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I have perused the Core rulebook to figure out how to handle an ambush. What I found seems very underpowered, and I am not sure if I have missed something or this is intentional and all there is to it.

From what I found the advantages (successfully hiding) ambushers enjoy are:

  • They can roll Stealth for initiative.
  • The ambusher is unnoticed before they act, which confers the flat-footed condition to the targets (-2 AC). This ends with the first action they take, ie. works for only one Strike per attacker.
  • The targets might not be prepared, eg. not have buffs active or weapons drawn. The value of this will vary wildly.
  • While not explicitly stated, I would assume that any targets with a higher initiative than the ambushers will be skipped in the first round due to there being nothing to fight from their perspective. If the ambushers roll together this will mean that they win initiative, if not, the results are less powerful.

And that is about it. There is no mention of a surprise round or similar mechanic, nor of another, more severe condition that would apply to a surprised creature. All in all, you get some bonuses to initiative, inflict -2 AC once and might get bonuses keyed to the flat-footed condition, plus the targets will likely have to waste 1 action to draw their weapons.

This means that hitting a guard standing stock still and unaware of your existence is mostly the same as hitting him while he is actively fighting against you and a buddy 2-on-1. Only that the ambush is weaker as it ends after one Strike, while flanking does not.

To me this seems rather weak, especially compared to other systems. Have I overlooked any rules or any consequences of these rules that would make ambushing stronger?

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The question does correctly outline most of the direct benefits of an ambush. There are a couple of things to note, though.

Firstly, a number of Rogue abilities are keyed to working on flat-footed opponents. Consequently, Rogues are best able to take advantage of an ambush situation. In the same way, the 3rd level Rogue ability Deny Advantage will mean the Rogue himself is not overly affected by an Ambush.

Something else I believe you have missed in your assessment is the awareness of ambushees about the ambushers. You mention the unnoticed condition, and that it ends after a Strike. As outlined in the Sneak action, depending on the situation, I believe that the attackers might be able to remain Undetected, which confers a number of benefits. This would require GM adjudication, but sniping from a hidden position, for instance, should work this way. An ambushed target would then likely need to take a Seek action to identify a hidden ambusher, and change their perception status.

Lastly, I believe one of your assumptions is incorrect. Since the default initiative roll is Perception, anyone using this, and beating the Stealth check of the ambushers should be aware of the ambush, and be able to react accordingly. This would be akin to the PF1 practice of rolling Perception first, followed by an Initiative check. Anyone using a skill other than Perception should not be automatically aware of the ambushers, however, and would need to Seek them, assuming they have reason to do so.

Update - It has been pointed out that the Avoid Notice exploration activity contradicts my idea of the Initiative checks also representing awareness of targets in the combat. In part, it says

If you’re Avoiding Notice at the start of an encounter, you usually roll a Stealth check instead of a Perception check both to determine your initiative and to see if the enemies notice you (based on their Perception DCs, as normal for Sneak, regardless of their initiative check results).

Note that the Avoid Notice activity is written to assume that the actor is moving (as evidenced by referring to the Sneak action). An ambusher would more likely be stationary and hidden, leading to the Hide action being more relevant. The check is resolved the same way, so could potentially work with the same mechanics. So, by RAW, it would seem that the Ambusher could potentially go first, and yet still not be successfully hidden, although this seems counter-intuitive to me.

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    \$\begingroup\$ To be precise, after a Strike, you become observed, so to remain hidden (to any degree) you have to hide+sneak, rolling stealth again. Also, can you include a reference for your last paragraph? If a target rolls high perception, what would the ambusher be? Hidden? Undetected? \$\endgroup\$ – Szega Dec 11 '19 at 8:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that you shouldn't be comparing your Stealth/Initiative roll against the enemy Perception/Initiative roll, per the Avoid Notice exploration activity, you still compare against their perception DC to determine how unseen you are. So depending on rolls you may be observed but win initiative, or undetected while losing initiative. \$\endgroup\$ – Delioth Dec 11 '19 at 16:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Delioth actually YogoZuno has it right; if a creature is attempting to remain hidden out of combat, yes you would compare to Perception DC, however if they are beginning combat with a Stealth initiative and the other creature(s) roll higher with a Perception initiative, it works that they are aware of the attack and are able to respond to it. Ref Surprise Attack p181, Perception for Initiative p448, Step 1: Roll Initiative p468 \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Dec 11 '19 at 18:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ The Being Stealthy p251 sidebar might be useful? But doesn't seem to address initiative directly. \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Dec 11 '19 at 18:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ifusaso Sorry, that's just untrue, and most of those links aren't actually relevant - Surprise Attack has nothing to do with seen/unseen, and the next two just say that any skill can work by the same mechanics. None talk about the Stealth vs Perception, but Avoid Notice that I linked is very explicit: "If you’re Avoiding Notice at the start of an encounter, you usually roll a Stealth check instead of a Perception check both to determine your initiative and to see if the enemies notice you (based on their Perception DCs, as normal for Sneak, regardless of their initiative check results)." \$\endgroup\$ – Delioth Dec 11 '19 at 18:49

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