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The situation:

Four orcs, sitting around a campfire, are spotted by the party. Two more orcs are in a tent a couple meters away. The orcs do not notice the party.

A Wizard casts invisibility on himself and goes very close to them them while the rest of the party waits close by, hidden behind a bush.

The wizard casts thunderwave, and as soon as he appears, the rest of the party charge in.

What is the correct way to determine turn order in this situation?

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A non-RAW house rule that works far better

I'm going to give an answer based not off the rules, but off my experience. I've started handling this kind of situation differently in the last year or so and it's made play much easier (and more fun) without any real downsides. Here's my system for handling surprise rounds:

Roll initiative as normal. Roll initiative as normal, record it as normal. This will be helpful after the first round, and may come into play this round.

Place characters in groups. Usually the players are in one group, and the NPCs are in another. Occasionally you might split NPCs into multiple groups (e.g. orcs around the fire and orcs in the tent). Characters who are surprised must be in a separate group from characters who are not surprised.

Identify the triggering group. The triggering group is the one starting the combat - they're the one doing the "surprising". In this case, the triggering group is the party (because the Wizard is starting out the combat).

The triggering group acts first. All characters in the triggering group may act in whatever order they desire. So the wizard gets to act first, followed by the other members of the party charging in. Any surprised enemies are surprised for this entire duration.

Remaining non-surprised groups act next. This is rare in a "surprise round" situation, but some characters may have abilities that prevent them from being surprised (e.g. the Alert feat) or let them break out of surprise early (e.g. Feral Instinct). Group members can take turns in whatever order they want. If there are multiple groups in this category, decide who goes first by looking at the highest initiative roll for each group (or just pick based on what makes sense).

Start taking turns as usual, following initiative order. All characters recover from surprise and can act normally, turn order starts from the top.

Why I use this method

The RAW method for handling surprise rounds leaves a lot to be desired - you can plan a really cool ambush that plays to the party's strengths and involves a lot of strategic thinking, but the success of the plan depends entirely on initiative rolls. If you have a plan like "Wizard casts spell, Fighter moves in and grapples", that is only possible if the Wizard rolls higher initiative - if the Fighter rolls higher, he can ready a move or a grapple but not not both. He would also forfeit the benefit of Extra Attack if he has it. If you involve several people in a thought-out plan that would make sense in-game, it's nigh impossible to get the right initiative rolls to enable it.

I came up with my method after my party came up with a really, really clever surprise attack and rolled the worst possible initiative to make it happen. They were instantly really frustrated, because the plan they came up with involved some very clever tactical thinking. I was upset because that's exactly the kind of playstyle I want to reward, but the rules were preventing it based purely on arbitrary turn order. I'm okay if they can't do their plan because they failed stealth rolls or make a tactical misstep - I wasn't okay telling them that the Barbarian has to go before the Druid even though all the characters are in position waiting for specific signals.

Initiative determining turn order makes a lot of sense to me once combat is underway. It's a chaotic melee and it makes sense that players won't always be able to make their plans work because enemies react too quickly (or the Wizard is too slow). However, in a situation where the enemies have no idea the attack is coming and the players are able to synchronize plans to a signal, it feels really bad to have an arbitrary turn order mess all of that up.

This does represent a slight nerf to features like Alert and Feral Instinct. Normally those characters might be able to get up in the middle of an ambush and ruin everything, and that's no longer possible. However, I'm personally alright with this (and so are my players). They do still get a benefit from the feature - they don't get the surprised condition, and they still get a turn during the first round of combat. Personally, this method makes more in-game sense (to me) than the RAW rules.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I get the raw rules, but I like the sound of this. Definitely going to try this out (first with players as surprising force.) \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Sep 26 at 0:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ Having a turn does not make you not surprised anymore, you just have a reaction. Also, what you described is the entire point of the Alert feat. \$\endgroup\$ – Szega Sep 26 at 5:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ As this answer offers a non-RAW ruling and is already quite long, I'd quite like it to link to whichever alternative answer the author considers best represents RAW handling. E.g. Punintended's answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Neil Slater Sep 26 at 7:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would caution using this against players, if I took the alert feat and STILL got ambushed I would be furious. The entire point of that feat is so that I can run for cover before getting filled with arrows. Otherwise there is a lot of good advise in this answer. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Sep 26 at 7:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Yakk: See At which moment does the 'Surprised' state disappear? The rules do seem to be somewhat vague on when exactly the "surprised" condition ends (or, indeed, if it ever ends!), but I don't see anything there that would specifically support your "until the end of the round" interpretation. \$\endgroup\$ – Ilmari Karonen Sep 27 at 9:40
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This sounds like a textbook case of surprise.

