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My question is similar to this question about a house-rule that the initiator of combat acts first but skips their first turn in initiative, but about the opposite situation. The author of that question assumes the enemies are aware of the party; in those cases, I prefer to use initiative as normal.

I am focused on the opposite situation: the party has managed to ambush the entire group of enemies. If enemies did not notice the party, the party has time to set-up and choose whoever should start combat.


Very often my party comes up with interesting traps and ways to initiate combat. The problem is that in 5th edition, once the combat is initiated, everyone rolls initiative and the combat goes from there. Specifically, my issue happens when an entire group surprises the other.

Here's an example:

The party is all hidden in the shadows. 3 ogres lurk in the campfire in front, and have not noticed the PCs. The plan is simple. Wizard opens the combat with Faerie Fire, and all the martials will have advantage on their attacks. A single round, at most two, should be enough to wipe these Ogres.

What actually happens depends on initiative: everyone rolls initiative, Wizard is last. Ogres are surprised. Rogue and Fighter either move in to attack without advantage (and are possibly hit by Faerie Fire), or ready a single attack for after the Wizard has cast his spell. Ogres do nothing, since surprised. Wizard is last, and when Faerie Fire is actually cast, the damage output of this surprise attack is sub-par. If Wizard came first on initiative, the whole plan would be perfect.

The worst part of this is that there isn't even a justification for this happening this way. On a stand-off, initiative represents reflexes, and it works well. But here, it doesn't seem to make sense that, if all players are waiting for the Wizard to do something, that they will be hindered (no multi-attack, no off-hand attack, etc) if, for some reason, the Wizard rolls low. Narratively, they could just go "hang on, seems like the Wizard is distracted, lets remain hidden, and re-roll initiative". Initiative is an abstract concept, and during the actual combat, I'm fine with how it works, just not for this combat initiation against a surprised group.

My House Rule: When a group attacks a surprised group of enemies, everyone rolls initiative as normal. For the first round only, the attacking group selects an initiator to act before the highest initiative attacker, initiating combat. This initiator will not act in its actual initiative position on the first round, but will do so on following rounds.

Example: Ogres have initiative 25, 20 and 15. Wizard has 5, Rogue has 17, Fighter has 22. With this rule, Ogre acts first, does nothing due to surprise, stops being surprised. Wizards is next, acting as combat initiator for the party, playing before the fighter in this round. Fighter is next, then Ogre (surprised), Rogue, and Ogre (surprised). In the following round, the order is Ogre, Fighter, Ogre, Rogue, Ogre, and finally the Wizard.

It is a simple change. The group initiating combat, because they have the upper edge and time to prepare, chooses a person to go first in the first round. After that, everything else is exactly as before. If it happened that this person actually had the highest initiative check, nothing would be different from normal.

Thoughts on this rule? Would it imbalance things, or can it be taken advantage of somehow? I think it is a decent way to join narration, planning, and mechanic execution. It helps those parties relying on Assassin Rogues or on AoE initiators.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you tried your rule at the table on a test-run (for both sides - a test with the party surprising and another with them being surprised)? Your own practical assessment will likely be better than our theoretical (unless someone has done just this). \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Mar 10 at 15:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I have, and it seemed to work fine with one of my groups. I'm hoping to use it on other groups, but wanted a second opinion from others before doing so \$\endgroup\$ – BlueMoon93 Mar 10 at 15:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ Adding in a self-answer I think would be really helpful here. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Mar 10 at 15:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: What to do when surprise and a high initiative roll conflict with the narrative? \$\endgroup\$ – Mars Plastic Mar 10 at 16:01
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A bit of a frame challenge here... Surprise works fine as is, and you don't need to mess with it. You're either not narrating it properly or your players are not sticking to their own plan.

In your example, you say:

Rogue and Fighter either move in to attack without advantage (and are possibly hit by Faerie Fire), or ready a single attack for after the Wizard has cast his spell.

And then later say:

But here, it doesn't seem to make sense that, if all players are waiting for the Wizard to do something, that they will be hindered if, for some reason, the Wizard rolls low.

It makes perfect sense. If your players are not using the Ready action to wait for the Wizard, then the characters are not following their own plan. If they want to do more than the Ready action allows, they can give up the first turn (because the Wizard was slow), or they can give up on their too-large ambitions for a turn spent waiting for the Wizard and do something within the bounds of Ready.

Narratively, the characters are all hidden when initiative is rolled. If the martial folks jump the gun, well... that's exactly what they did in the story. They got impatient and decided to not wait the few seconds for the Wizard to get the spell off. Some times plans that rely on precision go off like clockwork, and sometimes they don't - that's adventuring life.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Mar 14 at 9:27
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I would like to offer a different perspective

Initiative says:

At the beginning of every combat, you roll initiative by making a Dexterity check. Initiative determines the order of creatures’ turns in combat, as described in chapter 9.

Why can't the beginning of the combat be when the wizard finishes casting faerie fire? Even the example of surprise says:

[...] A gelatinous cube glides down a dungeon passage, unnoticed by the adventurers until the cube engulfs one of them. In these situations, one side of the battle gains surprise over the other.

