This is something of a clarification question off of Is it really impossible to surprise someone with a full-round action?

Suppose we have the following situation: A sorcerer is stalking an unaware foe, and wishes to blast them with a spell with some metamagic tacked on. He has Improved Invisibility up, is surprisingly good at stealth, and is using a spell with no verbal component. In this particular case, the target has no real chance of becoming aware of his presence until the spell actually flies... but the spell itself is a full-round action because of metamagic. Assume that the Sorcerer is willing to take his time as necessary in order to get this right and optimize on any additional action advantage that he might be able to squeeze in before the opponent figures out what's going on and starts to respond, including holding actions/delaying/etc if pertinent. Don't worry about the effects of any other spells, magic items, or other abilities not available by default to all adventurers.

What does the resulting fight look like in terms of who goes when?

This is distinct from the originating question first in that the target remains unaware until the sorcerer has finished casting, whenever it is that that should occur, and second in that I am interested in the shape of the combat going forward from that point as well. In particular, is there any way that the casting sorcerer might get another turn after the original cast but before the target can act? If not, is there any way they could at least extract a few extra actions? If so, how hard could they push that?

As clarification, this is intended primarily as a theoretical question to better understand this part of the rules. It's not in support of any particular game.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ As far as I can tell this is just re-asking the question with a slightly different example, but the same base question. What am I missing that makes this different? \$\endgroup\$ Jul 20, 2018 at 16:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie - In the original question, KRyan's answer was, essentially, that if the target successfully made their initiative roll they could attack back before the sorceror finished casting. Alternately, there was a not-entirely-explained option where the sorceror stepped out from behind a rock (becoming visible) and then did a full-round-cast. In this case, the target does not have a chance to react in any way (and thus, say, roll initiative) until the attack is already incoming, and I'm looking for timing details going past that point rather than having the first spell end the fight. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben Barden
    Jul 20, 2018 at 16:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sorry, I meant that the question itself should be edited to clearly distinguish itself to a casual but attentive reader. Right now it doesn’t. (And without seeing the edited version, I’m still not sure that explanation makes it different.) \$\endgroup\$ Jul 20, 2018 at 16:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie edit made. How's that one? If you think it's still too similar, could you please explain why you think the distinction I made is not sufficient? \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben Barden
    Jul 20, 2018 at 16:57

4 Answers 4


An encounter begins when a creature becomes aware of a possible foe

Having been thoroughly playtested largely only at low levels, the game just isn't adequately equipped to deal with the long-term consequences of utterly undetectable stealth that's possessed by some high-level characters. (Some of this playtesting is documented in the Wizards of the Coast Web column Celebrity Game Table.) To be clear, here's he Dungeon Master's Guide on Combat on Starting an Encounter:

An encounter can begin in one of three situations.

  • One side becomes aware of the other and thus can act first.
  • Both sides become aware of each other at the same time.
  • Some, but not all, creatures on one or both sides become aware of the other side.

When you [the DM] decide that it is possible for either side to become aware of the other, use Spot checks, Listen checks, sight ranges, and so on to determine which of the three above cases comes into play. Although it’s good to give characters some chance to detect a coming encounter, ultimately it’s you who decides when the first round begins and where each side is when it does. (22)

So it's not the sorcerer casting a spell that signals the beginning of the encounter. Instead, the encounter begins when the superstealthy sorcerer first becomes aware of his potential opponent. That's when the DM makes in vain Listen and Spot skill checks on the opponent's behalf and the sorcerer gets a surprise round.

(The Dungeon Master's Guide's examples demonstrate that if one entire side of an encounter is unaware, there's no reason for either side to make initiative checks until the first normal round of the encounter. (The aware side just goes; probably best to roll anyway if there's more than one creature on the aware side, though, as delaying during the surprise round may make a difference if the unaware side survives the surprise round!) Further, the DMG's examples demonstrate that were some members on one side aware and other members on that same side weren't aware, only the aware members make initiative checks during the surprise round. Make of all this what you will.)

