Things You Didn’t Know About D&D 5E: The Surprise Round

One of the most commonly misunderstood mechanics in Dungeons & Dragons is surprise. Many players, either because they came from previous editions or learned from someone who had, believe that there is a “surprise round” at the start of combat. Others believe that “surprised” is a condition that grants advantage on attacks against the creature. This article will clarify the rules around surprise and offer a sample encounter to demonstrate the mechanic in play.


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Let’s start with a very common misconception. Many players erroneously call surprised a condition. In fact, all conditions appear in Appendix A: “Conditions” in the Player’s Handbook, and a brief glance at that section will reveal that surprised isn’t there. Instead, surprise is covered in chapter 9, “Combat”.

The following excerpt page 189 explains how it works:

The DM determines who might be surprised. If neither side tries to be stealthy, they automatically notice each other. Otherwise, the DM compares the Dexterity (Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of each creature on the opposing side. 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.

If this seems familiar to some players, it’s because this is very similar to how the surprise round worked back in Third Edition. The major differences are that there is no limitation on what kinds of actions can be taken in this round and, in keeping with Fifth Edition’s attempts to streamline the game, it has been all been wrapped up into the first round of combat. Also, attacks resolved against a surprised creature do not ignore the creature’s Dexterity bonus to AC if it applies.

It is also important to note that attacking a surprised creature does not necessarily mean you have advantage on the attack roll. Surprise and advantage often go hand in hand thanks to the prevalence of ambushes by hidden attackers, but the two mechanics are not bound to each other. This is the second big mistake a lot of people make when using the surprise mechanic.

When dealing with a situation in which a creature could be surprised, it is important to know when to call for initiative. If the adventurers are casually regarding a seemingly lifeless gargoyle that then animates to attack them, you should be rolling initiative first before any attacks are made. The adventurers are surprised, so they forfeit their turn, but they can clearly see the gargoyle (it’s not an unseen enemy, as covered in the Unseen Attackers and Targets section in chapter 9, “Combat”, in the Player’s Handbook) and so it doesn’t have advantage on the attacks. On the other hand, if a bunch of kobolds begin loosing arrows from a concealed position, you would hold off rolling initiative until after the first attack alerts the adventurers that there are enemies nearby. A crack team of hobgoblin sharpshooters who can co-ordinate their attacks simultaneously might all loose their bolts before the adventurers can even raise their shields.

This is why the rogue (Assassin)’s Assassinate and Death Blow features works the way they do, and why an assassin will typically initiate combat from concealment in order to utilize them. The Assassinate feature won’t even function if someone rolls a higher initiative, so DMs should be certain to allow the players the opportunity to initiate combat with the right abilities.

To illustrate how the surprise system works in practice, we have prepared a short scenario for you:


A lonely wood at dusk. A party of adventurers have made camp and begun their watch rotation. 

Amy (playing Alarielle): I am an elf, so I only need to ‘sleep’ for 4 hours. I will take the first watch. I hope that we don’t get set upon by goblins in the night.
Philip (playing Wulfgar): I’m a human barbarian capable of backing up the frail elf if we’re set upon during her watch. I will join her. And yes, it would be bad if we were set upon by goblins in the night.
DM: Out of nowhere, goblins set upon you in the night.
Amy and Philip: Oh, no!

The DM compares the passive Perception scores of Alarielle and Wulfgar to the Dexterity (Stealth) rolls of the goblins. As an elf, Alarielle can easily see out to 60 feet in the dim light cast by the full moon; she notices the approach of seven goblins and is not surprised. Wulfgar has disadvantage on his passive Perception because he does not have darkvision, reducing it by 5. Therefore, he does not notice the threat and so he is surprised.

DM: Alarielle, you hear a rustling in the bushes just outside of camp. Looking up, you catch sight of about a half-dozen small, green-skinned humanoid creatures moving into cover. A few of them shoot dirty looks back at one of their number who is noisily attempting to extricate himself from a low-hanging branch. A few others, noticing that you spotted them, draw their crude-looking shortbows. I would like everyone to roll initiative.
Amy: Can I shout that we’re under attack?
DM: Good question! We will let the initiative roll decide.

The DM takes everyone’s initiative. 

