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 (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.

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. 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.
Philip: Nine.
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!

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

  1. Please forgive me if this is a silly question, this is my first time DMing. If i have my group roll perception checks to see if any of them catch the last bad guy come in and they all fail can i have this bad guy pop up and say a short speech and he still get a surprise attack on the group or dose the short dialogue mess that up?

    1. Hi don,

      Thanks for your question!

      It’s important to remember that surprise is determined at the beginning of combat, to reflect when some participants are caught unawares. While it could certainly be jarring for someone to suddenly hear an unexpected voice say something, startling them into leaving themselves open to attack, a ‘short speech’ is giving the target time to acknowledge the presence of a threat and prepare their defence. Also, remember that combat rounds generally represent about six seconds each, so a speech that would fit into the bad guy’s turn wouldn’t really be ‘short’ so much as ‘micro’.

      Best of luck with your game. I believe in you; you’ll do well!

      the Archmage

  2. if 4 adventures are fighting bandits and as they fight the last one they are ask to roll a perception check that they all fail, at the end of the battle the can the bandit leader pop up say a short dialogue and still get a surprise attack on the 4 adventures.

  3. Recently, a friend of mine and I worked out the mechanics of stacking the party on a door, kicking it in and commencing with a room clearance endeavor (Afghanistan-style). The point being to utilize surprise to augment damage dealt with a “shock-and-awe” feel.

    Of course, sectors are pre-determined without foresight perhaps. Stealth checks are in palce prior to the brute’s athletics check to kick in the door. Then each PC moves into his/her sector of the anticipated space, attacking anything in sight, moving past nothing still alive. The surprise attack would go unanswered, followed by the next attacks determined by initiative. It was evident from the start that such a strategy should only be attempted by supporting high bonuses to the various needed skills to ensure success. Epic failures could still play out in a fun way. For me as the player it was so much fun to execute it. BTW missile weapons are a must!!!

  4. One roll reference caught me off guard late in the scenario.

    >> Two more goblins attack, these also having rolled above Alarielle’s passive Perception. One misses, one rolls much higher.

    Why passive perception? Wouldn’t they be attacking because they rolled higher on Initiative?

    1. Hi ForScience,

      They’re attacking on the same turn as the other goblins. Their high Stealth checks are mentioned to explain why they weren’t revealed before and are irrelevant to the order in which the goblins attacked.

      the Archmage

      1. What’s your feeling about individual stealth checks for monster groups? The internet is a mess on this topic. There are a lot of arguments for and against with workarounds getting as complicated as DMs imaginations.

        The simplest reason not to individually role stealth is that medium sized monster groups, such as the one in your goblin example, will rarely prevail unless against a character with -5 like Wulfgar. I suppose you can create the conditions for -5 often enough (I.e. dark dungeons, night, maybe heavy cover?)

        1. Hi ForScience,

          Thanks for your question!

          I strongly favour individual stealth checks when determining who will be seen at the start of combat. The Assassin (rogue) will be quite cross with the party if they consistently fail to get Death Strike off because the paladin refuses to wear quiet armour. Likewise, it forces the party to be strategic when they go into battle—there’s no guarantee that they know about all the enemies and their positions.

          And, as you said, nighttime raids imposing -5 on passive Perception is a perfectly legitimate reason why such tactics would be used.

          the Archmage

  5. DM: Alright, you can make your attack roll with disadvantage because of the dim light.

    Wouldn’t this only be the case if the goblin is “unseen” deep in the shadows of the underbrush? If not then dim light would actually imply the opposite, that the attack proceed normally, not at a disadvantage.

    What am I missing here? I’m sure it’s something, I’m very tired..

    1. Hi Sam,

      Actually, I don’t think you missed anything. For some reason, when writing the article I seem to have conflated the disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks imposed by dim light with disadvantage on attack rolls.

      Thank you for bringing that to my attention! I’ll adjust the article.

      the Archmage

    1. Hi odenson,

      Provided that the assassin’s Dexterity (Stealth) check is sufficient to not rouse the party as he sneaks up, I would treat the party as surprised when the assassin starts attacking. If you’re using my variant (see the article above), then the assassin would get a free attack (not a multiattack) before initiative begins. After this, presumably some creak in the floorboards or groan of pain or scrape of metal against bone would make enough noise to rouse the party (who are still surprised), and they would roll initiative.

