5th Edition D&D doesn’t have a surprise round.
Nor does 5e have a surprised condition:
But, that doesn’t mean we can’t pretend it does. After all, pretending is what we’re good at.
To be clear, we’re not doing this to change mechanics. We’re making up terms to understand rules easier.
Understanding how surprise works in 5e is a lot easier if we relate how it works to the existing game mechanics. Namely, rounds of combat and character conditions. So, let’s define new terms that work in these spaces.
Surprise Round. If any creatures are surprised, the first round of combat is called the “surprise round.”
Note: Alternatively, you could say that the 1st round is always the surprise round, and skip it if no creatures are surprised. It works out the same.
Surprised Condition. Creatures who are surprised have the “surprised” condition which prevents them from moving, acting, or reacting. The surprised condition ends for a creature at the end of their turn in the “surprise round.”
By integrating these terms into the existing rule, we can preserve the existing mechanic while avoiding confusion for folks expecting a surprise round. We don’t need to change that much text.
Why Do This?
Players are used to having a surprise round (and often a surprised condition)! Players coming from 3rd Edition, 4th Edition, or Pathfinder expect that the first round of combat is a surprise round. Leaning on familiar terminology can help players with legacy knowledge transition to 5e.
When you don’t have a surprise round, you run a greater risk of players trying to do pull off actions before combat begins. By clearly defining what happens when creatures are surprised, you define a niche for that narrative to settle in. While this is an adjudication issue, having a clearly defined rule can alleviate those issues at a table.
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