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How Surprise Works… And When Never To Use It!

This post was intended to serve as a short tip for DMs saying: “Never surprise a 1st level party!” However, as I started to research the topic a little more, I saw that many folk are confused about how surprise works in 5e.

I’ll be honest and say that – after messing up the Ready action for several years – I could probably do with revising this topic myself!

So let’s go through this, with a fine-tooth comb, and get it down to perfection.

Good stealth will be essential…

Obviously, our reference for the rules will be the Player’s Handbook (p.189) which states:

What the Rules Say

A band of adventurers sneaks up on a bandit camp, springing from the trees to attack them. A gelatinous cube glides down a dungeon passage, unnoticed by the adventurers until the cube engulfs one of them. In these situations, one side of the battle gains Surprise over the other.

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.

Following this section is a “Combat Step by Step” box out, which states that “Determine Surprise” is the first step of combat (followed by 2. Establish Positions and 3. Roll Initiative).

Combat Step-by-Step (screenshot from Dndbeyond.com)

It’s Planned…

Ok, so doesn’t look too tricky. Let’s examine the wording more closely. The first thing that jumps out is that one side needs to be actively trying to be stealthy. Generally you’re only stealthy when you know an enemy’s whereabouts, and when they don’t know yours. So we can extrapolate that surprise is something that happens during a planned raid or ambush.

Ambushers Roll (NOT the Ambushed)

Within the context of these rules, the ambushers are very much the protagonists, and its they that roll their Stealth, to determine success, versus their targets’ passive Perception. Note that the victims of the ambush don’t make any rolls (in the case of NPCs ambushing PCs, you may want to change this, to give the PCs more agency… however this can be problematic. See Causes of Confusion below! Also, the ambush targets should be entitled to a Perception roll if actively keeping watch, see below as well).

Spot One (Threat), Spot All

After that, the phrase: “any character or monster that doesn’t notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter,” clearly means that if a potential target spots even one of the would-be stealthy enemies then they are not surprised. In other words, every single one of the ambushing team must beat a target’s passive Perception for that particular creature to be surprised. Although the rules also make clear that if one ambush target isn’t surprised, their colleagues still can be, a circumstance most likely to happen if some of them have lower passive Perceptions than their teammates.

You Can’t Be Partially Surprised

One thing we can clear up straight away is that: you are either surprised or you’re not. You can’t be surprised by some creatures, and not by others. If you notice ‘a threat’ you’re not surprised, hence ALL the ambushers having to beat your passive Perception for you to be surprised.

This means that, in practice, you’re only likely to get surprised if a) you have a low passive Perception and b) you’re attacked by a small number of stealthy creatures, who all roll well. (Similarly, a larger group of players will find it very hard to stage a surprise, because one bad roll alerts the target to ‘a threat’, negating any surprise, no matter how high the stealthy party members roll. The number of monsters they are trying to surprise doesn’t affect their chances, assuming those monsters all have the same passive Perception and they are not specifically keeping watch… see below).

Think of Surprise As a Condition

Once you’ve determined who is surprised and who is not, like many 5e players, I find it handy to think of ‘surprised’ as a condition. If you are surprised you are basically ‘incapacitated’ (you can’t take actions or reactions), with speed 0, until the end of your turn in the first round of combat.

Such a sweet surprise….

‘Sneaking Up On’ vs. ‘Laying in Wait’

I think one area where the surprise rules let us down a bit is that they don’t draw a distinction between sneaking up on someone (very tricky!) and lying in wait, having scouted a hiding place etc. (much easier!). I would give ambushers who are lying in wait either advantage on their Stealth check, OR I would let them default to their passive Stealth score (10 + their Stealth modifier) if they roll badly. Or both!

However, I’d argue that if a would-be target does manage to notice a creature lying in wait, they are likely to have time to warn their teammates about the threat they’ve spotted… let’s pick this thread up in ‘Causes of Confusion’.

Do You Get Advantage to Hit Surprised Creatures?

“Does surprise give advantage in 5e?” is a common question I’ve seen fielded by new DMs. The answer is no… and sometimes yes. The fact that your target is ‘surprised’ doesn’t confer advantage on your attack rolls, but the fact that you are an ‘unseen attacker’ does, if and when that’s the case. Page 195 of the Player’s Handbook states:

When a creature can’t see you, you have advantage on attack rolls against it. If you are hidden–both unseen and unheard–when you make an attack, you give away your location when the attack hits or misses.

From this quote, we can also ascertain that you can only ever gain advantage on your first attack of the combat, as after that you’re considered to have given away your position (and would need to successfully take the Hide action, before being counted as a unseen attacker once more).