DM: Wulfgar, you are up first. You notice Alarielle’s attention snaps to something outside the campsite. Your heightened barbarian senses alert you that something is amiss, something you haven’t seen or heard. You are surprised.
Philip: That’s fine. I’m a 7th-level barbarian, so I can act normally when surprised as long as I first use a bonus action to rage, which is what I’ll do. I completely overreact to this strange feeling, as is my wont as a barbarian. I go into a rage, shouting loudly enough to surely wake my sleeping colleagues, along with probably everyone in that town we passed a few hours ago. Then I would like to look around and take the Dodge action.
DM: Looking around would mean taking the Search action. You have to pick whether you want to do that or take the Dodge action to avoid attacks, you can’t do both.
Philip: I’ll search, then.
DM: You peer into the darkness. Make a Wisdom (Perception) check with disadvantage because of the dim light.
Philip (rolling 2d20 and taking the lowest): Well, that’s a 2. So… 6.
DM: Unfortunately, you must have just looked at the bright fire right before this, because you can’t get your eyes to adjust to the surrounding darkness and nothing catches your attention. Are you going to move?
Philip: I will get up from whatever log or stump I’m sitting on and move to put myself between Alarielle and whatever she is looking at in the woods, brandishing my battleaxe.
DM: That makes it the goblins’ turn. You just made a great racket and it’s enough to draw their fire. The goblins are hidden, so they have advantage on their attack rolls against you.

The DM rolls seven attack rolls with advantage against Wulfgar using the goblins’ short bows. Six of them hit, one critically. Two more previously unnoticed goblins also attack Wulfgar with their shortbows, also with advantage, but only one hits. 

DM (rolling damage and halving the results because Wulfgar has resistance from Rage): You take 19 total piercing damage as your keen barbarian reflexes allow you to duck down, avoiding a hail of arrows that sail out of the darkness. One arrow, however, gets partially lodged in your shoulder where it managed to pierce several layers of your hide armour. It’s little more than a flesh wound to you, only serving to make you angrier. You also now have a pretty good idea of your attackers’ positions, though you still can’t really make them out.

One more goblin attacks, this one being the one Alarielle spotted.

DM (rolling an attack): Alarielle, the last goblin manages to escape the branch and lines up a shot against you. Does 16 hit?
Amy: I will cast shield as a reaction, so no.
DM: Yes, you are not surprised, so you can take reactions in this round. The arrow is deflected midair, briefly revealing a translucent shield of arcane power around you. It is now your turn.

The combat continues until the adventurers prevail. 


As you can see, surprise is neither a round nor a condition, but rather an incidental status determined by the factors of a creature’s environment. Attacks against a surprised creature are not necessarily made with advantage, though often a situation that results in a creature being surprised comes along with hidden attackers, who typically have advantage on their attacks. Be sure to allow your sneaky players the chance to initiate combat so their class features aren’t potentially wasted.


Do you have an experience with the surprise mechanics? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

14 thoughts on “Things You Didn’t Know About D&D 5E: The Surprise Round”

  1. Hi, i have a question about attacks in dnd, my character was prepared with a weopon in hand advancing towards a wisp and got attacked from behind from a wisp I saw disappear and it popped behind me an attacked me. The dm rolled to see if he hit me and did said i was dealt 8dmg then initiative started. Ive read everywhere that initiative roll happens first then damage but ithers insist on surprise rounds. Since my character clearly ready hes not surprised so i do get an action on initiative. So i had a chance to dodge his attack?

    1. Hi Justin,

      When initiative is rolled and whether a creature is surprised is up to the DM to determine. In this instance, I would have had everyone roll when both hostile parties became aware of each other, as opposed to after the first attack was made, and I would have had the enemy roll with advantage for being an unseen attacker, not because you were somehow surprised. If you are confused, you may want to talk with your DM and the others at your table about the timing.

      If this is how the DM wishes to play it, then he or she should be willing to treat the enemies as surprised when a PC goes invisible and attacks. If anyone in your party is an Assassin (Rogue), this can quickly lead to a lot of instantly slain foes when the rogue gets the jump on a creature in this way.

      Best,
      – the Archmage

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      You’ve overlooked the rule I was referencing in the text.

      A barbarian’s 7th-level ability, Feral Instinct: “if you are surprised at the beginning of combat […] you can act normally on your first turn, but only if you enter your rage before doing anything else on that turn” (PH, 49).

      Best,
      – the Archmage

  2. In your example, the barbarian would not get resistance from rage. Rage would have ended because the barbarian did not attack anything on their turn.

    1. Rage ends at the end of your current turn if you haven’t attacked or taken damage since the start of your previous turn. A barbarian can do nothing on their turn and continue to rage as long as someone keeps hitting them.

  3. So how would you rule this situation?
    The party has a guard up for the night. Unbeknownst to them there is an ambush incoming. The rogue succeeds on a perception check to notice the ambush and in turn dashes into the bushes/trees to then hide.
    The ambush is sprung and initiative is rolled.
    The Ass. Rogue is 3rd in the init beating half of the enemies. Their passive perc is not enough to beat the stealth.
    Would the creatures that were first in initiative be surprised by the rogue or just the ones after the rogue?
    Or would any of them be due to the rest of the group not having stealth? (The night guard partner was able to let out a yalp to wake the other party members so the ambush was broken.)

