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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.

mimic - Gui Sommer.png

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

clearstream

(He, Him)
I ready an arrow to shoot on the next one who opens the door.
I prepare an ambush. Remember the DM decides when initiative is rolled, and they don't need to start combat yet.

That should be something surprise should handle, as the one opening the door should have the chance to be faster.
But if the shooter has extra attack, there can be up to 9 arrows in a single round flying at you, before you could react.
In that case, probably combat has already begun and you use actions and accept that the one on the other side might shoot first. Maybe a stealth check could get you in and allows you to shoot first...
If my foes perceived me - by seeing or hearing me, or sensing something was up - then they are prepared for an attack when they open the door, ergo I didn't and don't surprise them. On the other hand, if they didn't perceive me, it doesn't matter if they roll higher with initiative seeing as they can't act on their turn anyway.

Another weird situation is the assassination scenario. A thief/assassin beats the passive perception. But then the enemy seems to become aware that something is strange (wins intiative and loses surprise). The assassin now won't attack but probably leaves.
The enemy does never know that the assassin was there at all...
when does surprise "reset"?
I think here you are concerned for meta-game information, right? This is a fringe-case because it only arises in the case of an assassin who has surprise and rolls low for initiative and sees no value in attacking without their auto-crit. (FWIW, the cause of this fringe-case is the assassin class feature, not the surprise rules.)

From the point of view of NPC targets of a PC assassin - my game world assumption is that they don't know they are in combat or not in combat - so barring the Alert feat or successful perception, they don't know that a combat started. So yes, as you say they never know the assassin was there at all. Surprise is not something that "resets": rather it is something that is determined each time combat starts.

From the point of view of PC targets of an NPC assassin, they will gain a piece of meta-information because perforce you called for initiative checks. Initiative is a Dexterity ability check, and the problem falls into the general class of ability checks called for that players should not be aware of, and is handled the same way. Whatever solution you apply to those, should apply here.

I think it was easier to roll for surprise. Only unsurprised PCs roll initiative at all, you get a single free shot.
What was the problem the game designers were trying to solve by removing the separate surprise round of 3rd-edition? How would you state the problem you are trying to solve?

I still want to try following: in the first round of combat you announce first and then initiative is rolled. Surprised characters just don't announce what they want to do. Then apply modifications from the variant initiative page of the DMG. The one with alert (and low perception) who notices nothing, maybe should just announce first what to do.
Declaring first runs into problems when the combat state shifts dynamically and a declaration is redundant. It's not necessarily wrong to do it that way, but it can feel pretty bad to your players. Declare at moment of action is robust, if you avoid time travelling intuitions.
 

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clearstream

(He, Him)
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.
Oh right. I should have prefaced that I read the first few pages and skimmed from there. Sorry! For my game I count the declaration as a non-binding intent, because in play at the table that usually works out better. Some of the problems that I am reading people describe are a bit theory-crafty and overlook the option to keep things simple.

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.
I believe the time-travel shenanigans are forced by making the declaration lock in an action that is resolved as being a separate moment from that declaration. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that the declaration and action should be occurring together, fluidly.

Foe: We've prepared an ambush.
Foe: I see our targets.
Foe: I'm going to fi...
DM: Stop right there Ms NPC, that sounds like you want to start a fight so I'm going to need to get the game structure in place for that.
Foe: Rolls 2 and is forced to wait patiently until then
Foe: (on 2) As I raised my crossbow to fire, all my targets heard or saw me and dove into cover... okay, I drop my bow, snatch up my longsword and charge.

There's no need I think to separate declaration from action in that way. Again, it tries to get characters predicting and locked into the future. Just deal with the present is my thinking.
 

MarkB

Legend
Oh right. I should have prefaced that I read the first few pages and skimmed from there. Sorry! For my game I count the declaration as a non-binding intent, because in play at the table that usually works out better. Some of the problems that I am reading people describe are a bit theory-crafty and overlook the option to keep things simple.


I believe the time-travel shenanigans are forced by making the declaration lock in an action that is resolved as being a separate moment from that declaration. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that the declaration and action should be occurring together, fluidly.

Foe: We've prepared an ambush.
Foe: I see our targets.
Foe: I'm going to fi...
DM: Stop right there Ms NPC, that sounds like you want to start a fight so I'm going to need to get the game structure in place for that.
Foe: Rolls 2 and is forced to wait patiently until then
Foe: (on 2) As I raised my crossbow to fire, all my targets heard or saw me and dove into cover... okay, I drop my bow, snatch up my longsword and charge.

