In my campaign, the group are about to enter a grove where they hand an Elven prisoner over to some Dwarves. A Treant notices the exchange, and enraged by what he sees, uproots himself and charges in to deal with them.

They don't see the Treant, but as they do the hand over, they start to hear crashing and banging, followed by heavy footfall towards the grove, eventually the Treant bursts through the trees into the grove.

Would it be fair to use surprise for this? Or is there another rule I could use? I don't want it to be "you guys hear a load of noise and suddenly a TREANT!!!" Personally, even if I heard a load of noise in the woods coming my way, and then saw a Treant, I'd be pretty surprised/shocked by the sight. I know surprise works by a character using a stealth attack on an unsuspecting victim, hence the question, can I use surprise in this instance?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Related, possibly a duplicate rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/110519 \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Commented Dec 3, 2017 at 15:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ "would it be fair" isn't very good type of question, since the answer probably be opinion-based \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Commented Dec 3, 2017 at 15:23

2 Answers 2


You could, but not in this case

The characters won't be surprised, neither will be the Treant. The PHB page 189, "Surprise", states:

If neither side tries to be stealthy, they automatically notice each other.

Of course, the characters still can be shocked by the sight of the Treant, in terms of role-play. But the attack itself won't be a surprise, since the characters saw the Treant as a threat and expected its attack.

A sudden betrayal would be surprising

I know surprise works by a character using a stealth attack on an unsuspecting vicitm

That is not exactly correct. Surprised condition (see PH, page 189) and Unseen Attackers (page 194) are two different things in 5e. You have Advantage while attacking from stealth:

When a creature can't see you, you have advantage on attack rolls against it

While Surprised condition makes a character basically skip the first turn:

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.

You can be Surprised and see the attacker in the moment of the attack; it's also possible to be unseen without any surprise. A sudden melee strike probably would be surprising, but it is hardly unseen. This is explicitly mentioned in the Mike Mearls's tweet:

sudden betrayal, for instance. surprise but not hidden

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thankyou very much, another great answer. I could possibly narrate they are shocked by the sight of the treant but in terms of gameplay that can only be role played then rather than a condition that could be say causing them to be crippled with fear for a round? \$\endgroup\$
    – DBMike
    Commented Dec 3, 2017 at 15:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DBMike as a DM, you can do anything. The rules is a tool, not a strait jacket. What would be more fun? More plausible? It's all up to the DM. \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Commented Dec 3, 2017 at 15:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DBMike just give your players a chance to avoid the negative outcome. Even if they've never seen a Treant, they are the heroes, after all. Against surprise, it'd be a Perception check. Against fear, probably a Wisdom saving throw. \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Commented Dec 3, 2017 at 15:54

Surprise only comes into play where characters are not expecting an attack. By telegraphing the entrance before it actually happens, you have given the PCs a reasonable warning to be on the alert. Until initiative is rolled and you are in action economy directed combat, this sort of thing can be handled with a different narrative approach.

Instead of describing it as above, where they hear the crashing and the booming, and the approaching footfalls, try something like:

"As you are handing over the elven prisoner, everything seems to be going smoothly. The dwarves seem relaxed and eager to take possession, when suddenly, with a noise like a bomb, an enraged voice fill the clearing, booming "HOW DARE YOU!" as an enraged treant cracks aside the underbrush, its huge tree-limb of an arm striking you like the wrath of the gods!"

The surprise attack is now part of the narrative impact, happening more-or-less simultaneously.

To support this, should the players complain, simply point out to them that you are not modeling the real world, but the world of high action, where characters frequently crack a one liner, or tap someone on the shoulder before making what is still undeniably a sneak attack. The action is the same (contested perception, followed by a sneak attack), but the narrative quality is considerably more dramatic.

Just be sure you are doing the contested perception rolls on the up-and-up, of course.

  • \$\begingroup\$ thats a great answer thankyou very much sir. A friend of mine also suggested when the Treant breaks the treeline the ones closest could take a cons sv. A failure would result in fear. \$\endgroup\$
    – DBMike
    Commented Dec 3, 2017 at 15:38

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