Understanding Initiative and Surprise in D&D

by Bauxtehude (Liam Gallagher) on March 7, 2012

D&D characters experience time very differently than we do in real life. Their world takes place in distinct 6-second rounds. How they can behave during these 6-second rounds is controlled by which part of the round the universe is currently in. As a player I have frequently witnessed the poor adjudication of Surprise Rounds, which is very understandable as the Surprise Round takes place in a weird moment in the already hard to fathom flow of D&D time. Beyond the problem of conceiving time in D&D, I think a deficit exists in the Surprise rules of the system, which takes Surprised to mean “has been successfully ambushed.” Due to this deficit, it is my opinion that DMs often intuitively but unknowingly house rule the Surprise Round rules to fit a variety a situations that the actual rules do not address.

I encourage you to read the rules on Surprise in the DMG or Rules Compendium. But for those of you without a copy of these books in front of you, allow me to summarize. In simple terms surprise is something that is linked to the Stealth skill. More pointedly, in order to Surprise an enemy they cannot see you or hear you before you act. This is of course not what we take surprise to mean when we use the word in normal everyday use. DMs tend to apply the rules for a surprise round to situations where a person or group of persons could be described as being small “s” surprised when they are actually not game mechanically big “s” Surprised.

So what is surprise? Surprise is when reality fails to conform with a person’s anticipation, and is typically accompanied by a startled response which is when the incongruities between expectation and reality are sorted out. It is from this startled response that D&D gets the Surprise Round, that moment when one has the upper hand because the other is tied up collecting their wits. A Surprised creature grants combat advantage and looses its action during the Surprise Round because it is unaware of its assailant, if you’re going by the book. Beyond the by the book ruling of Surprise, DMs frequently rule that when the player is able to do something unexpected and startle an NPC, that the PC gets the element of surprise as well, even though no Stealth rolls were made and the PC may very well be in plain sight.

There are many example situations that most would agree result in people being surprised that don’t fall under the Surprise rules. Let’s look at a real-life example: you’re driving in traffic and your car is rear-ended by another car that was in full view of all your mirrors. Being a regular driver you’re both aware and prepared for this eventuality but you’re still surprised when it happens. In this case being rear-ended is the surprise round in the car combat; Dealerships & Deloreans. In this case the surprise isn’t a result of a lack of awareness of the tailgater, but instead due to the lack of preparedness for this course of events.

Maybe you’ll take the Road Warrior feat which hardens your resolve so that these collisions don’t take you off guard, but being in even a minor road accident will give even experienced drivers a good jolt.

I feel that the Surprise rules should be expanded to address instances where a person is surprised by something other than an unseen and unheard assailant. By the book a PC should be able to gain Surprise by doing something that the other PC was unable to predict. In this case, the PC should get the benefit of a Surprise Round provided that this unpredictable action initiated combat. In this way the Surprised condition is replaced with a simple “Grants Combat Advantage” and the rules of Surprise Rounds are amended to better reflect surprise as it is experienced. The surprising PC gets their bonus action in an intuitive fashion, and an underused and unneeded condition is removed from the game.

Let’s look at an example using game terms: Josey has been hired to kill his former adventuring companion Conscore McSwordy. He knows that Conscore frequents the many bars and taverns by the docks so he begins his search there. Josey conceals his weapon of choice, a hand crossbow, under his heavy traveling cloak. However, because it’s a wet night the coat doesn’t stand out. It actually helps Josey blends in with the crowd because like so many others on the street, he looks like he is just trying to keep dry.

After going from tavern to tavern, Josey finally tracks down Conscore McSwordy at the Fox & the Debauchery tavern, a watering hole frequented by scores of depraved low-lifes. Conscore waves at his good friend Josey and calls him over to the table where empty flagons are stacked tall. For a brief moment Josey pities McSwordy for dumping Wisdom. As Conscore extends his hand to shake Joesy’s, Conscore is shot many times with crossbow bolts that emerge from under Josey’s wet weather wear.

In this scenario, using Surprise rules as written, the PC Josey would not get a Surprise Round because at the time the attack took place he was in full view and was audible. In the rules as written, Conscore (who has a passive insight of 8), has the opportunity to act before Josey in the initiative as there is no Surprise Round. In this situation if Conscore McSwordy were to win the initiative the logic of the situation breaks down as he acts before the event that triggered combat took place.