In general:

  1. Determine surprise. The GM determines whether anyone involved in the combat encounter is surprised.
  2. Establish positions. The DM decides where all the characters and monsters are located. Given the adventurers' marching order or their stated positions in the room or other location, the DM figures out where the adversaries are — how far away and in what direction.
  3. Roll initiative. Everyone involved in the combat encounter rolls initiative, determining the order of combatants’ turns.
  4. Take turns. Each participant in the battle takes a turn in initiative order.
  5. Begin the next round. When everyone involved in the combat has had a turn, the round ends. Repeat step 4 until the fighting stops.

Note that during surprise:

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.

In this case, the order of events is:

  1. Combat positions are set up / drawn up / etc. (or have already been done)

  2. Everyone rolls initiative

  3. Players each take a single turn. There are a couple of ways to DM this - I couldn't find a RAW interpretation on exactly what order this occurs, since the Wizard may not have the highest initiative but is taking the first action. RAW says initiative, but the DM may want to consider manipulating this so the wizard doesn't get an extra round

  4. Combat enters the normal initiative, and proceeds accordingly. Orcs are slain, treasure is looted, and celebratory debauchery ensues.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Point 3 is what I was wondering about. Since everyone is waiting for him to act, he should be the first to take a turn, I think he doesn't need to roll initiative, he should start first despite any roll by others players/npc. When the situation happened, I (first time DM) played it out this way : He cast thunderweave, everybody rolls initiative, proceed as normal and orcs skip first turn. The mage rolled high on initative and he got 3 turns before an orc could even react. Which felt very wrong to me and the players (but for the sake of not losing time we went on with this). \$\endgroup\$ – Matteo Devi Sep 25 at 21:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Matteodevi In previous editions, players could delay their actions until the wizard acted. You could argue the RAW interpretation of delayed vs. readied actions, but 5e got rid of delaying actions so it's moot \$\endgroup\$ – Punintended Sep 25 at 21:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ If the wizard doesn't have the highest initiative, how are they talking the first action? That's kinda not how initiative works. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Sep 26 at 0:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @trikly see the linked questions above. Taking ready before initiative is problematic at best, but not likely as it then disregards initiative. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Sep 26 at 9:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch It's not problematic. It's in the rules. Readied actions take place outside of turn order. The whole point is how to make the rules fit the action as described. \$\endgroup\$ – trlkly Sep 26 at 9:24
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As normal

The orcs are surprised.

Everyone rolls initiative. Everyone acts as normal on their turn.

PCs who act before the wizard can use their action to Ready something in response to the wizard becoming visible. This limits their options, for example they miss out on Extra Attack and their Bonus Action by acting on the wizard’s turn but that’s the price you pay for tying your action to someone else. Or they can act normally - think of this of them hearing the wizard and moving just too quick.

The orcs, being surprised, can’t move, take actions or reactions until after their turn. All the PCs will get at least 1 ‘free shot’, quicker PCs will get 2.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ There's another important drawback to Ready Action in this scenario: the readied action can be to Move or Attack, but not both, so in RAW if the Fighter has higher initiative than the Wizard, the Fighter can't charge in and start swinging (but might try a ranged attack). \$\endgroup\$ – aschepler Sep 27 at 21:01
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It's complicated and some of it is up to the DM

Let's start with the Surprise rules:

The DM determines who might be surprised. If neither side tries to be stealthy, they automatically notice each other. Otherwise, the DM 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.

