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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

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.
Without the auto crit, the assassin's feature is nothing more than a standard sneak attack damage. The auto crit brings the sneak attack to an entire new level. This is the only feature really worth it on the assassin. Ambush, init, auto crit, big damage and a good chance to one shot a strong monster/NPC.

Otherwise, a thief, arcane trickster have more tricks down their sleeve than the assassin. And they can crit too. Like the assassin on normal rule. A 20. With our way, the auto crit isn't only a 5% to activate. It is devastating, but not overly so that it becomes unplayable. But attractive enough to have people consider the subclass. What good is a feature if it rarely kicks in?
 

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Fallen star

Explorer
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.
Yes, but even if the target is surprised, the surprise ends as soon as its turn comes up in turn order. So the assassin still has to beat it in initiative. Really surprise should last
until the end of the entire first round of combat.
 

Esbee

Dungeon Master at large.
I liked how 1E & 2E handled initiative. Id prefer something simple like that, even a d20 + perception vs. DC would work for me.

Yeah, 1e is my main game. Surprise, as with many of 1e's rules, is a little muddled in presentation, but I have it smoothed out to something good.

In the 5e games I have played (both as DM and player), surprise rarely happens, and when it does it's usually a non event. For whatever reason, the surprised party always seems to roll high on initiative and surprise becomes meaningless.
 

Yeah, 1e is my main game. Surprise, as with many of 1e's rules, is a little muddled in presentation, but I have it smoothed out to something good.

In the 5e games I have played (both as DM and player), surprise rarely happens, and when it does it's usually a non event. For whatever reason, the surprised party always seems to roll high on initiative and surprise becomes meaningless.
Im trying to remember how it worked in 1E &2E. IIRC both parties rolled surprise and whoever won got to attack the surprised party/PC but there were no counter attacks in that round, then initiative was rolled? Correct?
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
Im trying to remember how it worked in 1E &2E. IIRC both parties rolled surprise and whoever won got to attack the surprised party/PC but there were no counter attacks in that round, then initiative was rolled? Correct?
That's pretty close to 2e (barring the casting of spells), 1e allowed for surprised groups to be affected for multiple segments, each of which was treated like a round for some things, but not for others. Honestly, it sucked.
 

Esbee

Dungeon Master at large.
Im trying to remember how it worked in 1E &2E. IIRC both parties rolled surprise and whoever won got to attack the surprised party/PC but there were no counter attacks in that round, then initiative was rolled? Correct?

1e and 2e were a bit different from each other. I'll try and be brief as it's a 5e surprise thread... don't want to get accused of going too far off topic. :oops:

1e was a d6 roll, 1-2 indicated surprise, and the # you rolled indicated how much surprise. ie: you roll a 2, and you are surprised for 2 segments. Elves had a surprise ability that upped it to 1-4 on d6, so you could conceivably surprise for up to 4 segments. Some characters could reduce the chances of surprise, like Rangers, would only be surprised on a 1 on d6, so even if surprised it was a maximum 1 segment. (There are other complications that change surprise around and alter #s, but this is the basic rule)

A segment was 6 seconds (of a 1 minute round), and what you could do depended on your chosen action. If melee, you get 1 full round's worth of attacks per segment. If missile, you can triple your RoF if you're prepped and ready, or keep your normal RoF if not. Missile RoF remains the RoF for a normal round, and isn't per segment as with melee... so I run it that if you are using a bow and triple to 6, you get one shot per segment during surprise, and the balance carries into the normal melee round. For spellcasting, you can only do one spell regardless of how many segments, but you subtract the surprise segments from the casting time of the spell. (or more accurately, complete the spell within the surprise segments.)

Dexterity mitigates surprise segments, your reaction adjustment allows you to negate an equal amount of segments of surprise.

I also fold surprise segments into the normal round, but that's not a standard interpretation. Most people resolve surprise and then roll initiative.

2e is simpler - roll d10, and any score of 1-3 indicates surprise. Monsters and characters modifiy the roll, but surprise is always a flat 1 round regardless.
 