At that point, because it's the sorcerer's surprise round, the sorcerer could have taken a standard action that would've guaranteed him getting the drop on his opponent and, perhaps,—were the sorcerer's initiative check result to beat his opponent's—enable the sorcerer to take a full-round action during the first normal round of combat. Rather than do that, though, the sorcerer took a chance that he would remain undetected and continued stalking his opponent. Thereafter, until the DM rules it ends, that same encounter continues.

This means that the sorcerer can—whenever he desires or the opportunity presents itself—take the full-round action that he needs to cast, for example, a disintegrate spell that's modified by the metamagic feat Silent Spell without worrying about that pesky surprise round somehow fouling up his plans. This encounter could've started, like, over 10 rounds before the sorcerer finally gets around to casting that disintegrate spell! However, that also means his opponent can take its full allotment of actions when its turn next comes up in the already-determined initiative order.

So, to be clear, on either side it's awareness—not hostilities—that determine when an encounter begins.

"That's weird. Is there an alternative?"

The Dungeon Master's Guide on One Side Aware First in its second paragraph presents an alternative that the DM can rule applies to this undetectable sorcerer:

[T]he aware side [could have] a few rounds to prepare. (If its members [like the sorcerer] see the other side off in the distance, heading their way, for example.) You [the DM] should track time in rounds at this point to determine how much the aware characters can accomplish. Once the two sides come into contact, the aware characters can take a standard action while the unaware characters do nothing. Keep in mind that if the aware characters alert the unaware side before actual contact is made, then both sides are treated as aware. (22)

This DM wouldn't apply these rules in the case of the superstealthy sorcerer, though, due to the extreme fragility of that sorcerer's position. Unless the sorcerer's been exceptionally cautious or devoted to his clandestiny significant resources, all it should take is, for example, one creature in the dungeon with an unusual sense—like the blindsight 90 ft. that's possessed by the orc warlord's trained darkmantle (Monster Manual 38) or the tremorsense 60 ft. that's possesses by the orc warlord's adept adviser's summoned thoqqua (242)—to detect the sorcerer's presence.

But all DMs aren't this DM, and another DM could reasonably rule the sorcerer so undetectable that the sorcerer who spies an opponent instead has time to prepare rather than the sorcerer's awareness triggering the encounter's beginning, the encounter actually beginning when the DM determines the two sides have "made contact." (The DMG's example that illustrates this function of the surprise mechanics isn't useful for our purposes. In it, Jozan hears some enemies orcs behind a closed door so he casts some buff spells on himself then busts in—a situation far different from our stalking sorcerer!)

That DM's decision to rule this way puts the sorcerer in the same situation posed in the question—a situation that's uncomfortable and, by the game's own measure, unresolvable absent DM intervention. That is, the game assumes making contact means I'ma gonna fight that dude right the heck now! not I'ma gonna stand here, silently cast buff spells, and wait for the perfect opportunity to launch a maximized disintegrate ray at his noggin. Good luck.

"Roll initiative!" and metagaming the response

This DM sometimes has players make initiative checks—therefore putting the players on battle footing—without any apparent threats to their PCs. In this way, the players can be pretty sure that the surprise round has already occurred, but during the surprise round either no one interacted with the PCs or the interaction that Team Antagonist attempted failed to such a degree that the PCs remain unaware of it… even though the players may know something's up. Until the threat is something they recognize, my players—who are, like most RPG players, incredibly paranoid—still have their PCs continue doing what their doing rather than, for example, getting to cover or concealment and making Hide skill checks, casting spells like see invisibility or true seeing, or—seemingly for no reason—drawing a weapon and attacking the planet while fighting defensively and making maximal use of the feat Combat Expertise.

My players have become comfortable with this because I've done this a few times to them, and they, too, have seen Team Antagonist react in the same way. An encounter will begin for Team Protagonist yet not for Team Antagonist, and Team Antagonist will remain apparently unaware of that encounter's beginning, and they'll keep on doin' what they were doin'.

The only mechanical issue with this process is that once creatures have had the opportunity to take actions after initiative checks are made, those creatures are no longer flat-footed. This means—by all counts, inexplicably—that creatures that've perceived no threats and that've not been the apparent subjects of any hostile acts from any source, after they've had a chance to act in the first round of the encounter, are no longer flat-footed while they, for example, go about their daily routine of dusting the shelves, guarding a chest, or burninating the peasants.

