How does combat start when one PC is not seen as a threat?

Imagine a party of four - three honest characters standing face to face against three evil bandits, one sly, backstabbing type some 30 ft behind the bandits' backs; the bandits may know he's there, but they don't know he's a part of the threat (or part of the party) and have little reason to pay attention to what he does.

He, while situation between bandits and heroes escalates, takes out his crossbow and declares attack. Roll initiative.

The question is what happens next?

How I (clumsily) solved the situation: I let the back-shooting character go first and then followed order of the initiative, where I skipped that characters first regular turn (so that he doesn't go twice).

What seems to be a common argument is that the initiative reflects how fast everyone reacts in situation where everyone tries to go at once (everyone wants to go first). But I am not sure this directly applies, since the initiating character is "outside the stand-off".

Related questions:

How to resolve surprise and "instant actioning" initiating combat

When and how does combat start in a standoff?

What the questions do not resolve is the effect of the character that is not seen as a threat and that is the main part of my interest.

• @lucasvw Your input is appreciated but unfortunately this seems to be an answer (or part of an answer) in a comment. Comments should be used to clarify the question. Please see this meta post – Sdjz Jun 19 '18 at 11:29
• @PurpleMonkey I wasn't actually sure how to word it succintly, but this works fine. – J.E Jun 19 '18 at 11:48
• So the crux is Does the game make a distinction between a dude that's perceived as a threat and a creature that's merely perceived? Is that accurate? (I ask because this is controversial in 3.5e and questions about how this is handled in that edition may prove relevant.) – Hey I Can Chan Jun 19 '18 at 12:26
• @HeyICanChan To a point yes, but in my mind also important is the fact that they are not tracking his movement (he is behind their back, at least narratively), otherwise, normal initiative should take place, but maybe I am wrong about that, since the game engine does not care for characters' orientations, only positions. In any case similar case in a different system might provide inspiration if nothing else. – J.E Jun 19 '18 at 12:35
• Yeah, I'm with you on the tracking his movements thing; 3.5e also has everybody always spinning. :-) That said, and with these ideas in mind, if no distinction is clearly drawn, this 3.5e question may interest you. – Hey I Can Chan Jun 19 '18 at 12:50

In this scenario, your bandits were no doubt taken by surprise when one of them got shot. Unless there's some sort of telepathy or pre-planning involved, I would've ruled that the other PCs were also surprised.

In this case, for the first round all combatants bar your shifty PC are surprised (which is sometimes helpful to think of as a condition), meaning they miss their turn. During that turn, Mr Shifty shoots one of the bandits with his crossbow. At the end of the round, No one is Surprised and we follow on with normal combat. Thus according to my ruling, your PC would get one extra action. That's not that big a deal really, and your decision to just have Mr Shifty act first, out of turn, was reasonable.

• I upvoted this one because I think it is correct, but I think it could be improved by quoting the rules used to determine surprise and how it applies to the situation. – SeriousBri Jun 19 '18 at 12:09
• Minor nitpick: In 5e that is not the same outcome as delaying, since delaying doesn't exist in 5E, and readying isn't quite as versatile. I think the answer would be better without that bit, since it leads to conflation of rules between 2 editions. – Ethan Jun 19 '18 at 15:47
• Probably worth noting that no one misses their turn. They miss their movement and action. They would still have the potential for a reaction after their turn in the initiative order comes up. (But still during the first round) – keithcurtis Jun 20 '18 at 1:02
• @Kyyshak Read again. You lose your reaction for your turn, not the round. Specifically: "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 [your first] turn ends." Once your turn passes in the first round, you can use your reaction.. Thus if someone were to move past you before your turn, you could not make an OA., But after your turn (initiative count) has passed, you could. – keithcurtis Jun 20 '18 at 23:57
• @keithcurtis is correct, once their first turn is over they're no longer considered surprised and can take reactions. This matters for NPCs with the Parry trait or PCs with Defensive Duelist, Deflect Missiles, the Shield spell, etc. If the surprised NPC beats the PC's initiative, despite losing out on their action and movement, they might still be able to use a reaction to avoid or soften the effects of the attack. – Doval Jun 21 '18 at 1:40

RAW, this would have been handled differently

What your situation boils down to is whether the Bandits are surprised by the back-shooter or not.

