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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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 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.

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 and sneaks up on somebody, lines up their shot, and hopes the Assassinate and Death Strike features will kick in to outright slay their target before it is even aware of their presence, they should be reasonably assured of success. But if initiative is rolled first and the rogue loses, then the intended recipient of the swift execution would no longer be surprised—even though it is still quite unaware of the rogue’s presence and really should be just as surprised by an attack now as it would have been before initiative was rolled—and the entire plan is foiled simply because of the rules not being designed to accommodate for such a scenario. And if the rogue frequently rolls below their target on initiative checks, this can lead to a great deal of resentment as critical subclass features are negated for really no good reason at all.

To ensure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen, consider allowing a surprise attack—a single attack from one creature—to initiate combat if one party is completely unaware of the other. After this, roll initiative and proceed as normal.

Sample Encounter

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!

23 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.

      – 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).

      – 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.

      – the Archmage

      1. I have to disagree with your assessment of the situation.

        “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.”

        -Being vigilant does not make you immune to being surprised. If you failed to notice an opponent and they suddenly pop out. It causes that momentary flinch of something unexpected suddenly happening whether your “ready for it” or not. It’s the difference between walking into a situation knowing exactly what you are going to do versus needing a moment to process what’s happening around you. Which is what being surprised is.

        -If the Rogue spotted all of the ambushers then he is not surprised. If the ambushers failed to spot the Rogue then they are surprised. If the party failed to spot the ambushers then they are surprised. Which means everyone is surprised except the rogue. So in the first round of combat he gets to act during the first round and receive all the bonuses of his enemies being surprised.

        -I’ll give you a bonus scenario. Everything is the same as in the previous example except one of the ambushers is an invisible wizard whose stealth roll beat the rogues passive perception. The wizard also failed to notice the rogue. That means that the party is surprised for failing to notice the ambushers or the wizard (take your pick), the ambushers are surprised for failing to notice the rogue, the wizard is surprised for failing to notice the rogue and the rogue is surprised for failing to notice the wizard. Making the first round of a combat the ‘surprise round’ a wash.

        -The next question should be “how can the rogue/wizard be surprised by a wizard/rogue he doesn’t know is there if the wizard/rogue doesn’t do anything to startle the rogue/wizard”. This is a situation where we need to remember that Dnd is a game. The rules of being surprised have been laid out that you are surprised if your passive perception fails to exceed the stealth roll of a hidden character that has taken the hide action at some previous turn. A “surprise round” is a reward for having your stealth roll be higher than your enemies passive perception.

        1. Thanks for your comment! I always love to hear how different people interpret the rules differently.

          You are quite correct that vigilance doesn’t make it impossible to surprise someone. However, I encourage you to remember the context. In this situation, because the ambushing force is approaching a camp with the knowledge that a fight is imminent and that hidden sentries may be posted, I stand by my reasoning that they shouldn’t be surprised. This isn’t 99 minutes into your guard shift, trying to stay awake long enough to be relieved so you can go to bed; nor is it even watching a fight from what you might suspect to be a safe distance such that you don’t even have a helmet on. This is walking into a fight, which means that you’re probably prepared for a fight.

          You wouldn’t say that a rogue who hid in the middle of a fight with a sapient creature and then attacked that creature would cause the defender to be surprised, because that defender is trying to protect itself from unseen threats. It is the same thing here; the ambushing force would be sneaking up, trying to stay in cover, expecting a shout of alarm any moment because they don’t know that their Dexterity (Stealth) check of 17 is much, much higher than the passive Perceptions of their targets (except for the rogue who was keeping watch from a hidden perch).

          Also, I believe that the rules that you cited actually contradict your case; the ambushing force is aware of the party—they’re sneaking up on them! Not that the rule in and of itself should determine how you handle a specific situation. D&D is a game, yes, but remember that it’s a Handbook, not a rulebook; it’s there to facilitate the experience, not dictate it. Fifth Edition rules were even deliberately written ambiguously in order to allow the DM to use their discretion to adjudicate these kinds of situations (contrasted by, say, Third Edition, which was very prescriptive). The rules are tools to be ignored if they don’t seem appropriate.

