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D&D 5E Surprise and Sneak Attack

What @billd91 said

Also, this passage from the DMG (pg 236) (emphasis mine):

Remember that dice don't run your game-you do. Dice are like rules. They're tools to help keep the action moving. At any time, you can decide that a player's action is automatically successful. You can also grant the player advantage on any ability check, reducing the chance of a bad die roll foiling the character's plans. By the same token, a bad plan or unfortunate circumstances can transform the easiest task into an impossibility, or at least impose disadvantage.

So, no House Rule needed to adjudicate an automatic success for a PC insta-kill of an enemy in a situation where the DM deems it appropriate, @Maxperson. Not that there is anything wrong with House Rules. I've got several House Rules. But this is not one of them.
 

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I agree we can skip the whole combat part if there isn't a chance they'd live within the rules. If you have a commoner sleeping vs a Level 20 PC, no need to roll initiative. It's basically impossible for them to survive.

If we're talking about a sleeping ancient red dragon, they get their autocrits, their deadly strike damage if the dragon fails, their sneak attack. But they do not instantly kill the ancient dragon.

I think this is fair.

Agreed.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
The uncertainty rule is for ability checks, not combat. It appears nowhere in the combat section, but does appear in the ability check section. If you want to apply it to combat, you have to engage a house rule(rule 0).
It appears in the how to play section of the PHB as quoted earlier, and in the The Role of the Dice section of the DMG.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
To further the plot, from the Combat section:

When you take your action on Your Turn, you can take one of the Actions presented here, an action you gained from your class or a Special feature, or an action that you improvise. Many Monsters have Action Options of their own in their stat blocks.

When you describe an action not detailed elsewhere in the rules, the GM tells you whether that action is possible and what kind of roll you need to make, if any, to determine success or failure.

I mean... wut?
 


Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Well, it's easy to argue that attacking someone is specifically the Attack option which is an action described elsewhere in the rules.
It's also super easy to argue that it's the GM's call. And, I would normally agree with you. Sometimes, though, it's not.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
It appears in the how to play section of the PHB as quoted earlier, and in the The Role of the Dice section of the DMG.
That how to play section is just a general overview of game play. It's not hard rules on how to play. The Role of the Dice section says this...

"Dice are like rules. They're tools to help keep the action moving. At any time, you can decide that a player's action is automatically successful."

By likening the dice to rules and saying that they're just tools, they are reiterating rule 0 and saying that like rules, you can just ignore them and make your own decision. i.e. a house rule.

When a player declares an action like climbing a wall or attacking a goblin, he can and should be able to expect that the DM will be following the rules for ability checks and combat when he adjudicates and narrates the result in the vast majority of circumstances. The rest of the time, the DM is using rule 0 to change things, which is fine.
 
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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
That how to play section is just a general overview of game play. It's not hard rules on how to play. The Role of the Dice section says this...

"Dice are like rules. They're tools to help keep the action moving. At any time, you can decide that a player's action is automatically successful."

By likening the dice to rules and saying that they're just tools, they are reiterating rule 0 and saying that like rules, you can just ignore them and make your own decision. i.e. a house rule.

When a player declares an action like climbing a wall or attacking a goblin, he can and should be able to expect that the DM will be following the rules for ability checks and combat when he adjudicates and narrates the result in the vast majority of circumstances. The rest of the time, the DM is using rule 0 to change things, which is fine.
The line you draw between which parts of the rule book are rules and which parts are “general guidelines” or “reiterating rule 0” is completely arbitrary and seems to be based on nothing more than whether or not you personally wish to observe them.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
The line you draw between which parts of the rule book are rules and which parts are “general guidelines” or “reiterating rule 0” is completely arbitrary and seems to be based on nothing more than whether or not you personally wish to observe them.
Nothing is arbitrary about it. It's entirely based on reason, whether you agree with that reason or not.
 


Except that you are specifically rolling to see if the character, not the player, is surprised.
Yes. The problem is that fast reflexes don't make you know that there is a threat to react to in the first place. The assassin makes a high stealth check but not a high initiative. Bummer. But if the target rolls a high initiative he still isn't aware of the threat which means that he can't move or act in that first round. there is no 'except regarding the rogue who you didn't see'. Therefore advantage on a target that hasn't acted yet should work. and because he isn't aware of what was to happen, the auto-crit should work. Otherwise rolling the stealth check and initiative is like rolling the stealth check with disadvantage because you lose an effect if you don't roll high on both. Is there errata on if this was intended?
 

Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
Yes. The problem is that fast reflexes don't make you know that there is a threat to react to in the first place. The assassin makes a high stealth check but not a high initiative. Bummer. But if the target rolls a high initiative he still isn't aware of the threat which means that he can't move or act in that first round. there is no 'except regarding the rogue who you didn't see'. Therefore advantage on a target that hasn't acted yet should work. and because he isn't aware of what was to happen, the auto-crit should work. Otherwise rolling the stealth check and initiative is like rolling the stealth check with disadvantage because you lose an effect if you don't roll high on both. Is there errata on if this was intended?
This mixes up becoming surprised and staying surprised. Becoming surprised is germane to noticing a threat before combat starts. Staying surprised is a function of your initiative. Being surprised isn’t the condition of not noticing a threat. It’s the consequence.
 

the Jester

Legend
I think the surprise rolls really show their weakness when a new combatant that nobody is aware of joins a battle a few rounds in. Let's say, for the sake of argument, an invisible and silent assassin joins a fight between Our Heroes (the pcs) and an oni and its ogre minions on round 3. I'm curious- how do y'all handle that? Insert a "surprise round" during which only the newcomer gets to act mid-combat? Just have it join the fight with no surprise? Something else?

EDITED to stipulate that the assassin is invisible and silent.
 

I think the surprise rolls really show their weakness when a new combatant that nobody is aware of joins a battle a few rounds in. Let's say, for the sake of argument, an invisible and silent assassin joins a fight between Our Heroes (the pcs) and an oni and its ogre minions on round 3. I'm curious- how do y'all handle that? Insert a "surprise round" during which only the newcomer gets to act mid-combat? Just have it join the fight with no surprise? Something else?

EDITED to stipulate that the assassin is invisible and silent.

Mechanically, surprise is determined before initiative is rolled. Since the other combatants have already rolled initiative, there is no opportunity for the newcomer to gain the surprise mechanic.
Narratively, I'd say that, in the heat of battle, combatants are on high alert for danger and therefore cannot be surprised (at least not in the 5e definition-of-surprise sense).

The edge-case invisible, silent assassin showing up mid-battle would certainly get advantage on the attack (as they are invisible), but they aren't going to add any 3rd level Assassin Archetype Assassinate (or the Monster Manual Assassinate ability) bonus to the attack.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I think the surprise rolls really show their weakness when a new combatant that nobody is aware of joins a battle a few rounds in. Let's say, for the sake of argument, an invisible and silent assassin joins a fight between Our Heroes (the pcs) and an oni and its ogre minions on round 3. I'm curious- how do y'all handle that? Insert a "surprise round" during which only the newcomer gets to act mid-combat? Just have it join the fight with no surprise? Something else?

EDITED to stipulate that the assassin is invisible and silent.
A hidden and undetected combatant gains advantage. There is already a fight, so everyone's already looking out for threats as much as possible because "fight." The trick here is to separate "surprise" in the rules from "surprise" in natural language. This is an unfortunate instance where the rules did not use the nature language but created a bit of rules jargon. The natural language version of surprise is still well covered by the hidden attacker rules.
 

This mixes up becoming surprised and staying surprised. Becoming surprised is germane to noticing a threat before combat starts. Staying surprised is a function of your initiative. Being surprised isn’t the condition of not noticing a threat. It’s the consequence.
So (In the round when initiative is rolled), if you become surprised (as a consequence of not noticing the threat), you then cease to be 'staying surprised' on your initiative because you now perceive the threat after all? How did you become aware? You say that it causes not 'staying surprised'. Because your high initiative roll itself ends 'becoming surprised'? Effectively becoming another perception check? How does it do that?
 
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Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
So (In the round when initiative is rolled), if you become surprised (as a consequence of not noticing the threat), you then cease to be 'staying surprised' on your initiative because you now perceive the threat after all? How did you become aware? You say that it causes not 'staying surprised'. Because your high initiative roll itself ends 'becoming surprised'? Effectively becoming another perception check? How does it do that?
Think of it this way, Surprise (capital intended) in 5e models not even knowing a fight has started. It's a very specific thing, not just what we'd generally ascribe to surprise. That surprise is what is represented by advantage -- the surprise from having someone you didn't know was there (but you were still wary) attacking you from hiding, or the surprise you might feel when someone you're looking at suddenly lunges for you. The Surprise in 5e represents a very narrow condition, and one that does recreate itself once people are in a fight.

I mean, look at what Surprise does -- you don't act on your first initiative and can't react before that. That's it. Being Surprised doesn't even grant advantage. The confusion comes when we start talking about Surprise in reference to a class that has specific class features that leverage Surprise. But, it's important to note that this leverages that special status of Surprise, not surprise the natural language word. That you can do something surprising doesn't make it Surprise. And, outside of that class, the distinction between surprise (like hidden attacker) or Surprise is pretty minimal.
 