      In this instance, because it’s a single assassin is starting combat off against the entire party, my call as a DM would be to give the assassin advantage on the initiative check, representing the assassin’s readiness to keep the pace of the action after the first attack and also to ensure that they don’t roll a 1 and waste the advantage of surprise and therefore allow them to present a threat before the action economy utterly overwhelms them. You won’t find that in the rules anywhere; that’s just what I think would be necessary to make the encounter threatening if, for some reason, only a single assassin were present (instead of two or three).

      Bear in mind that a (smart) lone assassin probably would not just sneak into a shared bedroom and stab one person without having an escape route ready to let them quickly get out before the person’s friends can rouse and attack. If the assassin really wanted to take out the entire party, they would probably use poison like midnight tears (see the DMG).

      the Archmage

  6. What about this scenario…

    PC’s find an out-building with a wooden door that is locked. The monsters within detect the presence of the the PC’s and the PC’s can hear the monsters, so there’s no surprise. However, the monsters within are anticipating the door being smashed in or opened and so they are poised, waiting to strike as soon as that happens.

    If we just roll initiative as per RAW, then those poised monsters may die before they can attack, which seems a bit silly, especially considering that the PC smashing the door has just acted.

    When I ran it, I only rolled for initiative after the door was smashed in and the poised monster rolled low and didn’t get its attacks in. I just played it as if the door being smashed in put the monster off from its attack. Perhaps I should have rolled initiative before the door was smashed in? Then smashing the door would be an action and the initiative order continues from that point.

    How would you handle that scenario?

    1. Hi Noel,

      I would have probably treated it the same way you treated it. What do you do when someone initiates a fight by reaching for their sword? You let initiative decide who’s faster on the draw. It’s the same thing here, only instead of drawing a sword, it’s who can react faster when the door is opened and the opportunity presents itself to assess the situation and act. The PCs rolled higher initiative, which you could explain as them knowing precisely when the door would be broken because they could see it being smashed.

      What I might have allowed would be readied attacks from the monsters inside. They could have set a javelin or nocked an arrow and readied themselves to attack enemies who enter (using their reaction). If the monsters have any military training, they could establish an order of defences—I’ll handle the first target; if anyone gets past my first line, then you take them out, and you take out anyone who makes it past their line, etc. Well-ordered monsters could have probably set up a chokepoint at the doorway that would have kept the entire party of adventurers from simply rushing in.

      The key to making encounters that challenge your players is to try to remember that the monsters know what they’re doing. They don’t just sit around waiting for people to come along and kill them. They have plans and know their environment better than the party.

      the Archmage

      1. I think I would do it the opposite. Why start the combat when the door is smashed? Both sides are aware of one another at the same time in this example, so I would start initiative at that precise moment – this allows for ready attacks, or perhaps one side bursting open the door before the other has a chance to do such a thing.

        trigger: both sides hear one another and realizes they are enemies.
        1. roll initative
        2. The fastest may open the door OR do a ready attack
        3. resolve the actions using initiative order to determine who is ready and who is not.

        Obviously the PCs should not know if the other side has acted or not yet, so I would keep initiative secret in this case – that way they can choose to rush in and hope to catch them before the orcs have time to prepare, or assume they are faster and decide to use the Dodge action first, or even ready a counterattack (sky’s the limit).

        In my experience never allow ready attacks outside of initiative, you will inevitably run into a situation where both side is ready. Instead, use surprise if one side is able to detect the other first, or just roll initiative and resolve the ready actions that way.

        1. A smart, poised monster would ready an Attack action. The trigger being the first soft tissue crossing the plane of the smashed-in door getting the attack.

          Or have them hide with their action best they can giving them unseen attacker status, with advantage on the attacks.

  7. I am still very confused how this works. Lets set this up. 5 players in a bar at night.
    Call them A, B,C, D, and E. Then 12 guests walk into the bar. Five of these guests are actually NPC’s set out to ambush the players. We will give these guys numbers 1, 2,3,4,and 5.
    1, 2, and 3 are using stealth to remain hidden. 4 and 5 actually have invisibility rings and are invisible. 1,2 and 3 are thieves. 4 and 5 are assassins. Now we roll initiative and determine the order. Then we do passive checks against the stealth checks. NPC 3 beats all passive checks and as I understand it has surprise on all 5 players. NPC 2 beats all passive checks except player A. NPC 1 only beats player A passive check. So NPC 2 has surprise on all but player A.
    And NPC 1 only has surprise on player A.