Let's take a look at Surprise on initiative (taken from 5eSRD.com):

Surprise

A band of adventurers sneaks up on a bandit camp, springing from the trees to attack them. A gelatinous cube glides down a dungeon passage, unnoticed by the adventurers until the cube engulfs one of them. In these situations, one side of the battle gains surprise over the other. The GM determines who might be surprised. If neither side tries to be stealthy, they automatically notice each other. Otherwise, the GM compares the Dexterity (Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of each creature on the opposing side. Any character or monster that doesn’t notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter. 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.

Emphasis mine.

Now, if all three bandits know the back-shooter is present (and assuming that, like most bandits, everything they don't know is a threat to them) they are not surprised by the attack and combat ensues without any initial strikes occurring.

Why did I say strikes?

Your backshooter's friends most likely know know he plans to flank the bandits. They may not know when exactly the attack may fire, but they're prepared for it and wouldn't be surprised when it finally strikes.

As stated above for Surprise initiative is rolled for everyone participating in this encounter. Each of the bandits that did not know the backshooter was present (stealth vs perception) will be surprised. The first round will begin, as it was rolled. If a bandit that is surprised gets his turn he "can't move or take an action on [his] first turn of the combat". This also means that any member of your party (which shouldn't be surprised) can take their turns and actions normally, even if their initiative puts them before the attack of the backshooter.

The important factor of this situation is who is suprised and not what suprised them. It does not matter if it is a crossbow bolt arcing through the air, the roar of a dragon or a nearby explosion (an exploding keg of whiskey, an illusion or some magic combustion); if you can reasonably rule that something can surprise someone and they are not prepared/preemptively aware of it, they are surprised and can not act or move on their first action.

P.S. People often say there are no surprise rounds in DnD 5e; and that's correct, when it comes to the specific term. You don't automatically snag yourself a full set of actions for each ally if you surprise only one enemy creature. That statement, however, significantly complicates how many people interpret surprise.

• What I cannot reconcile is the situation where the rest of the party (...backshooter's friends) see what he's doing continually, so they wouldn't be surprised. But! That means that they would get to act on the first round while the surprised bandits cannot, even though the bandits were watching the three heroes closely, which seems unfair. Would that mean that the bandits are only surprised if the three heroes don't do anything? (either being surprised as well or volutarily not using actions) – J.E Jun 19 '18 at 13:19
• @J.E Going by what's written the other three party members standing in front of the bandits can take their actions without trouble. Each of three members can also act before the backshooter, if he had a particularily low roll. The important factor in this is that the bandits are surprised. Ultimately it doesn't really matter, what exactly it was that did it. You could even lay a trap where a harmless but noisy explose goes off nearby to surprise an unprepared foe. The party / person that set it up or at least knows of it would not be surprised by the boom of the explosion. – Scrawnoisis Jun 19 '18 at 13:22
• If the other members can act in the first round, then the bandits can as well. This is because the bandits have all noticed the threat of the party and so cannot be surprised since they have noticed "a threat" – Nick Jun 19 '18 at 13:24
• It's a bit more specific than that, @Nick . If each creature can individually be surprised it stands to reason (and to me at least makes sense) that each creature can just as well cause surprise for any given creature. While the three in front cannot directly surprise them they can still benefit from their buddy's surprise. – Scrawnoisis Jun 19 '18 at 13:31
• @Scrawnoisis The point with the noisy explosive is quite convincing, albeit in an action movie kind of way. Might be even worth it to work it into the answer. – J.E Jun 19 '18 at 13:45

If the bandits know he's there, and the player declares he's attacking, then simply roll initiative between the rogue and the bandits. You have a PC skulking about who suddenly draws his crossbow. The resultant initiative order reflects the various levels of suspicion and reaction time on both sides of the fight.

