Monday, July 30, 2018

You're Doing Surprise Rounds Wrong

Early in my D&D career, my character Skull Boy walked into a room and was instantly killed when two skeletons surprised him with a pair of crits.  I didn't have a chance to react.  I didn't even get to roll any dice.  Needless to say, I reacted poorly.

And yes, this was an inexperienced DM.  And yes, you could point to this and label it as a flaw of the death/dying system (perhaps this could be circumvented by giving characters three rounds of death saving throws or whatever).  And yes, you could argue that this is a good thing, and that games benefit from that level of chaos.

by Dusty Ray
Thesis: I don't think the game benefits from surprise rounds where the monsters just unload damage.

Rationale: enemy surprise rounds don't offer the players any interesting choices.  They just happen.  It's a miniature version of "rocks fall; everyone dies".

Yes, I know that surprise rounds have been a staple of old-school play for a long time.

Yes, I'm still okay with giving the players a surprise round where they unload damage on enemies.  (My rationale this is that they are creeping through the dungeon at a slow pace, quietly listening and mapping.  They are being very cautious; this is why it parties move so slowly through dungeons.)

Yes, I'm aware that allowing player surprise rounds while banning monster surprise rounds is sort of asymmetric and unrealistic (whatever that means).

I recognize that D&D is a game that benefits from a carefully controlled level of chaos.  (That's why we roll dice.)  I believe that rolling for initiative on the first round of combat already provides a sufficient dose of joyful uncertainty.  There's already enough opportunity for things to turn to shit on the first round.


Surprise rounds are acceptable (and desirable) if they already incorporate an element of player choice.

If the player chooses to do something that has the potential consequence of "a monster surprises me", then they have already enjoyed their agency when they made the initial action.  For example, a character who reaches their hand into a burrow will still surprised by the rattlesnake at the bottom.

If there is informed consent.  I've previously argued that level drain is great as long as the players know what they are getting themselves into, and are given an opportunity to decline.  For example, if the players hear that the jungles are full of ambush birds (who often get surprise rounds) they might still choose to explore the jungle, while just keeping their HP topped off.  (I guess this is fun maybe?)

There is a counter-argument here: if the players know that surprise rounds could happen at any point throughout the game, with any enemy, isn't that already informed consent?  

Yes, but I don't think it drives the game in a good direction.  It leads to more cautious play, and earlier retreats.  Players are incentivized to keep their HP topped off, and are more likely to retreat when they can no longer keep their HP at the maximum.  (This is a design decision.  If you want your adventuring parties to be more cautious, then ignore this blog post.)

Surprise rounds are still very fun.  And they make sense logically and thematically.  Mostly I want to avoid monsters that attack HP during a surprise round, because we want HP to be a resource that players (indirectly) spend.  HP is the coinage that the players wager whenever they take risks in a dungeon.  If the characters lose HP in an ambush, it feels like robbery because they never decided to take on that additional risk.  (Although that's debatable, since they took on some risk by entering the dungeon in the first place.)

Instead of attacking HP on a surprise round, monsters should do other things.  They should either (a) change the battlefield, (b) deprive the characters of a resource, or (c) create a new risk or reward.

Some of these examples are dumb, but I think they get the point across.  Some of them are also a bit heavy-handed ("locking your weapons in their scabbard") but I would also argue that pouncing surprise lions are pretty heavy-handed, too.  I mean, they're not all excellent, but they're better than having your HP attacked.

Changing the Battlefield

A terophidian who creates a wall of fire, splitting the party.

A giant antlion who collapses the floor, trapping the party in the bottom of his pit.

Goblins who pull the lever on the crushing ceiling trap.  It'll probably crush everyone in the room unless someone reverts the lever within 3 rounds.

Gladiotrices who throw nets.

Depriving the Characters of a Resource

A vampiric wind who uses its surprise round to extinguish all the torches.

Some fucking elves who lock your weapons in their scabbards with a well-placed arrow shot.

Goblins who carry a surprising amount of caltrops.

The slime puma who pounces on a player, pinning them to the ground.

Creating a New Risk or Reward

The evil knights who offers a one-vs-one duel as an alternative to total warfare.

The rival adventuring party who attempts to steal an item and then run past the nearest locking portcullis.

The goblins send a runner for help, while the other goblins spend the round powering up their logging saw.

The orcs start torching the valuable paintings.

by Dusty Ray