The 2 ambush questions I saw on here are related to 4ed so I want to ask specifically for pathfinder(assuming its any different).

If I have players going through a dungeon and they are giving away their position either by sound or having a bunch of light sources and the monsters in the next room down the hallway are aware of the player's presence... Here is the question.

Do monsters have to be behind objects to get a surprise round? Im pretty sure if they are ranged and hiding behind a pillar, as an example, they do. But say the players are entering a square room from a hallway. If I have a monster on either side of the entrance, back a few squares, they are unperceived until the players enter at which time the creatures would want to strike. The tricky part here is these creatures have no cover to hide behind and they will be close enough to be revealed by light. Do they still get to do a stealth check against the players perception checks?

So in summary, If I have archers hiding behind 5 foot pillars, it seems clear that they should get to do a stealth check and then fire in a surprise round(please correct me if this is wrong, do they auto pass this roll since they are behind the pillars?) However if I have melee monsters waiting out of sight until the players actually enter the room, can these guys still do stealth to enter a surprise round.

A final bonus question on this same topic. Does only the very first player(s) to enter the room have a perception chance to act in the surprise round, or does the whole party?

Edit: 2 more questions have come up related to this in the comments that have not fully been answered:

Do the 2 monsters need to sit along the wall by the door with ready actions to charge somebody who enters in order to deny the player a perception check to detect?

What if the player claims that there characters should not be surprised because they are in a dungeon and are expecting a monster in every room. Thus they would enter each room ready for a fight. Does this make any impact?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you read d20pfsrd.com/gamemastering/combat#TOC-Surprise ? \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Nov 8, 2013 at 12:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes. The part that is not really covered is, when is it fair to make perception checks. For example if the monsters are ready to go and you are not, maybe they are skipped. However if the monsters watch you at first and don't attack immediately, then a perception check might be fair. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kendric
    Nov 9, 2013 at 1:24

3 Answers 3


Do monsters have to be behind objects to get a surprise round?

No. They have to be unobserved or otherwise have an surprise advantage over the characters.


When a combat starts, if you are not aware of your opponents and they are aware of you, you're surprised.

Likewise it goes on to say

The Surprise Round: If some but not all of the combatants are aware of their opponents, a surprise round happens before regular rounds begin.

In your scenario you state:

"If I have a monster on either side of the entrance, back a few squares,they [the creatures?] are unperceived until the players enter at which time the creatures would want to strike."

It seems that you mean the monsters are unperceived by the party while the adventurers are being very observable, making lots of noise and carrying a light source prior to entering the room. If the party isn't being actively observant, these conditions should grant the monsters an automatic surprise round against the party, assuming the creatures have any chance of being in a position to attack the characters when the party enters.

Perception vs. Stealth should only come into play before entering the room (e.g. somewhere along the hallway).

If the monsters are observable before the party enters the room (the adventurers hear shuffling/snorting, the creatures give off a fetid stench, magical detection, active party awareness, etc.), this could warrant a check to stay hidden.


You are skilled at avoiding detection, allowing you to slip past foes or strike from an unseen position. This skill covers hiding and moving silently. [emphasis added]

This is where the Perception vs. Stealth check should be utilized. Unless the party is peeking around every corner with a mirror prior to entering (or has other ways of detecting the creatures), the advantage most likely goes to the prepped monsters for line of sight (thus being "unseen") -- if nothing else.

If you have a monster on either side of the door, whichever direction the first character looks will obscure the other monster. If you have a monster rushing a foe with a light, you can argue it's blinded by the light (negating surprise), but barring this, it is much easier for the creature to pinpoint the torchbearer than vice-verse. You also specified a square room, meaning that, side to side, directly left or right and closest to the door, only a length of perhaps 5' - 10' (one to two 5' squares) would be visible to the player(s) entering until both a light and head/half the full body of the first adventurer(s) were through the door.