A cube engulfing a player is one of the cubes attacks so the it has taken its turn before combat and initiated the battle.

Here's an example of why I prefer this reading of these rules: The party is hidden, Player 1 declares "I attack the Ogre with my bow". If I make them roll initiative before rolling the attack how do the ogres know what's going on? If the party spends their entire turn holding actions and the ogres aren't surprised anymore it doesn't make much sense. Or, if they spend an arbitrary amount of turns doing nothing the ogres aren't surprised despite nothing changing. The only time I see intent being a trigger for Initiative is if you were face to face with an enemy not expecting your attack, but that isn't the situation we're talking about.

The problem with reading the rule this way is that it works both ways. If you abuse monsters getting huge attacks in before initiative they might resent you for it. Springing combat on my players has gone fine for me with reactions ranging from "Damn it" to "Oh god!" but the shock of sudden combat is fun if used sparingly.

I personally think adding more rules to the game is going to bog down combat, especially if the players can't just open the book and read the rule. When hacking new rules into the game I try to keep them as light as possible so that if my players ask me something it's 1 or 2 sentences and the rest is in the book where they can look it up. Also as pointed out by other answers this rule has some strange interactions with 1 round long effects (either by extending them or shortening them)

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    \$\begingroup\$ I have actually used this with my players as well, and not once heard a complaint or had any untoward reaction. Story > rules for some players, but each DM has to know their players. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Mar 10 at 18:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ I really like this suggestion, especially because pre-combat initiation tactics (like good positioning, hiding, etc.) will still be effective even if combat begins immediately after the spell is cast, no matter how initiative shakes out. The ogres may have a chance to act, but won't know where to go to attack, and will still be affected by FF to the party's benefit. \$\endgroup\$ – Upper_Case Mar 10 at 20:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation about the nature of surprise in 5e has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Mar 13 at 17:13
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From my experience this will be fine

I will start by saying that I feel the problem in exactly the same way as you do, but not just surprise. I feel any well oiled team would be able to adjust on the fly based on what might be a game changing spell (for example) and the ready action is a poor way to do this.

I allow people to change their initiative at any time (once per combat), as long as they get lower in the order.

This has a similar effect, in that everyone just has their turn after the wizard (in your example).

I have not noticed any negative issues at my table, most of the time players don't invoke the rule, but it gives the additional tactical option when they want it. I let NPC's use any rule that I create for players, and this is no different of course.

Your rule is very similar to mine, and I can't see any negative from it, at least in spirit. Maybe someone will find something in the small print, but I haven't nitpicked, just gone with the spirit of what you want and I assume you would just update the wording should someone find some way to abuse it.

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This rule is a small enough change

I think this rule should work out well because it is making one small change to a single round of combat. This does benefit the Assassin Rogue (and I suppose the Scout) more than most other characters, but I don't know that that's a bad thing. The Assassin already relies so much on the RNG of a d20 and the benevolence of the GM to grant them Surprise that I can't see this change drastically altering your game.


Be aware of the duration of effects

Imagine we have our handy-dandy Monk friend be the initiator and they use Stunning Strike:

[...] The target must succeed on a Constitution saving throw or be stunned until the end of your next turn.

Ordinarily this would last exactly one round (the amount of time between your two turns) but now their first turn and their second turn are (potentially) much further apart. You're left with three options:

  1. The effect ends when their actual initiative count comes around this round
  2. The effect ends when their initiator initiative count comes around next round
  3. The effect ends when their actual initiative count comes around next round

Options 1 and 3 are immediately ruled out as choices because option 1 greatly disincentivizes using Stunning Strike while option 3 greatly incentivizes it. This leaves us with option 2, which merely requires a tiny bit more bookkeeping.

Another thing to consider would be a negative effect applying to our Monk, which is incredibly unlikely during Surprise, but if it did happen you would use option 3. This is because the entire point of debuffing an enemy (the Monk) is to have them suffer the effects of that debuff; as such, if the debuff lasted until the end of the Monk's next turn, do not use option 2 because the debuff would end before having any actual effects, instead use option 3.

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Tactical parties can coordinate better

This is obviously the intent of your change, but it bears stating explicitly; this will tend to advantage parties that behave tactically and rely on support, buffs, and/or control. In my experience, rules that advantage tactical behavior tend to help the PCs more than their enemies. In this case, the PCs may take advantage of this rule almost every time they generate surprise, while NPCs probably won't benefit as often, unless you regularly run encounters against ambushing bandits with support casters. I doubt this will be a huge problem, but it is something to consider.

Poorly coordinating parties may bicker

The bigger issue, in my view, is that your rule appears to require consensus between an entire side in designating their initiator. If your players aren't super strategic, or if there are multiple characters who could benefit by going first, or if some of your players just like to show off, they may not be able to agree easily. In-group bickering can be a problem in a lot of situations already, but this adds another potential sticking point.

