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?