There's no need I think to separate declaration from action in that way. Again, it tries to get characters predicting and locked into the future. Just deal with the present is my thinking.
What about the case of "my Alert opponent sensed something was up and scooted into cover but didn't seem to spot me in particular, so I'm just going to sit here quietly and no fighting is actually occurring"?

It's when the chain of events that begins with a character with the Alert feat putting themselves in a safe position results in the combat effectively not happening that it falls apart for me. Initiative is called for when hostilities break out. They shouldn't just retroactively not break out because someone on one side was better at sensing trouble.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
What about the case of "my Alert opponent sensed something was up and scooted into cover but didn't seem to spot me in particular, so I'm just going to sit here quietly and no fighting is actually occurring"?

It's when the chain of events that begins with a character with the Alert feat putting themselves in a safe position results in the combat effectively not happening that it falls apart for me. Initiative is called for when hostilities break out. They shouldn't just retroactively not break out because someone on one side was better at sensing trouble.
Maybe it comes down to what you decide initiative represents? I see it simply as game structure to manage fights. In world there is either no initiative or it is implicit i.e. continuous.

So for me it is just a way of dynamically narrating events, and those events are unchanged, initiative or no initiative. It can shed light to think it out without rules.

So in an example. Our assassin who has the sharpshooter feat adopts a hidden position. Their target comes just barely in range but sees or hears them, or is alerted by a preternatural sense, and moves back out of range. Our assassin can't attack a creature that is not in range.

That's what happened. When was initiative rolled in that sequence? It pans out if it was rolled as soon as an attack was intended and legal, and as it turned out the target - who had a high passive perception and/or the alert feat - rolled higher.

I don't see a justification for the assassin who can't make a legal attack being forced to break cover and charge. And I suspect that will cover most cases. All so far, anyway.
 

MarkB

Legend
Maybe it comes down to what you decide initiative represents? I see it simply as game structure to manage fights. In world there is either no initiative or it is implicit i.e. continuous.

So for me it is just a way of dynamically narrating events, and those events are unchanged, initiative or no initiative. It can shed light to think it out without rules.

So in an example. Our assassin who has the sharpshooter feat adopts a hidden position. Their target comes just barely in range but sees or hears them, or is alerted by a preternatural sense, and moves back out of range. Our assassin can't attack a creature that is not in range.

That's what happened. When was initiative rolled in that sequence? It pans out if it was rolled as soon as an attack was intended and legal, and as it turned out the target - who had a high passive perception and/or the alert feat - rolled higher.

I don't see a justification for the assassin who can't make a legal attack being forced to break cover and charge. And I suspect that will cover most cases. All so far, anyway.
That's reasonable, and it's enough of an edge case not to come up very frequently. I guess I can just cope with the cognitive dissonance of those rare occasions.
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
Maybe it comes down to what you decide initiative represents? I see it simply as game structure to manage fights. In world there is either no initiative or it is implicit i.e. continuous.

So for me it is just a way of dynamically narrating events, and those events are unchanged, initiative or no initiative. It can shed light to think it out without rules.
How do you address the issue that the transition to initiative affects surprise, and surprise is (arguably) an in-world phenomenon? Specifically, if you transition to initiative before a hidden character even tries to take a noticable action (maybe they're casting subtle buff spells, or readying actions), the targets will no longer be surprised after their first turn, despite still not knowing what they were surprised by, or why they had to stand around doing nothing for six seconds?

As a joke I wrote up a humorous portrayal of this sitatuation years ago for a different thread on a different forum. It seems pertinent here:

DM: "You are no longer surprised."
PLAYER: "No longer surprised by what?"
DM: "You have no idea."
PLAYER: "Then why am I no longer surprised?"
DM: "Because you took your first turn in combat."
PLAYER: "First turn in combat against what?"
DM: "You have no idea."
PLAYER: "So... what did I do on my first turn in combat?"
DM: "Nothing, you were surprised."
PLAYER: "What surprised me?"
DM: "You have no idea."
PLAYER: (sighs) "Can I take my next action to make a perception check?"
DM: "That would be metagaming. You don't know anyone is present."
PLAYER: "But I know I was surprised?"
DM: "No, nothing has happened yet of which your character is aware."
PLAYER: "Then why did you tell me I am no longer surprised?"
DM: "So you could take your action next turn."
PLAYER: "But I can't take any actions based on knowing that we're in initiative, because my character still isn't aware that anything is going on, even though he's not surprised?"
DM: "Correct."
PLAYER: "So what am I supposed to do on my turn?"
DM: "Whatever you were doing before you had to skip a turn because you were surprised."
PLAYER: "So... why are we in initiative again?"
DM: "Because someone took a hostile action."
PLAYER: "Who took a hostile action?"
DM: "You have no idea."

