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I was reading Rules Answers: November 2015 | Dungeons & Dragons and in the Combat section and someone had asked "Does surprise happen outside the initiative order as a special surprise round?". This was answered by an explanation of how surprise works. On Page 189, in the last paragraph describing Surprise it says:

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

Fighters have this nifty class feature called Action Surge which they have starting at 2nd level. Action Surge says:

Starting at 2nd level, you can push yourself beyond your normal limits for a moment. On your turn, you can take one additional action on top of your regular action and a possible bonus action.

And this is my question: If a 2nd level Fighter is caught surprised, can they use their Action Surge feature to get an Action on their turn?

I just want to be sure about how that works, so I am asking here.

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You can activate Action Surge, but it would waste it

The rules on surprise state:

A surprised creature can’t move or take an action or a reaction until its first first turn ends (remember that being unable to take an action also means you can’t take a bonus action).

Since you can't take an action, that means any actions (even if you have 2) and a bonus, since you can't take bonus actions when you can't take actions.

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No, you cannot use Action Surge when surprised. Not even to no effect.

I'm going to disagree with Salteris's answer in that I would contend you cannot even activate Action Surge.

Consider

Action Surge

Starting at second level... you can take one additional action. [Restrictions on frequency follow.] (PHB p.72)*

Combined with

Surprise

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. (PHB p.189)

So being surprised means you cannot take an action, Action Surge says you can take an (additional) action. But we're not going to get into the weeds on that "additional," because

Specific beats general.

F2+ gets Action Surge. Fighter is surprised. Which is specific, and which is general?

Here's my thinking: the Fighter's being surprised is something that was determined a moment ago (in game-time) and which only lasts for six seconds. The Fighter's being level 2 (presumably) happened a while back. So the surprise condition is specific to this round of this combat, while the ability to Action Surge is only specific to this class+level combination. So we'll coin a corollary to the rule:

More-specific beats specific.

So the Fighter is surprised and "cannot take an action." Not his regular action, not "an additional action" (which is an action), not a bonus action. And not even a reaction, until after his (inactive, immobile) turn has passed.

Thus the Fighter cannot Action Surge, even impotently.


* - note this wording was changed between printings, though it does not appear in the errata. Older printings say "one additional action on top of your regular action and a possible bonus action"

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Oh, nice. More unrecorded errata. Thanks for the heads-up! \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jun 2 at 23:23
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The other two answers are great, but I wanted to add another perspective on the reasoning for why.

So the short part of the answer is that, no, a Fighter cannot use any actions while Surprised.

  1. Salteris' answer explains that you can activate Action Surge, but you can't use actions while being surprised, and since Action Surge gives you exactly that, you can't use it

  2. Nitsua60's answer explains that because the rules for being Surprised state that you specifically cannot take any actions, you are not allowed to activate your Action Surge to get an additional action because you can't use it in the first place.

The way I read those, Action Surge is an ability that you "activate" when you want to take another action. I am writing here to offer a different perspective. Let us look again at the Action Surge text in whole:

Action Surge

Starting at 2nd level, you can push yourself beyond your normal limits for a moment. On your turn, you can take one additional action. †

Once you use this feature, you must finish a short or long rest before you can use it again. Starting at 17th level, you can use it twice before a rest, but only once on the same turn.

So it definitely says we have the ability to take an extra action on our turn, which we all understand. What I think we can look at differently is how we treat this extra action. The other answers seem to look at Action Surge like a class feature that you must activate, but it's starting to look to me like the Action Surge Fighter class feature gives you a resource, and defines a limit on how much of that resource you have. At 2nd level, you have one extra action you can use on your turn, and once you use that you won't get another one back until you rest. At 17th level, you get a second one, and you can still only use one per turn as long as you have one.

This could then be treated similar to a Druid's Wildshape, a Paladin's and a Cleric's Channel Divinity, or a Barbarian's Rage. Each of those features describes a thing you can do, what it might cost you (if anything), and how many times you can use that feature. Their limits are defined with different rules, but they still follow a similar structure. Barbarians get n rages between long rests as defined by their Barbarian levels on the Barbarian Class Table. Clerics and Paladins have a set number of Channel Divinity uses which changes so infrequently that it describes the levels that it changes. Druid's Wildshape can be used only twice between rests, and that doesn't change until 20th level.

But my point is, those can be considered limited resources, not just features you "activate". I suspect Action Surge works in a like manner, as a resource you expend, not exactly an ability that you activate when you want to use it. Another point, if minor, that might provide some evidence for this perspective is the lack of any conditions for taking the additional action.

Moving on

Back to the main point here. A level 2+ Fighter has the feature Action Surge, which provides the Fighter an additional action they can use on their turn once between rests. Surprise says that if you are surprised, you can't move or take an action (and by extension a bonus action) on your first turn of combat. You normally have an Action and an amount of Movement available to you, and Surprise says you can't use them. The Fighter having multiple actions doesn't change the fact that you can't use any of them.

I will apologize here for making yet another wall of text. But I do hope that it adequately explained this alternate viewpoint that we can take.


† - This is an unrecorded errata found in recent printings of the PHB. Your copy of the book may include the following: "On your turn, you can take one additional action on top of your regular action and a possible bonus action."

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Action Surge now just says: "Starting at 2nd level, you can push yourself beyond your normal limits for a moment. On your turn, you can take one additional action." This was changed in the latest printings of the book after the 2018 PHB errata, though it's not mentioned in the errata document. You might want to update the quote in your answer accordingly. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jun 2 at 21:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast Thank you for bringing this to several of our attentions. I have updated the quote, and added a note about the errata. \$\endgroup\$ – Javelin Jun 3 at 0:32

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