The Surprise Round Doesn’t Exist in 5E

It’s a simple oversight but pervasive, nonetheless. I still want to point out that when it comes to Dungeons & Dragons 5E, there is NO surprise round. It existed in previous editions but you will not find it in the current version of the game. So, if it doesn’t exist anymore, why in the world do we keep hearing about it? Surprise still exists. But there is no entire round devoted to it. Yet I see it time and again in adventures I play and/or review. So what’s going on? Maybe it’s a distinction mired in semantics and, mechanically-speaking, there is no real difference? Or maybe there is a good reason for its (the surprise round’s) removal?

Surprise Rounds Don't Exist in 5E
Ambush by QuintusCassius

Why remove the surprise round at all?

While I haven’t seen this answered directly, it’s fairly obvious that the publisher removed it from the 5E rules to be in keeping with the intent of the new edition. That is, Wizards of the Coast wanted a sleeker and more accessible version of D&D. I sometimes still get nostalgic for the crunchiness of the older editions but most times, I thoroughly appreciate the streamlined play that is the 5E experience.

Surprise in 2E

A surprised party cannot react at all during the surprise round.”

Surprise in 5E

The Player’s Handbook states, “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.”

Superficially, it seems the only real difference here is in terminology. Regardless of how you term it, a surprised party doesn’t get to do anything until A round (surprise or otherwise) passes. Right? Or…is there a distinction?

I argue that yes, there is a distinction. The part that states “you can’t take a reaction until that turn ends” is key. It does not say you cannot take a reaction until the ROUND ends. It’s the turn. A single round has as many turns as there are PCs, NPCs, and/or monsters who are engaged. Yours may be the second TURN in a ROUND. After your turn ends, you are no longer surprised. So let’s pretend you are the only surprised member in a given combat and you are second in initiative order.

Turn Order

  1. Goblin
  2. Fighter (You)
  3. Bugbear
  4. Worg
  5. Ranger
  6. Cleric
  7. Wizard

In this case, the goblin could attack you and you essentially must take the hit if it succeeds against your AC (surprise offers no penalty to your AC in 5E). Then you forfeit your turn because you are surprised and it is now the Bugbear’s turn. He decides to target the Ranger and steps out of your reach to engage. Because your TURN has already passed, you now get to use your reaction and get an opportunity attack against the Bugbear. Had you been last in the turn order, this would not be the case as you would still be surprised. Dumbfounded and flat-footed.

EDIT: A sharp-eyed reader informed me that “you stopped being flat-footed after your turn ended during a surprise round in 3.x”. I thought it was clear that by “dumbfounded and flat-footed” I was not referring to the mechanics of ANY edition (if dumbfounded is a mechanic/condition/thing somewhere, please let me know and I’ll edit this edit!).

THIS is the distinction.

This is why I find it so important to understand that there is no surprise ROUND in 5E. In previous editions, an entire party got a free round against a surprised party. So if you were ambushed by 10 kobolds and they surprised you and your party, those kobolds could really do some damage without you getting an opportunity to react at all! They could still clean your clock in 5th edition, but they’d have to have higher initiative rolls than the members of your party to avoid potential reactions. It balances things out a bit and minimizes how many rules you have to enforce. Thus, combat resolves quicker.

Author: Patrick

Journeyman. Melancholiac. Stoic. A rebel and a runner. I think chocolate and caffeine are over-celebrated and I believe hot sauce pairs nicely with ice cream.

4 thoughts on “The Surprise Round Doesn’t Exist in 5E

  1. This is interesting take. I interpret surprise differently (I might be wrong).

    After step 1 of combat–surprise–I run those actions before initiative.

    Then roll initiative-normal combat takes place.

    I fulfill surprise 1st.

    It’s better narrative too.

    1. Yours is closer to 2E (depends on whether the whole group is surprised) and it’s not “wrong” from a standpoint of creating a good narrative. It’s just not 5E RAW. That’s all.

  2. According to Wikipedia, which may of course be wrong, the 2014 Player’s Handbook is 5th edition.
    In that book it shows ‘Surprise’ as a feature of ‘Combat’ ???

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