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Surprised creatures are no longer surprised after they took their first turn in combat. But it feels counter-intuitive to apply this to a situation like the one below.

A group successfully sneaks up on an orc. The rogue wants to assassinate the orc. DM calls for initiative. Orc goes first because of poor rolling on the group's side. Orc does first turn, does nothing because of surprise. He ends his turn and is not surprised anymore. Rogue shoots, thus giving away the group's presence...

Is this RAW? I think it is, but it feels wrong, because nothing would make the orc think that there is something going on...

To clarify, I think I understand how surprise works. What I don't understand is why the orc would be surprised of nothing so he can stop being surprised. "oh no, I suddenly know there's an arrow coming my way..."

To clarify further: This is about surprise in general and specifically about the Assassinate Feature of a 3rd level Assassin Rogue.

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marked as duplicate by sevenbrokenbricks, GreySage, Gandalfmeansme dnd-5e May 8 at 17:47

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Neither of the answers is dealing with what would take the element of surprise away. Why would the orc stop being surprised when he perceives nothing to be alarmed of. \$\endgroup\$ – Jannoire May 8 at 14:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think I do understand how surprise works RAW, but I do not understand why the orc stops being surprised if there was nothing to be surprised of in the first place. Is he spontaneously thinking "Oh no, there's an arrow to come my way..."? \$\endgroup\$ – Jannoire May 8 at 14:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ Related on When exactly does combat start and surprise take effect? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch May 8 at 14:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm a little confused about "if nothing happened" because in your example something does seem to have happened (the rogue attacked). \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch May 8 at 15:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ I read the rules in a way that would imply the orc would stop being surprised even before the rogue attacked. \$\endgroup\$ – Jannoire May 8 at 15:35
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No, surprise continues until the start of the next round - but some mechanics end at the turn.

The rules on surprise and the mechanics thereof are what they are.

Surprise doesn't state it goes beyond the first turn of combat. While it doesn't state that it can continue, the only wording involved is regarding the first turn. The logical next step is that the next turn is standard initiative order. Some mechanics do end after the creature's turn - but not the condition itself.

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 Rogue's assassinate feature states:

Starting at 3rd level, you are at your deadliest when you get the drop on your enemies. You have advantage on attack rolls against any creature that hasn’t taken a turn in the combat yet. In addition, any hit you score against a creature that is surprised is a critical hit.

In your example, you did the all the correct steps.

  • initiative was rolled
  • orc was highest, but did nothing during his turn because of surprise. Once his turn ends, the orc is free to use a reaction if something presents a trigger for it.
  • Rogue goes and fires during this initial round.
    • The Orc did have a turn (but couldn't do anything), so no advantage from surprise on the attack for the Rogue. Situational advantage from other mechanics may still be in play. However, if they hit, then because the orc is still surprised (it's the same round), then the hit will auto-crit.
  • Next turn begins and Orc goes. They have been attacked and are now aware

Any narrative you want to support the mechanics is entirely up to you, but you did have the mechanics right.

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The initiative effectively determines how surprised the creature is

If we consider only the rogue and the orc, there are two possible cases: either the orc's initiative is higher, or the rogue's is. If the orc's initiative is higher, they are still surprised and unable to act on their first turn, which means that the rogue gets to act first, but after the rogue acts, the orc reacts quickly to the surprise attack and gets to act on their next turn before the rogue's 2nd turn. If the rogue's initiative is higher, the rogue still gets to act first, but in addition, the orc is so caught off guard that the rogue has time to act again on their 2nd turn before the orc can react at all.

So, comparing the two cases, we can see that the rogue always gets to act first, because the rogue has surprised the orc. So the initiative roll isn't determining who acts first, but rather determining whether or not the ambush is so effective as to grant the rogue an extra turn before the orc can respond.

When we add in the rogue's assassinate feature, things get a bit more complicated, but once again, the same general principle applies: initiative determines how surprised the orc is. If the rogue wins initiative, the orc is caught completely with their guard down and the rogue is able to use their assassinate feature, because their first turn comes before the orc's first turn. If the orc's initiative is higher, then despite being ambushed, the orc is somehow more prepared for the attack, and the rogue can't use their assassinate feature.1

The rules don't explain how or why there is a difference here, so it's up to the DM to make up an explanation within the fiction to justify the mechanics. For example, the DM could say that as the rogue attempts to quietly dash up behind the orc and slit their throat, the orc hears a pebble that the rogue accidentally kicked across the floor as they ran, and just barely has time to turn around and face the rogue as their first attack lands. Or perhaps the orc is a guard who is constantly scanning the room, and they just happened to look in the rogue's direction at the last second. In these cases, the rogue still gets the element of surprise and the first strike, but they don't get the benefit of catching the orc completely unaware.


1 The rules are ambiguous about precisely when surprise ends. If the DM rules that creatures remain surprised until the end of the first round rather than the end of their first turn, the auto-crit feature of Assassinate would still be usable, but not the advantage on the attack.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ As I understand surprise in 5th edition, if the rogue has the earlier initiative and acts first and attacks the orc then the orc is no longer surprised and acts normally on his turn. \$\endgroup\$ – Dorian Baldwin May 8 at 15:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DorianBaldwin That's not what the rules say. If a character is surprised, they don't stop being surprised until after their first turn. \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan Thompson May 8 at 15:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is schrodinger's cat. If a rogue is in a box and the orc can't see the rogue he can't know if the rogue is going to attack or not. If the rogue never attacks he can't lose surprise because combat never happened so how can he have a combat turn before the rogue attacks if the start of combat is contingent on the rogue first attacking \$\endgroup\$ – Duck May 14 at 4:25

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