    NPC 4 and 5 are invisible as per the ring ability so do they even have to make a passive perception vs stealth check as they are obviously hidden at a much better level than a person using just stealth alone.

    So from the rule on surprise: “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.”

    The initiative order is:
    Player A
    NPC 4
    Player E
    Player C
    NPC 1
    NPC 3
    NPC 2
    Player B
    Player D

    So Player A goes first but is surprised by NPC1 and 3 and the rules state he can not take an action on his first round but NPC 2 does not have surprise. So can player A move against NPC2 on round one of combat? And how can that happen if the rules say player A has been surprised so can not move or take an action on the first round.
    Then how are NPC 4 and 5 treated as they are both invisible until they strike on their initiative order on the first round. They should have surprise on everyone.

    Also the NPC’s are disguised as guests at the bar and have been in the bar on previous occasions casing the place and making friends with the players so as not to be suspected as enemies until surprise the attack starts.

    The rest of the people in the bar are non combatants which will flee or hide under tables when the fighting starts.

    If the players are fighting one enemy then it is simple to follow the rules. But when multiple enemies are in the fight then multiple situations arise which cause conflict with the rule as written.

    1. Hi,

      If the NPCs are all there expecting to fight because their objective is to ambush the players, I don’t know why they would be surprised. The PCs are the ones who might not be expecting a fight, but even they might not necessarily be surprised if they’re watching as a person draws a dagger and charges at them. Not every fight needs to start with someone being surprised. Sometimes you just need to let the initiative order determine how quickly people act or react.

      In this instance, I would run it as follows:

      Either one of the invisible NPCs initiates the fight by stabbing one of the PCs (see my house rule in other comments) or one of the PCs, noticing that the NPCs are acting evasively, shouts and pulls a weapon. Initiative gets rolled (potentially after that first attack, per the house rule) and the DM determines that the party is surprised (except for, perhaps, the character who shouted).

      Player A goes first and overcomes their surprise, and can cast shield when they are attacked (with advantage) by the invisible NPC 4. Players E and C go next and clear their surprise, so NPCs 1 through 3 all attack players B and D to seize on the surprise (unless they’re actually hidden and not just ‘in plain sight but not attracting attention’, in which case they can still attack players A, C, and E more effectively if the results of their Stealth checks were better than the passive Perceptions of their targets). Players B and D then clear their surprise, and NPC 5 can attack whoever because he’s invisible. If any of the PCs weren’t surprised per above, they can spend their turn how they wish instead of using it to overcome their surprise.

      That’s how I would run the encounter. You may decide differently, and that’s fine, because you’re the DM and you determine who is surprised.

      I hope that helps!

      The Archmage

      1. The NPC players intended to surprise the player characters in that scenario.
        It is not some random fight that just happened. The NPC’s did everything they could to set up a surprise scenario including use of disguise. It was intended that they surprise the players. So your comments are totally off about not every scenario needs to have a surprise round. This was designed as a surprise fight. All the NPC’s involved have special bonuses as well that get activated by surprise. I was simply trying to figure out how the actual rule would apply in this case and you just decided to go around it rather than deal with it.

        I am guessing that the rule which states if a player is surprised then they can not move or do any action on their first turn would apply simply because at least one of the attackers has surprise against that player. So in my above situation in which Player A goes first and has been surprised by at least one of the NPC’s then they do nothing on the first turn. Then NPC4 goes and has been invisible so gets to attack any of the players with surprise except player A as that player already cleared surprise. Then Player E goes and was surprised by at least one of the NPC’s so gets to do nothing. Then Player C and same with that person so gets to do nothing. Then NPC 1 goes and has surprise only on player A so can attack player A with surprise,
        but player A cleared surprise, so can now attack any of the other players without surprise. Then NPC 3 goes and has surprise on all the players so can attack any of them with surprise, except those that already cleared surprise. Then NPC 2 goes and can attack player B or D with surprise, or attack player A, C, or E without surprise. Then Player B and D go but both had been surprised by at least one of the enemy so neither can do anything on their first round. Then NPC 5 goes and can attack any player with surprise as he was invisible. But no because all went before him and cleared surprise already. Then first round over all players can now act and move on the second round. I would assume in my above case the only way any player could act on the first round is if their passive perception check could have beat every single enemy (NPC) Stealth check. And since that did not happen and every player failed a passive check on at least one if not more than one of the enemy stealth checks then they all had been surprised by at least one of the attacking enemy and as such all lost the opportunity to act on their first turn in combat. That is a literal interpretation of the rule which states only: “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 others are not.”

