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A Wizard PC Teleports their party from a safe place directly to the location of a group of foes, who the party intends to attack.

If the foes did not know this was about to happen, they should be surprised.

How does initiative work in this situation - does the Teleport take place on the Wizard's first turn in combat, or prior to combat entirely? To illustrate why I am confused, there are a few possible adjudications below.

  1. The moment the Wizard decides they want to Teleport into combat, initiative is rolled. The Wizard casts Teleport on their turn, which may be after the turns of their companions, and teleports to the foes' location. Any foes who rolled higher initiative will no longer be surprised. The Wizard takes their next turn in the second round, in which no foes will be surprised.
  2. At the point the Wizard casts Teleport, they are not in combat. After the spell is cast, (since the party intends to immediately attack) the combat begins, and initative is rolled. The Wizard takes their next turn in the first round, while some foes may still be surprised (depending on their initiative).
  3. Case #1, but the Wizard can use Ready-ing the Teleport spell to effectively turn it into case #2.
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5 Answers 5

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I think you are confused about how surprise works:

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.

The GM decides who is surprised, not the initiative roll.

So here is how that event would play out.

  1. Wizard teleports into combat
  2. Everyone rolls initiative
  3. Turns start in initiative order
  4. Everyone who is not surprised gets to act while people who are surprised skip their turn
  5. Assuming the PCs have not teleported again before the end of round 1, round 2 of combat would start
  6. Turns begin to take place in initiative order; no one is surprised anymore

For scenario 3:

The wizard cannot ready an action outside of combat, so he could not ready the teleport spell until combat has begun.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Surprise isn't really the main thrust of the question, and perhaps my inclusion of it is confusing the issue. I remain uncertain how to adjudicate even if the foes are aware of this incoming teleport. A better phrasing might be "is the Teleport spell part of the first round of combat, or separate from it?". Your answer initially suggests the latter, but you later say that the Wizard can't Ready outside combat, presumably because the Ready action is under "Actions in Combat" in the PHB. But so too is "Cast a Spell", so surely by that measure the Teleport can't be cast outside of combat? \$\endgroup\$
    – Vigil
    Apr 10, 2019 at 14:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've edited the question to pull out that issue a little more (without removing surprise from the question). \$\endgroup\$
    – Vigil
    Apr 10, 2019 at 14:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Its kind of tricky because they both happen at the same time. Teleport is initially cast outside of combat, but by the time the spell has ended, combat has begun. As soon at the enemy can tell the party is there, they become surprised (and thus combat starts). So when you are in area A, there is no combat, but as soon as the something surprises the enemies in area B combat begins. So before anyone can even do anything, combat has already started. If you want to be super granular about it, technically the teleport would finish like a small fraction of a second before the enemy is surprised 1/2 \$\endgroup\$ Apr 10, 2019 at 14:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that you should not mark your edits. Simply make your answer the best version at all times. If you need to make a major (or minor) addition or revision simply blend it naturally into your post. We have edit histories if we ever want to see what changed. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rubiksmoose
    Apr 10, 2019 at 16:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Rubiksmoose sorry about that, some of the other SE sites I use prefer have edits marked \$\endgroup\$ Apr 11, 2019 at 10:23
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The Teleport spell happens before initiative is rolled

You don't know whether combat is going to occur until the effects of the Teleport spell are resolved. Unless there is a permanent teleportation circle at the ambush location or they have an 'associated object' from where they want to teleport to, there is a chance that the players will land 'Off Target' or in a 'Similar Area' rather than the intended location (Teleport spell, PHB pg 281). As a DM, you'll have to consider how well they know the area they are trying to teleport to in order to determine their chances of teleporting to the correct location.

The players can be prepared to fight right after teleporting and I would reward them for the tactic by having the enemy be surprised.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome! Please take the tour as an introduction to the site and check the help center for further guidance. This answer seems to tangentially touch on the question but is discussing things that aren't exactly the question asked. The contribution is still appreciated but this does not really seem to be answering the question beyond the title. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sdjz
    Apr 10, 2019 at 16:49
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This all comes down to ruling

When does combat start? The rules do not say so explicitly, so this will be for the DM to determine. A good proxy to start combat is when anyone tries to take any combat action (e.g., tries to make an attack). This works with standoffs, traitors, and trying to ready an action before combat (which as a combat action starts combat and avoids the issue). Spellcasting such as teleport however is not necessarily a combat action.

