I have recently asked a question about Surprise where the unclear interpretation of the word "threat" in the sentence "Any character or monster that doesn’t notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter." seems to be the root of the problem. In a comment to an answer, I was adviced to look at Wiktionary's entry for "threat" which defines it as:

  1. An expression of intent to injure or punish another.
  2. An indication of potential or imminent danger.
  3. A person or object that is regarded as a danger; a menace.

While meaning 1 is certainly not the relevant one in the context of the rule for Surprise, the confusion seems to stem from the distinction between meaning 2 and meaning 3.

Are there any instances in an official rule book where it becomes clear in which sense the word threat is used in view of the game mechanics?

PS: I am aware that this problem can be solved by using pdf versions of the books and CTRL+f, but I do not have these files.


1 Answer 1


Yes, the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide give some some examples of threats

Page 182 of the PHB has a section on noticing threats. An example of a threat it gives is “ a stealthy creature following the group“. The creature is not posing an immediate danger but they could potentially ambush the party if they were not noticed. This tells us that a threat is something that, whilst not immediately dangerous, is something that has the potential to harm the party.

In a similar sense, page 85 of the DMG lists “the threat of random encounters” as a threat, the looming feeling you could be attacked falls under an indication of potential or immediate danger.

The DMG page 123 lists a rolling sphere as a threat:

Whenever the sphere enters a creature's space or a creature enters its space while it's rolling, that creature must succeed on a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw or take 55 (10d10) bludgeoning damage and be knocked prone. [...] If the sphere's speed drops to 0, it stops moving and is no longer a threat.

This reinforces the idea that a threat is something which can cause harm to the party, though this time the threat is an immediate danger rather than a potential one.

Page 185 describing Pipes of the Sewers states “[rats] will not attack you unless you threaten or harm them”. It is unclear in this case if “threaten” means “to pose a threat” or if it means “to make a threat”. If we assume that is means “to pose a threat” (as a rat would not understand a threat spoken in Common against them) then this serves as further reinforcement that a “threat” is something that indicates potential danger or is an immediate danger.

In terms of what constitutes a threat for the purposes of surprise though, page 189 of the PHB says this:

The DM determines who might be surprised. If neither side tries to be stealthy, they automatically notice each other. [...] Any character or monster that doesn't notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter.

In other words, only a creature that you haven't noticed due to it hiding is a threat to you for the purposes of Surprise. If a creature is not trying to hide before it attacks you, by this rule, it can not surprise you. Personally I find this idea to be strange, if someone pulled out a dagger out of the blue and lunged at me, i’d certainly be surprised.

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    \$\begingroup\$ In other words, all 3 definitions are used at different times, but the loosest definition (number 3) could be used safely if the DM is unclear. \$\endgroup\$
    – Journer
    Commented Oct 28, 2019 at 1:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the idea is that adventurers always expect to have daggers pulled on them! \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Commented Oct 28, 2019 at 11:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri True, and the DM is always at the discretion to rule that a character is surprised regardless of wether the surprising party was hiding or not. Further, i suppose the DM could always compare the character’s Passive Perception against a Dexterity (sleight of hand) check to see if the surprising party can draw their weapon before the character can react. (As opposed to a Dexterity (stealth) check as the surprising party is not attempting to Hide but they are attempting to “get the drop on” the character) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 28, 2019 at 13:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ Subtle Spell and Deception are other ways a character might try to Surprise another, without being hidden from them. \$\endgroup\$
    – bvstuart
    Commented Oct 28, 2019 at 14:59

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