At this point the rest of the characters are not participants in the fight. If they declare that they're joining in, or if the bandits attack them on the assumption they're all part of the same threat, then they roll initiative as well.

If the bandits don't know the rogue is there when he attacks, still roll initiative, but the bandits are surprised by the skulking rogue and do not get to act in the first round of combat. The rogue also receives whatever advantage is appropriate for attacking from hiding. The other PC's are still not participants until some action on their part or the bandits' part makes them so, at which point they roll initiative and join the fight.

• In a case like this, awarding circumstantial advantage on the initiative roll for the sneaky character would probably fit into how advantage works. You may or may not want to add that consideration into your answer; – KorvinStarmast Jun 19 '18 at 12:24
• This mostly works, but I would just have everyone roll Initiative as "combat time" begins. Nobody is forced to take aggressive actions, but this way PCs can't do more per round than the combatants. – aschepler Jun 19 '18 at 12:51

Roll for surprise using Deception and Insight

If the rogue was trying to stay out of sight entirely then you'd determine his success with a Stealth vs. Perception check at the time he declares his attack. (Your choice whether that's rolled Stealth against passive Perception or the other way around.) Then roll initiative as normal, but everyone who failed the Perception check is surprised. This might result in someone not being surprised, beating the rogue on initiative, and getting to go first.

In this case he's trying to blend in. Instead of Stealth vs. Perception, do exactly the same with Deception vs. Insight. Anyone who passes this check noticed that he's suspicious and had their eyes on him. (This is a Deception check because the rogue is in plain view, but trying to hide his intent.)

In either case, if the rogue informed the other PCs of his plan, I'd give them advantage on their check.

• Have you used this houserule regarding Deception vs. Insight to determine surprise? How has it worked, in your experience? – V2Blast Jun 19 '18 at 22:45

As an alternative way of thinking about it:

Combat and Initiative is for when timing matters

Any time timing is important, whether or not it involves actual fighting, roll initiative for every one involved in the scene and go into the combat rules.

In the case above, I would have had everyone roll initiative as soon as the archer's player announced an intention to shoot.

If the bandits get to go before the bowman then I'd just say that something warned them. Maybe they heard the bow creak. Maybe they saw one of the three characters glace over their shoulder. Maybe they just got lucky. In any case, they get to resolve their action before the bowman does.

No Surprise

I would not roll for surprise for the bandits because they have already noticed a threat - the 3 adventurers standing before them.

Surprise is when you don't notice any threats, not for when you miss some of the threats.

As an aside, I would never let an unnoticed archer have a "free turn" before rolling initiative. Some classes get important features on the first turn of combat (e.g. assassin rogue, gloom stalker ranger) so if you deny them that first turn then you screw over those classes.

• Do you not feel as though you are discouraging the players from trying interesting approaches, since this would have the same result as walking to the bandits upfront? Ad the aside, as I stated in the question, no one got a free turn, I just effectivelly bumped the character's initiative to the first place for the first round, so I am not quite sure what is it that you are referring to. – J.E Jun 20 '18 at 6:44
• @JE, not really. The archer still gets advantage on their first attack from being unseen, so they did get some benefit from sneaking around the back. – Greenstone Walker Jun 20 '18 at 11:02
• But you don't indicate this anywhere in the answer and it's not obvious that any advantage from being unseen should be had in your scenario. The character is neither hidden nor obscured. Your wording even suggests options for bandits of noticing the shooter. I do not understand what you mean. – J.E Jun 20 '18 at 11:16
• @JE, if the archer is neither hidden nor obscured then they are certainly noticed by the bandits, so there is no possibility of surprise. Just roll initiative. – Greenstone Walker Jun 20 '18 at 21:20