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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

ad_hoc

Hero
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.
It is important because some abilities require the target to be surprised.

Makes the most sense to not be surprised anymore when the effect of it no longer applies.
 

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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.
Yes, but the rogue assassin treats surprise as a condition.
 

Lyxen

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

When someone does the first real combat action, we roll for initiative, as per the rules. Those with prepared actions with triggers corresponding to what is really happening are not surprised and get their readied actions when the triggers occur. Those with no actions or triggers that don't occur can be surprised depending on what was visible or not.

For example, treachery during negotiations leads to a sword being drawn and a blow dealt, which some people could have anticipated, but if it's from a hidden assassin, maybe other people (or more likely noone) might have other actions on other triggers.

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

The danger with this is that it might give too much power in particular to assassins, while rewarding less specific preparedness. I agree that it might be better for some tables, I'm just explaining what works best for us.

Example: discussing with a bard holding a precious harp that we wanted to get, with a few of his friends. I had a spell ready from before approaching them to paralyse the bard if he did anything with the harp. It worked because at some time the bard, out of spite, decided to try and smash the harp to the ground, but if combat had broken out any other way, I would not have been able to get my spell off...
 




Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
. For whatever reason, the surprised party always seems to roll high on initiative and surprise becomes meaningless.
The surprised party may go first, but they sill spend a round doing nothing while the ambushers have a whole round to blast/hinder them with spells, pepper them with arrows, summon demons etc etc. It's a big deal considering that 5e combat tend to be resolved in 3-5 rounds. So meaningless? absolutely not.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
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?
If everyone has a ready action, it means everyone is ready for a fight, so there is no surprise? Perhaps I'm not understanding your question.
 

Ok. Not seeing it but, then again, maybe it's a moot distinction.

What is gained by treating "surprised" as a condition, in your opinion? Is it that the "surprise" can persist for the whole combat as you mentioned previously? Anything else?
Only that.
Wouldn't have hurt to make it clear when exactly the assassin stops being able to deal double damage. As I said, it made its way to sage advice because for many people it was not cristal clear.
There used to be a thread about the true assassin where in the beginning, the OP as I recall argued that you deal double damage in the first round and if you beat initiative even get advantage against targets that were surprised, because you didn't really take a turn in the first round of combat.
As I said: RAI to me is clear, but RAW is not.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
I too think that Group stealth checks MUST be discussed if we are going to talk about surprise. They are there for a very good reason - without them, stealth is virtually impossible for a group, even if everyone in the group is stealthy.

Let us take the circumstances of a group of 10 goblins trying to ambush travelers, and the PCs are their next target. (Keep in mind that the reverse situation is very possible! i.et. the PCs are ambushing a band of marauding goblins).

Let us suppose that the party has a passive perception of 14 (I know some will be lower and higher, but let's just say it's one number for now). Goblins have +6 to stealth (which is better than I remembered ha!), so they need to roll 9 or higher to beat the DC.

This means that one goblin has 60% chance of keeping hidden from the PCs. However, without group checks, if you had 2 goblins, they both would have to pass it, so they now have 36% chance of making it (0.6X0.6).

If your ambushing party has 5 goblins (that's not a big group!), they have a measly 7.7% chance of success. Our band of 10 goblins has 0.6% chance of making it. That is terrible. It effectively means that ambushes "don't work". But we know they do, sometimes!

A group check makes ambushes possible. If you don't allow group checks, you are basically declaring that in your world, groups cannot be sneaky. Is that what you want? Because that is the consequence of your ruling.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
Now the trickier question is, how would a group check work in an ambush?

Let us say we have 5 foolhardy goblins, A B C D and E, and 3 PCs, Bob, Jane and Lucy. Their plan is to hide in some bushes then fire arrows at the PCs.

Bob has a passive perception of 12, Jane has 14 and Lucy has 16. The goblins get stealth rolls of 12, 13, 15, 17 and 21. 15 is the "central" value, so Bone and Jane are surprised, but Lucy isn't.

Easy peasy!

But what isn't easy peasy is determining which goblin gets advantage on their attack because they are attacking from stealth. For example, goblins A and B (with stealth results of 12 and 13) firing upon Jane would not get advantage because she has seen them, ...but she still is surprised? That seems... janky, and complicated.

I think at this point the best thing to do, for simplicity's sake is to just use the GROUP stealth value and run with that. The GM can, if they want, keep track of individual results, but it sounds like it's more headache than it's worth.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
I think at this point the best thing to do, for simplicity's sake is to just use the GROUP stealth value and run with that. The GM can, if they want, keep track of individual results, but it sounds like it's more headache than it's worth.

Groups checks are just an option to resolve things, if they are not appropriate for some situations, don't use them, that's all. And it's not that difficult to keep track of stealth checks, especially since you are not supposed to roll that often anyway, they last until you are discovered or stop hiding...
 

