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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What Is Surprise?
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 (in Third Edition, you only had one action in the surprise round) and, in keeping with Fifth Edition’s attempts to streamline the game, the entire thing has been wrapped up into the first round of combat.
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.
Timing of Initiative
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 can’t act on 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.
Variant: Surprise Attack
The standard rules for surprise can sometimes lead to situations that don’t really make sense. If a 17th-level rogue (Assassin) loads their crossbow, successfully sneaks up on somebody, and lines up a shot, they should reasonably expect that, by initiating the combat, they will act first and thereby benefit from their Assassinate and Death Strike features. After all, their target is still completely unaware of their presence.
Under the standard rules of combat, however, the DM would call for initiative before the rogue looses their bolt, and it could be that their target rolls higher. If this were to happen, the target would take their turn first (presumably doing nothing of extraordinary significance) and no longer be surprised, even though they are still completely unaware of the rogue, and therefore would be an invalid target for the Assassin’s core features even though nothing has changed for them since before initiative was rolled. This would be especially problematic if the rogue frequently whiffs their initiative checks.
To ensure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen, consider allowing a special surprise attack—a single attack from one creature without the benefits of Extra Attack or any similar feature—to initiate combat if one party is completely unaware of the other. After this, roll initiative and proceed as normal.
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. Let’s 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 attacked 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 rolled the highest initiative and 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. Thanks to Feral Instinct, I can act normally when surprised as long as I first use a bonus action to rage, as is my wont as a barbarian to completely overreact to any and all feelings I experience. I begin frothing at the mouth and shouting loudly enough to surely wake my sleeping colleagues, as well as everyone in that town we passed a few hours ago. Then I would like to look around for someone to attack.
DM: Looking around would mean taking the Search action. If you do that, you won’t be able to take the Attack action.
Philip: I’ll follow Alarielle’s line of sight and run in that direction, then.
The DM compares Wulfgar’s passive Wisdom (Perception) to the goblin’s Dexterity (Stealth) check and notes that without the sight-based penalty from the low light, Wulfgar’s Perception would detect the goblin. The DM decides that while Wulfgar doesn’t see the goblin, he does hear it and therefore knows which space it’s in.
DM: You rush into the shadows of the undergrowth, embracing the primal fury of nature that powers your rage. You are the hunter, and you will have your prey. Ahead of you, there is sudden movement—a rustling of leaves and a sharp intake of breath. There, in a patch of shadows still 10 feet away. A faint scent of fear is begins to drift from the space as you fix the area in your glare.
Philip: I hurl a handaxe at it!
DM: Alright, you can make your attack roll with disadvantage as the goblin is actually in complete darkness.
Philip (rolling 2d20 and taking the lowest): Would you look at that, 20 and 17!
DM: That’s a hit! Roll damage.
DM (marking off the goblin’s death): Somehow, your haphazardly thrown axe finds its mark, and there is a sickening crunch in the darkness. That makes it the goblins’ turn. You just made a great racket and it’s enough to draw their fire. The goblins are hidden from you, 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 goblins previously unnoticed even by Alarielle 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 thick, wolfhide coat. 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.
Two more goblins attack, these also having rolled above Alarielle’s passive Perception. One misses, one rolls much higher.
DM (rolling an attack): Alarielle, two arrows fly at you from the darkness. One feathers your lovely wizard hat. For the other… does 16 hit?
Amy: I will cast shield as a reaction, so no.
DM: Yes, because 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!