Once combat starts, you follow the rules under Combat Step by Step (PHB, p. 189):

  1. Determine surprise. (...)
  2. Establish positions. (...)
  3. Roll initiative. (...)

Who is surprised?

Who is surprised is entirely up to the DM (p. 189, PHB):

The DM determines who might be surprised. (...) Any character or monster that doesn’t notice a threat is surprised

The Sage Advise Compendium elaborates further what is meant by "notice a threat":

you must be caught off guard, usually because you failed to notice foes being stealthy or you were startled by an enemy with a special ability, such as the gelatinous cube’s Transparent trait, that makes it exceptionally surprising.

This expanded definition is valuable, as it shifts the focus from being able to notice a threat to the more general question if you were prepared for the threat to happen. The wizard with teleport materializing suddenly° out of nothing sounds like a good fit for an "enemy with a special ability (...) that makes it extremely surprising".

The caster's team are not surprised -- they may be if they find the room empty or someone else there than they expected, but not in the capital-S Surprise sense where they are unprepared to face a threat or engage in combat.

If the foes are surprised depends on what they expect, not just if they can notice you. If they are unprepared for an attack, lounging around in their den, then they surely would be surprised to suddenly face a group of adventurers out of nowhere. But, if they had some reason to expect the attack any minute, and knew they face spellcasters who can teleport or walk through walls, they might be extremely alert, ready for anything, and not be surprised, even if you teleport in. In most situations however, facing someone who teleported in unexpectedly could be a Surprise.

Scenarios

If the DM rules that casting teleport starts combat, they first determine surprise. The positions are in entirely different places, so unless the foes await an imminent attack or have special abilities like Alertness or the Foresight spell, they have no indication yet of anyting and are near certainly surprised. All roll initiative. You use teleport as your action in the surprise round and only those of your group with lower initiative count or with readied actions can act after teleporting. This case is weird because if you have a teleport mishap, you never get to combat.

Starting combat when you arrive is the more natural option. You teleport, the DM determines surprise, the DM declares where everyone stands, all roll initiative, and the first combat round begins with everyone acting on their count (or not, if surprised). If the foes are surprised, this option is more lethal, as your whole team gets a full round of unopposed actions.

Readying teleport pre-combat to gain your action in the round where you teleport would only work with a maximally lenient DM, as the Ready action is a combat action.

Game Balance

Any group with access to Teleport very likely also has access to Arcane Eye and Scrying, and will be able to employ unbalancing "Scry and Fry" tactics.

If teleporting by default is surprising, such a group reliably can get the drop on unsuspecting foes and slaughter them, especially if you use the interpretation that combat starts when they arrive, giving all of them full actions. (Ruling combat starts on teleport at least removes the caster's action and relegates those with higher initiative to readied reactions).

If the group are the PCs, this may be fun the first few times, but runs the risk of becoming boring like any overpowered, repeatable tactic. What's worse, this cuts both ways. If the group are the bad guys, a DM sending in a squad of high level murderers with teleport can easily TPK the Surprised party.

So, from a game-play experience it may be wiser to rule that normally teleporting does not cause surprise, even if it may be less believable.


° All the common teleportation spells have a duration of instantaneous, and the PHB informs us that for such spells its magic exists only for an instant. So we can assume that teleporting is not like beaming in Star Trek, giving others ample time to observe something is going on. It is, by the dictionary "happening immediately, without any delay".

