Being a bit of a combat-focused TTRPG, Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition allows both player characters and non-player characters a breadth of strategies and tactics to emply during battle. Of course, a classic strategy is ambushing enemies to surprise them. Luckily, 5e includes rules for surprising an unsuspecting enemy. Not so luckily, the rules can be a bit tricky to understand.
How does surprise in 5e work? How do you determine it? And, how hard is it to get?
This article goes over the basics of D&D 5e’s surprise rules so Game Masters can better incorporate it into their games.
Let’s start off by looking at the specific rules for surprise as outline in 5e’s Player’s Handbook.
How Does Surprise Work in 5e?
Surprise in 5e effectively means a creature loses their turn during the first round of a combat encounter. Knowing whether a creature is surprised or not depends on contested Dexterity (Stealth) rolls against an unsuspecting creature’s passive Perception.
The rules for how surprise works in 5e come from page 189 of the Player’s Handbook:
There are 3 important parts to how surprise works.
First, figuring out if anyone involved in the encounter would be surprised. If no one is sneaking up on an unsuspecting party, it’s assumed both sides (i.e., the player characters and any hostile non-player characters) notice each other. In this case, no one is surprised and combat rounds proceed as normal.
That said, if one party or members of a party are sneaking, you need to determine who would be surprised at the start of the combat encounter. Anyone who is surprised essentially skips their first turn. But note; there is no "surprise round" in D&D 5e, surprised characters and creatures simply skip their turn on the first round of combat.
Second, as mentioned a little bit previously, surprised creatures effectively skip their first turn. They can’t take any kind of action (regular, bonus, or reaction) and they can’t move until the end of their first turn. This means a surprised can take a reaction after their turn before the first round of combat ends. Weirdly, this means a player character could still do something on the first turn with something like taking an opportunity attack.
Finally, surprise isn’t a flat "this side is surprised and this side isn’t." A character who succeeds at sneaking past an unsuspecting creature’s passive Perception still benefits from surprise even if their companions fail at keeping quiet. Alternatively, a player character with exceptionally low Wisdom may be surprised when their party members heard the danger coming.
Now, determining surprise in 5e is actually pretty easy as you’ve already seen. It’s simply a matter of comparing Stealth and passive Perception.
Determining Surprise in 5e’s Combat
A Game Master needs to determine any surprised creatures at the very start of a combat encounter prior to anyone rolling initiative. Any creatures attempting to hide or sneak up on another, both player and non-player controlled, roll Dexterity (Stealth) checks versus the passive Perception scores of all hostile creatures. If they succeed, they benefit from surprise during the first round of that combat encounter.
The rules for 5e explicitly outline how a GM should determine surprise before anything else at the start of a combat encounter in the "Combat Step by Step" sidebar.
So, even before rolling initiative, you need to see whether any creature involved in the encounter will be surprised.
Basically, if a creature wants to surprise another at the start of combat, that creature rolls a Dexterity (Stealth) Ability Check against their target’s passive Perception which is effectively the Difficulty Class for the check. If they roll higher, they succeed and surprise their target. If they fail, the target creature becomes aware of their presence and can’t be surprised for that combat encounter.
That last bit is actually pretty important. If an unsuspecting creature notices any threat, they aren’t surprised and can act normally during the first round of combat. That isn’t to say they creatures can’t still benefit from being an unseen attacker, but they lose the advantage of effectively denying a hostile creature their first turn.
Let’s take a look at a line from the rules for surprise again.
I bolded the important bit. Basically, if a creature doesn’t notice a threat, they aren’t surprised. But, the inverse is also true. If a creature does notice a threat, then they aren’t surprised at the start of the encounter.
This makes sense as the basis of surprise relies on an unsuspecting creature staying unsuspecting. If they suspect trouble, then they aren’t surprised when it comes.
So, say a Rogue succeeds on a Dexterity (Stealth) check to sneak up on some bandits but the heavy armor-clad Paladin fails. The Rogue stays hidden but the bandits aren’t surprised because they noticed the Paladin.