Gunman enjoys traditional woodsman greeting

Whereas an archer hidden in the woods can clearly claim the benefits of being unseen when attacking a surprised opponent, there’s a bit of confusion over whether a melee attacker can benefit as well. Given that there’s no hard and fast facing rules in 5th edition, it’s sometimes hard to judge if a creature can sneak up on their target or not. Ultimately, it’s up to the DM to decide if the attacker managed to get into melee range of their victim without being seen or not. Usually that will be unlikely, but if the attacker is coming out of thick forest directly onto a narrow path etc. etc. it’s far from impossible. You could also rule that if the ambusher beats the surprised creature’s passive Perception by 5, with their Stealth check, then they get close enough to get advantage on their first attack.

Causes of Confusion

So what causes the confusion surrounding surprise in 5th edition? Well, now that we’re in 2021 and 7 years into 5e, we can probably discount ‘edition fatigue’ and the implementing of an entire ‘surprise round’ that took place in earlier versions of Dungeons & Dragons.

I think, in the case where NPCs/monsters are attempting to surprise the party, a lot of the confusion is down to the fact that DMs are wont to let the players roll a Perception check, making them feel like the active party. Once a player has succeeded on such a check (and one of them invariably will, with 4 or so players rolling) they will naturally tell the DM that they warn their buddies, and suddenly the ambush is a busted flush. This all stems from letting the PCs roll (instead of using their passive Perception), and from them expecting to be able to react to their successful roll, but that’s not how the rules work as written.

Step one of combat, “Determine Surprise”, effectively happens in the very moment the ambush is sprung, after which it can affect each ‘ambushee’ differently, depending on how high their passive Perception is. I think it’s ok – and even fun – to replace the players’ passive Perception with a roll, but, when you do so, just remember that those being ambushed are not the protagonists of the situation, and they can’t react to their roll if they spot the ambushers. The best each player can hope for is to not be surprised themselves.

That’s actually something I hadn’t thought of before but, as we’ve just seen, the rules adjudicate surprise in such a way that success or failure on the ambushers’ Stealth check ALWAYS happens in the very moment the ambush is sprung. That’s far from being realistic, and brings me back to the difference I outlined earlier between “sneaking up on” and “laying in wait for”.

In my imagination, if you spy someone lying in wait for you behind a rock (note, as discussed, you don’t spot them, so much as they fail to hide from you – fluffing their Stealth check vs. your passive Perception), perhaps catching a glint of sunlight reflecting off their spearpoint as you head into the valley, then a) the creature who failed to hide from you is unlikely to know you’ve spotted them and therefore b) you would have plenty of time to warn your mates of the impending attack.

So, I’d continue to distinguish between these two situations – “sneaking up on” vs. “laying in wait for” when adjudicating surprise. As mentioned, I’d make it easier for those laying in wait to ace their Stealth checks, but, if they still fail to beat the passive Perception of all of the ‘ambushees’, then I’d probably allow for the observant targets to warn their allies. Something that isn’t allowed for in RAW, it seems.

For the “sneaking up on” scenario, given how hard it is to pull off anyway, I think we can apply the letter of the law and generously assume that the ambushers are able to get as close to their targets as the cover of the terrain allows, before rolling Stealth in the “Determine Surprise” stage of combat. Of course, if one of them rolls a 1 or fails by 5/10 etc., the DM might decide that they’ve been spotted at a range of 100 feet instead of 10 feet, giving the ambush targets more time to prepare for the ensuing combat.

Passive Perception & Keeping Watch

A good understanding of passive Perception is required to run surprise correctly, and the best way to think of passive Perception is as a radar that’s always on – at least while you’re conscious. This effectively makes your passive Perception the bottom floor of how perceptive you are while awake. If you have a passive Perception score of 15, you spot everything that requires a DC 15 Perception check to spot, no roll required. (Many DMs don’t play the game like this, because it’s rather dull – a character with a high passive Perception tends to automatically spot every trap and hidden passage, taking a lot of fun out of proceedings. But them are the rules!).

The next thing to consider are the benefits of actively keeping an eye out for danger. When you keep watch, you get to contest the Stealth checks of any threats sneaking up on you with an active Perception check (allowing for the possibility that you roll higher than your passive Perception… if you don’t you default to your passive Perception).

This fella is demanding an active Perception check…

This of course raises the question of whether players can claim they are alert and on the watch for danger at all times and get the benefit of an active Perception check at all times. You might rule that players that wish to be actively be alert for danger are effectively taking the Search action repeatedly, and can only travel at half pace for example.

Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering that in RAW (see p.182 of the Player’s Handbook) players travelling at a fast pace suffer a -5 penalty to their passive Perception scores, and shouldn’t be able to persuade DMs that they are actively on the look out for danger!

Remember Light (or Lack of it!)

