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Note: I am not a native English speaker.

The surprise rules state (emphasis mine):

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.

Does the quoted rule means that a surprised creature can either move OR act, but not both? Or does it mean a surprised creature can neither move NOR act?

I used to think the latter interpretation is correct (or at least that this is the intended meaning), but I had an argument about this. The German Player's Handbook supports my thought, but I already had found several translation errors therein, so I don't really want to rely on the rules there.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Reminder to everyone that answers, including partial answers, suggestions on where to find an answer, frame challenges, and general advice to the asker, do not belong in comments. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Nov 8, 2023 at 0:47

3 Answers 3

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If you are surprised, you can't take an action, and you also can't move

This is explicitly addressed in the Sage Advice Compendium's answer to "Does surprise happen outside the initiative order as a special surprise round?":

A surprised creature can’t move or take an action or a reaction until its first turn ends (remember that being unable to take an action also means you can’t take a bonus action). In effect, a surprised creature skips its first turn in a fight. Once that turn ends, the creature is no longer surprised.

The "or" here doesn't mean you can either move or take an action; it means none of the listed things can be done.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the quick clarification! \$\endgroup\$
    – Flynxer
    Nov 6, 2023 at 12:54
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A surprised creature can't move; also, it can't take actions.

I can see where using the 'or' part of the sentence could lead translation errors where it's meant as either option 1 or option 2 being valid. This is not one such case. If you are surprised, you cannot move, you cannot take actions, and your reactions are only available after the end of the turn where you are surprised.

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If you're surprised, you essentially can't do anything

I had a look at the German version of the Player's Handbook, so I understand where the confusion comes from but the right interpretation is that you can neither move nor take an action.

An alternative approach that some people insist on using is that the creature(s) that did the surprising essentially get a free turn before initiative order kicks in. However, I know some people really dislike this because while it mostly produces the same results, it does get messy with reactions. I am not particularly fond of it either but it can be helpful when dealing with new beginners who are completely in over their heads.

A better option to handle it in my opinion is to use the surprise rules as written: start the initiative immediately, but all the creatures that are surprised skip their first turn, after which they no longer count as surprised and can take a reaction on someone else's turn after their own. Once that first round of combat is over, no one is surprised anymore, and you just run the initiative as normal.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Isn't your better option the RAW? \$\endgroup\$
    – justhalf
    Nov 6, 2023 at 16:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ it is, just with an extra explanation \$\endgroup\$
    – AnnaAG
    Nov 6, 2023 at 16:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ They skip their first turn for purposes of actions; bonus actions; and movement. They take their first turn for purposes of rolling death saves; spells that give you a saving throw to resist at the end of each turn; and legendary actions at the end of another creature's turn. Of course, you'd have to make your DM pretty angry to find yourself making death saves in a surprise round.... \$\endgroup\$
    – mjt
    Nov 7, 2023 at 14:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @mjt yes but these things are not really what people tend to have in mind when thinking about "taking a turn", rolling a save for example can happen on anyone's turn, not just your own. Sage Compendium uses the wording "a surprised creature skips its first turn in a fight", I think it's kinda intuitive that this doesn't apply to saves and stuff \$\endgroup\$
    – AnnaAG
    Nov 7, 2023 at 15:56

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