Again, the creature(s) be should along the walls closest to the door. Standing away from the wall would likely move the creatures into a character's natural cone of vision (line of sight), negating its potential ability to hide (per illumination from a light sources).

If the creatures are clearly out of sight of the party and trying to remain out of sight until all the party members enter the room, you could use Perception vs. Stealth. However, it might be wise to ask yourself how the creatures know how many party members there are.

Your Stealth check is opposed by the Perception check of anyone who might notice you. [emphasis added]

As I am not aware of any rules stating a Perception vs. Stealth is required to enter a surprise round and it is pretty clear Stealth assumes some sort of active giveaway, Perception vs. Stealth may not even be appropriate to utilize at all.

As for who gets to act, the characters behind the player(s) entering the room would almost certainly get no actions in the surprise round.

Combatants who are unaware at the start of battle don't get to act in the surprise round.

Assuming they cannot see or sense the creature(s) in waiting (Perception vs. Stealth if appropriate), then they have essentially no chance of acting. The characters entering through the doorway should be able to act in the surprise round, assuming they are not surprised (perceived the monsters prior to room entry).


"Should I mentally be telling myself the 2 monsters have readied a charge action on somebody coming through that door?"

Yes. Pre-planning any attack never hurts. You should be aware of any special circumstances or restrictions on your proposed tactics ahead of time. For instance, if you follow the rules as written, Charging has special restrictions during a surprise round.



In initiative order (highest to lowest), combatants who started the battle aware of their opponents each take a standard or move action during the surprise round. [emphasis added]


Charging is a special full-round action that allows you to move up to twice your speed and attack during the action. [...] If you are able to take only a standard action on your turn, you can still charge, but you are only allowed to move up to your speed (instead of up to double your speed) and you cannot draw a weapon unless you possess the Quick Draw feat. You can't use this option unless you are restricted to taking only a standard action on your turn. [emphasis added]

Charging has other general restrictions including a minimum of 10' of movement, limiting attackers to a single melee attack (even if they are capable of multiple attacks) and having a clear path to an opponent. So it is an extremely good idea to evaluate your monsters' strategies ahead of time.

As a rule of thumb, I would feel comfortable in utilizing any attack that the creature would normally use, barring some special powers. A slime dropping on an opponent is not a special attack - it's how slimes hunt. Genuinely special attacks would not top my list of attacks to use except under exceptional circumstance. For example, a dragon, no matter how paranoid, would probably be unlikely to use a breath weapon immediately - they are almost certainly too smug about their general superiority. An exception could be made, however, if the dragon had recently been the target of another credible attack.

Regarding character awareness:

What if the player claims that their characters should not be surprised because they are in a dungeon and are expecting a monster in every room. Thus they would enter each room ready for a fight. Does this make any impact?

From a pure rules standpoint, it makes no difference whatsoever. Characters can always be surprised unless there is another rule stating that they cannot (such as from a magical item or effect). At the very least, every player has the possibility (in most cases) of failing a roll, especially if penalties are applied.

If you wish to concede that the party is always on their tiptoes and allow players a Perception check prior to entering every room with hidden opponents, this may appease some players, but not all. Inevitably, they will fail a roll at some point and be surprised.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Ok thanks for the great answer. I believe this confirms my thoughts. One other question. Should I mentally be telling myself, the 2 monsters have readied a charge action on somebody coming through that door? Also what if the player claims that there characters should not be surprised because they are in a dungeon and are expecting a monster in every room. Thus they would enter each room ready for a fight. Does this make any impact? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kendric
    Nov 8, 2013 at 15:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kendric Comments aren't useful for answering follow-on questions. You should put those in the question (use the edit button) instead. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 8, 2013 at 15:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Anaksunana You wrote "assuming the creatures have any chance of being in a position to stealthily attack characters when they enter." Attacking stealthily isn't necessary—the rule isn't that they have to roll to-hit before being noticed. They just have to be in a position to start combat. They can start it with a mighty roar and a standard move into melee range if they want—that still gives them surprise, because the PCs weren't aware of them before combat rounds started. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 8, 2013 at 15:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie It was not my intention to imply that the attack must be stealthy, but I understand how this could be read in from the wording. Updated and clarified. Thanks =). \$\endgroup\$ Nov 14, 2013 at 1:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Kendric Updated to answer the additional questions. Unfortunately, you will always get the "I'm never surprised" players... Just comes with the territory. =) \$\endgroup\$ Nov 14, 2013 at 1:52