    1. Thanks for your question!

      As per the rules, the Assassin would only have advantage from the Assassinate feature on the half of the enemies who have not yet had a turn in combat. Since the Assassin was hidden, however, he is still an unseen attacker (PH 194) and would have advantage on the attack roll. I would not, however, say that the enemies are surprised, and so the second benefit of the Assassinate feature (hits against surprised creatures are critical hits) would not apply. The reason for this is quite simple: they are being vigilant. Just because they didn’t see the rogue doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to stay aware of sentries and traps set by the individuals they are approaching, and they certainly are going to not be surprised if someone shoots back after they’ve started their attack.

      If, however, the rogue doesn’t warn their party of the approaching attackers, the characters would be surprised.

      Hope that helps you.

      Best,
      – the Archmage

  4. The only thing you have incorrect is when you roll initiative. Even in the case of somebody unseen, you roll initiative first. Or to put it a different way, attacks cannot take place until initiative is rolled.

    Why?

    The surprise and assassin rules give the most obvious reasons.

    If you are surprised you cannot take a Reaction until your first turn ends. More important is the assassinate ability that works “against any creature that hasn’t taken a turn.”

    If you don’t roll initiative first, you don’t know when the surprised creature’s turn ends.

    Rolling initiative makes it possible for your turn to end before the attacker’s, in which case you can use your reaction. So with a little luck (and/or a high Dexterity) you can reduce the effects of surprise or avoid an assassination attempt (making it just an attack).

    You may think that’s unfair, but think it through a bit more:

    If you don’t roll initiative before the attack, the ambushes may get a free attack, and an assassin might be able to use their assassinate ability twice.

    Hidden (unseen) assassin surprises their target. They make their (assassination) attack. Then, as you’ve stated, they roll initiative. The assassin wins initiative, and uses their assassinate ability a second time, because the creature still has not taken a turn.

    Initiative is always rolled to determine the order of turns before the first turn is taken. Surprise is designed around this rule as well. Even if the surprised creature wins initiative, they still cannot move or take an action (or bonus action), just a reaction.

    This was specifically clarified in November 2015: https://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/rules-answers-november-2015

  5. In our last session we had an encounter in which we head into a temple in which two fanatics were busy performing a ritual at the altar. we had gained entrance through passing stealth checks against their passive perc and we had entered the room unbeknownst to the enemies. Our ranger goin third on initiative decides to disregard the plans and attack the cultists slaying one out right but because of the cultists unit being rolled worse than ours I felt that The party should have had a surprise rd. in our favor but the dm Said that even though, completely unbeknownst to the fanatics, there were intruders and we had still fully engaged them that they would not have been surprised due to them being constantly alert and prepared for assault even though they were in the middle of a ritual I still feel like we should have gotten a surprise round because they had placed illusions to disguise the temple that they would have been guard down, feeling safe in their ruse. What is your thought on it?

    1. Hi DM_dad,

      There’s no surprise round. Surprise is determined by the DM on a per-creature basis.

      That said, I think you should use that argument if that DM ever tries to surprise your party. You’re adventurers, always on guard, always looking over your shoulder. Never mind that never being surprised totally invalidates a number of class features; if the cultists could be alert while unaware of your presence, then you can be alert to unseen threats, too.

      I’m joking. Mostly. Alright, only half.

      I strongly disagree with your DM’s decision, but that’s neither here nor there, since it falls to his discretion as long as he runs the game. Try mentioning to him that you disagree and cite some of the information in this article.

      And if that fails, ask him if he’s aware of danger right before a friend of yours bonks him on the back of the head to demonstrate how surprise is supposed to work.

      Again, just kidding. Mostly.

      Best,
      – the Archmage

  6. Hey so any advice on how to every get a jump on one of my players that has a Weapon of Warning. My PC’s were in an academy type setting where they spent the first 4 levels and over the course of the in game year got to spend their time making a uncommon magic item. One chose a dagger of warning. Didnt think much of it at the time but not being able to get surprise attacks on the party for some monsters is a big hit to the lethality of them, think like ropers and other hidden “indistinguishable from x if they dont move” creatures. Its a similar situation when a PC takes alert withe really high wisdom and proficiency or expertise in perception. Its not that im and adversarial DM I just feel like my PC’s have the most fun when things are challenging and completely negating the ability to be surprised unless incapacitated by something other than non magical sleep, makes some encounters i.e. ambushers, not very challenging.

    1. Hi FluffyOwlBear,

      The weapon of warning is intended to prevent the party from being surprised as long as they’re within 30 feet of the bearer. It doesn’t mean they can’t be attacked by unseen enemies, who have advantage on their attack rolls because they’re hidden. Put in other words, the party can still be caught in an ambush without being surprised. They just get to act on their first turn.

      My advice would be to let the party suss out a few ambushes so they get complacent with their fancy dagger, but then give them a more elaborate trap where they are totally surrounded before they grasp the situation. Don’t set out to wipe them out, just to remind them that they can be killed.

      Best,
      – the Archmage

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