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One of my players has the Alert feat, according to which:

[...] You can’t be surprised while you are conscious.

Now, does this mean that a hidden enemy is automatically spotted?

Let me provide a practical example. The party is walking along a path. The PC that has the Alert feat is in the middle of the line. A group of enemies is hidden 30 meters ahead. When the PCs pass by, they attack. Is the first turn of the battle handled as a normal turn? If the enemies are automatically spotted, when are they spotted?

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From the section on Surprise, PHB 189:

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.

What the Alert feat does is it allows you to take your normal set of actions during the first round of combat, despite surprise. It doesn't let you see your foes automatically, it just lets you know that there are foes to be seen.

What this means is that you have a chance to do something at the same time as your enemies. You could dive for cover, or cast a spell, or possibly make an active Perception check to spot your enemies and attack.

In your example, when the hidden enemies roll for initiative and start firing, the Alert character knows that they are under attack fast enough that they can (if their initiative is high enough) jump out of the way or cast a defensive spell, reducing the effect of the ambush. Since surprise is determined on a personal level, and not a party level, only the Alert character gets these benefits, not any of their party members.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Which, in most cases, means that instead of the ambush leading to the enemies having a free attack with Advantage, the character either uses their action to Dodge or make an Active Perception Roll, giving the enemies free attacks without Advantage. \$\endgroup\$ – pokep Apr 24 '16 at 18:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ I assume that this would only apply to the character with the feat, and the rest of the party would still be ambushed as normal? \$\endgroup\$ – user2813274 Apr 25 '16 at 1:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @user2813274 I added a note to that effect. \$\endgroup\$ – DuckTapeAl Apr 25 '16 at 1:45
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This is not how surprise works - read p.189 again.

Surprise happens to individual creatures, not sides. It is possible for some creatures on both sides to be surprised if both were trying to be stealthy.

The steps are: 1 determine surprise 2 roll initiative. The round proceeds as a normal round in initiative order the only difference being that surprised creatures can't react until after their turn and can't move or take actions on their turn.

A creature that comes first in initiative , takes their turn (in which they can't move or act) and is no longer surprised before anyone else acts. Conversely, a creature that comes last in initiative is going to have everyone act twice before they can. In both cases they effectively "miss 1 turn" but where that turn falls has a big impact.

The alertness feat simply means this never happens to you.

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Without the alert feat, hidden attackers can surprise you, giving them a free round where you cannot attack. They also get advantage on their strikes on you because they were hidden from you.

By taking the alert feat, you negate this (for yourself only). Because you are not surprised, you do not have to sit out one round of combat. Also, hidden attackers do not gain advantage on you, per the feat.

So taking this feat can turn an ambush from your opponents getting potentially 2 rounds of attacks* on you before you can start attacking/evading, into an even fight.

EDIT to add: supprise is handled on a per-character basis, not a team wide basis.

 

PHB pg 189:

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 pg 165:

Always on the lookout for danger, you gain the following benefits:

You gain a +5 bonus to initiative.

You can't be surprised while you are conscious.

Other creatures don't gain advantage on attack rolls against you as a result of being hidden from you.

*assuming they rolled higher initiative than you

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The way I have conceptualized it, and explained it to players, is that at the start of combat, everyone rolls initiative. Creatures (on either side) that did not perceive the enemy are surprised. Play then proceeds in normal initiative order. Any creatures that are surprised, their action the first time their initiative turn comes up is to spend it becoming unsurprised, they have to take a moment to make sense of the situation before they can act.

Alert I find is better thought of as "Lightning Reflexes". It doesn't actually give you more perception, or more awareness, in terms of the game mechanics. It effectively means that you are so quick that any time you would have been surprised, you can act on your first turn, rather than spending it figuring out what's going on. You are so quick that you can negate advantage on a shot from a hidden opponent, which does not mean you have any better idea than any other person as to exactly where that hidden opponent is or what he is doing. It just means (as it says) that the shot itself does not get advantage as it normally would.

An example of how this can affect things is: suppose a Rogue Assassin fires a first shot, and his initiative is higher than the character that has Alert. He does get the "advantage on attack rolls against any creature that hasn't taken a turn yet", because the Alert character has not taken a turn yet, and that has nothing to do with surprise. However, the Rogue does not get the benefit of "any hit you score against a creature that is surprised is a critical hit", because the Alert character is not surprised.

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