In D&D 5e "Surprise" is a condition that can affect a creature during the first round of combat, only until the end of their turn:

[... T]he 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. - PHB 189

Does the action that causes the surprise count as part of the round, though?

Say Renee, a rogue, achieves a stealth check of 22, easily beating an orc sentry's passive perception. She sneaks directly behind him and stabs him in the back. Surely the orc isn't surprised at all until the dagger hits him (or if Renee misses, she fumbles around behind him or something).

What I think it really boils down to in the end is: when is initiative rolled? If (in our example) initiative is rolled before Renee's attack hits (or misses) how can we justify the orc recovering from his surprise before the action that triggered said surprise even occurs, should he roll better than Renee on his initiative?

I'd like to go with initiative is rolled immediately following whatever event began the encounter (which could be an attack, but is likely to often be something else wherever surprise isn't intended), but I can't find any documentation to support this stance.

Why Does Anyone Care?

There are many reasons you might want someone to be surprised while you're attacking - in this example if Renee is over L3 (and took the Assassin archetype) she'll get 'Assassinate' if the orc is surprised, and 'Death Strike' if she's over L17. That's a lot of potential extra damage!

J.E also pointed out that if the orc is surprised, Renee will be able to retreat and hide, without having to take the disengage action as her bonus action to avoid an attack of opportunity. Of course, there's no way for her to know whether the orc is surprised or not at that stage, so trying this would be a bit of a gamble...


The initiative rolls can be interpreted as a metaphor for other circumstances. So if the orc rolls high, imagine that as him turning his head ina lucky timeframe, just to see the attacker in the corner of his eye. But he is still surprised, so he does not get to act first.

To answer: the action that causes the surprise does count as a part of the round. The initiative is rolled when it is obvious that a combat should start, i.e. when one of the players or the DM decides to attack. Whether you roll it before or after determining surprise is of no consequence. But it is definitely rolled before the first attack (the back-stab in your case).

See e.g. this question. By the rules, it would go like this:

  • Two opposing parties meet (Renee meets with the orc sentry) with intention of combat (Renee want to stabby-stabby).
  • The DM decides which parties are surprised (the orc is, probably).
  • Initiative is rolled. Now there are two possibilities – either Renee beats the orcs initiative or vice versa.

If Renee "goes" first: Renee uses his round to abuse the poor orc. Then the orc's round comes up, he cannot use any action or move on this turn and he couldn't have used any reactions up to the end of it (so for example if Renee moved away after the stab, he would get no attack of oportunity). From now on, combat goes as usual, next turn is Renee's.

If the orc "goes" first: The orc cannot do much on his round, since he is surprised. So his turn ends. From now on he can take reactions and normal actions on his following turns. Renee goes next and he spends his turn with the backstab (if he wants to). If Renee then wanted to move away from the orc, the orc could use the attack of opportunity on him. From now on, the combat goes as usual.

How this affects assassinate: If Renee beats the orc's initiative roll, he gets both the advantage (since he takes his first turn before the orc) and the crit (since the orc is still surprised)

If the orc goes first, Renee gets neither, since the orc is no longer surprised by the time Renee gets to his turn.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I've added a little more about why it's important, but you've mentioned something I hadn't thought of: If Renee sneak attack's a surprised orc, she can retreat and hide straight away if she doesn't manage to drop him straight away. Might be useful, and would certainly be fun flavour wise! He has a gaping wound in his back and no idea how it got there! \$\endgroup\$ – Isaac Reefman Jul 20 '18 at 7:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @IsaacReefman Ad your idea – keep in mind that attack breaks being hidden, so once hit, the orc will know about Renee. Unless you'd be using something like the optional facing rules; I am not that familiar with those. \$\endgroup\$ – J.E Jul 20 '18 at 8:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @IsaacReefman I also added a section dealing with the interaction of surprise, initiative and assasinate, per the edit. \$\endgroup\$ – J.E Jul 20 '18 at 8:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Surpriser It is iffy. I kinda hate how it works. But if I try to stick to rules as much as possible, this is the outcome, I think. Also, allow me to clarify some things: she does get benefits from the surprise, the main benefit is that the orc does not act on his round. That is huge. Also, you can rule, as a GM, that she gets an advantage, especially if you utilize the facing rules. But without facing, there is no such thig as being behind someone, so you kinda are visible right away, when you leave your hiding spot. \$\endgroup\$ – J.E Jul 20 '18 at 10:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think we agree on RAW (at least mostly). If the orc wins initiative, he is no longer surprised by the time Renee's turn comes up and she gets neither advantage nor an automatic critical hit from her Assassinate class feature. However, if she attacked with a ranged weapon, she would still get advantage due to being an unseen attacker - her position becomes known after the attack hits or misses (and depending on where she was hiding, she might still be unseen after that, though no longer hidden). \$\endgroup\$ – Surpriser Jul 20 '18 at 10:41

As the quoted text says, the orc starts the encounter with the surprised condition. The encounter is run as usual: Both roll initiative, and the orc does nothing during the first turn. Even if his initiative is higher. In his turn, the rogue stabs the orc. At the end of the first round, what happened is: The rogue hit the orc which could not do anything due to the surprise, which makes sense

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    \$\begingroup\$ This doesn't tell us anything novel though - Thanks for the answer, however, as it's highlighted something missing from my question: why is it important to know the order here? I've now added that. \$\endgroup\$ – Isaac Reefman Jul 20 '18 at 7:36

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