        Again that rule does say if you are surprised. And yes every single player was surprised by at least one enemy NPC. So they all are surprised. But not surprised by every single combatant. Only those combatants that actually have surprise get to use surprise attacks on their first turn of combat. does that make sense? And yes after each player turn happens they do clear surprise so then can react to any attacks with a reaction for the rest of that first turn of combat. And so if that is the case then after player A goes first and clears surprise no other NPC that has surprise on player A can use surprise attacks when they get to move and attack because player A already cleared surprise. So that would include the invisible NPC 4 and 5. Which seems off but it is exactly how the rule is written. NPC 4 and 5 could still attack any player that has not gone yet with surprise or attack any player that had gone before them without surprise but they still get to attack from an unseen condition which can get them sneak attack bonus.

        Looking at it further since NPC 5 goes last every player has cleared surprise and has had a turn before NPC 5 did so even though he is invisible at the time of his first attack he does not get to use Assassinate advantage or crit hit advantage but does still get sneak attack damage.

        The only way to fix that from a DM perspective would be to give invisible creatures a bonus to the initiative roll if no one in the opposing party has any means of detecting invisible creatures that is being used at the time of the initiative roll. Maybe a plus 10 to the initiative roll in those cases. I would not use this for creatures using stealth to remain hidden as they could be detected by sight at the time of the initiative roll. I would not use it for invisible creatures either if they could be detected somehow IE a muddy surface that would show footprints.

        1. I think you’re perhaps making it a bit too granular?
          In my view, the PC’s that are surprised should either be surprised by the whole ambush, or not surprised by any of it.

          That way it’s a lot simpler. Those PCs that are not surprised have sensed some attack and are on guard. They may not be able to see some attackers but regardless they are on alert.

          Those PCs that are surprised, are caught unawares and cannot act during the first round.

    2. “NPC 2 beats all passive checks except player A. NPC 1 only beats player A passive check.” If NPC 2 beat all passive checks except player A that would mean player A has the highest passive perception of all PC. If A has the highest passive perception of all the PC then how does NPC 1 only beat the person with the highest passive perception. If A is the highest how could NPC 1 not pass the checks on the other four with lower passive? I think sending an asteroid to hit this building would have been less messy 🙂

  8. Here’s the scenario I am trying to figure out:
    – A rogue and a fighter quietly sneak up to a door, and by listening, determine that there are orcs on the other side.
    – They then burst into the room in an attempt to surprise the orcs.
    – The rogue does well on their stealth roll, exceeding the passive perception of the orcs.
    – The fighter fails to do so.

    Are the orcs surprised by the rogue but not the fighter? Does that mean they can’t attack anyone the first round? Or they can attack only the fighter?

    Or are they not surprised at all, because the fighter failed his roll?

    1. Hi arl,

      I’m a little confused. Bursting into a room doesn’t sound very stealthy, so a Dexterity (Stealth) check doesn’t seem appropriate unless they’re sneaking up to the door to listen for noise (rather than sneakily bursting in).

      Otherwise, it’s up to the DM if the orcs are being so loud and raucous amongst themselves that they don’t hear the party approaching through a door, meaning they’d be surprised at the start of the fight. Or perhaps the doorguard might hear, but the fight is initiated before his impassioned pleas can rouse the others, meaning that the guard would not be surprised, but every other orc is, since not all enemies have to be surprised or not surprised.

      Try to forget about the mechanics and focus on what the situation looks like. If the party sneaks by a camp of sleeping orcs and everyone passes their Dexterity (Stealth) check except for the fighter, then the fighter is probably going to be the target of the attacks from the orc guards standing watch since they can’t see any other enemies. Everyone else is staying quiet and out of sight, after all; they’re probably in total cover amid the trees. Remember, the rules are just there to help you adjudicate where you want a test of ability or random chance.

      the Archmage

      1. I’ve been searching for a clear answer on this point.

        PHB states “Any character or monster that doesn’t notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter.”

        So: if a PC is ambushed by 4 NPCs, and only 1 NPC rolls a stealth check above the PC’s passive perception, then the PC is still surprised (i.e. he/she didn’t notice “a”, as in 1, threat, even though they were aware of the other 3 threats). Is that right?

