Experienced DM, new to 5e. Dealing with a party that includes two Elves. Party did not establish a night watch. Dice dictated an overnight raid of the party's provisions. Seems fair to give the Elves a chance of hearing the activity, although being situated 50' away, it would not be great. However, having two of them should boost the math a little.

What is fair to do here, given 5e rules?

  • \$\begingroup\$ A couple of related questions 1 , 2 \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 21 '16 at 17:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ As a possible frame challenge, what do you mean they did not establish a night watch? Did they simply not state explicitly they did? DnD characters are generally assumed to be hyper-competent with many details abstracted away. Unless they explicitly state they did not set up a watch or there was some situation suggesting they didn't (extremely small group with limited time), I would generally assume the group had a watch as a matter of course. \$\endgroup\$ – TimothyAWiseman Apr 22 '19 at 18:13

What the book says

Jeremy Crawford was asked about sleeping perceptions, where Crawford said that sleeping people are unconscious. Elves, as far as I see, don't have an answered tweet from the authors. So, the PHB has the only passage about the trance available; On page 23 it says:

...remaining semiconscious, for 4 hours a day.

How to Apply It: Up to the DM

So the player is slightly aware of their surroundings. It is up to the DM to decide what DC penalties or disadvantage might be incurred by the distance and trance. It might make more sense to avoid the roll, and use the character's passive perception, possibly minus some penalty, to see if the characters notice the stealthy raiders.

How I'd Rule

I'd likely do contested roll at disadvantage for each elf trance-ing. Or take their passive and subtract 5, and compare that to the stealth roll.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "help" is an action... I doubt you can "help" and trance at the same time. Moveover, if the elves are a distance from one another, which one is help which one? i.e. which one becomes aware on a success? \$\endgroup\$ – J. A. Streich Sep 21 '16 at 18:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ Indeed, the "semi conscious" bit would argue against taking the "help action" so as I noted, it's cheese at best, and from a gut feel doesn't fit. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 21 '16 at 18:18

There are a few easy options:

  1. Elves only need 4 hours of meditation (trance) in a long rest. Since long rests are at least 8 hours, it is natural for elves to stagger their meditation so one elf is always on watch, negating the need to specify.

  2. In the event that, as the DM, you decide the elves did not stagger their meditation, you need to adjust for the chance that the raid came while one or both of the elves was not meditating. To make things easy, I would roll a d4 and if a 1 is rolled then both were meditating (25%).

  3. You could try to logic it out if they were both meditating based on what they did in the past and the fact that a raid will likely come during the darkest night or early in the morning (when it is most likely that one watch fell asleep and did not wake the next).

I personally would go with #1 unless extenuating circumstances in dictated otherwise.

In the event you take option 2 or 3 and determine that both elves were meditating, you would need a system for determining if one or both of the elves are conscious enough to detect the raiders. The DM has many options, allowing the elves to roll perception with disadvantage vs the raider's stealth rolls, raiders roll a DC 10 stealth check, the elves' passive perception minus 5 is the DC for the raiders stealth check, etc. If the raiders take something off the elf, a similar check could be made using the raiders' slight of hand.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The contextual nuance of considering the characters' teamwork/timing is helpful (+1). \$\endgroup\$ – sparrowhawk Sep 21 '16 at 19:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ I typically explicitly ask my players how they're handling watch at the beginning of the adventure, then assume it stays that way from then on, unless they say otherwise. In order to not make that an obvious telegraph, though, you probably shouldn't have a night-time ambush during the same session where you ask the question. \$\endgroup\$ – Tin Wizard Sep 21 '16 at 20:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ I needed that laugh. \$\endgroup\$ – sparrowhawk Sep 22 '16 at 15:49

Let's look at the actual requirements of a long rest...

A long rest is a period of extended downtime, at least 8 hours long, during which a character sleeps or performs light activity: reading, talking, eating, or standing watch for no more than 2 hours. If the rest is interrupted by a period of strenuous activity-at least 1 hour of walking, fighting, casting spells, or similar adventuring activitythe characters must begin the rest again to gain any benefit from it. (PHB, 186)


Trance. Elves don't need to sleep. Instead, they meditate deeply, remaining semiconscious, for 4 hours a day. (The Common word for such meditation is "trance.") While meditating, you can dream after a fashion; such dreams are actually mental exercises that have become reflexive through years of practice. Afler resting it this way, you gain the same benefit that a human does from 8 hours of sleep. (PHB, 23.)

Noting that trance allows dreaming... during the 4 hours of trance, it's fair to say that they are pretty far out of it. If the sleepers get a roll to wake, the elf probably should get advantage on that roll, but still should need to roll.

During the other 4 hours, they're awake. Note that other races only need 6 hours of sleep, but 8 hours of rest.

And standing watch is explicitly allowed as a resting activity.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Interesting! +1 for bringing light to the fact that a Long Rest need not, actually, involve sleep. That slipped by me. And I suppose the fact that standing watch is possible while resting complicates the idea that Elves are compromised in the Trance state. Now...in my situation, I also wonder if the Elves take those 4 hours as soon as the others lay down to sleep, or if they stay up four hours more, and then enter their trance/rest. I suppose that is a preference the players would need to make clear. \$\endgroup\$ – sparrowhawk Sep 21 '16 at 19:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ Long rest needs to involve sleep for non-elves, but only 6 hours of it. Elves trance for 4 hours and can spend the other 4 doing anything that isn't more taxing than reading. Failure to sleep 6 hours (or trance 4), achieve 8 hours of rest will cause a level of exhaustion. \$\endgroup\$ – J. A. Streich Sep 21 '16 at 22:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ An important distinction. \$\endgroup\$ – sparrowhawk Sep 22 '16 at 15:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @J.A.Streich: Note that this is no longer true as of errata a few years ago, allowing long rests to be finished by elves in just 4 hours of trance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Apr 22 '19 at 19:19

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes chapter 2, Elves, states under the "Living in Reverie" heading (p. 37):

From birth, elves don’t sleep but instead enter a trance when they need to rest. In this state, elves remain aware of their surroundings while immersing themselves in memories.

The exact level of awareness of surroundings might be up for interpretation, but absolutely, they should be able to perceive things while in a trance.

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    \$\begingroup\$ There is a big difference between being aware and being on watch. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Apr 22 '19 at 18:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. I've edited a D&D Beyond link and the page number into the answer, and fixed the quote formatting. You should expand this answer to more specifically address how effectively they can stay on watch; as NautArch points out, the ability to perceive things doesn't tell us how well they can perceive things on watch. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Apr 22 '19 at 19:32

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