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Here's the situation: In a large dark temple, a player character with the Alert feat has darkvision out to 60 feet. However, 100 feet away, there is an enemy with 120 feet of truesight within the area a silence spell who is firing a crossbow.

  • If the player character rolls an 20 on initiative and the enemy rolls a 10, does the player get to attack first?
  • Or should the enemy get to fire the shot before initiative is rolled?
  • Or should I have the enemy roll initiative first and be able to fire a shot, and only then have the player roll initiative?

This was initially closed as a duplicate of the question What happens when your group is victim of a surprise attack but you can't be surprised?, but I believe it is a unique situation. The linked question answers the case where a player can perceive an enemy exists, but my question is about a situation in which the player can not perceive the enemy exists.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ If this is determined to be a distinct question, we will need to know if the player is aware that they are in combat \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Sep 29 '20 at 15:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you asking if Surprise is prevented, or if the archer should be rolling initiative in the first place? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Sep 29 '20 at 15:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ And those would be two related questions, but should be separated when asked here. Determining whether or not they are part of initiative is separate from whether or not it removes the feat. It really seems like the core of your questions are when to include creatures in combat initiative and when not to. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Sep 29 '20 at 15:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ Related: When exactly does combat start and surprise take effect? and is there a surprise round? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Sep 29 '20 at 15:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ Minor note: The question you linked in the body of this post is not actually the question this one was closed as a duplicate of - this question was actually closed as a duplicate of your other question, and that question was closed as a duplicate of the one you linked in the body of this post (and of another question). \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Sep 29 '20 at 21:42
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You Roll Initiative and Combat Begins

The moment the enemy sitting 120 feet away elects to fire their crossbow, you roll initiative. It does not matter whether everyone knows they're in a battle, the rules of combat need to take precedence at this point in time to facilitate and adjudicate the situation.

Let's address your questions in order:

1. If the player rolls 20 for initiative and the enemy rolls 10, does the player get to attack first?

The player would get to attack first presuming that they are able to see the opponent and respond accordingly. Not being surprised doesn't mean that you are perceiving that something's there it just negates many of the benefits surprise grants. So the character's most likely action is going to be to continue walking forward at their speed.

Bear in mind that not being surprised has a lot of benefits:

If you're surprised, you can't move or take an action on your first turn of the combat, and you can't take a reaction until that turn ends. A member of a group can be surprised even if the other members aren't.

None of that applies to the character with the Alert feat.

2. Or should the enemy get to fire the shot before initiative is rolled?

No, they'll fire their shot on their turn in the initiative order. They will gain no benefit from being unseen because the target has the Alert feat.

3. Or should the enemy roll initiative for itself, fire a shot, and then have the player roll into the initiative?

No, initiative is rolled upon a party deciding to enter combat. Not when a character perceives that combat is occurring. 5e does not have surprise rounds.


As an aside, I suspect that some of what you're struggling with relates to how to handle combat and possibly the Alert feat itself.

If the combat rules are giving you trouble, just remember the main underlying rule. Somebody has chosen to start fighting, therefore, roll initiative. That's pretty much it. It is irrelevant if others have also chosen to fight.

Regarding the Alert feat, the benefits it provides might seem to strain credibility. However, keep in mind that in 5e, a feat is a big deal. A character with this feat has elected to not take other feats or ASI to improve themselves.

Furthermore, given that most 5e games are occurring in a fantastical setting, it's fitting that someone's able to hear the whistling of an arrow coming towards them and respond quickly enough to not grant their opponent any significant advantage (or Advantage) in combat.

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In this specific situation

I would rule that all players roll initiative as they are all about to be actively involved in combat. The archer who rolled a 20 isn't surprised, but they also can't see or hear the enemy. Initiative would then go as normal with the surprise rules. If the character shot at has Alert, then the attack would not be at advantage due to that feat.

It's also important to note that even if the player asks where the arrow came from (general direction), that information isn't necessarily helpful. The enemy could easily have moved prior/during/after the attack and remain unseen and unheard due to darkness and silence.

In general, whether or not it's time to roll initiative is up to the DM

Unfortunately, if everyone isn't in the same room and clearly aware of a threat, it very much depends on the DM to determine who rolls initiative and when.

As part of your calculus, you can include factors such as distance, sound, obstacles, ease of management, or really anything else that you think could impact your decision.

But ultimately, it's up to you as to whether or not you feel that they should be included in initiative or join the combat later.

