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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

Horwath

Hero
Just roll group check for both parties.

PCs are walking into an ambush, roll group stealth vs highest passive Perception of ambushers,
For ambushers, roll group stealth vs individual PC passive perception.
Ambushers may get advantage on their stealth check if they prepared or picked the ambush sight carefully.
 

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Lyxen

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

Of course he can ready an action like this, it's just that there are no ways to interrupt a spell casting anyway.

The action happens. And then the reaction occurs.

No, the trigger happens, then the reaction interrupts the turn of whoever is doing the action before it's complete.

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

Which won't work as you will not see the ambusher (trigger will not be perceivable), and in any case it's not specific enough, see the examples.

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

There is no mess at all. If people suspect treachery, they will just ready an action based on the trigger that seems the most likely to happen.

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

The standard rules promote nothing of the kind, you can try to immerse and prepare, and everything is wiped out by initiative.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
Of course he can ready an action like this, it's just that there are no ways to interrupt a spell casting anyway.



No, the trigger happens, then the reaction interrupts the turn of whoever is doing the action before it's complete.



Which won't work as you will not see the ambusher (trigger will not be perceivable), and in any case it's not specific enough, see the examples.



There is no mess at all. If people suspect treachery, they will just ready an action based on the trigger that seems the most likely to happen.



The standard rules promote nothing of the kind, you can try to immerse and prepare, and everything is wiped out by initiative.

Okay so the Bard readies an action to smash the harp.

And then whatever the PCs do the Bard goes first because it is a reaction and interrupts others no matter what.

That isn't how the reaction rules work. It happens after the action. It doesn't interrupt it.

I think we need a faq on reactions.
 


Or the DM could say "rock falls, everyone dies". so....
What’s that have to do with an interpretation of surprise rules? Oh, maybe the DM yells “surprise!” when the rocks fall? So….

EDIT: point being, when someone wants a loose interpretation of RAW to seemingly benefit the PCs, the same loose interpretation can be used against them.
 
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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.
Ok. Probably you meant it generally... because it should be obvious, that this is not my wish. In this special case my wish is half a sentence as clarification in the book, not in sage advice.

Generally your advice is good however. Whenever a player (or DM) tries to expoit an unclear rule, you should ask: is it still fun if roles were reversed?
Maybe that generally is a good advice for real life too...
 


Lyxen

Great Old One
Okay so the Bard readies an action to smash the harp.

If what ?

And then whatever the PCs do the Bard goes first because it is a reaction and interrupts others no matter what.

No, reactions interrupt other reactions as well, for example you can counterspell another counterspell.

That isn't how the reaction rules work. It happens after the action. It doesn't interrupt it.

See above.

I think we need a faq on reactions.

From my perspective, there is no need, we have been applying this for years now, both for transitioning to combat and during fights and never had a problem with it.
 

MarkB

Legend
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.
So, if the triggering action occurs before their turn, do they get to take their readied action and their full turn during the first round?
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...
Certainly you would - at least potentially. Since you're there to protect the harp, the bard attempting to destroy it is a hostile action. And since a hostile action is being attempted, initiative is rolled.

If you roll higher than the bard's initiative, you get to try to paralyse him before he smashes the harp on his turn. If you don't, he gets to smash the harp.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
If what ?



No, reactions interrupt other reactions as well, for example you can counterspell another counterspell.



See above.



From my perspective, there is no need, we have been applying this for years now, both for transitioning to combat and during fights and never had a problem with it.

"I cast hold person on the Bard"

Sorry the Bard readied an action they smash the harp before you can do anything. No roll.

Counter spell is a specific rule which breaks the general rule. OA is the most obvious one. The OA occurs before the triggering event. That is an exception to the general rule that reactions occur after their trigger.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
So, if the triggering action occurs before their turn, do they get to take their readied action and their full turn during the first round?

Certainly you would - at least potentially. Since you're there to protect the harp, the bard attempting to destroy it is a hostile action. And since a hostile action is being attempted, initiative is rolled.

If you roll higher than the bard's initiative, you get to try to paralyse him before he smashes the harp on his turn. If you don't, he gets to smash the harp.

Yes, exactly. 2 characters want to do opposing things. It is a contest.

When we get readied actions outside of combat we get into a mess where everyone needs to say what they are readying at all times or risk losing an action. And the DM in turn needs to think about what all the other creatures are readying.

And then if someone breaks the tension and tries to do something we get chain reactions where the last character to react goes first.

It is rather silly.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
So, if the triggering action occurs before their turn, do they get to take their readied action and their full turn during the first round?

It's like any normal round, sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. If the trigger happens before their turn, yes, if not, no.

Certainly you would - at least potentially. Since you're there to protect the harp, the bard attempting to destroy it is a hostile action. And since a hostile action is being attempted, initiative is rolled.