Think of it this way, Surprise (capital intended) in 5e models not even knowing a fight has started. It's a very specific thing, not just what we'd generally ascribe to surprise. That surprise is what is represented by advantage -- the surprise from having someone you didn't know was there (but you were still wary) attacking you from hiding, or the surprise you might feel when someone you're looking at suddenly lunges for you. The Surprise in 5e represents a very narrow condition, and one that does recreate itself once people are in a fight.

I mean, look at what Surprise does -- you don't act on your first initiative and can't react before that. That's it. Being Surprised doesn't even grant advantage. The confusion comes when we start talking about Surprise in reference to a class that has specific class features that leverage Surprise. But, it's important to note that this leverages that special status of Surprise, not surprise the natural language word. That you can do something surprising doesn't make it Surprise. And, outside of that class, the distinction between surprise (like hidden attacker) or Surprise is pretty minimal.

The PHB Pg. 189 which describes surprise does not support the idea that your turn coming up in initiative ends being surprised. The order of operations on that page is that the DM determines surprise by comparing any stealth checks to passive perception. Then positions are determined, then initiative is rolled by everyone (including the surprised creature(s)). Then characters take their turns in initiative order. If a creature is surprised, 'You cannot 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 others aren't.

Then initiative is described and nothing in that description says that your turn coming up in initiative order ends surprise.

So, for the sake of an example, Our assassin; We look at the Assassinate class feature. Pg. 97 of the PHB. 'You have advantage on attack rolls against any creature that hasn't taken a turn in the combat yet. In addition, any hit you score against a creature that is surprised is a critical hit.' Our surprised guard rolled well on initiative but because he is surprised does not move or take actions on his turn. True, that doesn't mean his turn in initiative order didn't happen, he's still taken a turn, but this rogue, a hidden attacker (as defined on pg. 198) gets advantage against the guard because this rogue is a hidden attacker. The guard is also still surprised because nothing in play, or occurring on his turn has ended surprise. This assassin rolling 3 on initiative goes last in order, and attacks the still surprised target from hiding with advantage. He hits, and his hit is a critical hit because the target is still surprised.
 

Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
So (In the round when initiative is rolled), if you become surprised (as a consequence of not noticing the threat), you then cease to be 'staying surprised' on your initiative because you now perceive the threat after all? How did you become aware? You say that it causes not 'staying surprised'. Because your high initiative roll itself ends 'becoming surprised'? Effectively becoming another perception check? How does it do that?
No, you're still doing the thing I was trying to describe by pointing out the difference between becoming surprised and staying surprised. I think it might have been more clear to point out that being surprised is not the same thing as not noticing a threat, and that therefore ceasing to be surprised is not the same thing as noticing a threat. The only time noticing a threat is important with reference to surprise is before combat starts. If you didn't notice the threat before combat starts, then when combat starts, you begin combat surprised. After that, it doesn't matter when you notice the threat. You're already surprised, and the thing that tells us how quickly you recover and stop being surprised is your place in the initiative order.

To more fully address your post, I'm going to try answering two of your questions individually.

So (In the round when initiative is rolled), if you become surprised (as a consequence of not noticing the threat), you then cease to be 'staying surprised' on your initiative because you now perceive the threat after all?
No, you cease being surprised because you have recovered and adjusted to being in combat. Those with higher initiative recover more quickly.

How did you become aware?
You become aware that you are under attack when combat starts. That's actually what you find so surprising because you weren't expecting it. But this does not mean that you are aware of the location of your attacker. That was already decided by a Stealth/Perception contest which you lost. When your attacker's attack hits or misses, then you become aware of his/her location.
 

No, you're still doing the thing I was trying to describe by pointing out the difference between becoming surprised and staying surprised. I think it might have been more clear to point out that being surprised is not the same thing as not noticing a threat, and that therefore ceasing to be surprised is not the same thing as noticing a threat. The only time noticing a threat is important with reference to surprise is before combat starts. If you didn't notice the threat before combat starts, then when combat starts, you begin combat surprised. After that, it doesn't matter when you notice the threat. You're already surprised, and the thing that tells us how quickly you recover and stop being surprised is your place in the initiative order.

To more fully address your post, I'm going to try answering two of your questions individually.


No, you cease being surprised because you have recovered and adjusted to being in combat. Those with higher initiative recover more quickly.


The rule RAW doesn't support that. Being surprised is specifically described as not noticing a threat at the start of the encounter. 'Any character or monster that doesn't notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter. " Step 3 on Pg 189 of the PHB describes rolling initiative which comes after determining who is surprised. There is nothing on this page about surprise ending because your turn in order came up Including if your turn comes up before a hidden attacker.
 

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