Joking aside, I address the problem at my table with an explicit houserule: if only one character (PC or NPC) wants to act first, then they go first. The houserule is loosely based on the idea that in 5e, you only need ability checks when the outcome is uncertain. If only one character wants to act, there's no uncertainty for initiative to resolve. Everyone else presumably wants to act once the first attack is made (or spell is cast, etc.), so everyone else rolls initiative normally and goes in order after the character who initiated combat. The initiator stays at the top of the order in subsequent rounds.

Note that my houserule is not a question of who can shout "I attack" first--it's only triggered when only one character wants to attack at that time.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
How do you address the issue that the transition to initiative affects surprise, and surprise is (arguably) an in-world phenomenon? Specifically, if you transition to initiative before a hidden character even tries to take a noticable action (maybe they're casting subtle buff spells, or readying actions), the targets will no longer be surprised after their first turn, despite still not knowing what they were surprised by, or why they had to stand around doing nothing for six seconds?
That seems back to front. Surprise is an in-world phenomena that we want to resolve with the help of a game structure. I like the case of a hidden character wanting to ready an action as a lense on this.

Abbot: I want to ready to throw a pie at Player
DM: Are you throwing, or waiting, at this point
Abbot: I'm waiting
DM: Okay... let me know when you want to throw because at that point I might call for initiative

Time passes...

DM: Player, you percieve a hidden Abbot armed with a pie
Player: I'm going to rage and charge him
DM: Sounds like it is time to roll initiative

Alternative universe

AlertPlayer: I'm heading through Ambusher's Pass
DM: A few minutes in you have a bad feeling - something is up
AlertPlayer: I flee
DM: Okay (hidden initiative check to see if AlertPlayer will flee before Abbot can throw his pie)

Initiative is a Dexterity ability check. To my reading, the problems you describe fall under the general problem of meta-game information. A hidden ability check might be more appropriate in some cases than one made in the open.

DM: "You are no longer surprised."
PLAYER: "No longer surprised by what?"
DM: "You have no idea."
PLAYER: "Then why am I no longer surprised?"
DM: "Because you took your first turn in combat."
It is very unclear why the DM announced that. What did they aim to convey? Did the player's passive perception reveal a hidden foe? Or did their alert feat clue them in to a hidden threat? Or did a hidden foe continue to wait before attacking (in which case, why has the DM decided to roll initiative?) Entering combat isn't intended to be speculative: you enter combat when and because you entered combat. It's worth also asking about specifics. What spell is foe supposed to be casting subtley? If it's fireball then it is likely time to roll initiative. If it's nondetection, then probably not.

Joking aside, I address the problem at my table with an explicit houserule: if only one character (PC or NPC) wants to act first, then they go first. The houserule is loosely based on the idea that in 5e, you only need ability checks when the outcome is uncertain. If only one character wants to act, there's no uncertainty for initiative to resolve. Everyone else presumably wants to act once the first attack is made (or spell is cast, etc.), so everyone else rolls initiative normally and goes in order after the character who initiated combat. The initiator stays at the top of the order in subsequent rounds.

Note that my houserule is not a question of who can shout "I attack" first--it's only triggered when only one character wants to attack at that time.
I don't hate it, but at the same time for me it doesn't give full value to players who invest in more defensive features like perception or the alert feat. It's generous to the sword-and-board battle master in full plate, and less generous to the rogue in nothing but the alert feat and a winning smile. I want to acknowledge that to my observation players are divided about how they think all this should go.

When the slower character wants to jump into a fight, they tell me what they're doing and I tell them if it is time to roll initiative. If they roll low (which is what we mean by slower, so let's suppose they do) it means that - just like an iajutsu duel, or a shootout in the wild west - they went to make their move and their foe was quicker. Otherwise it feels like saying, no matter how preternatually quick and alert their foe is, they can never be quicker than a slower character who is much angrier than they are. I guess there are plenty of strange in-world results from game rules, but the one where slower characters benefit from being angrier isn't one I like that much given there is an alternative that I'm okay with. One might also assume an in-world pact among all possible foes. If someone goes to attack me I'm going to - try not to be attacked, attack back, etc - before they can do it!