Assassin rogues will benefit tremendously

The assassin rogue's third-level feature grants critical hits against surprised enemies. This feature can be quite powerful, but typically requires the rogue both to successfully sneak up on or otherwise surprise their opponent and beat their initiative role. Under the default rules, the risk of rolling low initiative can balance the possibility of an auto-crit, and also strongly incentives the rogue to choose features that improve their initiative. Under your proposed house rule, the rogue could request to be their side's initiator every time they roll a poor initiative, rendering this feature much more powerful and reliable. This change obviously only matters if you have an assassin rogue in the party, but if you do it could be a fairly significant power boost.

Existing rules and variants may already accomplish what you want.

As a general rule, I like to introduce house rules only when the normal rules really aren't working. In this case, you're adding a small but potentially significant bit of complexity and decision-making for a fairly niche situation. Moreover, there are existing rules which may adequately solve your perceived problem. First, as you've noted, players can simply ready their actions in order to allow one PC to act first. The ready action appears intended to model the exact situation you describe, although as you note there are some mechanical downsides to using it. Additionally, there is the "Side Initiative" variant found on page 270 of the DMG, which allows entire sides to act at once, with members of a side acting in whatever order they choose. This variant has its own advantages and disadvantages which are highlighted in the DMG and discussed in this question.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Good point on Side Initiative, I wasn't aware of it \$\endgroup\$ – BlueMoon93 Mar 10 at 17:36
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I have used a similar rule, so this is from my experience

At my table we had a similar situation and the house rule that I have been using is that I determine if a person is the one 'initiating' combat. So it doesn't happen every combat, only when there is a narrative reason for it. Also nobody has to be surprised. It can just be that the parties are talking and the one of them decides to attack. That person gets to have a natural 20 on their initiative role. This has worked very well for us, but it did make me think or notice a few things:

Another person can still be first

Using my specific home rule contrary to yours, another person can still go before this initiator, by means of a higher initiative bonus. This seems fine and fair, that is a very fast reacting person. It does however happen less often than with normal rules, which makes it feel more special and better to narrate. For example if two parties are talking and one of the decides to attack, someone can still be very fast and react to it. However with normal rules it would be standard that the others react faster, which is weird.

It makes assassination rogues better

Generally all classes or features that rely on an enemy being surprised are improved with this rule (as explained in Joe's answer). At first this seems unfair, however as you mentioned in your question and what we had discussed in my group as well, if the rogue rolls lower initiative he can simply not attack, exit combat and then roll initiative again and try this time. And that just seems plain stupid. Of course there are no rules for it and the DM doesn't have to allow him to exit combat, however what is the DM gonna do if the rogue just refuses to do anything on his turns, and the enemy doesn't know he is there. There is also no narrative reason why the enemy would suddenly not be surprised anymore if nothing happened yet, at least I cannot come up with one. This of course assumes the rogue is hidden etc, just like an assassin would be.

I used surprise less often this way

I did not do this intentionally, it was more a feeling thing and I only noticed it afterwards. So just be aware of this. With this rule the narration of some situations is much easier and you may not think of the case as something that would warrant surprise.

When one side is surprised as well, that is amplified

As you mentioned in your question, when this rule is applied and the group has surprise they can use it more efficiently. My group did have more fun with this, it is nice to see your plan go perfectly in order, however it does make surprise stronger. Of course this also goes for NPCs.

I think it is weird to go back in initiative order afterwards

This is different in your rule than in mine, you have the wizard go to his rolled initiative count after going first in the first round. I personally think that is a weird thing to do. It means worst case enemies get two turns before he gets to go again. Two turns in which he cannot run away or react to their threats. This doesn't make narrative sense and it may feel very bad for the 'initiating' character. I just leave him at this 'higher' initiative count, that has worked well for us.

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This is close to AN interpretation of the rules already present

This interpretation may solve the problem.

A ruling I've observed in the wild (and used) is...

The first act which initiates a combat does not happen within the combat.

It happens prior to the combat with combat occurring in response.

Using your example, the combat is in response to the casting of Faerie Fire, therefore both surprise and initiative only arise after the completion of the casting of the spell. (or, possibly, the start of spell that takes some time to cast and is quite noticeable.)

This appears to be both RAW and RAI to me personally, and better models the results of pre-combat prep.

Note other interpretations take a lot of the tooth out of ambushes. Depending on your group it may be hard to tell which of these interpretations is more benevolent to the players.

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    \$\begingroup\$ How do you keep every combat from being an area control spell followed by two rounds of curbstomping? \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Mar 11 at 21:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ Short answer: Prevent the PCs from having the drop on every combat, make sure to use the recommended 6 combats per long rest.. Longer Answer: Ambushes often feel that way, coming form either side. But "kick the door" dungeon attacks, surprise wandering monster/wilds combats, social encounters turned hostile, and most other situations don't. In addition using "weak" encounters as resource sponges (if the PCs fail to identify them as weak and withhold their resources) can turn that tactic into an anti-pattern for the PCs. Implied Answer: Let them, if they play to get the ambush somehow. \$\endgroup\$ – Suni Mar 12 at 2:40

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