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From the section on Surprise in the PHB:

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.

I often see the highlighted part extended to mean "A creature that is generally aware of some kind of threat can not be surprised" (see here or here) because of the use of the indefinite article. Is there any support for this interpretation of the rules? Using this interpretation, a guard who was warned ahead of time that enemies are approaching (but has no further information about time, direction, appearance...) could never be surprised by anything, as she is generally aware of a threat. This seems nonsensical to me. Is there any resolution to this problem apart from "it's up to the GM"? Maybe at least a good rule of thumb for what constitutes as "a sufficiently non-general sense of a threat" that keeps a creature from being surprised.


One particular example I'm interested in:
Let's say a Rogue is hiding behind an open door and he wants to lure a creature into the room by producing some kind of sound from inside the room via the Minor Illusion cantrip. The creature is alarmed by the unexpected sound and goes straight to its source, entering the room and exposing its back to the Rogue who, unnoticed by the creature, prepares to attack it.

Is the creature surprised? It is aware that something is not right (a vague sense of a threat), but it is not aware of the Rogue (who is the actual threat).

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Yes

The rule you quoted states :

Any character or monster that doesn’t notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter.

And according to you the situation is :

The creature [...] goes straight to its source, entering the room and exposing its back to the Rogue who, unnoticed by the creature, prepares to attack it.

Therefore the creature is surprised when the Rogue attacks, qed.

That said, it can all be overruled by the following point :

The GM determines who might be surprised.

If the GM thinks (for whatever reason) the creature oughtn't be surprised, then it isn't surprised.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The point of my question is that the creature does indeed "notice a threat" (a sound that shouldn't be there) and your answer does not seem to take that into account. \$\endgroup\$ – Mars Plastic Oct 24 '19 at 14:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MarsPlastic If the encounter was between the creature and the sound, then the creature would not be surprised. However it's between the creature and the Hidden rogue. He's the relevant threat. \$\endgroup\$ – Pierre Cathé Oct 24 '19 at 14:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Well, the rules use the indefinite article (so it is not clear if we should even talk about "the relevant threat" ), which is the source of the ambiguity here. Also, going beyond this particular problem: The rogue was it who caused the sound (even though the creature does not know that), so one could argue that the sound does represent the threat caused by the rogue. \$\endgroup\$ – Mars Plastic Oct 24 '19 at 14:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MarsPlastic And I'm arguing that since the creature is going in the room without noticing the Rogue (note : probably do a Stealth check here), he's going to be surprised when the rogue tries to stab him. If you think something else should happen you're free to submit your own answer (although since there's that "GM determines" clause the rules will back you no matter what you decide) \$\endgroup\$ – Pierre Cathé Oct 24 '19 at 15:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MarsPlastic: In this case, consult Wiktionary's entry on "threat" - the rules are using it in sense #3, not sense #2. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Oct 25 '19 at 9:17

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