This example is a somewhat simplified version of what happened during the last game I DMed for a bunch of friends. A party of PCs was trudging through the woods when they happened upon a very small outpost in a clearing containing hostile elves. The rogue goes and checks it out, and sees two hostiles patrolling, one near the northern edge of woods (Elf1), one on a stone platform about 15 ft from the southern edge of the forest (Elf2).

The rogue goes back and relays the information. If the warrior of the party would simply trudge into the middle of the clearing, all enemies would be aware of a threat and the enemy wouldn't be surprised. They want to start combat with an edge, so they formulate a plan that would cause the enemies to be surprised: the rogue will go stealth up to the northern edge of the clearing, wait for Elf1 to get close, and sneak attack him. When that happens (it's a small clearing, so it's within his vision) the warrior in the party, who will attempt to sneak up to the southern edge of the forest, will run for Elf2 and beat him up. They both roll great stealth checks and head to their positions. So far so good.

The rogue waits for Elf1 to get close and attacks with his short sword. Time for combat, and this is where things got confusing, and where a discussion broke out between players:

According to page 189 of the PHB:

  1. Determine surprise — Both Elf1 and Elf2 are surprised, because they didn't notice any threat.
  2. Establish positions — Should be clear from the description of the situation above.
  3. Roll Initiative — The warrior gets a 20, Elf2 a 15, the rogue a 5, and Elf1 a 1.
  4. Take Turns — The warrior can go first. However, as the party discussed before, he was supposed wait until he sees the rogue hit Elf1. The rogue's attack is what started the combat encounter, yet the attack hasn't been resolved yet due to his poor initiative roll. And you can't delay your turn in 5th edition.

Option 1: Some people at the table argue that he can't yet run into the clearing because that would pose a clear and noticeable threat and the elves would not be surprised. He should wait for the rogue to hit Elf1 and use the Ready action on his first turn. This option seems to punish the warrior for rolling well on his initiative.

Option 2: As determining surprise occurs before the initiative roll according to page 189 of the PHB, I would argue that the rules support that the warrior should be able to run up to Elf2 and hit him, without breaking surprise. The fact that the attack that caused the surprise hasn't yet been resolved and that this goes somewhat counter against their agreed plan of waiting for the rogue to hit Elf1, makes this option incredibly unintuitive though.

Which of these options is the correct one? Or is there a hidden option 3?


7 Answers 7


If you read the following paragraph in the PHB after the section you mentioned on turn order (pg. 189) you'll see it says:

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.

On top of that, it's important to note that

A round represents about 6 seconds in the game world. (PHB 189)

So in this case it translates to:

  1. Warrior takes his turn. He can choose to ready an action here to use his reaction later to attack Elf2 when the Rogue attacks Elf1. Note that the Warrior can move into range if necessary and will not affect surprise as surprise is determined before turns are taken.
  2. Elf2 does nothing and is no longer surprised. He can now take reactions. If the rogue attacks him there are no bonuses related to surprise added to that attack.
  3. Rogue takes his turn. When the Rogue attacks Elf1, the Warrior uses his readied action.
  4. Elf1 does nothing and is no longer surprised. He can now take reactions.
  5. Combat proceeds as normal using the same initiative order. (Readying an action does not change initiative order so it will still be Warrior, Elf2, Rogue, then Elf1)
  • 8
    \$\begingroup\$ @cablop In 5e there is no delayed action and you cannot change your initiative count. If you ready an action, you take it as reaction when it is triggered, but you're still taking the Ready action on your turn to set this up; your initiative count remains as it was before in the ensuing rounds. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 11:23

I have always handled this by not having the one who starts the combat roll initiative.

After all, initiative rolls are for determining who goes when, but we already know who acts first in the round. Rolling initiative for that character only interferes with what we already know about the situation.

It's simple and seamless to just leave the attacker who initiates a planned ambush out of the initiative roll. If surprise is successfully achieved they just go first, and everyone else rolls to see what order they act in after. Then, in the second round, the original attacker (who currently doesn't have an initiative number) rolls initiative to find out where in the round they go from then on.

It's simple, lightweight, and doesn't require a lot of thought. It doesn't mess up any other rules and doesn't require fiddling with readied actions, or houseruling in a delay mechanic that might have effects on more situations than the one that seemed to need the house rule. It uses all existing rules—it just employs a smidge of DM judgement about when to apply the existing rules.

  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ I use this same exact method. I know this Question / Answer is old but, I like the concept of employing all the rules, unaltered, but letting the initiator of combat still get that first strike in before rolling initiative afterwards. \$\endgroup\$
    – Airatome
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 20:33

The rules for initiative and surprise rounds have been clearly stated in another answer, but I'd like to suggests a house rule that works at my table:

If the surprise round is one initiated by the players, their characters have the option to determine their initiative order for the surprise round only. This assumes that the characters talked about it, as in the example in the question. The initiative roll would only be done once the the surprise round was over.

In your example, this would allow for the rogue to strike, then for the warrior to do so, then for the surprise round to end, at which point you would roll initiative and follow the initiative order (warrior, elf2, rogue, elf1).