In total darkness, creatures without darkvision have zero chance of ‘seeing’ an attacker sneak up on them, while in dim light they have disadvantage on any active Perception checks that rely on sight and -5 on their passive Perception score.

And while sight is no doubt the most useful sense in detecting an ambusher, I think we can assume that senses such as hearing, and potentially smell, offer a ‘blind’ watch(wo)man a chance at least of detecting an enemy. Therefore, I would rule that a player or creature without darkvision, in the darkness, has disadvantage and -2 on their Perception checks and -7 on their passive Perception.

Obviously creatures with darkvision don’t suffer any penalties to Perception checks in dim light, and they can treat darkness as others treat dim light. But only to a range of 60 feet, usually.

As we can see, the cover of darkness makes pulling off an ambush much more feasible.

Reversing the Check

The more I think about these rules, the more sense it would make to reverse the agency of the check when a group of monsters try to surprise the party. As it stands, the DM either stops narrating the game to start conspicuously rolling a number Stealth checks, alerting the players to the fact that they are about to be surprised, or they announce the surprise: “Suddenly a pack of savage six-limbed apes swing down from the jungle vines!” and then cumbersomely stop play to perform the required rolls. Neither option is great. You could pre-roll, but I hate doing that (the temptation to fudge the rolls is too great!).

However, if you use the passive Stealth check of the monsters (ie. 10 + their Stealth modifier), then you can introduce the drama (“Suddenly a pack of savage six-limbed apes swing down from the jungle vines”) and have each player roll an active Perception check to see if they’re surprised or not.

This is faster (the dice rolling is delegated) and more fun, and has the bonus that you will actually be able to surprise the party occasionally, as when you roll an active Stealth check for each monster it only takes one average to bad roll to ensure that none of the party are surprised (experienced players rarely build PCs without at least 12 passive Perception!); but a more reliable passive Stealth check should create a DC for the players that will ensure one or two are stung by the ambush. Which is more dramatic.

You could subtract 1 from the monsters’ passive Stealth score for each creature above one that is involved in the ambush, to represent the fact that a larger group is easier to spot. Eg. four girallons attempt to surprise the players… normally these apes would have a passive Stealth of 15, but because there are three extra of them, they have a group passive Stealth of 12, and anyone who rolls under that on their active Perception check is surprised.

Looks like its pigeon for supper…

Group Checks

Meanwhile, to make it a bit easier for players to ambush monsters, take a look at my group check house rule.

Conclusion

Wow, that was a long post… I’ll try to sum up some takeaways:

  • In RAW, surprise is determined in the moment combat begins with the ambushers as the protagonists (rolling Stealth against their targets’ passive Perception).
  • The rules don’t deal so well with staged ambushes, where the attackers lie in wait.
  • The DM might have to adjudicate at what range surprise is determined, depending on terrain (as this is not covered in the rules).
  • It’s really hard to surprise people in RAW, and almost impossible with bigger groups.
  • Darkness can play a big factor, and in fact might provide the only scenario where surprising foes is realistic.
  • It could be more fun and effective to reverse the agency of the Stealth vs. Perception checks, so that the players are always the agents and so the monsters can benefit from a more reliable passive Stealth check.

Never Surprise a 1st Level Party!

And finally, to the original point of my article…. never surprise a 1st level party! It occurred to me when playing recently that a surprise attack on players that average about 10 hit points is a really bad idea. A character that is surprised and rolls a lower initiative check than the monsters could face two rounds of attacks before being able to act. That’s likely be enough for them to die without taking an action, and that usually makes for a pretty shit encounter.

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19 Comments

  1. Keith

    I tried a average perception for surprise checks once. It didn’t work out well but it was also many years ago and I was not as experienced as older me. Basically it was just an average of perceptions vs an average stealth of the ambushers with pluses given for terrain and time to prep and such and if the party failed then I went on to giving each player a chance to roll to avoid surprise by rolling their individual perception at a -2(I think now this should be even higher or possibly disadvantage) due to the fact that the ambush or whatever was not detected en masse. This managed to get around the one character that had a passive perception of 18 or even more so that they couldn’t then warn the rest of the party and thus negate almost all surprise encounters. I think I was on to something that would have worked, but it would need some tweaking.

    I do like your way of making it a character based check rather than an attacking NPC roll. Gives a chance to negate that high passive perception character with a bad roll.

    • duncan

      hi Keith, well technically the high passive Perception only saves the PC in question, as the surprise is determined as combat begins. Basically that PC spots the ambush as it’s being launched, and can act, but they can’t warn their buddies – at least in RAW. Or rather warning their buddies doesn’t stop them being surprised.