        But: this would mean that the greater the number of ambushers, the greater the chance of achieving surprise (imagine 20 ogres, and 1 goblin achieving surprise because the goblin’s stealth is so good). But that would be RAW.

        Am I right? I’ve searched over the net for clarification on this, but no-one seems to talk about this specific point (which is what Arl seems to be asking)

        1. Hi MrD,

          That’s a good question, and fortunately the answer is pretty simple.

          Once a creature has acted in combat, it is no longer surprised during that combat. When multiple enemies approach, and some of them are detected, surprise will only come into effect if the one whose Dexterity (Stealth) check exceeded the party’s passive Perceptions is the creature who acts first in the initiative order. Otherwise, that creature simply becomes a hidden attacker—provided, that is, that someone in the party doesn’t blunder across their hiding space before they get to act; a Stealth check doesn’t make you invisible, so if you’re hiding behind a tree that gets flattened by a fireball or around which the barbarian comes running, then you’re not hidden anymore.

          the Archmage

  9. Been very interesting to read all of the comments.

    My current leaning on this is roll initiative. All characters surprised but acting before the attack actually starts effectively don’t get the benefit of being high in the initiative order until the attack actually starts. Effectively, they have a readied action to do nothing based on an attack happening. In round 2, they will be going early on in the round.

    So the first attacker will get its surprise attacks in, and then all the higher initiatives effectively kick in. If there are still surprised creatures that haven’t “acted” in initiative, the attackers might have others to pick on before the surprise completely wears off.

    1. I agree with the spirit of this rule, but would tweak things slightly to be simpler:

      A creature wanting to make a “surprise attack” automatically goes first in the first round of initiative and then reverts to whatever they rolled in subsequent rounds.

      So, the assassin is hidden and fires an arrow at an unsuspecting guard.

      First, everyone rolls initiative. Assassin Rogue gets 15, his Warrior ally gets 17, the sorcerer gets 10, and the guard rolls 20.

      For the first round, Assassin Rogue effectively goes at 21 (basically, the highest rolled initiative +1). The guard is surprised and also can’t see the Rogue, so the Rogue gets advantage on the attack and whatever other benefits he gets from the target being surprised (or not acting yet).

      After the first attack hits or misses, the Rogue is no longer hidden, so any subsequent attacks in his first turn (at initiative 21) are made without advantage. However, he could use his bonus action to try to hide again in between the attacks. Regardless, the guard’s turn is next, but he cannot do anything on his turn as he is surprised. After his turn, he is no longer surprised and can use reactions if he has them.

      The warrior and sorcerer go next, potentially gaining advantage if they are hidden from the guard. If the guard is still alive, he now goes first in the second round, followed by the warrior, and then the rogue.

  10. Ok, i may be a little late to this party. I want to clear out one confusion for myself that i may not be getting. If a rogue assassin initiates an attack on say two unsuspecting guards, it would be possible to say that is a surprise attack, in which a dual wielding rogue may attack and crit both targets with advantage, and if then coming first in the initiative roll may do so again, effectively gaining 4 critical strikes before an enemy has the ability to even react?

    Also another confusion for me is lets say a castle is guarded by roaming watchmen at night, each within earshot if one were to yell to another, but not within sight. Our trusty assassin wants to silently take one out without other guards noticing, and succeeds in doing so, which would impose surprise, are all guards now surprised, or would that effectively allow for the assassin to pick them off one by one imposing surprise and possibly killing all guards and avoiding initiative in general?

    1. Hi SMOKY,

      “Surprise attacks” are not included in the rules. You can attack a surprised creature, but you don’t get a special “surprise attack” unless your DM house rules it. At my table, one (1) character can initiate combat with one (1) surprise attack, which is a single attack and not the Attack action. This is specifically to allow characters with features such as the Assassin (rogue)’s Assassinate to be sure to get to use this feature when they are able to get a surprise round, and also to give a reason for surprised creatures who act first in initiative to have a reason to not be surprised.

      If you aren’t using a similar rule, you don’t get any additional attacks against a surprised target; that creature simply can’t move or take actions on their first turn, and can’t take reactions until their first turn is over. That’s it. If you roll initiative and the surprised creature rolls higher than everyone else, then that’s that—that creature is no longer surprised and combat goes on. No, it doesn’t make all that much sense when you think about how that creature has no reason to not be surprised anymore; hence my house rule.

      the Archmage

  11. 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!

