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In Labyrinth Lord, when there is a possibility of surprise for both PCs and foes, both sides roll 1d6. A 1-2 indicates that side is surprised for the first round. If both sides roll a 1-2, both sides are surprised for the first round. A surprised side can take no action.

This is a nice simple and symmetrical rule, but unless there is a third party involved or an ongoing menace (e.g. the room is on fire) I'm at a loss as to the significance. From my point of view it is identical to a situation where no surprise occurred. You could amuse the players with a description of both sides staring agape at each other before melee is joined. But I'm curious if I'm missing something and there is any rule effect that could arise from both sides being surprised.

So has anyone had this situation occur and can describe how this affected the outcome of the following encounter in a rules related fashion (i.e. not just in the narrative color).

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4 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

There's nothing you're missing. When both sides are surprised, the first round goes by without any action:

When both sides are surprised, they do not act the first round, but the second round initiative is rolled for each side normally. — Labyrinth Lord Complementary No-Art Version, p. 50

One wrinkle that might help is that you, as DM, shouldn't feel like you have to call for a surprise roll for both sides every time the PCs meet monsters or NPCs. Sometimes you know from the situation that no-one is surprised, or that one side is already aware of the other. In those cases, reserve the surprise roll for deciding whether a group is surprised when you're just not sure. In particular, when the player characters are using a light source the monsters are never surprised since they can see them coming.

By only calling for and making surprise rolls when it's uncertain whether anyone is surprised, you minimise the number of times where both sides are surprised for "no effect". The times that it does happen will be few enough that it won't seem strange to describe everyone gaping at each other; it's only if you roll for both sides every time that it would get tired.

So no, there's nothing you're missing, except for the assumption that "DMs don't need to be told how to use surprise, just how to roll it" that the Labyrinth Lord text leaves unwritten. :)

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Also, Monks and Rangers are only surprised 1 in 6, so it is possible that they might be able to act when nobody else can. –  Pat Ludwig Sep 27 '10 at 3:51
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Certain monsters have alternate surprise values, too. –  aramis Sep 27 '10 at 19:09
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Describe the sudden appearance of the bad guys to the PC's. Then describe how they seem just as surprised as the players. Then roll for initiative as normal for a non-surprise round.

The difference is slight; you've had a round to notice things while your perception dilates due to adrenaline. So have they.

That slight difference isn't mechanically represented in terms of modifiers, etc.

Keep in mind, by many people's understanding, the surprise round is still the first round of combat for non-integer attack rates (3/2, 5/2). So, if you share that understanding, the 1st round of fighting in that combat, the one after the "nothing happens" surprise round, is actually round 2, and thus the non-integer attack rates get their higher number (3/2 gets their 2; 5/2 gets their 3). The wording in the section on surprise would tend to support that, with the surprise round being simply the first round, and being surprised prevents acting.

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And interesting mechanical wrinkle. Thank you for the suggestion. –  Adam Flynn Sep 27 '10 at 14:21
    
That might explain why the text is so explicit about starting the action on the second round when both sides are surprised. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 28 '10 at 3:18
    
While I didn't find the quote on p.50, I remembered the Dragon Mag call for AD&D... so I checked to see if the wording in LL supported the same call. –  aramis Sep 28 '10 at 3:51
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Like others said, proceed without any surprise round. Just start up with a regular round. What I'd do, however is take however long a round is (especially when they are < 30 seconds) and say something like, "You come around a corner, and are surprised to see [the bad guys]. They hear you, turn and appear just as surprised." Now I'd wait 1 round worth of time (again, it's usually 3-10 seconds depending on game), "The bad guys are recovering, and look to be reaching for weapons. What do you do?"

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I didn't say to skip it... I noted that it's just a round nothing happens. And that can be a very important distinction. –  aramis Sep 28 '10 at 3:51
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I think that, in the case where both sides have Surprise, the Surprise round is a good time to roll a Reaction check (or a Morale check, if appropriate), if you haven't rolled for it already, to see what the opposition does. Some random monsters don't want to fight, been beaten by the PC's already, or are only prepared to defend themselves if attacked, especially when caught off-guard.

If the roll, or your own judgement, indicates they're willing to talk, RP it out on the second round of 'potential' action. Some PCs might make things worse, after all, causing combat to start.

Sometimes you just have to ask yourself, "Are these Orcs always hostile? Are the PCs?"

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