Again, the only explicit benefit of surprise in 5e is that you effectively skip a creature’s turn during the first round of combat. That said, there’s the tangential benefit of gaining advantage on your first attack by being an unseen attacker. So, sneaking up on an enemy is still a fantastic strategy for basically getting a free turn at the start of combat.
What Causes Surprise in 5e?
The only cause of surprise in D&D 5e is a creature succeeding at a Dexterity (Stealth) check against an enemy’s passive Perception at the start of a combat encounter.
There’s really no other way to cause a creature to become surprised in D&D 5e. No traits or features do it other than maybe giving a character a bonuses to their Dexterity (Stealth) checks.
What’s more, once a creature becomes aware of another, hostile creature’s presence, they lose the ability to be surprised for that encounter. By virtue of becoming away of danger, they can’t be surprised when a hostile creature appears. They can be caught unawares in the case of a hidden assailant, but they aren’t "surprised" from a mechanics standpoint.
How Hard is It to Get Surprise in 5e?
Surprising another creature in 5e gets progressively more difficult the more creatures involved. A single creature can more easily sneak up on an enemy than 4 or 5 simply due to the fall of the dice.
This is especially true for player characters.
Consider the average group of adventurers. Chances are, you have some stealth-focused characters who would ordinarily excel at surprising their targets. But, you add in the heavy armor wearers like Clerics and Paladins and surprising an enemy becomes much more difficult. If even 1 creature fails a Dexterity (Stealth) check, then that target won’t be surprised when combat starts.
Of course, this also means comparing various stealth rolls against possibly various passive Perceptions. Though, that’s less likely since many Game Masters (myself include) tend to use the default Ability Scores for non-player characters. Which is actually more damning since that means comparing 4 or 5 Stealth checks against a single passive Perception score instead of varying levels of awareness.
In my experience as a GM, if you give players the opportunity to surprise an enemy, they’ll take it…and then promptly descend into chaos and abandon any plans they had previously put together. On the other hand, I’ve had just as many ambushes succeed against my players as I’ve had fail. The trick is to set up situations for either non-player characters or player characters to gain an advantage over the other. That said, like many things when running a game, you shouldn’t have every combat encounter involve surprise. Use it sparingly and let your players know they have the option too.
Surprise in 5e FAQs
Does Surprise Give Advantage on Attack Rolls?
Technically yes, surprise gives a creature advantage on their first attack roll in 5e. This is because of D&D 5e’s unseen attackers rules and not explicitly due to surprising a creature.
Since surprise in D&D 5e relies on succeeding a Dexterity (Stealth) roll versus a target’s passive Perception score, a creature basically also succeeds at hiding from an unawares target. This means the rules for unseen attackers comes into play which does grant advantage on your first attack roll but not subsequent ones.
The rules for unseen attackers explicitly outlines:
So, succeeding on a Dexterity (Stealth) check means you can surprise a creature at the start of combat and benefit from the unseen attackers rules giving you advantage on your first attack out of hiding.
Is There a Surprise Round in 5e?
No; there is no explicit "surprise round" in 5e. Surprised creatures simply do not move or take actions during their turn on the first round of a combat encounter.
The rules for surprise in 5e don’t grant a special surprise round. Instead, once surprise, positions, and initiative have all been determined, any surprised creatures simply can’t do anything on their first turn. The distinction is important because unsurprised creatures can all act normally even if their comrades can’t.
Do You Get a Bonus Action on a Surprise Round?
No; you do not get a bonus action during the first round of combat if you are surprised in D&D 5e.
Being surprised in 5e means a creature can’t move or take any type of action. This includes regular actions, bonus actions, and reactions.
Summary of How Suprise Works in 5e
That about covers everything you need to know about how surprise works in D&D 5e.
Surprise is determined at the start of a combat encounter before anything else including initiative. A Game Master figures out who is surprised by comparing a sneaking creature’s Dexterity (Stealth) Ability Check against their enemy’s or enemies’ passive Perception score(s). Succeeding on this check means that corresponding creature is surprised at the start of combat. A surprised creature can’t move or take any actions on their turn during the first round of combat. However, if a creature notices any threat, they are not surprised.
How often do you try to surprise the player characters? How often do you try to encourage your players to do the same? Leave a comment below sharing your thoughts!
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