Initiative and Surprise in 5e

Marik and Bori ducked deep into the undergrowth, while Ray hid silently in the treetops. The goblin patrol approached the narrow path through the forest, unsuspecting.

A silent signal from Ray was all it took, and Marik sent his arrow flying with deadly precision, followed by Boris’ swift bolt. As the projectiles rained down on the goblins, Ray unleashed a fireball that sailed through the air, illuminating everything in its path.

The goblins screamed in horror as the attack hit them like a lightning strike. Confused and disoriented, they tried to defend themselves against the unseen threat, but it was too late. The forest shook with their screams as the ambush did its bloody work.

Surprise is undoubtedly a topic that often leads to heated discussions between game masters and players in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. Players more often demand that a creature they are about to attack be surprised than the DM allows.

There are two main reasons for this discrepancy between player expectations and GM interpretation:

  1. The rules regarding surprise are open to interpretation
  2. The GM may enter the Initiative Phase too early.

The rules for surprise are actually quite clear:


A band of adventurers sneaks up on a bandit camp, springing from the trees to attack them. A Gelatinous Cube glides down a dungeon passage, unnoticed by the adventurers until the cube engulfs one of them. In these situations, one side of the battle gains surprise over the other.

The GM determines who might be surprised. If neither side tries to be stealthy, they automatically notice each other. Otherwise, the GM compares the Dexterity (Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of each creature on the opposing side. Any character or monster that doesn’t notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter.

If you’re surprised, you can’t move or take an action on your first turn of the combat, and you can’t take a reaction until that turn ends. A member of a group can be surprised even if the other members aren’t.

This work includes material taken from the System Reference Document 5.1 (“SRD 5.1”) by Wizards of the Coast LLC and available at The SRD 5.1 is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License available at

The rules only deal with the case where a creature or group of creatures is unaware of others. The creatures are oblivious to the presence of other creatures, and are therefore surprised when they suddenly attack. This is the narrow interpretation of surprise that I think everyone agrees on. If a creature successfully sneaks up on another, it can attack with surprise. However, the problem arises when both creatures or both groups of creatures can see each other, such as when the adventure group is facing the goblin patrol and they talk to each other first, and then a single creature or group decides to attack. Can this lead to surprise? If a player wants their character to attack in such a situation, they often want the element of surprise on their side.

However, the rules are silent on this. There is sage advice from Jeremy Crawford ( that the initiative is rolled when a player starts the combat, and the player can then decide in his turn whether to take the action.

However, there are some problems with this.

Let’s say Marik, Bori and Ray are facing the goblin patrol and both groups are talking to each other. Now Ray decides to throw a fireball, following Crawford’s suggestion it would look like this:

DM: The goblin hisses: We can’t let you go, this is tribal land and you’re trespassing!

Rina: Ray’s had enough, he casts Fireball!

DM: OK, everyone rolls Initiative.

Mike: Marik has a 20!

Bertha: Bori has a 19!

Rina: Ray only has a 5.

DM: The goblins have a 10. Okay Mike, it’s Marik’s turn…

Theoretically, you would have to go through the entire initiative order once before Ray could throw his fireball. However, as Ray has not yet thrown the fireball, there is no reason for anyone ahead of him in the initiative order to fight at all, because the aggressive action that triggers the fight has not yet begun.

Now, you could say that everyone is surprised by Ray’s action, and therefore you can jump straight to Ray in the initiative order, and that would be perfectly fine to handle it that way. But if you imagine an NPC doing that to a group of players, they would scream. It’s not an elegant solution, especially since you get the surprise “for free”. No one has to roll? You just get a free turn in combat?

What could be a better solution?

The starting point is that you are in a tense situation where all creatures are aware that the others exist and that violence could potentially occur. Each is just waiting for the other to make the wrong move to unleash the violence.

Maybe the goblins have already drawn their bows, Marik and Bori have their weapons ready…

My solution in this case would be The trigger for the fight is the start of the hostile action. So starting to cast the spell triggers the initiative, putting the arrow in the bow and aiming at the enemy is the start.

Ray can try to cast the spell stealthily (Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) vs. Goblins’ Passive Perception). If he succeeds, everyone else will be surprised and he can cast his fireball before the initiative kicks in. However, any creature that realises that Ray is about to cast a spell in this tense, potentially violent situation won’t be surprised, and would normally have Initiative along with Ray.

If you translate that into rules:

If creatures can sense each other,

  1. the start of a hostile action (e.g. announcing an attack or spell) results in an initiative roll.
  2. Creatures can try to cast spells or attacks that would trigger combat in secret, so that other combatants are surprised.
  3. Creatures have an advantage on initiative rolls when making the attack or spell that initiates combat. Creatures also have an advantage on initiative rolls when they have attacks ready, e.g. by pointing their loaded crossbows at another creature and waiting for it to make an enemy action.

I added the last part because in my rounds it often happens that characters have attacks ready to go, only to be disappointed when they resolve in the normal initiative order.

These rules also work in situations where there is no tension in the air and no hostile action is initially expected, such as when assassins disguise themselves as merchants in a marketplace, engage the party in conversation, and then suddenly attack after leading the party into a shop or alley. If the player characters have not become suspicious (e.g. through a successful Wisdom (insight) check), I would even give them a disadvantage on Perception checks against secretly drawing the assassins’ daggers. This also works the other way around, of course, if the party is trying to lull a creature with social interactions and make it feel safe before they attack.

Rolling Initiative too early

An additional problem with Surprise, and all the class features associated with it (e.g. Assassins), is that Initiative is rolled too early to determine the order of battle. Ideally, initiative should be rolled as late as possible, so that players always have the option of resolving the battle in an alternative way. Rolling Initiative as soon as the characters see the goblins not only removes the element of surprise, but also makes the battle seem inevitable. Psychologically, rolling the Initiative die automatically prepares the players for combat, interrupting the roleplay and forcing them into the rigid rules of combat.

You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Mastodon or Twitter or my RSS Feed to never miss any content.

Yours truly,

A.B. Funing

Schreibe einen Kommentar

A.B. Funings Blog