      But yes, flipping the agency means that high passive Perception is not so influential. The player in question can always roll badly and the results feel less predetermined. (This in turn makes the Alert feat more attractive, otherwise the Observant feat’s +5 to passive Perception makes it almost as good as the Alert feat for avoiding surprise, which feels a bit unfair!).

      If you wanted to make surprise more of a group thing than an individual thing, as per your yesteryear experiments (if that was your intention?), I guess you could set a DC based on the monsters’ passive Stealth (adjusting for other factors) and then run a group Perception check as per the rules on group checks in the PH. Basically if half or more of the party pass they spot the ambush, and none are surprised. Less than half they don’t and all are surprised. This is a big deviation from RAW of course! I think ambushes where everyone is surprised are maybe too deadly! So the case by case basis in RAW is quite good in that respect…

  2. Justin

    Great post! Also an interesting insight regarding how allowing players to roll perception rather than monsters rolling stealth actually increases the chance of surprise – basically a win-win there!

    I especially like this part:

    “So, I’d continue to distinguish between these two situations – “sneaking up on” vs. “laying in wait for” when adjudicating surprise. As mentioned, I’d make it easier for those laying in wait to ace their Stealth checks, but, if they still fail to beat the passive Perception of all of the ‘ambushees’, then I’d probably allow for the observant targets to warn their allies. Something that isn’t allowed for in RAW, it seems. ”

    That makes a lot of sense to me.

    One last thing – can you help me figure out one more dimension?

    Say a group of goblins is trying to ambush the party, but one has alert, or a high enough perception to spot the attack before it happens AND rolls first for initiative. To my understanding, they can’t actually *do* anything yet, because the goblins are still getting cover from the tress/rocks/bushes until they move to attack – is that correct? They’d basically need to either Move or Ready an action, but this means they only get one attack (let’s say firing a bow) even if they are a higher level Fighter.

    Or would you rule that the goblins are now essentially out of cover as they’re about to shoot, and so our 5th level fighter can still reel off two arrows? That’s more satisfying for the player and less clunky to manage, but to my mind makes a little bit less narrative and logical sense.

    • duncan

      Hi Justin

      Good question, and a really common occurrence in my experience. That of someone instigating a combat, but then losing initiative!

      In your specific example, in RAW, the PC spots the ambush and therefore isn’t surprised in the first round of combat and can act. For them it’s a normal combat situation, and they go first by virtue of their high initiative roll. The ambushers likely start the round behind some kind of cover (up to DM to say how much! It’s unlikely to be total, as they were spotted), so, as you say, they may want to select the Ready action. Do note: they can move AND take the Ready action though. The Ready action takes your action + reaction, but not your move or bonus action, which you can take on your turn (assuming the bonus action isn’t predicated on the action… many are!).

      When I DM I have two solutions to this problem of the instigator not being able to act first… the first is I roll initiative for the instigator(s), but in the first round (only!) I have them act first, regardless of what they rolled. The second is I give the instigators advantage on their initiative check.

      Maybe those solutions will work for you too?

  3. PK

    Hi Duncan,

    I go with an active playing facing roll against a target DC for both occasions: when the party is being surprised (perception) and when the party is ambushing (stealth). This works for me because:
    – rolling Xd20 for a band of goblins is laborious and takes the DM out of the game;
    – lets players use their character’s stats.
    – it’s more fun.

    By far the most common situation is the party being ambushed while trying to rest. I mod the DC for the active PCs perception rolls to fit the situation. Common mods I use are:
    +1 if the creatures are taking their time and are careful
    +2 if the creatures have a home ground advantage
    +2 if the creatures use hunting (aka survival skill) to get food

    And give penalties (i.e. consequences) to PC’s rolls based on what they are doing:
    -2 if the PC’s are distracted (e.g. studying spell books when on watch).
    -3/level of exhaustion
    -5 if asleep.

    I also use these mods for the initiative; it’s a dex skill test, and so no reason it should have mods to reflect a given situation.

    • duncan

      Hi PK

      That all makes sense to me.

      Question: in the case of the monsters attacking the party at rest, what are you using as the base DC? The monsters’s passive Stealth?

      In the case of PCs ambushing monsters, you are basically running as RAW then? Their Stealth checks vs. the monsters’ passive Perception….

      Applying modifiers or even advantage / disadvantage to initiative checks is definitely something DMs should consider. Maybe with teh previso that you might punish an ambushed party twice… if they are in a situation where they can be surprised and then you also hit them with an initiative penalty they will likely get attacked twice before being able to act!!!

  4. Sam Thompson

    Hi, just noticed a subtle typo.

    “ If you are surprised you are basically ‘incapacitated’ (you can’t take actions or reactions), with speed 0, until the end of the first round of combat.”

    It should be “…until the end of the your first TURN of combat.”