I am advocating both viewing surprise and initiative as simply useful structures to help us resolve what happens, and being sincerely interested in what can emerge from the mechanics as written. That means I genuinely do want the assassin to be able to back out if they've lost their auto-crit. I don't want to apply the combat rules when there isn't a fight. I might need to make an ability check for a player when I want to hide information.
 

ad_hoc

(he/they)
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.

Yes, it is the logical thing to be prepared. That's why there is no surprise. Everyone is assumed to be ready for something to happen and then it isn't resolved by readied actions, but by initiative.

It is this way to avoid all this needless complication as well as the very weird outcome where the last character to react is the first character to resolve their reaction.

In your example the Bard tries to smash the harp and is stopped. But if the PC tried to cast Hold Person first then the Bard can successfully smash the harp.

That doesn't make any sense.

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

You said that your way allows for more immersion and creativity.

I said that chain reactions and last in first out are silly mechanics.

Who is being insulting here?
 

I prepare an ambush. Remember the DM decides when initiative is rolled, and they don't need to start combat yet.


If my foes perceived me - by seeing or hearing me, or sensing something was up - then they are prepared for an attack when they open the door, ergo I didn't and don't surprise them. On the other hand, if they didn't perceive me, it doesn't matter if they roll higher with initiative seeing as they can't act on their turn anyway.


I think here you are concerned for meta-game information, right? This is a fringe-case because it only arises in the case of an assassin who has surprise and rolls low for initiative and sees no value in attacking without their auto-crit. (FWIW, the cause of this fringe-case is the assassin class feature, not the surprise rules.)

From the point of view of NPC targets of a PC assassin - my game world assumption is that they don't know they are in combat or not in combat - so barring the Alert feat or successful perception, they don't know that a combat started. So yes, as you say they never know the assassin was there at all. Surprise is not something that "resets": rather it is something that is determined each time combat starts.

From the point of view of PC targets of an NPC assassin, they will gain a piece of meta-information because perforce you called for initiative checks. Initiative is a Dexterity ability check, and the problem falls into the general class of ability checks called for that players should not be aware of, and is handled the same way. Whatever solution you apply to those, should apply here.


What was the problem the game designers were trying to solve by removing the separate surprise round of 3rd-edition? How would you state the problem you are trying to solve?


Declaring first runs into problems when the combat state shifts dynamically and a declaration is redundant. It's not necessarily wrong to do it that way, but it can feel pretty bad to your players. Declare at moment of action is robust, if you avoid time travelling intuitions.
I don't adress your post point by point.
I think you misunderstood me in some parts. Some parts work as you said, which I know.
Still I had a hard time wrapping my head around these initiave rules, maybe because of having played 3.x before and because of unfortunate interactions between edge case rules.
It could be explained a bit better in the rules. Maybe with some examples.

As I said, in non edge cases (assassin, alert, ambushs) rules work well.

I still do like my first round Idea and want to try it. I expect a more fluid way into combat. For example: "you notice a goblin hiding behind the tree: what will you do?" is a more natural opening than "you notice a goblin behind a tree. Roll initiative"
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Joking aside, I address the problem at my table with an explicit houserule: if only one character (PC or NPC) wants to act first, then they go first. The houserule is loosely based on the idea that in 5e, you only need ability checks when the outcome is uncertain. If only one character wants to act, there's no uncertainty for initiative to resolve. Everyone else presumably wants to act once the first attack is made (or spell is cast, etc.), so everyone else rolls initiative normally and goes in order after the character who initiated combat. The initiator stays at the top of the order in subsequent rounds.

Note that my houserule is not a question of who can shout "I attack" first--it's only triggered when only one character wants to attack at that time.
I think this is a fine ruling. The game seems to establish that the order of combat is uncertain by default (and there's a meaningful consequence for failure - your opponent gets to act before you do!), but initiative is still an ability check and all the rules for ability checks apply. If the uncertainty the game establishes is removed from the equation by some reasonable circumstance in the fiction, there is no ability check and the DM simply narrates what happens: The PC or NPC goes first, no roll. Everyone else rolls.

The only concern here is that this is going to be an usual call at many (most?) tables, so making it clear to players in advance that this may occur is key, as is taking into account any investments the player may have made in the area of initiative or surprise avoidance.
 

ad_hoc

(he/they)
What about the case of "my Alert opponent sensed something was up and scooted into cover but didn't seem to spot me in particular, so I'm just going to sit here quietly and no fighting is actually occurring"?