          – 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.


    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:

  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.

      – 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.

      – the Archmage

  7. In your example with the elf and barbarian, being in dim light creates a lightly obscured effect (PHB 183) and the elf passive perception would be just like the human barbarian at -5 or perception checks made at disadvantage. Darkvision does not give a creature the ability to search by sight at normal in the dark, unless they have the feat Skuller (PHB 170) or some other type of sight ability – (blind sight, devil sight (PHB 110), true sight, etc – PHB 183-184, ) or have some type of tremor, hearing, smell, etc senses. Just having Darkvision only gives the creature the ability to see (only shades of grey, no color) in the dark.

    1. Hi Dan,

      Vision is subjective to the beholder. Within 60 feet, an elf can see normally in the dark. This is why drow don’t make ranged attacks with disadvantage in the Underdark unless the target is more than 60 feet away or beyond the normal range of their weapon. Note the verbiage of Skulker, which you mentioned: “lightly obscured from the creature from which you are hiding”. The creatures the elf perceived were within 60 feet (within the range of darkvision) and therefore were not lightly obscured.

      – the Archmage

  8. Hello, i wan’t to make sure i’m understanding the whole surprised vs unseen distinction correctly, and wondering if you could tell me how it should work with an example from my last session (i’m pretty sure this is our first campaign in 5e for the whole group DM included so we’re all still learning)
    our party has been hunting an alligator, we find the gator at the water’s edge facing away from us and the DM says “you notice it before it notices you.” i declare that i’m going to shoot at it with my longbow and ask the DM if get advantage on the attack, he says no i just get a surprise attack. I roll my attack and hit the gator. the DM has us roll initiative and begins the first round of combat with everyone acting as normal. based on the way you described it and your example above it sounds like i should have had advantage on my attack roll and the whole party should have had a chance to act before the gator. is that correct? it ended up not mattering this time (we easily killed the gator.) but our party is basically engaged in guerrilla warfare against a kingdom and we very frequently launch surprise attacks so i want to make sure we’re doing it right.

    1. Hi Isaiah,

      Your DM is sort of running things in a mix of Third Edition and Fifth Edition, which is sometimes how I run a fight if it makes sense for the situation.

      The rules of combat in D&D are thus: the DM determines surprise, then everyone rolls initiative. Those participants who are surprised spend their whole first turn collecting themselves for the fight, meaning that they don’t get to move or take an action on that turn. They also can’t take a reaction until that first turn ends. (PHB 189)

      The problem with this, and the reason I have a house rule that your DM may also employ, is that if the surprised creature goes first in the initiative order, then surprise would end potentially before it is aware of any threats. Nobody has attacked it, and it may still be oblivious to the presence of any foes who would raise its guard. This can be especially infuriating to players who play Assassins (rogues), who have a core ability that only works if they hit a surprised creature; if the creature beats their initiative, they don’t get to use their ability and really should just hold off on attacking until they have a more advantageous opportunity (i.e. when the DM lets them roll initiative again).

      For this reason, many DMs break from RAW to allow one character an initiating attack before combat begins (a ‘surprise attack’), provided circumstances support it. It sounds like that’s what your DM was doing. I’m not sure why he wouldn’t have given you advantage on the roll, though, as it sounds like your character was technically an unseen attacker (PHB 194) since the gator hadn’t seen him. But maybe there was something else going on that you weren’t privy to which determined your DM’s call.

      My suggestion would be to go over the sections pertaining to surprise and unseen attackers with your DM so that you’re both aware of how such things will be handled at your table—by the book, or using a house rule that everyone understands.

      — the Archmage

  9. This was a very helpful article, and the responses to the various situations posed in the comments helped clear up any confusion left over. I just want to say: Much appreciated, Archmage!

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