I am unsure of how the surprise round works when only the ambushing party is aware, but will need to actually move to get within melee distance of their ambush victims.

For example: a group of orcs are about to ambush the PCs. They have succeeded on their Hide checks, and will be revealed only when they choose. If the orcs burst out of their hiding place and attack the PCs (assume it requires at least one movement action), does the surprise round begin...

  • When they come out of hiding, meaning that they traded their surprise round standard action for a move action that gets them right next to the PCs, and then initiative is rolled without them having actually made an attack?


  • Once the move action that uncovered them is done, meaning that they get to swing their swords before the initiative, after having moved?

1 Answer 1


The procedure for determining when initiative needs to be rolled is quite murky, because the authors never care to define what really triggers it.

It can be deduced, especially from the presence of sighting distance tables, that combat starts when one of the parties is aware of the other.
This is not entirely true: as long as the first party to spot their opponents is not spotted, they can act outside initiative order (think of it: do you start moving in rounds whenever an NPC knows you're there? That would also probably be quite boring).

It makes sense to me that the surprise round starts exactly when the second party spots the first one. Before this event happens, the first party can act freely. When it happens, the surprise factor allows the first party to get the advantage of doing a single action before the enemies can even react. Maybe a little more if they also win initiative over their target.

This means they only get their move action, no attack. Ambushes are great for spellcasters, archers and maybe chargers, provided someone can wait in half-charge lineup without being spotted.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Basically the same answer, but yours is probably a bit easier to read so I'll pull mine off. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 25, 2014 at 0:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ By spotting, I mean becoming aware of their presence by any means. I don't know if it's clear. Should I change the wording? \$\endgroup\$
    – Zachiel
    Jun 25, 2014 at 0:35
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I thought it was pretty clear. Maybe add something like: "Certain action automatically result in characters being spotted; normal movement, attacking, etc. but characters can still potentially approach without being spotted by making stealth checks or through other actions. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 25, 2014 at 0:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ I dont really like the rules regarding how combat encounters are started, initiative roled and surprise managed in 5 e. For me the encounter starts when any side is active towards the other, being gaining intel directly through divination/scouting, not researching in town. initiative is roled for me when i need to keep track of time, or someone uses combat actions like spells even if they are buff reparations. If surprise could reasonably still be achieved, even if its not round 1, i allow it, i do maintain that surprise only lasts the creatures turn. \$\endgroup\$
    – Piero
    May 15, 2017 at 17:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PieroManavella I know it's hard to grasp if you come from forums, but this part of the site does not work like you would like to (or so it seems from your comments I've seen around): what we like or don't like does not matter for the asker, generates noise and the whole site is designed so that it will soon be deleted. I'm telling you this because I hope you will understand what's happening, rather than seeing the foreseeable deletion as an ad hominem attack. The Role-playing Games Chat is the best place for (civil-ly) sharing opinions. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zachiel
    May 15, 2017 at 18:41

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