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Esbee

Dungeon Master at large.
That's pretty close to 2e (barring the casting of spells), 1e allowed for surprised groups to be affected for multiple segments, each of which was treated like a round for some things, but not for others. Honestly, it sucked.

I disagree, I love 1e surprise. Though I do understand why people aren't fond of it by virtue of the way it's written up... a good rule presented poorly. Once you have a good procedure for it step-by-step, it works really well, and characters that specialize in surprise and stealth (Hello thieves (elven thieves!!!), assassins, rangers, and monks!) can really shine.
 

1e and 2e were a bit different from each other.
I can see were the "Advanced" in AD&D came from. Id say comparing the 3 editions in this conversation isnt straying off topic, but thats just me.
In the 5e games I have played (both as DM and player), surprise rarely happens, and when it does it's usually a non event. For whatever reason, the surprised party always seems to roll high on initiative and surprise becomes meaningless.
Ive noticed the same, on paper the 5E surprise rules look simple enough and should work smoothly but IME they just dont. But this thread got me thinking to bring it up to my group to try and come up with a better way to resolve the surprise round.
 

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.
That is a good find, but as a DM I would rule, that in this case rage does not end.
Actually you could read the rules that rage does not end in the first round of combat, because it ends if you did not attack or receive damage since your last turn. Since there was no last turn, the condition is moot.
Actually I don't like these rage ending conditions. They resemble the divine mark of 4e conditions that are just there to limit abusing those abilities in bad faith. If you play the character normally, they are unneeded. A barbarian that goes into rage to force something open (which seems appropriate) will also lose rage after 6 seconds...
 

Yes, but even if the target is surprised, the surprise ends as soon as its turn comes up in turn order. So the assassin still has to beat it in initiative. Really surprise should last
until the end of the entire first round of combat.
Actually, it is never explicitely spoken out in the rules, when exactly the surprised condition ends (please correct me, if I just missed it).
As far as I know, it tells us, that in the first round of combat, a surprised creature can not act or take reactions, but it does not state that they are no longer surprised after that...
You actually could read it in a way, that an assassin will crit on any hit against targets that were surprised, even on later rounds...
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Actually, it is never explicitely spoken out in the rules, when exactly the surprised condition ends (please correct me, if I just missed it).
As far as I know, it tells us, that in the first round of combat, a surprised creature can not act or take reactions, but it does not state that they are no longer surprised after that...
You actually could read it in a way, that an assassin will crit on any hit against targets that were surprised, even on later rounds...
"is" surprised isn't the same as "was" surprised, so the later round thing wouldn't work. The surprise rules state that if you don't notice a threat, you are surprised at the start of the encounter(not the entire encounter).

In any case, it's pretty clear that even if you could read it that way, that's not how the ability was intended to work.
 

Mort

Legend
Actually, it is never explicitely spoken out in the rules, when exactly the surprised condition ends (please correct me, if I just missed it).
As far as I know, it tells us, that in the first round of combat, a surprised creature can not act or take reactions, but it does not state that they are no longer surprised after that...
You actually could read it in a way, that an assassin will crit on any hit against targets that were surprised, even on later rounds...

It's a bit more explicit than that - From DnDbeyond:

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.

That's it, that's all the surprised condition does, so after your first turn - you're free to act normally (which while not 100% explicit is pretty clear).

Also, creatures that can take legendary actions, if they are surprised, can take them after their first turn - further clarifying that surprise ends after your first turn.
 

Yeah, 1e is my main game. Surprise, as with many of 1e's rules, is a little muddled in presentation, but I have it smoothed out to something good.

In the 5e games I have played (both as DM and player), surprise rarely happens, and when it does it's usually a non event. For whatever reason, the surprised party always seems to roll high on initiative and surprise becomes meaningless.
Rolling high for initiative then not being able to take an action or move in the first round due to surprise… doesn’t seem meaningless to me.
 