However, this technically oddity doesn't, like, reward indecision. While a creature that opts to let the unaware opposition continue its business will always be able to take a full-round action before the opposition can (either because the creature's initiative result beats the opposition's or because the creature delays until after the opposition takes its turns), by doing so the creature has given up the chance to take in a row both a standard action (in the surprise round) and its normal turn (by beating the opposition's initiative result). To this DM and the players in campaigns he runs, this has always seemed a fair trade.

"Can the sorcerer get two turns in a row?"

To paraphrase the question:

After the turn on which he cast the spell but before the opponent takes its turn, can the sorcerer get a second turn?

Only if the sorcerer can find a way to act twice in a row independent of how the game says that initiative functions. (A not impossible task, by the way, but certainly one that often unbalances the game!) See, when the sorcerer finishes casting the spell, the full-on, probably-visible, possibly-audible, and maybe-even-smellable spell effect comes into being, and that may tip off the opponent as to the sorcerer's whereabouts. That means, in the normal initiative order and without interruption, the typical opponent always takes its turn after the sorcerer.

It's entirely possible that the opponent will ready or delay, though, as the limited knowledge the foe's gained of the sorcerer's location may not be enough for the opponent to full attack the sorcerer or whatever as the sorcerer himself remains utterly undetectable!


No full round actions during a surprise round.

That's how the rules as written work. You do catch your opponent flat-footed, but the most you can cast is a single action spell, or make a single weapon attack. After that everyone gets to roll initiative. And the same applies to you and your team -- for which you should thank your lucky stars, otherwise DMs would be murdering the lot of you in the surprise round on a regular basis.

Advice: Instead of desperately trying to find a scenario where you get to make a full-round action in your initial attack, use your spells wisely.

  • With your scenario, yes, the enemy would have the option of casting true seeing, or faerie fire on their first turn, in a desperate attempt to detect your wizard in his Improved Invisibility state. But things aren't going to go well for him, because your wizard isn't dumb! He has cast a control spell instead of an attack spell. He has either webbed, or charmed, or dominated his enemies in the surprise round. Or perhaps he's truly devious and has cast silence on the enemy, making it nearly impossible for them to use spells to detect him, giving him a hideous advantage.
  • \$\begingroup\$ So... you're saying that my enemy gets to try to act in response to my casting a spell in spite of the fact that there is no way for him to detect me, or even be aware that he's under threat until after the spell is cast? By the premise set out in the question, the target doesn't have true seeing, faerie fire, or whatever. Also, I'm not asking for application to a specific campaign. I'm trying to better understand how the rules work in this particular case. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben Barden
    Jul 26, 2018 at 13:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BenBarden We can really only answer you based on the rule book. However you choose to homebrew your campaign is your prerogative. \$\endgroup\$
    – AshRandom
    Jul 26, 2018 at 16:39

The Surprise Round

If some but not all of the combatants are aware of their opponents, a surprise round happens before regular rounds begin. Any combatants aware of the opponents can act in the surprise round, so they roll for initiative. In initiative order (highest to lowest), combatants who started the battle aware of their opponents each take a standard action during the surprise round. You can also take free actions during the surprise round. If no one or everyone is surprised, no surprise round occurs.

By definition; a Surprise Round can not encompass any part of a Full Round Action. Why? Because RAW it says "You may take a standard Action" and no interpretation or change of that makes it so you can even choose to make a full round action.

Why is it you can't have the spell ready and then begin combat? Because a Full Round Action is defined under "Actions in Combat." http://www.d20srd.org/srd/combat/actionsInCombat.htm

Thus we build the following premises and conclusion:

  • Full Round Actions are undefined outside of combat

  • The desired action is a Full Round Action

  • You may perform a Standard Action or Free Action in a Surprise Round

This implies the following set of conclusions by RAW:

You can't choose to perform the Full Round Action until you are in combat, as Full Round Actions are undefined outside of combat. If you are in combat you can't choose to perform the Full Round Action because the Surprise Round does not permit you to do so. Therefore, because you cannot perform this action while out of combat and cannot perform this action during the surprise round, you cannot perform this action, as there is no point in time to even declare such an action.