A lot of this initial work is determined by the DM, and only they can ultimately decide who is surprised, who isn't, and when it's time to roll initiative. But ultimately, if you're all in actionable points, then it's time to roll initiative and figure out surprise.

But let's look at your scenario.

You've got several groups of players:

  • The Party
  • The Orcs sitting around a campfire
  • The orcs in a tent

At this point, the Wizard wants to cast invisibility and move to the Orcs. This is also the first point the DM has to determine whether or not we're talking about combat and the need to track initiative.

First contact?

If the party is far enough away from the Orcs and never got close enough to be noticed, then they can rule that the spell can be cast, and that they are far enough away that the Verbal component isn't an issue for being noticed.

But a DM could also rule that if they're close enough to have found the Orcs and scoped out the situation, then they are also close enough to be noticed and that it's time to roll initiative.

But let's say the DM wants to allow the casting and have the wizard approach invisible.

The wizard approaches

Being invisible doesn't make you undetectable. The Wizard will still need to roll stealth and then the Orcs will have their passive perception scores determine if they notice the Wizard approaching (sound, ground disturbance, etc.)

Again, the DM could ask for initiative so that the time and actions can be better tracked, but it's also reasonable to let this play out. It's the DM's call.

If the players attempting to be within range of attacking (whatever their movement speed is), then the DM again could ask for initiative rolls or simply ask for the party to roll their stealth to see if they can get that close. Otherwise, the DM determines how far off they can be without fear of being noticed and has the party at that distance.

Wizard wants to get close enough for a thunderwave

Here is the moment the DM really must roll initiative and make the determination of who is surprised and which creatures are currently involved in combat.

It is possible that the Orcs are ahead in initiative and end up losing their Surprised state before the Wizard has a chance to cast thunderwave.

It is important to note that once thunderwave is cast, the Wizard will also lose their invisibility. If the Wizard's initiative is after any of the Orc's they are currently in melee range, then those Orcs would have an opportunity attack if the Wizard leaves because their turn has ended and they can again take reactions.

Any creatures not directly in combat then roll in initiative

At this point, the DM can also determine when any remaining creatures (the Orcs in the tent, the party if they were far enough away, etc.) roll initiative and join the combat.

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This is not ambiguous, neither does it depend on the DM. By RAW, the following happens:

Before even rolling for initiative, check if the wizard was stealthy enough to not be noticed by the orcs (we assume he did). We also assume the party is cooperative and they know the wizard's plans and the relative timing for the wizard to act. Everyone in the map rolls, including the orcs in the huts.

  1. The DM calls for initiative. Everyone rolls and the turn order is defined.

The orcs are surprised. The party is not. Go through the turns as usual. We shall address those that have turns before the wizard and those that have turns after the wizard.

  1. The orcs that have turns before the wizard follow the usual rule for surprise. They can't move or take actions (including bonus actions) but after they are done they have reactions. These fast orcs have reactions, do remember that. They can take OAs for example or use their traits that are reactions.

  2. The party members take their turns before the wizard as usual. They may "jump the gun" and go before the wizard, forfeit their turns, or ready an action as the rule. They cannot delay their turns. Either go, ready, or forfeit.

  3. The Wizard take his turn. He can do whatever he wants, either go with the plan or do something else. Maybe the elf barbarian did a Leeroy Jenkins on him. Who knows?

  4. Everyone that goes after the wizard can act just like the ones that go before. Orcs clear the surprise rule, don't move or act, don't collect $200, gain the use of a reaction and end their turns.

  5. The adventurers that go after the wizard take their turns in order. After the round ends, turns continue with the first one and it is business as usual.

The rules cover the situation perfectly. There's no need to even adjudicate anything.