Once you've determined who is involved, then all the regular rules around surprise are activated (and any feats such as Alert, are also played through.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ 'In general, whether or not it's time to roll initiative is up to the DM.' I think this warrants rephrasing: there's a clear consensus that initiative is rolled when an attack is declared. Your point is that it is down to the DM to determine who is or is not a participant when combat starts. I venture that the creature making the initiating attack and their target must be participants, and other creatures join the initiative order as soon as they get an inkling that combat has started. \$\endgroup\$ – Clearly Toughpick Dec 3 '20 at 7:16
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Yes, the player with the Alert feat cannot be surprised, but this doesn't prevent surprise.

The Order of Combat does not change either.

  • If the player character rolls an 20 on initiative and the enemy rolls a 10, does the player get to attack first?

The player with the highest initiative always goes first. Surprise does not change where each combatant takes turns in the initiative order, but it may change what you can do on your turn.

  • Or should the enemy get to fire the shot before initiative is rolled?

If an enemy is attacking, surprise has already been determined, positions have been established, initiative has been rolled, and the enemy's turn has come up in the initiative order.

  • Or should I have the enemy roll initiative first and be able to fire a shot, and only then have the player roll initiative?

No. Everyone rolls initiative at the same time.

With the Alert feat,

  • You can’t be surprised while you are conscious.
  • You gain a +5 bonus to initiative.
  • Other creatures don’t gain advantage on attack rolls against you as a result of being hidden from you.

According to the section "The Order of Combat", step 1 is "Determine surprise". Since it says:

A member of a group can be surprised even if the other members aren't.

The player with the Alert feat cannot be surprised, but the rest of the party may.

If we have two sides, say goblins versus the party, and the goblins gain total surprise (no party member is aware of the goblins), you still follow the Order of Combat:

  1. Determine Surprise
  2. Establish positions
  3. Roll Initiative
  4. Take Turns
  5. Begin the next turn

At step 4, each combatant takes a turn in initiative order. On the turn of a surprised combatant, the following applies:

you can't move or take an action on your first turn of the combat, and you can't take a reaction until that turn ends.

In this example, the player with the 20 initiative goes first. However, since the player has the Alert feat, they are not restricted as they are not surprised. If they had a Weapon of Warning, the same would apply to any ally within 30'.

The player has the higher initiative, and is not surprised, so may act, but against what? There is nothing in the Alert feat description that grants the player knowledge of the enemy. At this point, you could surmise the player knows "something" but it simply isn't detailed. I would suggest what they know be something nebulous, like a feeling of being watched or danger, rather than adding information the player should not have access to. The player could use the Ready action to attack the first perceived enemy, but in any case, if the player does not hear or see the enemy, they have nothing to target. According to "Unseen Attackers and Targets":

When you attack a target that you can't see, you have disadvantage on the attack roll. This is true whether you're guessing the target's location or you're targeting a creature you can hear but not see. If the target isn't in the location you targeted, you automatically miss, but the DM typically just says that the attack missed, not whether you guessed the target's location correctly.

So there's nothing stopping the player from attempting to attack by guessing a location.

The player could, however, notify the other players*, move to a better position, take cover, dive to the ground, drink a potion, cast a spell that doesn't target the enemy, or take any other action, but attacking seems unlikely to succeed on their first turn in the initiative order.

*Whether or not this means the other members are no longer subject to surprise restrictions is up to your DM. Surprise does mention

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

Since they did not notice an enemy at the start of the encounter, alerting the other players may not provide any benefit. On the other hand, one could argue, they now are aware of the threat.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ 'Since they did not notice an enemy at the start of the encounter, alerting the other players may not provide any benefit. On the other hand, one could argue, they now are aware of the threat.' This is an interesting conundrum that deserves it's own question. I rule that alerting other characters does provide a benefit, including allowing them to take the Search action. If the alert includes information about the whereabouts of the threat, the perception check has advantage - though this clearly doesn't apply in this case. How do you rule it? \$\endgroup\$ – Clearly Toughpick Dec 3 '20 at 6:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ClearlyToughpick I tend to rule it by situation. I always grant the reaction if they haven't taken their turn yet, but usually not much else. I like the idea of letting them use their action for Search (or Insight for a social deception), RAW is they can't take any actions on their first turn, and no reactions until after their first turn. I agree, this is worthy of a question by itself, but it is largely a house rule question. \$\endgroup\$ – Wyrmwood Dec 3 '20 at 17:17
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Yes, roll initiative first. Otherwise, consider this situation:

  • Assassin attacks players.
  • Initative is rolled, assassin wins.
  • Assassin's turn, attacks players.
  • Player turn, surprise, cannot take actions.
  • Assassin's second turn, attacks players for the third time.