If you roll higher than the bard's initiative, you get to try to paralyse him before he smashes the harp on his turn. If you don't, he gets to smash the harp.

And this means that preparation is pointless, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid.

"I cast hold person on the Bard"

Then I don't have a readied action, do I ? But it did not happen that way because I did not want to be the one to start hostilities.

Sorry the Bard readied an action they smash the harp before you can do anything. No roll.

If he'd been rational and wanted to prepare for a hostile action on our part, he might have done that, why not. But the thing is that we we did not want to start the hostilities, just be ready to react to specific circumstances.

Counter spell is a specific rule which breaks the general rule. OA is the most obvious one. The OA occurs before the triggering event. That is an exception to the general rule that reactions occur after their trigger.

And again, it depends on what the trigger is. My exemples are perfect examples of perceivable triggers.

Yes, exactly. 2 characters want to do opposing things. It is a contest.

If it's that way, without any preparation, yes.

When we get readied actions outside of combat we get into a mess where everyone needs to say what they are readying at all times or risk losing an action. And the DM in turn needs to think about what all the other creatures are readying.

Yes, the DM needs to think about it because it's the logical thing to do for some NPCs as well in tense situations. The bodyguard prepares himself to cover his charge. The mage prepares a dimension door out of the melee. All this is normal, for PCs and NPCs alike.

And then if someone breaks the tension and tries to do something we get chain reactions where the last character to react goes first.

Even if it was that way (which it is not, because for this to happen, you would have to have very bizarre readied actions), how is this worse than just stupidly rolling for it with no consideration of tactics? But if you prefer rolling, roll and enjoy the randomness.

It is rather silly.

Look, you don't like it, it's fine, don't use it. But being insulting is something else.
 

MarkB

Legend
It's like any normal round, sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. If the trigger happens before their turn, yes, if not, no.
Except that, on any normal round, you're giving up an action on your turn in order to take that readied action. Here, you don't give up anything.
And this means that preparation is pointless, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid.
But in a situation like this, aren't both sides trying to be prepared? How come your side gets to be prepared, but the bard doesn't?
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
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?
A stimulus that can be reacted to should be in the present, ergo the alert character reacts to a present threat of an attack. Which the feat allows them to sense somehow. The features of that moment in time remain true even if their reaction means that the threat doesn't result in an attack at a later moment in time.

To work as you envision, alert has to sense an attack actually occurring in a future moment in time, and provide that information to the present. It becomes a time-travelling intuition and will suffer the usual paradoxes.

Bottomline: just keep the sense to the present and say the stimulus is the threat, not the attack.
 
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clearstream

Be just and fear not...
RAW, the only thing that has always bugged me is that is someone is surprising others with an opening surprise attack while hidden (like Krusher in your example, who throws a javelin from the shadows) he/she may in fact be the last one taking his/her turn due to a bad roll. Because in that case, no one would notice the threat because Krusher still didn't throw the javelin, but they are not surprised anymore...

Solasta: Crown of the Magister solved this by putting the opening attacker on top of the initiative list. I think it makes sense as a good house rule. But what do you think?
I've tried that rule. It makes the gameplay a bit trigger happy as there is a benefit to being first to declare an attack. That isn't always a bad thing. However, it is not really necessary.

Remember everyone who is surprised will miss their first turn, so slow old Krusher will effectively go first if they surprised everyone. Those who perceived Krusher are not surprised and it makes sense they can go first as they spotted an armed ambusher. Alert characters have a preternatural sense and respond to the threat, not the attack.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
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.
Framing it that way is begging to make a problem. With alert, you avoid being surprised by a threat you can sense, even if you cannot see or hear it.

Imagine alert was just hearing, and everyone else is deaf. The character with alert hears that the forest is strangely silent, and that a twig snaps somewhere nearby. No-one eles hears anything, but they might still see the ambusher in time to react. The alert character in this example does not see the ambusher, but alert - hearing - gives them a chance to act. Alert characters sense present threats, even if they do not perceive them with their other senses.

Framing it as reacting to a future event results in time travel conundrums.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
This can happen even without the Alert feat - like the Assassin rogue who fails to win initiative, and decides on their turn that they'll just try again later.

Personally, I would rule that the attacker is committed to the initiating action of the fight. If their attack is invalidated, it still happens but is an automatic miss - the Alert character dodged into cover with unnatural speed.
For me that fails the - would this feel fair to me as a player - test. If my mark somehow senses the threat and gets into hard cover, I dislike the DM forcing me to attack on a turn I have not needed to declare actions for yet.

