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.
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. Thanks to Feral Instinct, 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 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.
DM: You peer into the darkness and decide you don’t like the look of a certain bush. You rush towards it and are pretty sure you see something instinctively flinch away from you, deeper into the shadows. They’re cowardly goblins, after all.
Philip: I hurl a handaxe at it!
DM: Alright, you can make your attack roll with disadvantage both because you can’t see your target and because of the dim light.
Philip (rolling 2d20 and taking the lowest): Would you look at that, 20 and 19!
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, 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!