Hardly fair.

In your specific situation, the Alert character gets to act first, but since he is not aware of the attacker, as a DM I would tell the character he feels something is wrong and thus have opportunity to take cover and/or the Dodge action.

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RAW, you roll initiative.

Maybe it would help to think of initiative as a ruler, a measuring stick. Before initiative is rolled, the players and the enemies are both doing something, and we aren't particularly concerned about precisely relating the timing of their actions.

Then someone attacks.

All of a sudden, the precise timing of everyone's actions is really important, so we impose a measuring stick, called initiative, in order to measure the timing of everyone's actions.

In the situation described, one side of the conflict has attacked the other, so we roll initiative. Our character rolls high, and cannot be surprised. It is now their turn.

Roll initiative before the narrative.

The attacker is hidden. The actions of the attacker are unknown to the character, so make this unknown to the player as well. How do you do this? Roll initiative before narrating the action that starts the conflict.

So your alert player who rolled high gets a turn. This really isn't from different than not rolling initiative. He's doing something before he gets attacked. We're just putting that something in line with our measuring stick.

How does this look?

How does this work in practice? Ask the player to roll initiative.

So your player rolls initiative, rolls high, and is not surprised. It's their turn. Ask them what they would like to do. They say what they're doing and their turn ends. Okay, now its our NPC attacker's turn. We ask our player what their armor class is. If it hits, "You feel a pain in your abdomen. Looking down, you see an arrow sticking out of your stomach. Take 7 points of piercing damage." If the attack missed, "You hear the sound of an arrow whiz by your head. You tell them the direction the arrow came from, and now it is the player's turn again.

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RAW you roll initiative

Other answers have covered the reasons for this. This way of running it does, however, subvert the usual benefits of a high initiative roll. Say there are two enemies, Xie and Yie, and two PCs Qu and Wu where Qu has Alert.

Xi and Yie are both in darkness and silence. The initiative rolls produce the order Qu, Xie, Yie, Wu

On Qu's turn, however, there is nothing to indicate that something is amiss so they would presumably just continue what they were doing unless the player metagames.

Combat could look something like this:

Round 1
Qu: keeps walking
Xie: Shoots Qu
Yie: Shoots Wu
Wu: is surprised and can do nothing
Round 2
Qu: tries to find the enemy
Xie: shoots Qu
... etc

If we don't consider the wasted turn to be part of combat then the combat order looks like so: Xie, Yie, Wu, Qu

We can then consider the combat to be like this:

Qu is walking forward
Round 1
Xie: Shoots Qu
Yie: Shoots Wu
Wu: is surprised and can do nothing
Qu: tries to find the enemy
Round 2
Xie: shoots Qu
... etc

This result seems to punish Qu for having a high initiative (made higher by alert) rather than reward them. It is functionally the same as being surprised and so the player may feel cheated because they took a feat specifically to avoid being surprised in an ambush.

It is also a problem because it breaks several parts of the narrative. Initiative is supposed to represent how quickly a character responds to a threat. Having a high initiative result in a character being unable to act until next round is paradoxical. Additionally Alert is supposed to mean that a character is always on guard for danger and responds quickly to it. If a character with Alert is the last character to go in a combat, in part because they took Alert, that narrative is broken.

You can fix this problem by allowing Qu to feel like something is off allowing the player and character to both know that there exists a threat. Qu can then spend their turn doing useful actions such as searching for the source of the threat (they could still be smelled or detected due to a fluctuation in the wind) or readying an action. This rewards the feat without breaking the ambush.

Combat would then look like this:

Round 1
Qu: Uses the search action to try to detect the enemies' location
Xie: Shoots Qu
Yie: Shoots Wu
Wu: is surprised and can do nothing
Round 2
Qu: Does something else
Xie: shoots Qu
... etc

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Sep 29 '20 at 18:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Considering Wyrmwood and vonBoomslang both also suggest allowing the character to know "something" about the threat I would be curious to know the reason for the downvote. \$\endgroup\$ – Odo Oct 6 '20 at 5:04

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