What does he do with his turn? In the past I have played games where the DM had all of the PCs move awkwardly down through the initiative order until the point at which the initial assailant got to act, thereby bypassing (and punishing) all the PCs who came before that PC in the initiative order. Instead what should happen is that Josey and anyone who was able to see through his Bluff participate in a Surprise Round. Initiative is rolled in order to determine the order of action in the Surprise Round, and after those actions are resolved the regular initiative order begins.

How do you handle the Surprise Round at your gaming table? What kind of problems have you experienced? What do you think about the method I’ve described for “fixing” the problem?

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Toldain March 7, 2012 at 12:05 pm

I think the system as it stands handles the situation with Josey and Conscore just fine. Josey very definitely did something with Stealth – he hid his crossbow. He also used Bluff, and you will note that even in combat, with no feats, a Bluff can be used to feint and will create a sneak attack situation – which is kind of equivalent.

So, as a DM, I would rule that Josey gets his first shot in, provided A) he hid the crossbow successfully and B) he bluffed successfully. Initiative is rolled and play after that shot commences in initiative order.

Only other characters that knew what Josey was up to could take surprise round actions. If Josey had associates, they would have to either A) see through Josey’s Sneak and Bluff or B) have a prearranged signal in order to act in the surprise round. If Conscore had a buddy that wasn’t fooled, and wanted to interfere, he and Josey would have to roll off in initiative to see who would act first.

2 Alton March 7, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Our group has a good system going. We all agreed to this method and have used it ever since.

When combat starts, everyone rolls initiative (including monsters). Those who noticed what was going on(those not surprised) acted in initiative, and those who did not, got to sit out the first ’round’.

After the 1 action they are allowed is taken, we restart initiative as it was initially rolled. It is fair, equitable to all(monsters and players), and there is no movement in the initiative list.

I find it adds a little flavour to the encounter and makes surprise a little more plausible, where some characters get to go more than once, or some of them come out of it quickly enough not to yeild to a monster for a second round.

ex.
init as follows:

Fred 20 (surprised)
Monster 18 (not surprised)
Albert 16 (not surprised)
Brad 15 (surprised)
Monster 2 9 (surprised)

In this example, in the surprise round, Monster and Albert are the only ones that can take their one action. Once the actions are resolved, then we go to the top of the order and Fred gets to act normally(he came out of it quickly), then Monster (would still get CA against Brad cause he still did not act), Albert (Still has first strike as a rogue against Monster2 because he still has not acted), then Brad, and then Monster2.

I find this system works well for us.

3 Alton March 7, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Oh, and DM is the ruler for who gets surprised or not. We don’t follow the rulebook, cause the rules are just silly.

4 Ameron (Derek Myers) March 7, 2012 at 1:04 pm

I can think of an example were it was difficult for me as the DM to adjudicate initiative and the surprise action.

The party was outdoors making their way across a field. A group of evil NPCs came into view and approached. As soon as everyone was close enough to affect each other I had everyone roll initiative. The Rogue took his customary place at the top of the initiative list, well above the NPCs. As both sides continued moving closer I went down the initiative list and gave everyone a chance to act. Although the ranged attackers could possibly hit something, everyone held off. On the third round, one of the NPCs decided it was time to attack since most creatures were close enough to engage in melee.

The player running the Rogue argued (probably rightly so) that since he rolled the highest initiative he should get to go first in combat. I said that he already had three chances to act and decided not to attack. His argument was that combat initiative shouldn’t actually begin until there’s an actual threat or combat. He felt that as soon as the NPC started to draw a weapon or get ready to charge into melee, that’s when the initiative order should begin.

At the time I disagreed. I let the NPC instigator act and then we continued down the initiative list. In this case the four creatures (friendly and hostile) that rolled higher initiatives than the instigator got screwed and had to wait for everyone else in the order to act before they got their turn on the next round. I want to be clear that everyone acted or had the opportunity to act on their turn (most just moved closer) but no one attacked.

In hindsight I think the instigator should have got to act first, essentially moving him to the top of the order, and then we should have proceeded down the list beginning with the Rogue. I’m still not sure that this is better than the way it was handled, but I certainly understand why the PCs with good initiative scores felt screwed. I think it’s just one of those times when you have to accept that sometimes the D&D rules don’t make a lot or sense in real-life.

5 Alton March 7, 2012 at 1:28 pm

This is how I would have ruled it:

1. You asked for initiative, therefore establishing the order in which the party is scheduled to act. Even though nothing was happening there was still possible threat from the ranged party members.

2. If you were at the point in initiative where the NPC had his chance to act in initiative, then it was his time to go unless, a) the rogue, or anyone else said they ready an action to act when one of the evil guys attacked, or b)you were out of initiative.

