Surprise is one of the most consistently asked about elements of 5e Dungeons & Dragons, and a source of constant confusion. This is partially because surprise ran differently in previous editions of the game. But also, the narrow examples and explanation make it unclear when surprised would be a factor. Lastly, the way surprise works with the imitative system can seem odd and counter-intuitive to many players. The solution is to break down surprise for what it is, and step away from the individual rolls to understand encounters holistically instead of procedurally.
There Is No Surprise Round
For those of you who don’t understand this reference, there was a concept in previous editions of D&D called a surprise round. The details aren’t important because it doesn’t exist in 5e. There is no surprise round in 5e D&D and we need to stop using that term as it’s confusing people. Indeed, players who only know 5e use this term because hold overs from previous editions keep using it. Additionally, the 5e rules references ‘sides’ in the surprised description, mistakenly causing more confusion for readers. So, we need to stop saying it and explaining it. It’s time for the surprise round to die.
What Is Surprise Then?
Surprise may happen when someone is unaware or unready for combat. If surprised, they cannot move, take an action, bonus action, or reaction on their first turn. Determine this on an individual basis at the very start of combat, then determine positions, and roll initiative. Most importantly, don’t overthink it and don’t get lost in bad examples. All it means is that, for whatever reason, some or all of the people can’t act or move immediately.
According to the rules, surprise is only a factor if at least one side is trying to be stealthy, but this is a bad example. In truth, there are many reasons surprise may be a factor in combat. For instance, players may be in a merchant disguises to deceive an enemy before an ambush. Alternatively, a distraction may misdirect guards otherwise ready for combat, leading to surprise. So framing surprise as a simple matter of who can see who creates a lot of the initial confusion. The easiest solution to this is to understand the difference between unaware of danger, and unready for combat.
Someone who doesn’t know danger is present is unaware, while unready means you’re not prepared for combat. Each affects surprise slightly differently, but conflating these two is a big source of confusion. Understanding the differences between these two states can lead to a lot of rich tactics and roleplay during games. Instead of a simple matter of line of sight, players using disguise, deceits, diplomacy, distractions and more, are a viable action to gain the upper hand. Therefore, understanding the context of surprise encourages richer play and more dynamic combats.
Have Your Cake and Murder it too
The most direct case for surprised is when someone is both unaware and unready for combat. This might mean targets sleeping, or lounging around and distracted without knowing danger is there. They are easy to catch off guard, and in these cases, I make no extra roll and surprise is automatic. Whatever happened to allow the danger to get close enough without being detected is enough to cause surprise. In essence, the target has already failed their surprise roll at the start of combat by being so unprepared.
Treachery for Fun and Profit
Cases of someone being aware but unready mean they know the potential source of danger is there, but for some reason assume combat wouldn’t happen. For example, targets talking to a group disguised as harmless merchants. Alternatively, the target may be aware someone is there in a crowd with no indication a fight is about to happen. In these cases, a check is called for to determine surprise based on the setup. This might be a deception check versus the target’s insight, or perhaps a disguise versus their investigate. In these cases, stealth isn’t at play, the target is aware of what is around them but don’t perceive it as a danger.
I Told You So, and Other Last Words
Someone who is unaware but ready for danger is vigilant for trouble but doesn’t know about a specific or imminent threat. This might include an alert guard on patrol encountering a hidden ambush. These cases can be tricky, and largely depends on how imminent the target knows danger is. In most common situations, I recommend using a standard perception check versus stealth to determine surprise. If the target is on high alert due to some notification simply roll initiative as normal, assume no surprise, and remember the rules on advantage and unseen attackers. However, an effective distraction may even surprise someone on high alert. So, DMs should use common sense and good rulings to reward effective tactics.
Surprised and Initiative
Surprise does not affect initiative in any way for either side in the combat. This can lead to a few awkward situations where the character initiating the combat goes later in the initiative than their allies. Additionally, the rules as written imply unsurprised enemies might go before the action that initiated combat, leading to even more confusion. This just causes a bit of cognitive dissonance for many players and DMs. However, examining the situation and using an appropriate option can eliminate that quickly. So let’s consider a few options.
The Quick and the Dead
After rolling initiative, it’s entirely possible some combatants go before the character starting the combat. For example, an ambush may begin with an archer firing an arrow, however several of their allies may score higher in initiative. In this case, the rules have them ready an action to go immediately after the archer fires, resolving them in original initiative order. This is straight forward and uses the rules as written but does put the faster characters at a disadvantage, particularly if they have Extra Attack. An easy house rule solution might be to just put the archer at the top of the initiative, or allow the allies full actions. My personal recommendation is to step away from the specifics and just let the combat flow naturally. There’s little utility in getting into specifics of readied actions and putting some characters at disadvantage.
The Quick and the Sad
Things are even more confusing when targets of an ambush are unsurprised and go higher in the initiative than the character starting combat. This is perhaps the most confusing case for many players and there are a few ways to handle this. You could simply say that without something to act against, any ambushed target higher in the initiative simply takes no action. In effect, this is the same as saying ambushed characters with a high initiative rolls for surprised at disadvantage. This is because they can lose their action as a result of the surprise check or initiative. Alternatively, and I think more logically, just have the faster enemy go as normal and chalk it up to the action happening all at once. I recommend this as it slows things down less and most can accept that logic.
The key is to remember that this can worth either or both ways. It’s possible all sides in an encounter may have some participants who are surprised. These situations can work for the player or against them so consistency and clarity is important to keep players engaged in the action.
Surprise doesn’t have to be as confusing as most people seem to think it is. If the targets are completely unaware and unready for danger just say they’re surprised. Alternatively use an appropriate opposed skill check depending on the situation, and keep in mind passive skills if it speeds things along. Then just roll initiative normally and try to take the most simple and direct means to get everyone on the board and acting, without unnecessarily putting someone at a disadvantage. They key is to keep things fast and furious and not get too hung up on procedure.
Now get out there and run some great games.