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D&D 5E Surprise and Sneak Attack

Asisreo

Fiendish Attorney
Then initiative is described and nothing in that description says that your turn coming up in initiative order ends surprise.
I got really excited about what you said here so I wanted to verify. While you are correct that the PHB doesn't say being surprised ends from your turn happening, the official Sage Advice Compendium does:

Sage Advice Compendium pg 9 said:
If anyone is surprised, no actions are taken yet. First, initiative is rolled as normal. Then, the first round of combat starts, and the unsurprised combatants act in initiative order. A surprised creature can’t move or take an action or a reaction until its first turn ends (remember that being unable to take an action also means you can’t take a bonus action). In effect, a surprised creature skips its first turn in a fight. Once that turn ends, the creature is no longer surprised.
Unfortunately, being first in combat does end your surprise and an Assassin Rogue cannot benefit from it.
 

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Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
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.

This is a good set of questions, and a good ruling, but it's not a necessary one. We need to take a look at what Surprise does in the rules. Surprise is not a condition (which would make things easier) and, to compound this, it doesn't have clear exit criteria. As such, Surprise sits in a weird little place in the rules -- it's not really one thing or the other; it's its own thing. So, then, let's look at what it actually does.

Surprise really only does two things. It (1) prevents a Surprised creature from taking actions on its first turn in initiative; and (b) prevents a Surprised creature from being able to use reactions until after it has completed its first turn in initiative. So, it really only affects what a creature does on it's first turn with the exception of the reaction prohibition prior to it's first turn. After it's first turn, Surprise does nothing at all. A rule not doing anything can be considered to not be applying. This is the basis of saying that Surprise ends at the end of the Surprised creature's first turn -- Surprise stops doing anything at that point, so it would appear to have ended.

And, absent the Assassin subclass, this really wouldn't be any kind of issue. However, the designers decided to rest a subclass' signature ability on an ill-defined state in the rules. And, this is where your ruling comes in that Surprise lasts until the end of the first round. This certainly isn't contradicted by the rules (Sage Advice notwithstanding), so it's a fine thing to rule. And, it aids the Assassin, in that it removes one of the three existing gates on its signature ability (the first being gaining surprise, the second being winning initiative, and the third being hitting the target successfully). I think that's dandy, and have toyed with implementing that ruling myself (currently, the Assassin/Gloomstalker PC in my game has a ridiculous bonus to initiative and advantage on initiative checks, so it's not a pressing need). It doesn't hurt anything to rule so. The only thing it does is add a touch more artificialness (made up word alert) to Surprise, which is already suffering over unclear exit criteria, limited effects, and being poorly named. Still, it's not like adding that ruling makes it worse -- arguably it makes it a bit clearer to use with regards to Assassinate.

Finally, if you have an Assassin that can roll a 3 on initiative -- perhaps that's the exact outcome that player was courting with that particular build?
 

NotAYakk

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.
Surprised in 5e means "you are unaware you are in mortal danger from combat".

Everyone in combat is aware of combat by the time the assassin shows up.

So no surprise.

The assassin has to wait until the fight is over, then it can surprise someone taking a breather.

I got really excited about what you said here so I wanted to verify. While you are correct that the PHB doesn't say being surprised ends from your turn happening, the official Sage Advice Compendium does:


Unfortunately, being first in combat does end your surprise and an Assassin Rogue cannot benefit from it.
Sure, if you use the Sage Advice house rules, and not the rules in the book. ;)
 

Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
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."
That isn't describing surprise. It's describing when to apply surprise. Surprise is described as "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." It only applies to before and during your turn in the first round.

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.
Right, but it's implied by the effects of surprise only applying before and during your turn, which was then clarified in Sage Advice.
 


Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
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 "staying surprised" because your initiative came up. You noticed the threat at initiative, but were surprised by it.
 


Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
The PHB Pg. 189 which describes surprise does not support the idea that your turn coming up in initiative ends being surprised.

Yes it does. That's exactly what it does. Once your turn comes up, you can use reactions which you couldn't do while surprised. You are no longer surprised.

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

Other than being able to use reactions as NORMAL.
 

Asisreo

Fiendish Attorney
Sure, the official houserules of the D&D team. But still not the rules in the books.

Useful if you are playing organized play however, and sometimes better than random stuff you make up yourself.
Sage Advice is designed to answer contradictory or unclear rules in the game, where the D&D design team can make official statements on how these rules should be adjudicated.

Since the end condition of surprise isn't clear, they've cleared it up themselves.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Sure, the official houserules of the D&D team. But still not the rules in the books.

Useful if you are playing organized play however, and sometimes better than random stuff you make up yourself.
The rule on surprise doesn't allow PCs reactions before their first turn, because they are surprised. Once that turn ends, they can use their reactions again, because they are not surprised. This is pretty self-evident if you think about it. The Sage Advice isn't a rule or a ruling. It's a simple clarification for people who don't understand the rule.
 

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.

The Heroes are not surprised. They're literally in a fight with an Oni and its minions.

Surprised means 'caught with your pants down and unaware of any threats'. The heroes are aware of threats; their guard is up (thanks to the Oni and crew).

The invisible assassin gets advantage (invsible and hidden) but no auto-crit.
 