It's when the chain of events that begins with a character with the Alert feat putting themselves in a safe position results in the combat effectively not happening that it falls apart for me. Initiative is called for when hostilities break out. They shouldn't just retroactively not break out because someone on one side was better at sensing trouble.

For me this is easy enough to visualize.

Feats are extraordinary abilities. They're a big deal in other words. Take the Healer feat for an example. Or heck, Magic Initiate.

So Alert does create weird situations but I think that's okay because it is special.

The Alert character knows there is trouble before it happens. Then when it is the ambusher's turn, sure they can hold off on their attack but by then the Alert character will have warned their friends and everyone will have started looking for them. So they better attack now while they have the advantage. Or run away.

Declaring an action is not the same as actually doing the action so I don't see a problem of time travel. Switching to 'combat time' by calling for initiative is a way to adjudicate actions that happen quickly and in a contested manner.

In other words I see Alert as magic in the way that Dragon's Breath is magic. They don't count as magical for anti-magic fields but they are magic in the sense of things that aren't possible except in magical fantasy worlds.
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
That seems back to front. Surprise is an in-world phenomena that we want to resolve with the help of a game structure. I like the case of a hidden character wanting to ready an action as a lense on this.

Abbot: I want to ready to throw a pie at Player
DM: Are you throwing, or waiting, at this point
Abbot: I'm waiting
DM: Okay... let me know when you want to throw because at that point I might call for initiative

Time passes...

DM: Player, you percieve a hidden Abbot armed with a pie
Player: I'm going to rage and charge him
DM: Sounds like it is time to roll initiative

Alternative universe

AlertPlayer: I'm heading through Ambusher's Pass
DM: A few minutes in you have a bad feeling - something is up
AlertPlayer: I flee
DM: Okay (hidden initiative check to see if AlertPlayer will flee before Abbot can throw his pie)

Initiative is a Dexterity ability check. To my reading, the problems you describe fall under the general problem of meta-game information. A hidden ability check might be more appropriate in some cases than one made in the open.

My questions weren't rhetorical--I was asking how you personally addressed the potential issue. Your answers were informative--thanks!

It is very unclear why the DM announced that. What did they aim to convey? Did the player's passive perception reveal a hidden foe? Or did their alert feat clue them in to a hidden threat? Or did a hidden foe continue to wait before attacking (in which case, why has the DM decided to roll initiative?) Entering combat isn't intended to be speculative: you enter combat when and because you entered combat. It's worth also asking about specifics. What spell is foe supposed to be casting subtley? If it's fireball then it is likely time to roll initiative. If it's nondetection, then probably not.
The DM announced that because it was a joke. ;) More practically, I have seen a lot of variation in when DMs have said they call for initiative, so the joke was intended to make the same point you just did: calling for initiative too early can create issues. (Although I expect DMs who prefer to call for initiative early have ways around those issues.)
I don't hate it, but at the same time for me it doesn't give full value to players who invest in more defensive features like perception or the alert feat. It's generous to the sword-and-board battle master in full plate, and less generous to the rogue in nothing but the alert feat and a winning smile. I want to acknowledge that to my observation players are divided about how they think all this should go.

When the slower character wants to jump into a fight, they tell me what they're doing and I tell them if it is time to roll initiative. If they roll low (which is what we mean by slower, so let's suppose they do) it means that - just like an iajutsu duel, or a shootout in the wild west - they went to make their move and their foe was quicker. Otherwise it feels like saying, no matter how preternatually quick and alert their foe is, they can never be quicker than a slower character who is much angrier than they are. I guess there are plenty of strange in-world results from game rules, but the one where slower characters benefit from being angrier isn't one I like that much given there is an alternative that I'm okay with. One might also assume an in-world pact among all possible foes. If someone goes to attack me I'm going to - try not to be attacked, attack back, etc - before they can do it!

I am advocating both viewing surprise and initiative as simply useful structures to help us resolve what happens, and being sincerely interested in what can emerge from the mechanics as written. That means I genuinely do want the assassin to be able to back out if they've lost their auto-crit. I don't want to apply the combat rules when there isn't a fight. I might need to make an ability check for a player when I want to hide information.
I see my houserule as a horizontal change to Alert, rather than a straight nerf. True, the Alert character loses the possibility of acting before the ambusher, but their actions on that first turn are constrained by their limited available information about the imminent threat. Depending on the circumstances they may end up wasting their first turn (e.g. taking cover from the wrong direction) and effectively going last in the initiative order, after every other foe. Under my houserule, an Alert defender who would otherwise win initiative will go second in the order (after the initiator, but before any other foes) when they have much more information to base their action choices on. So whether my houserule is a boost or a nerf to Alert I think will vary a lot from encounter to encounter.

