Stealthy characters revolve around getting the drop on their enemies and eliminating a threat before they have a chance to retaliate. In D&D 5e, surprise or often referred to as the “surprise round”, is a great way to award a boon in combat to clever thinking or stealthy characters.
Ambushes are a tactic that has been widely used throughout history and fantasy alike. They give the side that chose to stealthily wait for the perfect opportunity a major advantage over their unsuspecting opponents. These types of tactics have and will change the tide of battles.
D&D 5e is no exception to ambushes or a group stealthily engaging unaware enemies. The surprise mechanic allows creatures to use their clever thinking or stealth proficiency to heavily influence the first round of combat.
However, out of all the mechanics in D&D 5e surprise is one of the most confusing. There are a lot of different factors and intricacies that its comprehension relies on. So for this post, I’m going to dissect the mechanic, but also provide a homebrew solution that myself and many others have adopted.
What is Surprise?
Before anyone rolls initiative it’s the DM’s job to determine if the party or their enemies are attempting to be stealthy. This could be in the form of a hidden ambush, or one side is stealthily creeping towards the other.
Once the DM has determined that someone is trying to do so they’ll then have the ambushing creatures or PCs make a Stealth check. The DC for this check is the enemy’s passive Perception. If the stealth check succeeds, any creature that it succeeded against is then considered surprised.
A surprised creature cannot move or take an action during the first round of combat. They also cannot use their reaction until after their first turn in that round.
All of the rules and intricacies I have mentioned and will mention in this post can be found on page 189 of the Player’s Handbook.
Surprise in Actual Play
Your experience with this will vary, but I’ve found that surprise rarely comes up. Part of this could be that my current party has barely any healing abilities. Because of this, I’m less aggressive with enemy ambushes to avoid downing a character before the player gets a chance to play the game.
Either way, the party will have to be very stealthy to get the jump on their enemies, and the same goes for creatures trying to get the jump on the party.
On the other hand, surprise could be a core mechanic for a group whose party composition includes lots of dexterous or stealthy characters. It’s going to depend a lot on the playstyle of the group and the DM, but in general, it’s not a very common occurrence.
I’ve mentioned ambushing a few times so far as it’s an easy way to visualize how surprise works. If a creature is able to hide behind something and surprise their foe, they’d also gain advantage on an attack roll due to being hidden.
My Issues with Surprise
Personally, I find rules as written (RAW) surprise to be a clunky mechanic. It’s pretty damn confusing for new players to get a hold of.
The mechanic also dictates that “any character or monster that doesn’t notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter”. This means that so long as at least 1 party member beats out the creatures’ passive Perception, all of the creatures will lose their turn during the first round of combat.
This doesn’t feel right to me, narratively speaking. I understand the rogue getting the jump on their enemy. That makes sense. I don’t understand the paladin, cleric, and fighter with their noisy metal armor getting the jump on their enemy just because the rogue did.
How To Counter Surprise
Stand Watch and Stay Vigilant
This may be more of a homebrew ruling, but it’s one that I use since it makes narrative sense. If a creature or a player is keeping watch or actively looking for something I would give them a chance to contest the ambushing creatures’ Stealth checks with a Perception check of their own as opposed to using their passive Perception.
A creature actively on the look-out should have a potential bonus to locating ambushes or hidden threats. I feel like a contested roll is a fair compromise. It gives the vigilant characters or creatures a chance to counter the ambush while still giving the ambushers a chance to surprise their enemy.
The Alert Feat
This feat single-handedly counters the surprise mechanic. I’m not exaggerating when I say that too. Part of the feat is that “you can’t be surprised while you are conscious”. As long as you are not caught sleeping you’ll be unable to be surprised.
Alert also gives you a +5 to initiative and creatures can’t gain advantage on attack rolls against you as a result of being hidden from you.
It’s all-around an anti-stealth feat, not just one that protects you from surprise. Alert is a solid feat in general and is a great choice if your DM loves to use stealthy creatures and you need something to counter that.
Spells, Features, and Abilities
Spells such as Alarm can give characters and creatures a way to learn that someone is trying to sneak up on them. I would typically rule that because they have been alerted they won’t be surprised.
A creature with invisibility or one that’s able to stay hidden despite tripping off the alarm would still be considered hidden. Just because you know something is nearby doesn’t mean you know exactly where it is.
You can use thieves’ tools or class features like the Forge Domain Cleric’s Artisan’s Blessing in a similar manner to set up traps, tripwires, or secure entrances. If a potential enemy tries to sneak up on you and sets off a trap you’ll probably be alerted to their presence and therefore not surprised when combat comes around.
Surprise is an important mechanic from a narrative perspective. It provides rules for the game to give those that are able to narratively figure out a way to get a jump on their foes an advantage. Surprise also gives Dexterity-centric characters a more advantageous way to engage their enemies.
I still have issues with the RAW surprise mechanic. It’s clunky and overly complicated to understand for new players. I’ve found that myself and many others give ambushers their own round that happens before combat officially breaks out.
Surprise is a great way to reward your players for planning ahead or thinking creatively. It’s also a great way to decimate them for their hubris!
Regardless of what method you use, I find that it’s best used sparingly, especially during the higher levels. It can quickly devolve into combats being over before the other side gets a chance to react. If it’s used once-in-awhile it makes these moments more epic and exciting.