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I was researching sneak attacks made with spells and came across an interesting answer. That answer says the Arcane Trickster 10th level ability Surprise Spells lets you deal sneak attack damage with any spell, and goes on to name fireball.

How would sneak attacking via Surprise Spells apply to spells that the target can easily see, like black tentacles? Do the Arcane Trickster's spells benefit from their targets being flatfooted as long as the caster is invisible, or does the spell existing and being visible prevent the spell being used to sneak attack since they can see it to react?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Related OOTS comic... ouch. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 9, 2017 at 17:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ Remember, “[thing] and [thing]” is not a good title. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 9, 2017 at 17:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie your editted title made the already posted answer rather off-place. I think "Does Surprise Spell work with indirect damage spells [like black tentacles] if the caster's situation allows it to a direct-damage one?" fits the spirit of OP's original question better. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 9, 2017 at 18:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Mindwin Sure, that would be an accurate edit if you wanted to make it. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 9, 2017 at 21:03

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A surprise spell must be a targeted spell

The arcane trickster special ability surprise spells, in part, says, "At 10th level, an arcane trickster can add her sneak attack damage to any spell that deals damage, if the targets are flat-footed." Unlike, for example, the spell magic missile that has the entry Targets: Up to five creatures, no two of which can be more than 15 ft. apart, the spells black tentacles and fireball have no Target entries so they have no targets (and, in fact, most area spells don't). Employing a targeted spell is one of the requirements for the special ability surprise spells to trigger.

Being invisible doesn't make your foes flat-footed

Merely being invisible is insufficient to render a foe flat-footed against the invisible creature's attacks. The invisible attacking creature does gain a +2 bonus on its attack rolls and the foe does lose it's Dexterity bonus to AC against the attack, but the foe is not actually considered flat-footed against attacks launched by the invisible creature, therefore the special ability surprise spells won't trigger by virtue of invisibility alone.

So to benefit from the special ability surprise spells, the arcane trickster can, for example, on the first round of combat cast a spell that has a Target entry at typical foes (like those without the extraordinary ability uncanny dodge) that have yet to act during that round. In such circumstances, the arcane trickster's special ability surprise spells usually triggers.

…And Paizo disagrees

Thanks to Tyelor K I learned that the FAQ includes this exchange:

How does the Surprise Spells class feature of the Arcane Trickster prestige class… work with spells like magic missile and fireball?

The Surprise Spells class feature allows the Arcane Trickster to add his sneak attack dice to spells that deal damage that target flat-footed foes. This damage is only applied once per spell. In the case of fireball this means it affects all targets in the area, with each getting a save to halve the damage (including the sneak attack damage). In the case of magic missile, the extra damage is only added once to one missile, chosen by the caster when the spell is cast.

Note that this exchange agrees that the "Surprise Spells class feature allows the Arcane Trickster to add his sneak attack dice to spells that deal damage that target flat-footed foes" (emphasis mine), yet then this exchange goes on to discuss fireball as if it were a targeted spell, even though it's not. If going by the FAQ, then, a player needs to ask the GM if each individual spell is eligible for surprise spells or not because target in that FAQ entry means something different from the game's normal definition of target.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I made a half orc caster with Precipice Strike to gain the flat footed condition more often, as there are shockingly few ways to force it on others. Your argument about the spell requiring a target does not make sense. Impromptu Sneak Attack makes sense since it requires an attack, but surprise spell is missing any references to Impromptu Sneak Attack, aiming, or anything else. Can you explain more in dept or clearer? \$\endgroup\$
    – Fering
    Jan 3, 2021 at 6:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Fering Like it says, "At 10th level, an arcane trickster can add her sneak attack damage to any spell that deals damage, if the targets [of that spell] are flat-footed." This means possibly dealing sneak attack damage with impromptu sneak attack when using magic missile or mass inflict light wounds (that's harder to get as an arcane caster but still) and not fireball (because it lacks a Target entry completely). \$\endgroup\$ Jan 3, 2021 at 13:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Under the glossary and saving throws "Reflex (used to avoid effects that target an entire area, such as fireball)". So while the aiming spell info you linked to does have more support, I still feel like its wrong. \$\endgroup\$
    – Fering
    Jan 3, 2021 at 15:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Fering Honestly, I wish it were. Don't you think I know how awesome it'd be to sneak attack with a fireball? :-) But I don't think the definition of Reflex saving throw can change what the Magic section actually says about a spell's Target entry, and area spells usually don't have Target entries (cf. quench). \$\endgroup\$ Jan 3, 2021 at 15:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ You can argue that fireball has to target the square it hits even if it is AC5 \$\endgroup\$
    – Fering
    Jan 3, 2021 at 17:50
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Surprise spells doesn't work with black tentacles at all.

the tentacles use your caster level as their base attack bonus and receive a +4 bonus due to their Strength and a +1 size bonus.

Your character has sneak attack damage, your black tentacles do not. It's not you dealing damage, it's the black tentacles dealing damage. This is the same logic that applies to summoning monsters. If you summon a monster with the surprise spells ability, they don't get the sneak attack dice either.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Actually, thats a good point. I forgot that the BT got its own BAB \$\endgroup\$
    – Fering
    Jul 9, 2017 at 16:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Actually that's not obvious at all that it works that way. If the PC was just a Rogue/Wizard with sneak of course she couldn't sneak on black tentacles, but here he got a feature that explicitly "add her sneak attack damage to any spell that deals damage". \$\endgroup\$ Jul 10, 2017 at 9:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ There is a difference between causing damage and summoning / creating something that deals damage. The black tentacles spell has it's own stats, it doesn't matter that those stats are derived from yours. It's a separate entity. \$\endgroup\$
    – Snappie
    Jul 10, 2017 at 9:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AnneAunyme I agree… sort of. I think that absent the phrase "if the targets are flat-footed" in the special ability surprise spells, the arcane trickster would just "add her sneak attack damage to any spell that deals damage" all the time, but just casting the spell black tentacles doesn't deal damage directly—the effect the spell creates does. However, upon typing that, that seems a really fine hair to split. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 10, 2017 at 18:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ I feel that black tentacles and summon monsters are clear cut. Some other spells leave room for ambiguity. \$\endgroup\$
    – Snappie
    Jul 11, 2017 at 6:13
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Hey I Can Chan's answer is somewhat wrong, the Official Paizo FAQs indeed says that Fireball works with the Arcane Trickster's Surprise Spells. This FAQ was posted in 2011, so I'm not sure how it was overlooked for so long on this question/answer here... Hopefully this helps clear things up for anyone looking into this ability for their own groups.

I do tend to agree with Snappie that conjuration spells that literally create other things/monsters like Summon spells and Black Tentacles do not benefit from the Surprise Spells ability. Though it wouldn't be overpowered if they did considering Flat-Footed is a very specific condition that is generally only active on the first round of any combat until you take your action. There are only a few abilities to make enemies Flat-Footed after that, but they are usually somewhat niche and few and far between. I do believe by the strict ruling in the FAQ, and the wording of the Surprise Spells ability that Black Tentacles and Summoned monsters would actually gain the sneak attack damage from the Arcane Trickster, so long as that enemy had the Flat-Footed condition when the Black Tentacles/Summoned monster hit that enemy.

P.S. Sorry I wasn't able to post this as a comment either, I don't have enough reputation yet to comment as I only just started this account.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site! Please, compose your own standalone answer to this question; there's no reason to reference other answers when you can write the right one! Thank you for participating and for helping strangers! \$\endgroup\$ Aug 26, 2022 at 19:51

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