    You could theoretically be surprised and still use your reaction during the first round as long it’s after your turn has ended.

    • duncan

      ok good spot!

      That wasn’t a typo, I had misinterpreted that… so with a good initiative roll you’re likely to be able to use a reaction in fact.

  5. Nic

    I have always heard that “passive” doesn’t refer to the character being passive, but instead refers to the player being passive; it is when the DM needs the players to “make a roll”, but doesn’t want the players to know they are making it. So passives are really more like DCs for the DMs to beat.

    And I truly feel that “You can’t roll lower than your passive” is a also misunderstood. Passive scores shouldn’t be the floor. The reason you can’t roll lower than them is that if you are in the position where a passive would be used, the ony reason you would be rolling is that your passive wasn’t enough.

    Example: your character walk in to a room that has a nasty trap with a DC of 18 to see in it. If the DM says “everybody roll me perception checks”, then the players have just been told something is up with this room. If everyone rolls under 18, and the DM says, oh, well it’s a room, I guess. Instead, the DM uses passives, and my 17 isn’t enough. We think it is normal, and don’t notice that loose looking ceiling tile, but I still say I want to give the room a bit more scrutiny (some dms might call for investigation) so the DM asks me, the player, who is actively (not passively) having my character do something, to roll perception. In that case, while I don’t know it, my passive has already not been enough, so I have to roll above it for it to matter.

    • duncan

      Hi Nic… your second example is bang on. That’s how passive Perception is intended to work.

      However, you could argue though that passive Perception is bad for the game… esp. as there are plenty of ways to stack it really high.

      https://dmdavid.com/tag/to-find-the-fun-in-traps-did-dd-miss-the-search-check/

      You also say:

      ‘“You can’t roll lower than your passive” is a also misunderstood. Passive scores shouldn’t be the floor. The reason you can’t roll lower than them is that if you are in the position where a passive would be used’

      I’m not 100% what you’re advocating here?

      In general I think there’s a fair amount of confusion around passive scores and how and when to use them. The Player’s Handbook says use them for the “average result for a task done repeatedly” or when DM wants to secretly determine something… and not much more.

      I think passive knowledge checks would make sense. Anyone with a passive History score of 15 knows a fair bit about the history of Waterdeep. For something specific a check with DC 20 is required….

      I think advocating for passive Stealth when you have time to lay in wait and carefully select a hiding place, vs. active Stealth when you have to sneak up and take more risks (represented by the potential to roll low) makes sense and also seems to follow what the rules suggest.

  6. Michael

    I just don’t like RAW passive perception. It seems unreasonable that the guy with 11 passive perception can never be surprised unless the guy with 10 passive perception is also surprised. OK 11 guy is marginally more alert but what if he had happened to be looking to the left at the critical moment when the 10 guy was looking to his right?

    Generally I’d always rather my players roll than me as DM. So I’d much rather decide a DC, based on the ambushers’ stealth skills and get the players to roll perception. The only time I might consider not doing that is when asking for a perception roll gives something away but if we’re doing “Step 1 Determine Surprise” I’m not giving anything away that they aren’t about to find out anyway. Note that players who have passive perception bonuses (e.g. the Alertness feat) should get those bonuses to the roll.

    As for some of your other points:

    Yes it might be easier to spot 5 guys than 1 and that should be involved in the DC but then again it might not. If 2 bugbears and 3 goblins are hiding behind rocks – and they know you’re coming – then only one of them needs to poke his head up to look for you and that guy may be the only one you have any chance of spotting. That’s less likely to be the case if your enemies are trying to sneak up on you but it’s still a question you can ask yourself as a DM.

    As for unsurprised party members shouting a warning to their surprised fellows, I’d say that might be possible sometimes but not always. If the ever alert ranger spots something that the daydreaming tabaxi hasn’t that doesn’t necessarily mean that a cry of “Hey! Bugbears!” is going to extract our dreamer from his reverie in time to act on his first turn. It depends on your read as a DM.

    Last night, in my mind, the bugbears were about to attack you anyway. The fact you spotted them meant they had to attack when you were slightly farther away than they’d intended. But they were ready and when they noticed you noticing them they attacked immediately. So any of you could still have been surprised. I don’t see that “Hey! Bugbears!” is any better warning than the aforementioned ranger who always wins initiative firing an arrow and shouting “Die scum!” If any noise is sufficient warning then you can only be surprised if you top the initiative order or if everybody higher than you is also surprised.

    It might be different if you determine as a DM that the ambushers act differently if they’re spotted. Another time or another DM might decide the bugbears think better of it if they’re spotted and instead stand up and say, “Hey, we were waiting for some pesky orcs to pass this way. You haven’t seen them, have you?”