"is" surprised isn't the same as "was" surprised, so the later round thing wouldn't work. The surprise rules state that if you don't notice a threat, you are surprised at the start of the encounter(not the entire encounter).

In any case, it's pretty clear that even if you could read it that way, that's not how the ability was intended to work.
No. And sage advice clarifies the rule to the most logical reading. But it could have been easier if surprised was just listed as a condition that ends after the first turn.
Or just add: "...and is no longer surprised" to the end of the sentence.
 

It's a bit more explicit than that - From DnDbeyond:

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.

That's it, that's all the surprised condition does, so after your first turn - you're free to act normally (which while not 100% explicit is pretty clear).

Also, creatures that can take legendary actions, if they are surprised, can take them after their first turn - further clarifying that surprise ends after your first turn.
Nice find with the legendary actions. Still it found its way to sage advice because RAW it is NOT totally although RAI it is.
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
That is a good find, but as a DM I would rule, that in this case rage does not end.
Actually you could read the rules that rage does not end in the first round of combat, because it ends if you did not attack or receive damage since your last turn. Since there was no last turn, the condition is moot.
Actually I don't like these rage ending conditions. They resemble the divine mark of 4e conditions that are just there to limit abusing those abilities in bad faith. If you play the character normally, they are unneeded. A barbarian that goes into rage to force something open (which seems appropriate) will also lose rage after 6 seconds...
At my table I've just gone and houseruled that Barbarians get the 15th level ability "Persistent Rage" at level one. In addition to the first-round problems with Rage and surprise, my table tends to feature more wide-ranging encounters than is typical, which was causing Babarians to lose Rage almost every time they tried to take the Dash action.
 

At my table I've just gone and houseruled that Barbarians get the 15th level ability "Persistent Rage" at level one. In addition to the first-round problems with Rage and surprise, my table tends to feature more wide-ranging encounters than is typical, which was causing Babarians to lose Rage almost every time they tried to take the Dash action.
Or, if a DM is less generous, you put a caltrop into your shoe before you start raging. And whenever you dash, you receive one or two points of damage. Problem solved.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Honestly, we never had any problem with surprise as written. Our only problem is that the transition towards combat is too brutal and forgets everything that has gone on before in particular in terms of preparation in favour a simple contest. But we like to reward attention and preparedness, both for players and for verisimilitude. So everything was solved with allowing the readying of actions (with all the limits of 5e, perceivable trigger, limit of what you can prepare) outside of combat, and the carrying of this readiness in combat.

You can still be surprised and lose your readied action if what happens is not what you had thought would happen, but it nicely covers most of the edge cases that I've seen around here, with all the rewards mentioned above.
 

Actually, it is never explicitely spoken out in the rules, when exactly the surprised condition ends (please correct me, if I just missed it).
As far as I know, it tells us, that in the first round of combat, a surprised creature can not act or take reactions, but it does not state that they are no longer surprised after that...
You actually could read it in a way, that an assassin will crit on any hit against targets that were surprised, even on later rounds...
This gets touched on in the OP. Because Surprised in 5E is not a condition, there is no need for it to have a defined end. It just does what it says. If I'm Surprised, in the first round of combat I cannot take actions or move, and I can't take reactions until my turn ends.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
Honestly, we never had any problem with surprise as written. Our only problem is that the transition towards combat is too brutal and forgets everything that has gone on before in particular in terms of preparation in favour a simple contest. But we like to reward attention and preparedness, both for players and for verisimilitude. So everything was solved with allowing the readying of actions (with all the limits of 5e, perceivable trigger, limit of what you can prepare) outside of combat, and the carrying of this readiness in combat.

You can still be surprised and lose your readied action if what happens is not what you had thought would happen, but it nicely covers most of the edge cases that I've seen around here, with all the rewards mentioned above.

But if everyone has readied an action how do you resolve who goes first?

Wouldn't the easiest thing be to have advantage or disadvantage on initiative depending on circumstances?
 

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