I agree with your decision. You had initiative up and to follow it was the way to go. There was a threat present, if the rogue did not have a crossbow or anything to threaten the approaching NPC party, then it their loss.

My five cents.

6 Rico March 7, 2012 at 3:40 pm

One of the problems that I see with the Surprise Rule as written is that every non surprised person/creature in the surprise round gets to act. Most of the time this is normally fine. However, some of the modules I’ve run (like last year’s Game Day adventure The Gates of Neverdeath) present a situation where the party intially faces only the Boss Bad Guy (on his first turn he summons allies) and something the party did gave them a surprise round against him. As written, every party member could attack the Boss, and he doesn’t get an action. Not only does that not make sense to me, I think that’s way too significant of an advantage to the party. Allowing every party member to attack the Boss in a surprise round meant that the Boss was, at the very least, bloodied at the start of the regular initiative order, and possilbly even eliminated before he could summon his allies, thus rendering the final battle a complete dud. So what I ruled is that each PC got to take one action in initiative order until one of them attacked the boss. At that point, he was no longer surprised and the surprise round ended.

7 discerningdm March 7, 2012 at 4:01 pm

I find this issue tricky and decide surprise on a case by case basis, ruling it mechanically: does the situation warrant this PC / monster / side getting an extra action?

Han Solo didn’t have a high initiative on Greedo, he got a Surprise Round.

I also don’t roll initiative until the outbreak of hostilities, allowing players to move freely during RP or exploration.

8 Philo Pharynx March 7, 2012 at 5:44 pm

As for the two groups advancing issue, I find the rules cover this normally. When their initiative comes up, each person has the opportunity to delay or ready actions. I’ve used this for a number of tense situations both at the start of combat or during it. It’s especially good for negotiations between tense groups, and when the standoff ends it often results in a bloody firefight as everybody’s readied actions go off. While I agree that surprise happens in many cases beyond stealth, this is not one where surprise is likely to happen unless something really odd happens. Both sides are tensed and ready for a fight. If everybody readies it will act like a surprise round since everybody only gets one action if they readied.

It also leads to some interesting things when something unexpected happens. Here’s an example, two sides are meeting for a prisoner exchange. Both sides are armed and tense. They have readied actions set to trigger if they spot hostile action from the other side. Assassin McShifty isn’t allied with either side and is hidden with a bow (and nobody spots him). He fires at a prisoner. Each person with a readied action gets a perception check with appropriate modifiers to see if they notice that the arrow didn’t come from the other bad guys. If you make it, you get a chance to stop your readied action or take it. Of course once one person attacks it will be likely that others will attack based on that. If somebody spotted him before he shot, I’d just let them know and take actions normally.

@Rico, Surprise rounds are nasty, especially when the party has a lot of high-initiative people that will go before the BBEG in the first normal round. Remember, the party only gets one action in the surprise round. For most people, drawing a weapon is an action. And if they are trying to do a melee attack from range, they need to charge with all of the limits this implies. Also, how are the PC’s coordinated? If there’s a signal, then the BBEG should get a sense motive on the signal on top of any other checks.

I’d generally let this go for mid-bosses. They players got clever and got an advantage. When making big bosses, I’d give them some ways to help mitigate this. Perhaps a power or item that goes of when they are damaged or bloodied. I could even see somebody having a ritual that allows them to act during a surprise round.

9 Sunyaku March 8, 2012 at 12:57 am

Surprise was really awkward in the last season of encounters. We had multiple characters with passive perceptions in the low 20s at level one. Nothing every surprised our party. Thus, that whole mechanic was pretty much unraveled.

From a former post of mine: http://heroesofshadow.com/2011/surprising-surprise-rounds.html I think rewarding a party with time to set up traps (Rambo style, for example) is a really fun way to shake up the Surprise experience. And the tables can be turned the other way if the table fails a skill challenge horrible, and the bad guys have extra time to prepare for their arrival.

10 Scottbert April 9, 2012 at 5:40 pm

What you describe is how I have always thought surprise rounds worked. Oops! it makes more sense anyway, though.

11 Saric May 5, 2012 at 11:08 pm

BAUXTEHUDE, Just an FYI, Your suggestion in this article for gaining surprise rounds without stealth isn’t necessary. By the current rules, the PC in question actually would get a surprise round if he succeeded on a bluff check to mask his intentions from killing Conscore (which it seems like he was trying to do).
See PHB page 267, “Or if supposed allies spring an attack and you failed your Insight check to notice the attacker’s traitorous intentions, you’re surprised.”

Just thought you should know. :)

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