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  • \$\begingroup\$ So just because the spell has a duration of instantaneous, that doesn't mean the effects don't take a few moments. Letting go of a ball is essentially instantaneous, but that doesn't mean the drop to the floor can't be observed, much less the bounce. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    May 4 at 21:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ We literally have a home rule about this. The DM is all like if teleporting in on the monsters gives you surprise, then it will work for the monsters, too. So we have a rule that you can't get surprise JUST because you teleported, just like you can't get surprise JUST because you break in a door. Our discussion literally had this phrase in it: "Maybe there's a shimmer like a Star Trek transporter or a rush of air or something." So for us, it's teleport, then roll initiative. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    May 4 at 21:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Jack, yes, this seems like a healthy policy that in the long run will be better for the players. I might suggest that to our DM, too. (We don't have Teleport quite yet, and it only works half-way in Undermountain anyways, but Dimension Door can do an OK pseude-Teleport in spots). \$\endgroup\$ May 4 at 21:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ We use teleport all the time. I think most adventuring days I use my 7th level slot for teleport. Next session we're going to scry-teleport in on a bunch of mind flayers. Going to be crazy. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    May 4 at 21:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah, I remember, "Gotta nuke them from space" :) \$\endgroup\$ May 5 at 8:40
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Initiative starts after the wizard teleports in, but that's not the whole story.

This is fundamentally no different from someone arriving in combat by any other means. Initiative represents how quickly they all react to a threat, so it only starts when there's a threat present. So ignoring surprise, the outcome is that the wizard would arrive, then everyone who rolled above him would act, then the wizard, followed by everyone else.

But you can't ignore surprise.

Compare this to a case that's almost identical from the perspective of everyone else in the fight: instead of teleporting in, the wizard was invisible and hiding among them. This is the textbook case for surprise. If nobody noticed him lurking there then the enemies will all be surprised. And they can't notice him in advance if he teleports in, because he's not there.

Now the turn order is that the wizard teleports in, then gets a turn, then everyone who rolled above the wizard gets a turn, then the wizard gets a second turn, and then everyone who rolled below the wizard gets a turn. Okay, fine, battlefield teleportation is really powerful.

However, this is very sensitive to exactly how the DM wants teleportation to work. The above case assumes it's like Nightcrawler from X-Men: BAMF, ninja in your face. Tweak it a little so that it's like a Star Trek transporter, where your arrival is announced by a few seconds of swirly lights and noise, and now nobody is surprised. They all get to react to the wizard's arrival normally.

If you don't like the extreme result of everyone being surprised, but still want some benefit for setting up a teleport ambush, consider giving the wizard advantage on initiative. This makes this tactic powerful (especially if they choose their destination carefully) without being a guaranteed first strike.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The spell says "instantly transports". Of course it could be houseruled otherwise, but doesn't that "instantly" contradict the Star Trek style? \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Apr 10, 2019 at 16:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ The combat rules don't distinguish lengths of time shorter than a few seconds. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mark Wells
    Apr 10, 2019 at 16:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Another factor to consider is the physical orientation of the attackers when they arrive on scene. Do they all appear facing the correct direction to immediately strike against the defenders, or could they show up facing the wrong way, possibly giving the defenders an opportunity to take action before the attackers can get turned around? How does the definition of Teleport handle that? \$\endgroup\$ Apr 10, 2019 at 16:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think you can directly compare teleporting in to suddenly becoming visible, because mechanically, invisibility ends only right after the first aggressive act, whereas when you arrive via teleportation, you have just cast a spell can cannot act again immediately, so it makes sense to roll initiative with everyone else. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 10, 2019 at 16:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RyanThompson Also with invisibility, you can see what you are stabbing before you become visible, and get into back-stabbing range :3 \$\endgroup\$
    – Tezra
    Apr 10, 2019 at 18:48
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In general, Combat starts as soon as an attacker has a target. When Teleport is cast, no one on either side knows where the others are, so no one has a target. (If you somehow know where the enemies exact position is before the teleport, say with binoculars while overlooking the enemy, then you are in a surprise round with everyone but the caster readying an action to attack their target once the teleport is resolved.)

After the teleport, everyone has to acquire a target. If you teleported into the open, combat starts and no one is surprised (everyone notices everyone at the same time). If you teleport into an empty tent or very dark corner however, the party can attempt a stealth check to begin their attack with surprise (The party notices them, but the enemy still needs to notice the party).

Note that in any way this plays out, effectively the teleporter casts on turn 1, which will play out as a normal round like the party where performing an ambush by foot. (The Teleport just makes it easier to close the distance without being noticed)


I also want to note that no matter how the DM rules on this first round, as long as the party planned the ambush right (during meal time or night watch); that the enemy will also have to spend time getting their armour/weapons or fight without them. So the best benefit here is catching the enemy with their pants down rather than by surprise.

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