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Assume the following situation:
The party has been surprised by an ambush. Every PC is surprised except PC Bob because he has the Alert feat. Thanks to his high initiative bonus Bob gets to go first. He shouts "look out" to alert his party members of the imminent threat. The idea is that his party members are no longer surprised because he warned them.

While I think that this makes sense from a storytelling perspective, I am afraid this would be too strong. as it allows one PC with the Alert feat to give the "not surprised" benefit to other members of his party pretty much for free.

Is this allowed? Are there rules or an official ruling or similar on this?

If not, do you have any experience with this situation, and how did it play out in your games?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: How does the Alert feat change the first turn of the battle? \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 27 '20 at 9:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ If your player wants to be able to do this I suggest they also take the Observant feat, which adds to perception allowing them greater chance to spot the threat before the ambush, that is when they could warn their party. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Jan 27 '20 at 9:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ In case it's interesting to you, there's a magic item called a Weapon of Warning that can give you this mechanical effect. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Jan 27 '20 at 10:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Erik: That might also be useful to mention in an answer. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 27 '20 at 10:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ @findusl: Yes, that seems clearer now. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 27 '20 at 10:12
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"Look out for what?" Thwack!

When the players roll initiative, those who are aware of the threat at that point are not surprised, and those who are not aware, are surprised.

If the PC who goes first yells "look out", that doesn't mean that the other characters are going to instantly know exactly what threat to look out for, and since by this point the enemy are already initiating their ambush, basically it's too late for them to react.

If a surprised PC goes before the enemy (presumably after Mr. Alert has already shouted "look out"), then the surprise condition is lifted at the end of their turn, so they are now more ready to react to enemies (although the enemies are still "hidden" if their original stealth roll beats this PC's passive perceptions). This PC must also still wait until their next turn to actually act.

Narratively, it makes perfect sense for the first PC to shout "look out", but if their only motivation is to cheese the party out of surprise, then that's not really what that's for.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree but if a character is sleeping, that might wake him up, which could save his life! Unless you have to ''act to wake up'' but I meant that this will happen after the surprise round of course. \$\endgroup\$ – Maxime Cuillerier Jan 27 '20 at 9:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well said. The effects of "surprise" narratively reflect a slower "reaction time" to the threat by virtue of not having noticed it sooner - things that happen after combat has already begun don't suddenly make you able to react faster. For instance, if you fail to notice a threat at the start of combat and thus you're surprised, but the enemy attacks you or comes out of hiding on their turn, that also doesn't change the fact that you're unable to act on your first turn. This situation works the same way. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 27 '20 at 9:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MaximeCuillerier True, changing the "Unconscious" condition into merely the "Prone" condition would be a good thing, certainly, assuming the ambush is during the party's long rest. \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jan 27 '20 at 9:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ While the companions may not be able to see the enemy because of the shouting (enemy still has advantage from unseen attacker) they could use their action to don a shield, grab their weapons or ready an attack. Similarly the point from Maxime. I don't think it's an argument to say they don't know what to look out for. \$\endgroup\$ – findusl Jan 27 '20 at 12:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @findusl Well, no they can't, because they're surprised (can't take actions or reactions). If you mean that it might make sense narratively, then consider that it would take a couple of seconds to register what had just been shouted at you before you can meaningfully react, and those seconds are all the ambushers need... \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jan 27 '20 at 12:08

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