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I'm a bit confused about how "surprise" and "ready an action" interact in the following situation:

  • Behind a door two ogres are having breakfast.
  • One PC kicks the door, the others PCs says that they ready an action: if an enemy comes into their FoV they will shoot an arrow.
  • The PCs fail to kick the door on the first try. The ogres are therefore prepared and they ready an action to throw their javelins at whoever is kicking the door when the door breaks.
  • The PCs fail to hear the sound of the ogres readying their weapons.

The problem is:

Any character or monster that doesn't notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter. [PHB p. 189]

I assumed that because the PCs didn't perceive anything, they had not 'noticed the threat', therefore they were surprised.

  1. I judged that the ogres therefore surprised the PCs, so the PCs couldn't use their reaction until the end of their first turn and the ogres could suse their reaction to throw their javelins, and they also have a whole turn on the surprise round (so they can move and bash some heads).

Alternative Possibilities:

  1. The PCs kick down the door on the first attempt. When they kick down the door, both the ogres and the players are surprised, but the PCs readied an action, and according to the rules of surprise, creatures can use reactions after their first turn ends, so they can use their reaction on the readied action. The PCs can shoot their arrows at the ogres.

  2. They fail to kick the door at the first try and pass their perception check, so neither of the groups are surprised and both groups shoot each other.

How many of these interpretations (1, 2, 3) are correct?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ First, I think the edit made things worse. Why did they get an active perception check, their action was already spent they couldn't actively perceive anything. \$\endgroup\$ – J. A. Streich Sep 8 '16 at 21:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like active perception rolls when things can prove deadly >.< \$\endgroup\$ – Escroteitor Sep 8 '16 at 21:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ I really don't understand the perception check in this situation: don't the PCs already perceive a threat, which is why they're readying attack(s) and kicking in the door and declaring "when I see an enemy" triggers? Unless the threat exposed is radically different than what was expected, how could the PCs possibly be surprised? (I mean, if they expected a few combatants with enemies on the other side of the door, but instead a dragon loosed its readied breath weapon....) \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Sep 8 '16 at 22:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ Related: Surprise when kicking down a door? \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 6 at 19:33
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What Surprise Means

Surprise is a judgement call on the DM's part that is situational.

The DM determines who might be surprised. If neither side tries to be stealthy, they automatically notice each other. Otherwise, the DM compares the Dexterity (Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of each creature on the opposing side. Any character or monster that doesn't notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter.

Readied Action

Readied action uses the reaction for the same round that the action was readied. If every party member readies an action for the door to break down, and the door doesn't get broken down that round, the action is wasted. They can re-ready the same action the next turn. In that case, when the trigger happens, they all take their action (in initiative order (or [Dex] order) since they all have the same trigger) and the DM resolves them.

If a surprise round were to occur without the trigger being able to fire, the readied action is lost and the players will take normal actions on their next turn. I don't think that's how this should play out.

How I'd Rule

In the situation you describe, the players are alert because they are kicking down a door, so they expect something to be on the other side. They have even readied actions to take, so the ogres can't really get the jump on them -- the players aren't surprised.

The ogres would have been surprised if the party successfully beat the door down, but they failed the roll and the ogres heard the sound. They know that something is trying to come through the door -- the ogres are not surprised.

Readied actions will happen on triggers as usual (or not if trigger doesn't come, or if reaction is used to do something else like Opportunity Attack), as no one is surprised.

The three scenarios

RAW, there shouldn't have been a perception check. The players took no action that would give them one. That said, as a DM you can give them that extra heads up...

  1. The Players' turns (and thus reactions) would be lost during the first round if the ogres surprised the players. Second round they'd act as normal. That is what surprise does. Otherwise, it is legal.

  2. If everyone is surprised, no one can act for the first round. That's 6 seconds of everyone looking at each other in shock. No actions taken. Otherwise, it's legal.

  3. It's legal.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I edited the question slightly, but it shouldn't affect your answer (although you may want to refer to the sitautions as 1, 2, and 3?). \$\endgroup\$ – Ladifas Sep 8 '16 at 21:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Everyone is surprised" should always be played out. Creatures cannot move or take actions but they can talk - talking in this situation may lead to a deescalation of hostilities so that this becomes a social rather than a combat encounter. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Sep 9 '16 at 0:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ It isn't really clear in the text but this has come up in discussion. TL;DR they say you can't ready outside of combat and with or without surprise you can't use a reaction until the end of your first turn in a combat. sageadvice.eu/page/2/?s=ready+action&submit=Search mobile.twitter.com/mikemearls/status/… \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Sep 9 '16 at 13:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ Mearls post in this thread seems to suggest that you can ready out of combat (but it is hard to do otherhings while you wait for the trigger): sageadvice.eu/2016/02/15/… For now, I'll leave it out of my answer. \$\endgroup\$ – J. A. Streich Sep 9 '16 at 14:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree more or less, just putting those conversations out there for completeness. Tell me there are not silly things in this game though :) \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Sep 9 '16 at 15:46
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None of the interpretations are correct, necessarily. While players can certainly take many kinds of actions outside of combat, like kicking down a door, activating a magic item or blindly shooting a flaming arrow down a dark passage, which very well may result in combat, the Ready action is generally not meant to be used outside of combat as a means of dealing surprise damage; the official rules for Surprise are in place for purposes of "getting a jump" on someone.