While acting in darkness-clad places, be them dungeons or moonless nights, the sight range of the characters plays a huge role in determining who goes first or has the surprise round.

Players are expected to move at fixed distances from each other while out of combat (this is not a rule by the book but moving turn by turn everywhere sure looks boring). What happens is they either have a scout or someone is at the head of the formation, but "We're walking side by side, so I walk 30 feet first, then it's your turn and you reach me" is not even a thing.

This means you can easily determine where the sight of each creature can reach and who is able, under given light conditions, to spot the nearest non-hidden foe.

Of course it's thee same for the enemies! - When the party can spot the enemies first and the enemy is stationary, if the spotter is the scout he might want to stop and silently signal his friends of the menace, to ready for an ambush (so they alla can get thee surprise round). - If the spotter is not at the head of the group, stopping the scout without alerting the enemy might be difficult. Telepathy comes in handy. - If enemies are moving towards the party, regrouping might take too much time since the enemy could get in sight range. - When it's enemies spotting you first they might do the same thing (but usually it's the party that's on the move so they also have to act quick).

The idea is that once one of the two parts is aware of the other you start moving in rounds (but you're still out of combat and turn order doesn't really matter). When the spotting party does something that exposes them, that one should be the first action of the surprise round.
(The rules just say "when you spot them and they don't spot you, surprise round, now". I think if everyone manages to remain unspotted it's unfair both for the enemies to become suddendly aware of them after 6 seconds and for the party to stay hidden during the surprise round, only to get a full action before the enemies can act in round 1 after reorganizing.)

It is important to notice that a perception check might allow one part or both to hear the other before they get in sight contact.
Since hearing has a -1 penalty for every 10' of distance, the difference between furtivity and perception checks might allow you to determine the distance at which each party is aware of the other. If by the time they can reach each other they're both aware of the presence of the enemy party, no surprise round (unless one party hides and ambushes the other... tracing a single scheme for all occurrencies is hard).

Note: entering a room or not is not decisive. Characters can be seen and heard even if they're outside a door (if it's a closed door there will be perception penalties). I've heard of some groups houseruling enemies sort of spawn when all characters are in the room but I believe this breaks immersion. True, everybody killing your melees before they can reach them is sad, but it breaks immersion nonetheless, as it will look like a videogame.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Though there is a nice write up here, it doesn't actually address the question at hand. The scenario is the monsters are already aware of the players, and the players enter line of sight of an ambush thats waiting for them. The Monsters are stationary and will be revealed by the light the instant the players step in the room, however they were ready for it so do they get the suprise still. That is the question. Also perhaps its as simple as saying they are readided to charge as soon as somebody enters the room. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kendric
    Nov 8, 2013 at 14:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is one way to play it, but it's pretty unusual to start using "non-combat" combat rounds before combat starts. Most groups just handle that by talking. I suppose if everything is already on dungeon tiles this might seem normal, but dungeon tiles are a pretty new thing to the hobby. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 8, 2013 at 15:36

Dont have time atm to read all answers... Coffee break during last minute prep for tomorrow. My two cents from 3.5... The PCs have alerted every creature in the dungeon. By banging around like a brokedown iron golem they are clearly not prepared for monsters around every corner, therefore they get surprised. If one is a rules lawyer, "they heard you coming and readied actions in preparation for your entering, and since you had no time to prepare for those readied actions you're flat-footed..." As for the charge? as long as the above criteria fits, should be good from anywhere in range.


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