The best the player can do is, as the other answer mentioned, "Start/Complete Full-Round Action", which is technically, by the rules, not a Full Round Action and is merely a way of "beginning" a full round action with a standard action. http://www.d20srd.org/srd/combat/actionsInCombat.htm#startCompleteFullRoundAction

Please note that this has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not the enemy can hear you, whether or not they can react to you, etc. It's entirely based on RAW; which says they'll get a round to do stuff if you attempt a Full Round Action. Maybe the GM will have them be unable to respond appropriately, but you asked specifically for RAW.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Okay. So there's a surprise round. Aware combatants (me, not them) roll for initiative. Presumably, I'm using "Start a full-round action". We finish the surprise round, and the enemy is still not aware. Then what happens? When does the enemy roll for initiative? \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben Barden
    Jul 26, 2018 at 14:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ I could be wrong, but the Surprise Round rules state the people acting roll initiative. Then the regular rules for Initiative say "at the start of the battle", which (to avoid a contradiction) would be the first regular round. So you (and anyone else acting in the surprise round) get to roll; then after the surprise round, everyone else will roll. (Again, not 100% confident RAW) d20srd.org/srd/combat/initiative.htm \$\endgroup\$
    – blurry
    Jul 26, 2018 at 14:42

The boiler plate cases for starting an encounter are as such:

1) Everyone on both sides are aware - no surprise round, just roll initiative

2) At least one combatant is unaware - a surprise round ensues where everyone rolls initiative, but unaware combatants cannot act until their initiative count in the first round after the surprise round.

That's really all that is covered, at least explicitly. What's not covered is what happens if after the surprise round, there are still combatants that are not aware. By RAW, after their initiative count in the first round, they are no longer "surprised" where surprised means you cannot act and are flat-footed. However, that does not necessarily mean they can sense the opponent. If they cannot sense them (sight, hearing, other senses for some creatures like scent and tremorsense), they generally can't act against that opponent. If they have some sense that alerts them of the presence of a foe, but do not know where they are, they can guess and attack a square.

What does the resulting fight look like in terms of who goes when?

That depends on how the DM is handling the pursuit.

A sorcerer is stalking an unaware foe, and wishes to blast them with a spell with some metamagic tacked on.

When the sorcerer decides to attack, given the target is unaware, a surprise round occurs. During the surprise round, only the aware sorcerer can act. In round one, whoever has the highest initiative acts first. If the sorcerer also had the higher initiative, he could take another action before the target has had a chance to respond.

If the sorcerer wants to cast a full round action spell, he pretty much has two options.

  1. Start a full round action, then finish it as a standard action on his next turn, potentially risking the opponent acting first if he rolls a higher initiative.
  2. Use a free action to alert the opponent, thus starting a surprise round, then Delay until the beginning of the first round, changing your initiative to the highest. This would guarantee you get the full round action off first, by guaranteeing your initiative is higher, at the cost of a standard action.

In particular, is there any way that the casting sorcerer might get another turn after the original cast but before the target can act? If not, is there any way they could at least extract a few extra actions? If so, how hard could they push that?

If your initiative is higher, and the opponent is surprised, you will always have a standard action plus a full round's worth of actions before your opponent can act. As a sorcerer, by RAW, you cannot know metamagic version of spells and thus cannot benefit from a quickened spell so there really aren't any options other than not using metamagic to cast a spell as a standard action.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Okay, so what does it mean to have the opponent get a turn if they aren't aware of anyone they might be in combat with? I suppose this is the core of the question. By the rules, they roll initiative. Okay. They get a turn. Sure... but at that point they still don't have any way of knowing that they're under attack, or that there are even hostiles in the area... so what does it mean that they get a turn? Is it possible to get a combat turn when you don't actually know that you're in combat? \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben Barden
    Jul 31, 2018 at 17:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ A surprised opponent does not get a turn during the surprise round. Are you asking what happens if after the surprise round the opponent is still not aware? \$\endgroup\$
    – Wyrmwood
    Jul 31, 2018 at 17:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, basically. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben Barden
    Jul 31, 2018 at 18:03

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