Sage advice isn't houserule. It outlines Official Rulings.
The rule that until your turn in initiative order comes up you cannot use reactions does not say 'because surprise ends' and it does not say that your turn coming up ends surprise. I keep seeing people assume that it is so, but there is no statement RAW that this assumption is a rule. Your turn coming up does not cause you to notice anything that you did not before.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
The rule that until your turn in initiative order comes up you cannot use reactions does not say 'because surprise ends' and it does not say that your turn coming up ends surprise. I keep seeing people assume that it is so, but there is no statement RAW that this assumption is a rule. Your turn coming up does not cause you to notice anything that you did not before.
The Sage Advice explains the rule with more clarity. It states that the reason is absolutely because surprise ends. The rule itself just incredibly strongly implies that it's because surprise ends.

And you are correct. You do not notice anything you did not notice before, because you noticed the threat as soon as it surprised you and you rolled initiative.
 


The PHB Pg. 189 which describes surprise does not support the idea that your turn coming up in initiative ends being surprised.
It doesn't support any other idea either, which is why Sage dvice clarified it.

In your game, shadowoflameth, when does a combatant stop being surprised? What rules justification do you use for your ruling?
 

FreeTheSlaves

Adventurer
A lot of this comes down to why initiative is being rolled in the first place?

The unseen assassin and their target exist = no combat.
The unseen assassin loads and aims their crossbow = no combat.
The unseen assassin shoots their crossbow = combat!

Only when combat starts does the question of initiative need answering, and the narrative falls into place making sense:

Bolt is flying, target was surprised but recovers wits, albeit too late to immediately do anything; Assassin lost optimal chance due to split second mis-timing, but might still pull something off.

Narrative problems seem to occur when players treat initiative as occurring before the combat has even started, rather than as a necessary procedure to determine turn order in a turn-based game.

Bottom line to me, players should boost their initiative score if they want their Assassin to assassinate regularly - and death strike. Stealth problems disappear with expertise and reliable talent, and attack rolls enjoy advantage. Dex20, Alert feat, plus Weapon of Warning give average initiative 20, huge!

Honestly, I think there might be Assassin players opting for things like SS at the expense of boosting initiative. Dex16 by itself is not going to give you great reliability with Assassinate, which as it stands is not automatic due to the surprise clause.

DMs can help out a little by splitting monsters into groups with different initiative scores. That way at least the player has more chance of finding a valid target for Assassinate.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
A lot of this comes down to why initiative is being rolled in the first place?

The unseen assassin and their target exist = no combat.
The unseen assassin loads and aims their crossbow = no combat.
The unseen assassin shoots their crossbow = combat!

That last should be, "The unseen assassin intends to shoot their crossbow." Combat starts when initiative happens and initiative happens before the shot is fired.

Bolt is flying, target was surprised but recovers wits, albeit too late to immediately do anything; Assassin lost optimal chance due to split second mis-timing, but might still pull something off.

The bolt is not flying until the assassin's initiative comes up, which can be after a surprised target with a higher initiative recovers and can now react.

Narrative problems seem to occur when players treat initiative as occurring before the combat has even started, rather than as a necessary procedure to determine turn order in a turn-based game.

There is no inherent narrative problem. The assassin has to move to aim or perhaps load the crossbow, which can and does alert the target to the danger. The narrative problem only comes up if a DM decides not to run combat the way it's written and intended, and allows the attack to happen before initiative is rolled.
 

FreeTheSlaves

Adventurer
I think there needs to be a commitment to action to start combat. It can be as general as 'I attack', but I personally require an action statement.

In our hidden Assassin example, assuming their stealth has beaten everyone's PP, we can't narrate their personal actions as starting combat. They're unseen. What then could be the signal? The bolt whistling through the air seems good enough to me. And if that were an NPC, that's how I'd start the combat.

Problem with an intention statement is, if you have open initiative rolls, the surprising attacker can always opt to not attack... and not attacking is fine RAW. So why did you waste everyone's time having them roll initiative? Even with hidden initiative rolls, the Assassin player can guess when they're unlikely to pull off an Assassinate. Imagine doing that with an NPC Assassin...

Require an initial action and bam, there's no take backs, it's real and characters are reacting to an event.

This all said, initiative by intention works fine when the parties are at least aware of each other.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
I think there needs to be a commitment to action to start combat. It can be as general as 'I attack', but I personally require an action statement.

In our hidden Assassin example, assuming their stealth has beaten everyone's PP, we can't narrate their personal actions as starting combat. They're unseen. What then could be the signal? The bolt whistling through the air seems good enough to me. And if that were an NPC, that's how I'd start the combat.

That's reasonable, but it's a house rule as it alters how surprise works. For me, a rustling noise as the formerly unseen and unheard assassin moves to attack is also good enough and matches the 5e rules.

Problem with an intention statement is, if you have open initiative rolls, the surprising attacker can always opt to not attack... and not attacking is fine RAW. So why did you waste everyone's time having them roll initiative?

I didn't waste anyone's time. We have a now revealed assassin who has been caught red handed with crossbow in hand, ready to attack. He can abort his attack, but the party does not have to stand down and abort theirs in the next round where they can act.

Require an initial action and bam, there's no take backs, it's real and characters are reacting to an event.

Same with my way, but my way matches the 5e rules. ;)

I'm not saying that your way is wrong and allowing a free surprise round before initiative makes sense. I'm just saying that you can also make sense of it without changing anything.
 


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