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This example is a somewhat simplified version of what happened during the last game I DMed for a bunch of friends. A party of PCs was trudging through the woods when they happened upon a very small outpost in a clearing containing hostile elves. The rogue goes and checks it out, and sees two hostiles patrolling, one near the northern edge of woods (Elf1), one on a stone platform about 15 ft from the southern edge of the forest (Elf2).

The rogue goes back and relays the information. If the warrior of the party would simply trudge into the middle of the clearing, all enemies would be aware of a threat and the enemy wouldn't be surprised. They want to start combat with an edge, so they formulate a plan that would cause the enemies to be surprised: the rogue will go stealth up to the northern edge of the clearing, wait for Elf1 to get close, and sneak attack him. When that happens (it's a small clearing, so it's within his vision) the warrior in the party, who will attempt to sneak up to the southern edge of the forest, will run for Elf2 and beat him up. They both roll great stealth checks and head to their positions. So far so good.

The rogue waits for Elf1 to get close and attacks with his short sword. Time for combat, and this is where things got confusing, and where a discussion broke out between players:

According to page 189 of the PHB:

1) Determine surprise

Both Elf1 and Elf2 are surprised, because they didn't notice any threat.

2) Establish positions

Should be clear from the description of the situation above.

3) Roll Initiative

The warrior gets a 20, Elf2 a 15, the rogue a 5, and Elf1 a 1.

4) Take Turns

The warrior can go first. However, as the party discussed before, he was supposed wait until he sees the rogue hit Elf1. The rogue's attack is what started the combat encounter, yet the attack hasn't been resolved yet due to his poor initiative roll. And you can't delay your turn in 5th edition.

Option 1: Some people at the table argue that he can't yet run into the clearing because that would pose a clear and noticeable threat and the elves would not be surprised. He should wait for the rogue to hit Elf1 and use the Ready action on his first turn. This option seems to punish the warrior for rolling well on his initiative.

Option 2: As determining surprise occurs before the initiative roll according to page 189 of the PHB, I would argue that the rules support that the warrior should be able to run up to Elf2 and hit him, without breaking surprise. The fact that the attack that caused the surprise hasn't yet been resolved and that this goes somewhat counter against their agreed plan of waiting for the rogue to hit Elf1, makes this option incredibly unintuitive though.

Which of these options is the correct one? Or is there a hidden option 3?

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Welcome to the site, great first question! I've done some edits to try to keep it to the important bits. Also, the (well-chosen) tags you added mean that you don't need to give that information in the title. You've done a great job grokking the site on your first try, but I'll link the tour anyway just in case. – Miniman Jan 8 at 13:20
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@Kangaxx I've rolled back your edit because we really don't do answer summaries in the question and it doesn't add any clarity to the question itself. – Purple Monkey Jan 11 at 19:48
up vote 26 down vote accepted

If you read the following paragraph in the PHB after the section you mentioned on turn order (pg. 189) you'll see it says:

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.

On top of that, it's important to note that

A round represents about 6 seconds in the game world. (PHB 189)

So in this case it translates to:

  1. Warrior takes his turn
  2. Elf2 does nothing and is no longer surprised. He can now take reactions. If the rogue attacks him there are no surprise being its to that attack.
  3. Rogue takes his turn
  4. Elf1 does nothing and is no longer surprised. He can now take reactions.
  5. Combat proceeds as normal using the same initiative order.
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In addition, if the fighter decides to act after the rogue, then you check the delayed actions rules. He changes his initiative count, on purpose, according to the plan. – cablop Jan 27 at 18:32

The rules for initiative and surprise rounds have been clearly stated in another answer, but I'd like to suggests a house rule that works at my table:

If the surprise round is one initiated by the players, their characters have the option to determine their initiative order for the surprise round only. This assumes that the characters talked about it, as in the example in the question. The initiative roll would only be done once the the surprise round was over.

In your example, this would allow for the rogue to strike, then for the warrior to do so, then for the surprise round to end, at which point you would roll initiative and follow the initiative order (warrior, elf2, rogue, elf1).

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Not a bad suggestion, but it does cause a little trouble with the Rogue's Assassinate ability, or the Barbarian's Feral Instinct. Granted, that only matters if you are facing NPC's with normal class levels! – Lost_in_Hyrule Jan 10 at 5:14
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This is exactly how I handled two encounters. It added so much to the immersion. Play the surprise first and hand the result to the players with all the rolls, then move on to normal initiative rolls. – kubarium Jan 11 at 20:55

You say that the plan is this:

  1. The rogue will go stealth up to the northern edge of the clearing
  2. He'll wait for Elf1 to get close
  3. He'll sneak attack him
  4. When that happens the warrior in the party will run for Elf2 and beat him up.

So that's what happens! The warrior rolling the higher initiative just means he is ready to act before the rogue is; however the plan is for him to wait until the rogue attacks, so he holds his action and moves to the initiative slot after the rogue. The two elves don't act on their initiative because they're both surprised.

The warrior gets a 20, Elf2 a 15, the rogue a 5, and Elf1 a 1.

So what do you do with Elf2? Personally I would house rule that he moves his first action to just after the warrior, so the order is Rogue, Warrior, Elf2, Elf1.

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It doesn't matter what you do with Elf2, because he's surprised - he can skip his turn before the rogue moves just as easily as after. – Brilliand Jan 8 at 18:34
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I don't think this answer is adequate. There isn't a RaW tag, but the question asked for "which is the correct interpretation?" This answer instead suggests moving Initiative values that messes with the way 5e is supposed to use surprise. – Lost_in_Hyrule Jan 10 at 5:11

I have always handled this by not having the one who starts the combat roll initiative.

After all, initiative rolls are for determining who goes when, but we already know who acts first in the round. Rolling initiative for that character only interferes with what we already know about the situation.

It's simple and seamless to just leave the attacker who initiates a planned ambush out of the initiative roll. If surprise is successfully achieved they just go first, and everyone else rolls to see what order they act in after. Then, in the second round, the original attacker (who currently doesn't have an initiative number) rolls initiative to find out where in the round they go from then on.

It's simple, lightweight, and doesn't require a lot of thought. It doesn't mess up any other rules and doesn't require fiddling with readied actions, or houseruling in a delay mechanic that might have effects on more situations than the one that seemed to need the house rule. It uses all existing rules—it just employs a smidge of DM judgement about when to apply the existing rules.

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As you say, option 1 would punish good and reward bad initiative rolls, no good plan should involve people crossing their fingers and hoping their char stumbles around a bit in hopes of not messing up an ambush.

The second option could create very weird/nonsensical scenario's such as the rogue falling flat on his face or triggering some sort of alarm after the warrior already attacked the goblin supposedly surprised by said rogue. The mantra of "everything happens simultaneously" is nice until you realize that you will still need to resolve things in a certain order.

Imo it would be best to house rule this, maybe let the rogue resolve his attack first regardless of his initiative roll or give players the option to lower themselves in the initiative order.

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protected by Oblivious Sage Jan 11 at 15:10

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