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I understand how surprise works, but one thing I’m curious about is clarification on when combat “ends”, if it doesn’t resolve in the defeat of either side. This might make a little more sense with context of the situation that provoked this question.

I have a villain that uses the rogue’s assassin feature. I’ve built him with a player class levels, and due to a high movement speed, and several defensive/damage mitigation features he has, he could feasibly run away from the party, hide, and attack them again for surprise in a “new encounter”. I feel pretty torn about whether this makes sense or not to allow. I run a fairly rule tight/consistent game, so I’d like to know at least general consensus on how this should work.

When exactly does combat end in this situation and allow a creature to gain effects (i.e. surprise) from a new instance of combat?

By the PHB, from what I can tell, it doesn’t matter if a creature is on guard or not, simply whether they detect a threat or not.

I’m not asking for opinions on whether having the villain do this is good story telling/gameplay.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this is a good question. One thing I like about 5e is that for the most part, the game mechanics work the same way both in and out of initiative. But mechanics like Assassinate that activate when initiative is rolled are one thing that breaks this equivalence. \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan Thompson Aug 23 at 8:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ Hi Akayami Ryuu, welcome to rpg.se! Take the tour, then visit help center or ask here in the comments (use @ to ping someone) if you need more information. This is a pretty good first question. I made some minor edits to try to make it clear what your actual question is. Hopefully one of our experts will have an answer for you soon. Good luck and happy gaming! \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Aug 23 at 8:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ Possible duplicate of When do player characters leave turn-based action (i.e. initiative order) if they are in a hostile area? \$\endgroup\$ – fabian Aug 23 at 8:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've edited the title a little, since "can a creature run away from combat" has an obvious answer, I guess. Feel free to roll it back if you think I was wrong \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Aug 23 at 9:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @fabian I think it's related but not a dupe. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Aug 23 at 14:11
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When the opposing party is no longer expecting a threat.

Narratively, your BBEG is fighting the party, and runs away, yelling

You'll pay for this one day!

Let's say the party, being cautious, tells you, the DM,

Ok, the Druid is downing a potion on the poor Barbarian, while the rest of us scout the remainder of his room for Mimics. Paladin is in front, I've got my Firebolt readied in case we find one.

At this point, they won't be surprised, they're still engaged in a combative attitude, calling combat actions, even if they're not strictly going by Initiative. At some point, as usually happens, everyone relaxes and you start listening to something like

I'm gonna take a short rest, get some HP back. Druid is attuning to the new magic item he just found. Wizard is trying to resurrect all the corpses around here, and the Barbarian is crying over his broken greatsword in the corner.

It is at this point that they can be Surprised again if they don't detect a threat coming. Before now they were all alert, looking around, expecting a trap (just like they behave before entering a new room, for example). Here, they've relaxed, they do not expect any further combat.


The rules aren't crystal clear on this, and Stealth (and by inference, Surprise) is often left to DM adjudication (10:50).

We very intentionally, in 5e, have put Stealth in the domain of the DM.

By RaW, once your BBEG ran away, the round would end so would combat.

Once everyone has taken a turn, the fight continues to the next round if neither side has defeated the other.

At some time later, your BBEG could come back, hidden, and re-engage to get Surprise attacks and what not. You'd compare Perception checks against your BBEG's Stealth checks and act accordingly.

The GM determines who might be surprised. [...] Any character or monster that doesn’t notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter.

The issue here is determining that combat actually ended/started. The PHB isn't very clear on this, but your adventurers can be in a stand-off, not rolling initiative, but alert and ready to engage if someone does something threatening. Initiative is an abstract concept for the players to organize combat, used essentially to track time, but PCs can still be alert and calling combat actions without the players moving through initiative order. There is not a clearly defined answer, and Ryan makes a good point:

One thing I like about 5e is that for the most part, the game mechanics work the same way both in and out of initiative. But mechanics like Assassinate that activate when initiative is rolled are one thing that breaks this equivalence.

It falls into the DM's hands to determine whether the PCs are surprised by the stealthed attacker, or if they are still alert enough to be considered in "combat mode" even if they're not following initiative strictly.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @Rubiksmoose I've added a more rules-oriented section to the answer. \$\endgroup\$ – BlueMoon93 Aug 23 at 14:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ "You'd compare Perception checks against your BBEG's Stealth checks" Note that this is a great place to give advantage to your player's checks, maybe even auto-succeed \$\endgroup\$ – Pierre Cathé Aug 23 at 14:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BlueMoon93 Looks great! I think it would flow better (IMHO) if you lead with the discussion about the rules and then talked about your personal ruling (which is currently on top), but I think that helped a lot! Your call of course if you want to make that change. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Aug 23 at 16:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ @bluemoon93 Thanks! Was hoping for a more definite answer, but it looks like that doesn’t exist. I think what you’re saying makes sense, and is probably about how I’ll rule, but what if your players just decide they’re ALWAYS alert outside of rests? This feels very unbalanced if they effectively can never be surprised outside of rests. \$\endgroup\$ – Akayami Ryuu Aug 23 at 16:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AkayamiRyuu Being permanently alert is actually a feat called.. Well, Alert :P I would tell them that it wouldn't be possible to do so without the accompanying feat. But this is starting to become table-dependent, so you should do what your table prefers \$\endgroup\$ – BlueMoon93 Aug 23 at 16:57

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