Regardless of whether or not the players are successful, the action of trying to kick the door down would essentially initiate combat, either alerting the ogres to a threat or surprising them. It could look something like this:

PC1: "I kick the door in!"

PC2 and PC3: "We ready our bows for anything on the other side!"

DM: "PC1, make a strength check to see if you break down the door."

PC1: "I rolled a(n) X."

DM: "Okay, you fail/succeed at kicking down the door. Everyone, roll initiative."

Scenario 1

The PCs failed to kick down the door, and the clamor has made the ogres aware of a possible threat, so they are not surprised. The PCs would not be considered surprised, either, because they were intentionally keeping their weapons "ready." Note that this is not the same as the combat option of readying an action. Both parties, however, are prepared for a possible threat on the other side of the door.

The encounter would begin and play out as normal. Neither side got the jump on the other, so there is no surprise. The PCs and ogres would take their turns as usual, per their initiative order. The PCs could potentially continue attempts to kick down the door, and the ogres could ready actions on their turn for anything that comes through the door, or run to the door to open it and bash the intruders. Following initiative order, players could also use their turns to now ready their actions for whenever the door is successfully kicked in or otherwise opened.

Scenario 2

The PCs successfully kick the door down on the first attempt and burst into the room, thus surprising the ogres. The players are not surprised, even if they were unaware of the ogres' presence, because they had called out, "We ready our bows," meaning they were prepared for any possible threat on the opposite side of the door; also, the ogres are simply sitting there eating breakfast, so it's not like they have an ambush set up. Again, note that the PCs are not actually readying an action, but simply keeping prepared for a potential threat.

The encounter would begin with the ogres surprised, since the players effectively "got the jump" on them. Initiative order would be followed as usual, and each player would be able to take actions on their turn as normal. Any player with a feature that grants a bonus against surprised creatures would gain that benefit, such as the Assassin Rogue's Assassinate feature, so long as their turn is before the surprised target's. Additionally, the ogres would not get to take any actions or movement this first round, and would be unable to make any reactions until their first turn has passed, as per the rules for Surprise. Once their first turn has passed, they are no longer considered surprised, so players who take their turn after the ogres would no longer benefit from surprise-specific features against them, like the aforementioned Assassinate feature.

Scenario 3

There would be no need for a perception check. The players stated that they are prepared for a possible threat and the ogres are not intentionally trying to be stealthy. This scenario plays out just like Scenario 1. The only time a perception check would be required for a player who is prepared for a potential threat is if the ogres were actively trying to hide or set up an ambush.

For example, if PC1 failed to kick down the door, the ogres would be alerted to an incoming potential threat and might take advantage of this warning clamor. Because the players are not aware of the ogres' immediate presence, the ogres could choose to go hide in a corner, waiting to spring upon anyone who enters, instead of instantly taking a combat stance. Since they are attempting to set up an ambush for the incoming players, but the players are prepared for a potential threat, you would ask the players to make a perception check against the ogres' stealth check. (If the players had not "readied their bows," you would likely use their passive perception instead of asking for an active roll.)

If the players fail this perception check they would be surprised. In this situation, you may hold off on calling for an initiative roll until after the players enter the room, completely unaware of the threat of the ogres within. Once their guard is a bit lowered, the ogres could then jump out from the corner to initiate combat and surprise the players. Keep in mind the ogres would not have actions readied for the players, since they would not actually be in combat yet. They are simply awaiting an opportune moment to attack the hapless players.

If the players succeed on the perception check in this situation, the ogres would fail at hiding, and initiative would then be rolled.

The whole scenario might go something like this:

PC1: "I kick down the door!"

PC2 and PC3: "We ready our bows for anything on the other side of the door!"

DM: "PC1, make a strength check to attempt to kick down the door."

PC1: "I rolled a(n) X."

DM: "You fail to kick down the door..." (Thinking to self, the noise of kicking the door has alerted the ogres to a threat, so they will try to hide. DM makes a secret stealth check.) "...but you notice it has splintered a bit, leaving a space for you to look through. PC2 and PC3, please make a perception check."