    So as a DM I’d say you have decide whether the perception check (or stealth check if the players are trying to ambush) is Step 1 of combat or not. If it’s not you have to decide what success/failure means. If I, as DM, have decided it’s not Step 1 but the ranger spots the bugbear and immediately fires his already notched arrow then OK it turns out that was Step 1 after all. If his reaction is instead to shout to his party then, yes, surprise is cancelled.

    • duncan

      It was quite appropriate that this scenario in our home game came out the day after I posted this!

      Without reading my post, you naturally ‘reversed the agency’ as I suggested might be fun (a technique DMs naturally gravitate to in my experience). After we each rolled well on Perception, we also rolled well on initiative and basically the ambushers got zero advantage. Fair enough.

      Good point about adding people’s passive Perception bonuses to their active Perception checks if, as a DM, you are not using passive Perception. However Alert doesn’t grant you a higher passive Perception… that’s Observant. Alert says flatly you can’t be surprised (but is no good for other passive checks).

      Where you spot the ambush (if you spot it) is quite a key consideration, and there are no hard rules for that. It’s the DM’s judgement basically (as pointed out in Step 2 of the combat step by step table – ‘Establish Positions’).

      In the case of monsters attacking PCs, we might want to rewrite the combat slightly to:

      1) Subtly elicit general behaviour / position / marching order from party
      2) Dramatically announce the ambush
      3) Ascertain players’ exact positions, based on what they said in 1)
      4) Reveal monsters’ starting positions
      5) Determine surprise (Perception check)
      6) Roll Initiative

      I’ve switched Determine surprise to later so players can’t try and fudge a more rearguard position, for example, after realising they are surprised… (the flipside being you can’t ‘reward’ excellent perception checks by then placing more distance between the PCs and the ambush….)

      • Michael

        I had confused Alert and Observant there, I admit.

        The marching order is an interesting one. If 5 of you are riding single file there’s a good chance the one at the back is 60′ or more behind the one at the front. There could be quite a difference in DC if you factor that in – particularly in darkness!

        There’s a danger of drowning in details which aren’t really adding to the entertainment if you go too far down that road though.

  7. Nathan

    “Initiative determines the order of turns during combat. When combat starts, every participant makes a Dexterity check to determine their place in the initiative order.
    ***The DM makes one roll for an entire group of identical creatures, so each member of the group acts at the same time.*** “ (PH)

    -To me this rule makes a surprise encounter a bit more dangerous, as all 5 goblins act as one (as they should in a proper ambush), rushing from their hiding places en masse.

    If you happen to Passively Percept them in ‘determine surprise’, and also go before them in the initiative, I would allow the player to decide (in the first round only) whether to act before the charge, or afterwards. A perceptive ranger could put an arrow or two in the air, perhaps taking out an attacker or two, as the goblins emerge; a perceptive priest on the other hand may choose to wait until after the attacks in order to heal a battered ally. In round 2 they would revert to their original position in the turn order.

    As for the ‘lying in wait vs. sneaking up on’ question: I’d rule that ‘lying in wait’ wouldn’t even require a Stealth check. If you’re setting up an ambush, you probably have ample time to select a location and properly cover/disguise your presence. A d100 roll would allow for things like an errant cough, pungent aroma, or curious critter etc. to give away the ambushers, with the % chance determined by the hidden creature’s skill… a highly trained squad of drow is unlikely to give themselves away (5-10% maybe) whereas a group of undisciplined goblins aren’t likely to remain silent and motionless for long (perhaps a 50% chance of a giveaway while in the PC’s range of perception).
    That said, you don’t want the drow to butcher the party without them having a chance (unless they’re foolishly traveling the Underdark at low levels – some lessons must be learned the hard way 😛 ), so as the ambush is sprung I’d skip step 1 and go straight to initiative rolls. If you go before the attackers, you aren’t surprised. If you go after them, you unfortunately are.
    Yes, this takes the Perception skill out of the equation, but just think about this: [IRL] Even with all their training and high-tech gear, the US Army is still caught by surprise ambushes set by enemies with the time to properly ‘lay in wait’, though the observant soldier can respond before the ambush fully ensues.

    Pro Tip from an Army Vet – Real life ambushes utilize high ground, choke points, and improvised barriers (fallen trees, rockslides, etc.), and often target the middle of a formation (separating the targets into two fractured groups), hitting the ‘soft spot’ where communications personnel and medical staff (mages and priests) are generally located.

    Anyway, back on topic… as far as ‘sneaking up on’ is concerned, I feel it’s unlikely that a group of creatures (other than pack predators) would even attempt this. It is more likely that one, maybe two, of the more skilled individuals would sneak around to the victim’s flanks while the others created a distraction to the front/rear, allowing the sneaks to get in close to the targets.