Maybe it can be understood like this. Say in my turn I ready to fire when I have a completely clear shot (one free of disadvantage and penalties). And then the only shots that come up over the round are not completely clear. Does my DM force me to fire anyway?
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Except that, on any normal round, you're giving up an action on your turn in order to take that readied action. Here, you don't give up anything.

You do, in the sense that if you are preparing for something, you are watching for that trigger specifically, and therefore are more likely to be surprised by something else "you were watching the leader so intently that you did not see the assassins sneak in").

But in a situation like this, aren't both sides trying to be prepared? How come your side gets to be prepared, but the bard doesn't?

It really depends on the situation (like everything in D&D, really it's good that 5e acknowledged that fact), but not every one is prepared for something specific, as there are disadvantages, see above. Second, you might be preparing for something that never comes, or comes too late. The best example of this is tough discussions with an enemy party, where people don't really want to be the ones to start hostilities (because of the bad reputation that might spread, we get that a lot in our Odyssey of the Dragonlords campaign where we are the heroes of the prophecy but our opponents always look for opportunities to slander us, and where the words spread quickly), and therefore some people prepare for a hostile act from specific people, while others prefer a kind of general awareness and position themselves in consequence, but where, often, the hostilities start from an unforeseen angle (like an assassin from the shadows).

We also use it an ambush situations, where we decide that someone is going to shoot first, and the others prepare to shoot right after him. This works for NPCs ambushers really well too. And we use it for assassination (in particular the assassin gloomstalker in my Avernus campaign) to attack the target at the right moment, assuming that the assassin can predict what the target is going to do.

But in the case of the bard, he was sort of crazy anyway, and not really preparing anything, just reacting to moods and (we later suspected) some kind of external godly influence that made him angrier and angrier. And at the same time, he was surrounded by satyrs and fauns and other more or less nasty beasties, that we did not want to attack as we certainly did not want to antagonise the fair folk, who we are trying to have as allies against the titans. So in that case, I was IIRC one of the only two people being specifically prepared, the other one being the medusa ranger who was particularly wary of the elementals at the back and who thought they would be the ones attacking as being linked to the titans. The bard did not prepare anything, at some point something triggered him and he decided to smash the harp rather than giving it to us like he was saying a heartbeat before.

Of course, if everyone prepares and counterprepares, I suppose it could lead to complex situations, but really it does not at our tables, just rewards preparedness at the expense of general awareness.
 

MarkB

Legend
For me that fails the - would this feel fair to me as a player - test. If my mark somehow senses the threat and gets into hard cover, I dislike the DM forcing me to attack on a turn I have not needed to declare actions for yet.
In the situation I responded to, someone in the ambushing party declared that they were going to open fire, and as a result initiative was rolled. I'd consider that a declared action, even if they only get to do it late in the initiative order.
Maybe it can be understood like this. Say in my turn I ready to fire when I have a completely clear shot (one free of disadvantage and penalties). And then the only shots that come up over the round are not completely clear. Does my DM force me to fire anyway?
In that situation, if you don't fire before your next turn combat continues as normal. If combat was started and initiative rolled due to your declared intention to attack, and then you don't actually attack, the result is those time travel shenanigans you were talking about.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
I've tried that rule. It makes the gameplay a bit trigger happy as there is a benefit to being first to declare an attack. That isn't always a bad thing. However, it is not really necessary.

And for me it gives too much of an advantage to assassins. Solasta's solution is not a bad one, but it's only a computer game (although I really liked it's take in particular on 3d) dealing with set situations.
Remember everyone who is surprised will miss their first turn, so slow old Krusher will effectively go first if they surprised everyone. Those who perceived Krusher are not surprised and it makes sense they can go first as they spotted an armed ambusher. Alert characters have a preternatural sense and respond to the threat, not the attack.

Indeed.
Framing it that way is begging to make a problem. With alert, you avoid being surprised by a threat you can sense, even if you cannot see or hear it.

Yes, that's the way I describe it, that conan-like sixth sense that just warns you that an attack is coming, and you don't even know what registered.

For me that fails the - would this feel fair to me as a player - test. If my mark somehow senses the threat and gets into hard cover, I dislike the DM forcing me to attack on a turn I have not needed to declare actions for yet.

Yes, same for me. This is also where we use actions readied out of combat, as it avoids these situations, both the target and the assassin can try and ready things depending on what they think the other might do, it's a bit more like the chess-game it should be. Of course, if the target is totally unaware of the assassin, it cannot prepare, but if it sensed something, then it can try and guess where the attack is going to come from.

Maybe it can be understood like this. Say in my turn I ready to fire when I have a completely clear shot (one free of disadvantage and penalties). And then the only shots that come up over the round are not completely clear. Does my DM force me to fire anyway?

See above, for me the trigger for the readied action does not come, so no, no fire.
 

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