Only that.
Wouldn't have hurt to make it clear when exactly the assassin stops being able to deal double damage. As I said, it made its way to sage advice because for many people it was not cristal clear.
There used to be a thread about the true assassin where in the beginning, the OP as I recall argued that you deal double damage in the first round and if you beat initiative even get advantage against targets that were surprised, because you didn't really take a turn in the first round of combat.
As I said: RAI to me is clear, but RAW is not.
Careful what you wish for - the DM could then bust out an ambush of always-crit-on-a-hit NPC assassins vs surprised-for-the-whole-combat party members.
 

MarkB

Legend
Now the trickier question is, how would a group check work in an ambush?

Let us say we have 5 foolhardy goblins, A B C D and E, and 3 PCs, Bob, Jane and Lucy. Their plan is to hide in some bushes then fire arrows at the PCs.

Bob has a passive perception of 12, Jane has 14 and Lucy has 16. The goblins get stealth rolls of 12, 13, 15, 17 and 21. 15 is the "central" value, so Bone and Jane are surprised, but Lucy isn't.

Easy peasy!

But what isn't easy peasy is determining which goblin gets advantage on their attack because they are attacking from stealth. For example, goblins A and B (with stealth results of 12 and 13) firing upon Jane would not get advantage because she has seen them, ...but she still is surprised? That seems... janky, and complicated.

I think at this point the best thing to do, for simplicity's sake is to just use the GROUP stealth value and run with that. The GM can, if they want, keep track of individual results, but it sounds like it's more headache than it's worth.
Trying to use a combination of group and individual checks is certainly going to have janky results. Why would you use a group check to determine surprise, but individual checks to determine who's spotted?

Either go with group checks for both, or individual checks for both.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
If everyone has a ready action, it means everyone is ready for a fight, so there is no surprise? Perhaps I'm not understanding your question.

With a house rule where people can ready outside of combat everyone should just ready at all times.

And then when everyone tries to do their readied action there should be some way to resolve who goes first.

That is what initiative is, is my point.

Readied actions outside of combat are nonsensical.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
When someone does the first real combat action, we roll for initiative, as per the rules. Those with prepared actions with triggers corresponding to what is really happening are not surprised and get their readied actions when the triggers occur. Those with no actions or triggers that don't occur can be surprised depending on what was visible or not.

For example, treachery during negotiations leads to a sword being drawn and a blow dealt, which some people could have anticipated, but if it's from a hidden assassin, maybe other people (or more likely noone) might have other actions on other triggers.



The danger with this is that it might give too much power in particular to assassins, while rewarding less specific preparedness. I agree that it might be better for some tables, I'm just explaining what works best for us.

Example: discussing with a bard holding a precious harp that we wanted to get, with a few of his friends. I had a spell ready from before approaching them to paralyse the bard if he did anything with the harp. It worked because at some time the bard, out of spite, decided to try and smash the harp to the ground, but if combat had broken out any other way, I would not have been able to get my spell off...

I don't think I understand your system.

In your example the Bard would have smashed the harp because reactions happen after their triggers.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
With a house rule where people can ready outside of combat everyone should just ready at all times.

This is not what ready means. Ready means that you need to choose the action that you are going to do, for once, and second that you have a perceivable trigger that you are looking for. So, for example, it does not work in a real ambush situation.

And then when everyone tries to do their readied action there should be some way to resolve who goes first.

The trigger will occur in a certain order, and in case of conflict, you still have the initiative order to rely on, so again no ambiguity.

That is what initiative is, is my point.
Readied actions outside of combat are nonsensical.

And yet, they work very well for us, try it, it promotes creativity and immersing in the game world to try to anticipate situations just as what oyu would do rather than relying on mechanics and the randomness of a dice roll.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
In your example the Bard would have smashed the harp because reactions happen after their triggers.

Yes, they happen after the trigger, so if the trigger was "after he had done something with the harp", it would indeed be too late, but if it is "after he starts doing something with the harp", it should (and did) trigger to interrupt the action itself.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
Yes, they happen after the trigger, so if the trigger was "after he had done something with the harp", it would indeed be too late, but if it is "after he starts doing something with the harp", it should (and did) trigger to interrupt the action itself.

That isn't how that rule works.

A player can't say for example 'i ready at the start of the other character casting a spell' and then interrupt the spell.

The action happens. And then the reaction occurs.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
This is not what ready means. Ready means that you need to choose the action that you are going to do, for once, and second that you have a perceivable trigger that you are looking for. So, for example, it does not work in a real ambush situation.



The trigger will occur in a certain order, and in case of conflict, you still have the initiative order to rely on, so again no ambiguity.



And yet, they work very well for us, try it, it promotes creativity and immersing in the game world to try to anticipate situations just as what oyu would do rather than relying on mechanics and the randomness of a dice roll.

I ready an action so that if we are ambushed I attack the ambusher.

I still don't think I really understand your system.

To me it sounds like it would make a mess of non-combat scenes.

I have no problem with creativity and immersion in the standard rules. I don't need it promoted by whatever this is.
 

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