    “However, under certain circumstances, the DM might allow you to stay hidden as you approach a creature that is distracted, allowing you to gain advantage on an attack roll before you are seen.” (PH)

    This negates passive perception (or grants disadvantage at least) as the PCs attention is drawn to the distraction (a “wounded” goblin on the path ahead, a “damsel in distress” approaching as her bandit companions sneak around, or whatever deviousness you concoct).
    If a PC explicitly states that they are ignoring the event and keeping an eye out for danger, give them a Perception check against the Stealth (determined by any of the above methods) of the ambusher. If not, give the attacker their advantage, with their hidden attack triggering initiative rolls and the start of combat.

    “The DM decides when circumstances are appropriate for hiding. When you try to hide, make a Dexterity (Stealth) check. Until you are discovered or you stop hiding, that check’s total is contested by the Wisdom (Perception) check of any creature that ***actively*** searches for signs of your presence.” (PH)

    ‘Actively’ being the key word… and remember, use a single stealth roll (until discovered or you stop hiding), you don’t have to re-roll each round even though the victim DOES get a new perception check each round they’re actively watching. To prevent one bad roll from blowing the entire encounter I’d recommend using the passive stealth of your creature, possibly with advantage depending on the terrain.

    “What Can You See? One of the main factors in determining whether you can find a hidden creature or object is how well you can see in an area, which might be lightly or heavily obscured, as explained in chapter 8.” (PH)

    I hope that all makes sense… it’s a bit more of a strategy for using surprise than a rules clarification, as previous posts/replies (primarily yours Duncan) covered that quite satisfactorily!

  8. Nathan Brown

    “Initiative determines the order of turns during combat. When combat starts, every participant makes a Dexterity check to determine their place in the initiative order.
    ***The DM makes one roll for an entire group of identical creatures, so each member of the group acts at the same time.*** “ (PH)

    -To me this rule makes a surprise encounter a bit more dangerous, as all 5 goblins act as one (as they should in a proper ambush), rushing from their hiding places en masse.

    If you happen to Passively Percept them in ‘determine surprise’, and also go before them in the initiative, I would allow the player to decide (in the first round only) whether to act before the charge, or afterwards. A perceptive ranger could put an arrow or two in the air, perhaps taking out an attacker or two, as the goblins emerge; a perceptive priest on the other hand may choose to wait until after the attacks in order to heal a battered ally. In round 2 they would revert to their original position in the turn order.

    As for the ‘lying in wait vs. sneaking up on’ question: I’d rule that ‘lying in wait’ wouldn’t even require a Stealth check. If you’re setting up an ambush, you probably have ample time to select a location and properly cover/disguise your presence. A d100 roll would allow for things like an errant cough, pungent aroma, or curious critter etc. to give away the ambushers, with the % chance determined by the hidden creature’s skill… a highly trained squad of drow is unlikely to give themselves away (5-10% maybe) whereas a group of undisciplined goblins aren’t likely to remain silent and motionless for long (perhaps a 50% chance of a giveaway while in the PC’s range of perception).
    That said, you don’t want the drow to butcher the party without them having a chance (unless they’re foolishly traveling the Underdark at low levels – some lessons must be learned the hard way 😛 ), so as the ambush is sprung I’d skip step 1 and go straight to initiative rolls. If you go before the attackers, you aren’t surprised. If you go after them, you unfortunately are.
    Yes, this takes the Perception skill out of the equation, but just think about this: [IRL] Even with all their training and high-tech gear, the US Army is still caught by surprise ambushes set by enemies with the time to properly ‘lay in wait’, though the observant soldier can respond before the ambush fully ensues.

    Pro Tip from an Army Vet – Real life ambushes utilize high ground, choke points, and improvised barriers (fallen trees, rockslides, etc.), and often target the middle of a formation (separating the targets into two fractured groups), hitting the ‘soft spot’ where communications personnel and medical staff (mages and priests) are generally located.

    Anyway, back on topic… as far as ‘sneaking up on’ is concerned, I feel it’s unlikely that a group of creatures (other than pack predators) would even attempt this. It is more likely that one, maybe two, of the more skilled individuals would sneak around to the victim’s flanks while the others created a distraction to the front/rear, allowing the sneaks to get in close to the targets.

    “However, under certain circumstances, the DM might allow you to stay hidden as you approach a creature that is distracted, allowing you to gain advantage on an attack roll before you are seen.” (PH)

    This negates passive perception (or grants disadvantage at least) as the PCs attention is drawn to the distraction (a “wounded” goblin on the path ahead, a “damsel in distress” approaching as her bandit companions sneak around, or whatever deviousness you concoct).
    If a PC explicitly states that they are ignoring the event and keeping an eye out for danger, give them a Perception check against the Stealth (determined by any of the above methods) of the ambusher. If not, give the attacker their advantage, with their hidden attack triggering initiative rolls and the start of combat.