I think this is a fine ruling. The game seems to establish that the order of combat is uncertain by default (and there's a meaningful consequence for failure - your opponent gets to act before you do!), but initiative is still an ability check and all the rules for ability checks apply. If the uncertainty the game establishes is removed from the equation by some reasonable circumstance in the fiction, there is no ability check and the DM simply narrates what happens: The PC or NPC goes first, no roll. Everyone else rolls.

The only concern here is that this is going to be an usual call at many (most?) tables, so making it clear to players in advance that this may occur is key, as is taking into account any investments the player may have made in the area of initiative or surprise avoidance.
I've got it prominently flagged in my houserules/rulings document. :)
 


Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
Out of curiosity, what is the frequency that this actually comes up in your game?
Regularly. Maybe every other session for the campaign where I first instituted the rule, and a bit less since then. The usual context is a potential combat where one PC (not always the same one!) decides to attack while the other PCs are still pursuing a non-violent course. The houserule ensured that the initiating character would be able to actually start hostilities without a higher-rolling PC using their action to invalidate (usually persuasively, occasionally mechanically) the imminent attack.

Combat at my table tends to be PC-initiated, and even the players of the cautious PCs indicated that they'd prefer more combat in general, so a houserule that led to more combats was welcome all around.

More broadly, I've seen the issue of how to transition to combat when a particular individual is the one choosing to start the fight (whether or not surprise is involved) come up at every table I've ever played at. And the number of different ways I've seen it handed is probably roughly similar to the number to tables. So based on my experience I feel there's a strong need for a clear advance ruling or houserule on this issue.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
More broadly, I've seen the issue of how to transition to combat when a particular individual is the one choosing to start the fight (whether or not surprise is involved) come up at every table I've ever played at. And the number of different ways I've seen it handed is probably roughly similar to the number to tables. So based on my experience I feel there's a strong need for a clear advance ruling or houserule on this issue.
It's come up several times in my campaigns too. I'm sympathetic to your ruling even though I have found the approach I've described effective. It's what I would choose if I didn't feel it was already covered!
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Regularly. Maybe every other session for the campaign where I first instituted the rule, and a bit less since then. The usual context is a potential combat where one PC (not always the same one!) decides to attack while the other PCs are still pursuing a non-violent course. The houserule ensured that the initiating character would be able to actually start hostilities without a higher-rolling PC using their action to invalidate (usually persuasively, occasionally mechanically) the imminent attack.

Combat at my table tends to be PC-initiated, and even the players of the cautious PCs indicated that they'd prefer more combat in general, so a houserule that led to more combats was welcome all around.

More broadly, I've seen the issue of how to transition to combat when a particular individual is the one choosing to start the fight (whether or not surprise is involved) come up at every table I've ever played at. And the number of different ways I've seen it handed is probably roughly similar to the number to tables. So based on my experience I feel there's a strong need for a clear advance ruling or houserule on this issue.
Thanks for the information. My regular group tends to be more of the "Yes, and..." variety so if someone wants to start a dust-up, they will all find reasons to go with it. Or, if someone does initiate a social approach to resolving the conflict, they'll all find a reason to go with that, too. Even in this context though, I can see reason to sometimes just say "so and so goes first, everyone else roll."
 

Leprejuan

Explorer
Isn't the alert feat giving you the Conan-like feeling that something isn't right here? Take cover, dodge, or prepare an attack on the first visible enemy are all options for you, right?
 


Dain Butler

Villager
Surprise is a problem because it oversimplifies the circumstances under which opposing forces come into contact with each other and what constitutes the beginning of hostilities. Why are the bugbears hiding, do they just hide there 24/7 or are they aware of the approaching PCs somehow?

If they are aware of the PCs then combat has already started, its just that no one has attacked anyone yet.

If they are not aware of the PCs why are they presumed to be more prepared than the PCs?

A more common situation than a ranger and fighter walking up a corridor would be a ranger sneaking ahead of the big noisy fighter. The ranger's player is going to wonder why they bothered investing in stealth and perception when knowing the bugbears are there he can't surprise them because they are hiding from the fighter who is nowhere near them. The rules accept that some members of a group can be surprised while other members are not but do not cover the possibility that some members might surprise another group while some are surprised. In this case the ranger should surprise the bugbears and the bugbears should surprise the fighter.
 

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