PC2 and PC3: "We rolled a(n) Y and a(n) Z."

If they fail on the perception check...

DM: "The room appears empty. You can reach through the splintered gap to open the door from the other side."

PCs: "Okay, we proceed in. What's in this room?"

DM: "There is a fire crackling in a fireplace on the far wall, and there are two bowls containing lumps of mostly eaten mutton sitting on a large, wooden table."

PC3: "Can I inspect the mutton to determine if it's fresh or old?"

DM: "Sure, right after you roll initiative." (Players would be surprised by the ogres.)

If they succeed on the perception check...

DM: "As you peer through the gap, you notice some large figures shuffling about. Roll for initiative." (Neither side would be surprised, and this encounter would proceed like Scenario 1.)

The Conclusion

Much of the apparent confusion in the proposed situation seems to stem from a misuse of the Ready feature as if it were a "surprise attack" feature. If you keep in mind that actions are not necessarily meant to be readied outside of combat (it is presented specifically in the Combat section of the Player's Handbook,) it all seems a little more simple. When it comes to "surprise attacks," lean on the rules that are in place for the Surprise feature; it's still one side getting a round of attacks before the other has a chance to act, but is organized in a balanced way, relying on initiative.

The reason actions aren't meant to be readied outside of combat is to prevent a "free round" or "free damage" for anyone that "readies a weapon." A player could say they walk around with an arrow nocked at all times. So any time combat starts they instantly get a shot at the enemy? This isn't very fair, and certainly isn't the way the Ready feature is intended to be used. The only way to get a "free round" is through surprising an opponent.

Do keep in mind that this answer is based purely on rules as written. I have a deep suspicion that a lot of the confusion surrounding actions readied outside of combat and surprise rounds is due to the popular web show, Critical Role. It is important to note that they play with many house rules, which are not supported by the official resources. If you want to play by rules as written, pay close attention to the scenarios presented here, and revisit the Player's Handbook anytime you need a refresher.

References:

Ready [PHB 193]
Sometimes you want to get the jump on a foe or wait for a particular circumstance before you act. To do so, you can take the Ready action on your turn, which lets you act using your reaction before the start of your next turn.

Notice the use of the terms "turn" and "reaction." This implies the Ready action is intended to be used in combat, after initiative has been rolled and turn order has been established.

Surprise [PHB 189]
If neither side tries to be stealthy, they automatically notice each other. [...] Any character or monster that doesn't notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter. 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.

A creature generally has to make a conscious effort to surprise another. (Two lazy ogres sitting at a table eating breakfast wouldn't get a surprise round of combat on prepared adventurers, but alerted ogres that swiftly hide for a chance to ambush them might.) This Surprise rule is the intended method for achieving/resolving a "surprise attack," not actions readied outside of combat.

Final Thoughts on Ready Outside of Combat

Just always remember this: If a player says, "I ready my weapon," outside of combat, it means they are simply on guard for potential threats or are planning to initiate combat at the drop of a hat; it does not mean they get a free attack the instant combat starts. (You might house rule that an enemy has disadvantage on stealth checks against a "readied" character, or that a "readied" character has +2/+5 to its passive Wisdom (Perception) score, to help defend against potential surprise attacks, but that isn't directly supported by official rules.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think one point of potential controversy is the hard line against using Actions outside of combat. (IIRC there are magic items that are nonsensical under that ruling.) I think acknowledging that controversy early may improve the persuasive power of this answer, especially if you lean hard earlier on “the following use of rules just works better/more simply”, to persuade skeptical readers to continue with an open mind. (I was skeptical, but persisted, and it eventually earned my vote.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 2 at 18:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Yes, that's a fair point. I tried to clarify by adding "not meant to be used" and the like. There are certainly exceptions when it comes to various actions outside of combat, but in general, the official rules for Surprise are the RAW and the RAI method of settling "surprise attack" situations. I hope my post is clear enough that others with the same question can easily determine when Surprise and Ready would most aptly apply. \$\endgroup\$ – Derka Jan 2 at 18:57
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You can't ready an attack outside of combat. When my players ask to do so I explain it as:

Those that would've readied an action instead get to go on the 'surprise round'.

This seems to satisfy their questions (I mean: if everyone had readied actions to attack when they saw an enemy, you'd probably handle them in initiative order anyway).

The implication for the original question is that both the PC's and the Ogres would've readied actions (were it allowed), so they all go on the "surprise round" (i.e. no one is surprised: roll init and handle it as a regular round).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Does that mean that they get surprise, or not? How would you determine that? \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Jan 3 at 15:11

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