  12. 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 the creature, and it may still be oblivious to the presence of any foes who would raise its guard. And yet now the creature is not surprised anymore because of a game mechanic to measure its quickness to respond to something that hasn’t happened yet.

      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 attack roll, though, as it sounds like your character was technically an unseen attacker (PHB 194) since the gator hadn’t seen him. However, there may be there was something else going on that you weren’t privy to which determined your DM’s call.

      Another option would be to change the rules for surprise to the following:

      If you’re surprised, you can’t move or take any action or reaction on your first turn of the combat. You are considered surprised until the start of your second turn in the combat.

      I would also add the following subsection under Legendary Creatures in the Introduction of the Monster Manual:

      Legendary Creatures and Surprise: A legendary creature reacts faster than normal creatures and can use legendary actions during the first round of combat, even if the creature is surprised.

      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 so that there isn’t confusion in the future.

      the Archmage

  13. 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 if the target is more than 120 feet away (their darkvision range) 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

      1. Psst: The reason drow don’t attack at disadvantage in the inky blackness of the Underdark is that dim light doesn’t impose disadvantage on attacks, and they treat total darkness as dim light.

        1. Hi vonBoomslang,

          I think you’re forgetting how darkvision works.

          Darkvision has a finite range, which for drow is 120 feet. Within 120 feet, drow treat dim light as bright light and darkness as if it were dim light. Past 120 feet, they treat total darkness as total darkness, as per usual.

          Thus, a drow targeting a creature 121 feet away with a ranged attack makes the attack roll with disadvantage, which is precisely what I said above.

          the Archmage

  14. 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

  15. 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

  16. 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:

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      I’m not certain where you are getting confused, but this is exactly how the encounter went.

      The DM rolled for Dexterity (Stealth) checks on the goblins’ approach to determine if the party is aware of them at the start of combat. Generally, the goblins rolled well, but a few failed and attracted Alarielle’s attention (one in particular failed by a large margin), so she was aware of the goblins when initiative was rolled. Wulfgar, though unaware and therefore surprised, was able to act in the first round on account of the barbarian feature Feral Senses.

      If what you’re referring to is my surprise attack variant rule suggestion to allow one individual in a party that initiates combat against a group that is completely unaware of the party’s presence, let’s take a look at what would have happened if the goblins all rolled better Dexterity (Stealth) checks and were completely undetected when initiative was rolled. In this case, because Wulfgar rolled the highest initiative, even if he hadn’t leapt up and raged, any goblin in the pack that might have been given the Assassinate ability wouldn’t have been able to use it against Wulfgar because he’d already taken his turn—even if he did nothing at all with it.

      All the rule suggests is supporting the pre-planning of the rogue saying, “Wait for my attack before running in” so that he can ensure that his Assassinate feature works. After that one (1) attack, initiative is rolled and things work as normal.

      If you still feel that the possibility of getting Assassinate to work twice is too overpowered, you can feel free to rule as DM that the feature only works once per short or long rest. However, given that it can already trigger multiple times in a single battle (a Crossbow Expert can, on their first turn, throw a dagger at one enemy that hasn’t acted and use a bonus action to shoot their crossbow at another, possibly dealing a whopping 1d4 + 1d8 + 8d6 at 3rd level), the potential for one additional attack as the surprise attack that initiates combat doesn’t seem especially game-breaking.

      the Archmage

  17. 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

          1. Agreed, except for the rare occasion. As someone with actual combat experience I can tell you that attacks made when you are readly expecting them do not surprise you. At least not if you have any sort of trained reflexes at all. The one exception being an attack that was entirely unexpected even while prepared (like someone suddenly appearing in mid air right above you).

      2. the fact that the creatures are approaching the camp to attack indicates that combat has essentially already started. they are ready for a fight. as they move in they can be assumed to be taking a ready action “if anyone raises the alarm”. the assassin might get the drop on them by firing as they approach, but initiative should have been resolved when he became aware of their presence. the party is surprised but the first round was the opponents moving in. by the time the rogue attacks the opponents (assuming they all have the same initiative) have all taken a turn, that movement is what he percieved.

  18. 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.

      1. And at the end of his turn he did not get attacked. So his rage ended. He was attacked later that round after his turn ended.

    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

  19. 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

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