when all the characters succeed or fail as a group."

This is basically what stealth is. The entire party can fail as a group and often will because of the clumsy character in plate. Also I think it is entirely valid to have each PP check be counted as a separate challenge. (Even if we're reading stealth as something that the entire group doesn't pass or fail on this doesn't say they can't be used when the characters don't succeed or fail as a group, just that it isn't as useful).

The entire group can beat PP 12 by having half the group succeed but they could also fail against PP 14 in the same situation.

This is supported in the rules though not called out under stealth specifically.

I think it is valid though up to the DM of course.

I use group checks whenever the group is attempting something together (unless it is 1 character helping another). For example, when the group is involved in a social encounter and a charisma check is called for I call for a group check as everyone is involved and having an impact. I think it's within the spirit of the rules too as the game was designed with the intent that every character can attempt just about everything as opposed to previous design such as 3e.

Having the entire group fail because of 1 low roll is what the group check mechanic is meant to avoid in other words.
It's all-or-nothing in that there's never a situation in which some of the ambushers will be seen while others won't. An enemy against whom the group check succeeds will see none of them. An enemy against whom it fails will see all of them.
 

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.
Remember that initiative is an abstract concept: everything is taking place simultaneously in 6 seconds. In general this primarily matters for reactions, but also Assassinate. In this example, the defenders just happen to have a quicker reaction than would otherwise occur. The attacker wasn't slower, the defenders were just quicker or in a better position to defend.
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.
This personally drives be bat-crap crazy. I had a barbarian in my game who could rage at the start of combat to avoid being surprised, yet regularly rolled low on initiative. As it was the beast totem, I narrated that he could smell the enemy, although not where they were. With Alert, I'd probably just give them an innate danger sense, that allows them to be wary, but never why. In both cases, pretty much the only options are Perceive, Dodge, or Ready.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
It's all-or-nothing in that there's never a situation in which some of the ambushers will be seen while others won't. An enemy against whom the group check succeeds will see none of them. An enemy against whom it fails will see all of them.

It's already all-or-nothing if 1 character rolls a 1 all opponents will detect them.

Saying it is all-or-nothing is supportive of using a group check.

It isn't though in practice. If the team beats PP 12 they might surprise one creature but fail to surprise another one that has PP 14.

That's all-or-nothing for each individual creature but not the group as a whole. It's the exact same as a regular check only you're not using the lowest roll. You're using the 2nd or 3rd lowest.
 

MarkB

Legend
It's already all-or-nothing if 1 character rolls a 1 all opponents will detect them.

Saying it is all-or-nothing is supportive of using a group check.

It isn't though in practice. If the team beats PP 12 they might surprise one creature but fail to surprise another one that has PP 14.

That's all-or-nothing for each individual creature but not the group as a whole. It's the exact same as a regular check only you're not using the lowest roll. You're using the 2nd or 3rd lowest.
Are you deliberately missing the point, or just deciding not to address it? With the group check, there is no way for one ambusher to remain hidden while another is visible, even if they're in different hiding places. That is what I mean by all-or-nothing.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
Are you deliberately missing the point, or just deciding not to address it? With the group check, there is no way for one ambusher to remain hidden while another is visible, even if they're in different hiding places. That is what I mean by all-or-nothing.

Okay so what you mean by 'all-or-nothing' is different than all-or-nothing.

Fine.

You seem to be arguing that group stealth checks are against the rules. Is that true? Because they aren't and I've laid out why.
 

MarkB

Legend
Okay so what you mean by 'all-or-nothing' is different than all-or-nothing.

Fine.

You seem to be arguing that group stealth checks are against the rules. Is that true? Because they aren't and I've laid out why.
I'm just saying I find them inappropriate to an ambush situation, because in most such situations it would be reasonable for it to be possible to become aware of some of the ambushers while still being unaware of others - and that can't happen if they make a group check.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
I'm just saying I find them inappropriate to an ambush situation, because in most such situations it would be reasonable for it to be possible to become aware of some of the ambushers while still being unaware of others - and that can't happen if they make a group check.

This is the whole point of a group check though.

For the better ones to help out the worse ones.

And what is the alternative in play? That a group with a heavy armour wearer just doesn't attempt stealth because they're going to fail more often than not? Instead of being a weakness of the character it becomes a drag on the group. That's just not fun for me.

I'm not trying to convince you to use them.

What I am saying is that group stealth checks are supported by the rules and should be included in a post about how surprise works.
 


We voted on giving disadvantage on the initiative roll of those that are surprised. This way, the ambushers have a better chance of having initiative and though it does not prevent the fringed cases mentioned above, it makes the rare enough to pass for divine intervention. This also helps out assassins to get that auto crit feature function as intended and actually be usable and reliable.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
How you all handle legendary actions and surprise. Do you allow them on surprise round, or only after the creature has gone?
If the creature is surprised and hasn't gone, it not only can't act, but it can't react. A legendary action is a special action that acts similar to a reaction, so that seems like a no go to me.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
We voted on giving disadvantage on the initiative roll of those that are surprised. This way, the ambushers have a better chance of having initiative and though it does not prevent the fringed cases mentioned above, it makes the rare enough to pass for divine intervention. This also helps out assassins to get that auto crit feature function as intended and actually be usable and reliable.

Is that the intent though? Do you know that?

I read the main part of the assassinate feature to be the advantage on winning initiative.

The auto crit part was likely added on because in an ambush situation the assassin probably already has advantage so this way they still get a bonus for winning initiative.

Is the auto crit supposed to happen often? I don't think so.
 

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