P.S.: If the wizard is not cooperative and he did not time his move with the party, then he surprised the rest of the party as well. In this case, a test of Perception against the wizard's stealth total is helpful to see who acts in the first round.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I think your postscript is really the same conclusion I came too. Without saying, "in exactly one minute I'm casting this spell" I would think that the party might find themselves "surprised" as well by the exact timing of the wizard. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthew Green Sep 26 at 20:27
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Let's dissect this piece by piece

First you mentioned that the orcs do not notice them. This means when the Wizard attacks, the orcs are surprised when combat starts.

Next the Wizard, still out of combat casts Invisibility which has a verbal component and may alert the orcs. If they still don't then continue but if they do then it becomes a normal case of "roll initiative".

Assuming they don't then the rest of your party takes the Ready action. "We ready an action to charge in when the wizard attacks" or something similar.

The wizard says he wants to cast Thunderwave and everyone, including the orcs, rolls initiative. No matter the order in this case the wizard will cast the spell first. The orcs are surprised and thus can't act and the rest of the party is using their action for Ready. So the wizard casts his spell, the orcs can't act or react, then the party charges in on initiative order.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good point on the invisibility verbal component. Didn't think about that.Also, Thanks for the clarification about the initiative order, that makes sense. A question: should the orcs get a perception check for an invisible creature closing on them? \$\endgroup\$ – Matteo Devi Sep 25 at 21:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ The only issue with readied actions is that they are a single action that replaces the reaction. So the wizard would cast Thunderwave, the players rush in and the round ends with the melee members having moved but not having attacked? \$\endgroup\$ – Punintended Sep 25 at 21:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Punintended that only happens if they are before the wizard in initiative order \$\endgroup\$ – Himitsu_no_Yami Sep 25 at 21:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Matteodevi Concerning orcs perception: If they have any meaning to think that there might be someone close, roll a dice, but if they are fully unaware of the party, you should make a contest with only their passive perception. \$\endgroup\$ – Zoma Sep 26 at 8:05
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Roll Initiative long before the attack

Wait, what?

Yes, initiative could have been tracking time and movement and actions before combat—you just have to make clear to the players that you are using it for tracking purposes and that combat is still its own thing. Call it « stealth time » if you want—it works the same way.

Ever snuck around in a video game? You move, the guards move, you pick your moment, you strike? The time-scale my brain operates on there is in seconds and actions—just like initiative orders.

The advantages here are

  1. When the wizard acts, it is on his turn, as normal; nothing fancy
  2. You have a simple way to track guard movement, or decide orcs are sitting nonchalantly, or whatever.

Disadvantages:

  1. You have to decide when a stealth scene starts to start stealth time (but I recommend doing this anyway)
  2. You have to know the wizard plans to act at the beginning of the round in which he acts to rule surprise correctly—however, being tuned into the players’ plans is usually a good idea, and there’s no harm in asking Do you plan to surprise attack the orcs? (You could also combat—pun intended—this by ruling that unaware orcs act « normally » prior to the attack—which amounts to nonchalant campfiring—and « surprised » as in the rules after.)
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If I were asked to DM this situation, I would probably go with the non-RAW solution.

I would split the participants into 4 groups:

  1. The party
  2. The orcs by the fire
  3. The orcs in the tents
  4. Any non-surprised orcs (e.g. who have feats or pass a passive/active Perception check)

In this case, I would allow the orcs at least a passive check, due to the wizard trying to sneak in to the camp and the party trying to set up.

I would let the Wizard cast his spell and then roll initiatives, since the party is trying to do the surprising and it was determined by the party that his was the initiating action.

After that one triggering action, the Wizard reacts in whatever initiative order he rolls so it's not overpowering to any extent (just that he's starting everything off) and beats having to have people worrying about Ready-ing actions.

The first round would be groups 1 and 4 intermixed depending on rolls... The party getting its surprise round and any orcs that weren't surprised and act normally... groups 2 and 3 would lose their first round due to surprise.

I figure this way would allow PCs more opportunities to execute more complex plans, vs being RNG'd into something else (e.g. great plan, but, the PCs rolled badly and the characters who utilize surprise like Rogues and Assassins, get their plans ruined because their targets weren't surprised by the time the PCs got their turn).

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