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The Battle Smith subclass of the Artificer (TCoE, p. 19) has a Steel Defender companion, whose statblock includes a trait called Vigilant:

The defender can't be surprised.

This sounds good, and I often take the Alert feat specifically for that benefit. However, the Steel Defender is limited in what it can do with its turns:

It can move and use its reaction on its own, but the only action it takes on its turn is the Dodge action, unless you take a bonus action on your turn to command it to take another action. [...] If you are incapacitated, the defender can take any action of its choice, not just Dodge.

If I am surprised, but the Steel Defender isn't, then it seems like all it can do is move and Dodge. Is that correct? If so, what is the point of the Vigilant trait?

The rules on surprise state:

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.

Which is suspiciously similar to, but not the same as, the description of the incapacitated condition:

An incapacitated creature can't take actions or reactions.

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2 Answers 2

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The steel defender can take reactions as normal (it doesn’t require the artificer to instruct it), so because it is not surprised, it can also use its Deflect Attack reaction to protect the (surprised) artificer.

Surprise has other mechanical effects, e.g. the Bugbear’s Surprise Attack trait:

If you surprise a creature and hit it with an attack on your first turn in combat, the attack deals an extra 2d6 damage to it.

...which therefore wouldn’t work against the steel defender.

So whilst the steel defender is limited in what it can do if its master is surprised, it’s certainly not a useless trait.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Not to mention, the Artificer might also be immune to surprise in full or part \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Dec 24, 2021 at 0:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Accepted because it is correct; but done so with huge disappointment because it basically confirms that there isn't much point to it. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Dec 28, 2021 at 18:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri I think its utility varies a lot with the campaign. In one I DM’d it was useful several times, though that campaign had a lot of trap/surprise type encounters. The artificer often sent it ahead to check for traps, which occasionally meant it was the only character in a combat. But in other campaigns I’ve run it would have been completely useless. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dan W
    Dec 28, 2021 at 19:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ Off topic, but the defender eventually got sent ahead to trigger a trap and killed out of sight of the PCs, and replaced by a doppelgänger, which - 5 session later - led to the most dramatic reveal I’ve ever seen. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dan W
    Dec 28, 2021 at 19:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ That sounds awesome! And would work really well in my campaign where my defender is actually a labotomised human (playing a biomancer rather than traditional) \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Dec 28, 2021 at 20:43
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Your Steel Defender can guard you while you sleep:

  1. It is immune to exhaustion.

  2. It can't be surprised.

  3. If your GM is using any of the updated rules suggested for Sleeping, published in Xanathar's Guide to Everything, page 77... You are Incapacitated while you sleep:

    Just as in the real world, D&D characters spend many hours sleeping, most often as part of a long rest. Most monsters also need to sleep. While a creature sleeps, it is subjected to the unconscious condition. Here are a few rules that expand on that basic fact~

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  • \$\begingroup\$ OK, wait, why is this one "wrong"? I double checked the Battle Smith's rules to be sure 1 & 2 were true, & as I noted, 3 depends whether one's GM chooses to use the Sleep rules from Xanathar's... If one's GM is using Xanathar's first & foremost rule about sleep, then sleepers are unconscious & thereby incapacited. So, if those lines in my answer are an issue, I'm not sure why? If one's GM rules that sleeping creatures are not unconscious, the Steel Defender still doesn't need sleep & can't be surprised, which seems useful during Long Rests even if all it can do is Deflect Attack? \$\endgroup\$ Nov 18 at 16:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Or is having it guard you while you're incapacitated not useful? I'm quite confused by the downvote; this one seemed unambiguous to me. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 18 at 16:53

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