    “The DM decides when circumstances are appropriate for hiding. When you try to hide, make a Dexterity (Stealth) check. Until you are discovered or you stop hiding, that check’s total is contested by the Wisdom (Perception) check of any creature that ***actively*** searches for signs of your presence.” (PH)

    ‘Actively’ being the key word… and remember, use a single stealth roll (until discovered or you stop hiding), you don’t have to re-roll each round even though the victim DOES get a new perception check each round they’re actively watching. To prevent one bad roll from blowing the entire encounter I’d recommend using the passive stealth of your creature, possibly with advantage depending on the terrain.

    “What Can You See? One of the main factors in determining whether you can find a hidden creature or object is how well you can see in an area, which might be lightly or heavily obscured, as explained in chapter 8.” (PH)

    I hope that all makes sense… it’s a bit more of a strategy for using surprise than a rules clarification, as previous posts/replies (primarily yours Duncan) covered that quite satisfactorily!

  9. Daniel

    This is not well explained in the PHB. Well done here, and I tend to agree with your interpretation, but consider that “a threat” and “any threat” are not quite the same thing:
    “Any character or monster that doesn’t notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter.”
    If it had said “any” threat, then you’d be absolutely right: notice one threat, and they are not surprised.
    Not noticing “a” threat means that you might see 4 threats, but not the 5th (thus missing “a threat”), and thus be surprised. (This is foolish though, as a group of 20 clumping ogres can have 1 stealthy goblin with them and thus achieve surprise).
    I just think the powers that be kind of messed this one up.

  10. Charles De May

    Hello everyone,

    Forgive the near necro post on this article but I had a question about a very specific type of surprise and how it might be handled.

    In this scenario we have a target and an aggressor. The setting is urban, day and in a milling crowd on a a city street. The crowd provides enough people that any one individual does not stand out, but is not so thick as to impede movement (i.e. farmers market, etc.).
    The aggressor is an assassin. They approach the target from the FRONT, mingled into the crowd. As the aggressor passes the unaware target at point blank range they draw a weapon and strike, then continue moving off into the crowd.

    In this scenario the target has no immediate indication they are about to be attacked. Normally a stealth roll would be made and compared to the passive perception, but the aggressor is just blending into the crowd to try and achieve surprise.

    So how I thought it might be handled:

    A performance check might actually apply here, pitted against the passive perception of the target as the aggressor attempts to conceal any sense of hostility and blend with the crowd. The target might get lucky and notice the unusual focus of the assailant or that something else does not feel right about the approaching person.

    If the target had bodyguards actively looking for threats or was actively looking itself (perhaps he is on the run and trying to blend in himself) I was thinking the rolls might be actively contested.

    Also would performance/perception or deception/insight be preferred for the rolls? Possibly both options available?

    Would the aggressor gain advantage in any way?

    There are so many ways a person can be surprised by what is actually right in front of them that I am sad the rules do not address it more clearly. Does anyone have any input as to if this is a fair method of handling the issue? Other ideas?

    Thanks!

    • keith

      In this situation I would probably not go for the performance since it is an assassin and they are usually not really Charisma heavy. Just like you can many times allow either acrobatics or athletics for the same attempt, in this case I would allow a stealth and I would probably give it advantage if they could use their disguise feat or makeup or something to try to divert attention from themselves. I saw this exact scenario on a episode of Law and Order once. Bad guy just acting normal walking down a street and then gets close to his target and pulls out knife from waistband and slashes target across abdomen then hides knife and continued walking on. Not only did target not ‘see’ him coming, but didn’t even realize they had been ‘killed’ until put a hand on the would and saw the blood. This would be the same type of situation. And not only would i give advantage but sneak attack damage and critical damage and critical wound if everything was good enough. Of course, this would also depend on the relative levels of the assassin and target also. Without any form of guards this would be heavily weighted in the assassin’s favor also. I would only have the character attempt rolls that are natural to the class or ones that they invested in for this type of scenario. You could also throw in a sleight of hand with advantage(again depending on guards or not) to keep the weapon hidden. I would say stealth vs perception and sleight of hand vs intuition would be the kind of contested checks I might consider. But even if the target ‘sees’ the assassin, the assassin could always get a roll to detect the detection(so to speak) and decide at the last instant to abort the attack and continue on. The target could also detect the attack as it is happening and attempt to deflect or twist away at the last second to minimize the damage. So many possibilities with this and most of them fun. This is just how I would do it.

  11. Charles De May

    Thanks for the response Keith,

    The situation you mentioned is exactly what I was thinking of and game me some good ideas on how to use it. I agree, lots of fun options here!

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