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Not a bad suggestion, but it does cause a little trouble with the Rogue's Assassinate ability, or the Barbarian's Feral Instinct. Granted, that only matters if you are facing NPC's with normal class levels! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 5:14
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ This is exactly how I handled two encounters. It added so much to the immersion. Play the surprise first and hand the result to the players with all the rolls, then move on to normal initiative rolls. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 20:55
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Messing with initiative order in 5e tends to mess with aall the spells that take effect "on a creature's turn". \$\endgroup\$
    – Pat
    Commented Jun 29, 2021 at 19:09

You say that the plan is this:

  1. The rogue will go stealth up to the northern edge of the clearing
  2. He'll wait for Elf1 to get close
  3. He'll sneak attack him
  4. When that happens the warrior in the party will run for Elf2 and beat him up.

So that's what happens! The warrior rolling the higher initiative just means he is ready to act before the rogue is; however the plan is for him to wait until the rogue attacks, so he holds his action and moves to the initiative slot after the rogue. The two elves don't act on their initiative because they're both surprised.

The warrior gets a 20, Elf2 a 15, the rogue a 5, and Elf1 a 1.

So what do you do with Elf2? Personally I would house rule that he moves his first action to just after the warrior, so the order is Rogue, Warrior, Elf2, Elf1.

  • 9
    \$\begingroup\$ It doesn't matter what you do with Elf2, because he's surprised - he can skip his turn before the rogue moves just as easily as after. \$\endgroup\$
    – Brilliand
    Commented Jan 8, 2016 at 18:34
  • 8
    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think this answer is adequate. There isn't a RaW tag, but the question asked for "which is the correct interpretation?" This answer instead suggests moving Initiative values that messes with the way 5e is supposed to use surprise. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 5:11

As you say, option 1 would punish good and reward bad initiative rolls, no good plan should involve people crossing their fingers and hoping their char stumbles around a bit in hopes of not messing up an ambush.

The second option could create very weird/nonsensical scenario's such as the rogue falling flat on his face or triggering some sort of alarm after the warrior already attacked the goblin supposedly surprised by said rogue. The mantra of "everything happens simultaneously" is nice until you realize that you will still need to resolve things in a certain order.

Imo it would be best to house rule this, maybe let the rogue resolve his attack first regardless of his initiative roll or give players the option to lower themselves in the initiative order.

  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ I think it's simplistic to say option 1 punishes good initiative rolls: the fighter has a choice and can still act first if he wants to, but he chooses to ready an action. And he still has the benefit of his high initiative in the following round, allowing him to get another attack in before the elves have a chance to act. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 11:28

By strict RAW of your question, option 2 is correct. You have already determined surprise and rolled initiative, so you have to act in turn order. Since a turn is 6 seconds, perhaps the warrior reacted quickly - of course the rogue could always choose not to attack then blame the failed plan on the warrior, who knows. However, that isn't the only way your DM could have played this scenario.

Combat begins when the DM says so

There isn't any explicit guidance as to when combat encounters technically begin. We know what a combat encounter is, an encounter where we are playing in turns, fighting monsters. But the Basic Rules, the PHB, and the DMG, do not actually explain when the encounter begins. In your example, the DM has ruled that the combat encounter begins as soon as you want to attack, but that isn't the only way.

The rules actually have two example situations for initiating surprise combat:

A band of adventurers sneaks up on a bandit camp, springing from the trees to attack them. A gelatinous cube glides down a dungeon passage, unnoticed by the adventurers until the cube engulfs one of them. In these situations, one side of the battle gains surprise over the other.

The second example of the gelatinous cube is extremely relevant. The example has the cube attack before combat begins, after which the party is surprised. Your DM did the opposite, combat started before you could make the attack. They could have done this instead.

Have combat begin after the action that initiates it

Your DM could allow you to make the attack, then roll initiative after that:

  • Rogue: "The elf is close enough to my hiding place, I'll attack"
  • DM: "Roll the attack"
  • You: rolls, hits the elf, deals some damage
  • DM: "The elf squeals in surprise and pain! Roll initiative" rolls 1 for Elf1, 15 for Elf2
  • Rogue: rolls 5
  • Warrior: rolls 10
  • DM: "The Elf2 is initially surprised, but recovers quickly, whirling around to glare at you! Warrior's turn"
  • Warrior: "Having seen the rogue's attack, I break cover and charge in!"
  • combat continues

I usualy handle situations like this the following way.

  1. Rogue prepares to shoot his arrow

  2. Roll initiative, getting the following results:

    • 20 Warrior

    • 15 Elf2

    • 5 Rogue

    • 1 Elf1

  3. Since The Rogue initiates combat I'd swap him to the top for the first round only.

So the first round would be like this:

  • Rogue: gets advantage because he's unseen and doing assassin stuff

  • Warrior: doesn't get advantage because he is seen while charging at the attackers

  • Elves 1 & 2: can't do anything because of surprise

All subsequent rounds would follow the rolled initiative order from step 2: warrior, elf2, rogue, elf1. Aside from the turn order deviation, everything else follows the rules.

This makes sure you have the one initating combat acting first without letting them trigger 2 surprise attacks, so assassins can't trigger their tons-of-damage feat twice.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Hi Schnäsihäsi, and welcome to the site! Check out our tour to see how we work here. I've updated your post to apply formatting, and bear in mind we avoid expletives here, so I've replaced those. You can also see our markdown guide for a guide on how to format posts here. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 11, 2021 at 10:59

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .