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


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. So, here's one thought.

    You know how sometimes in action/spy stories, a killer gets the drop on someone, and they're like "I've got you dead to rights, one move and I pull the trigger and end you, but first, you're gonna answer my questions, or you're gonna come with me, or you're gonna lead me somewhere..."

    So like, that never happens in D&D, but it COULD, if we handled it differently. I feel like usually, we talk first and then roll initiative after the conversation ends, or we treat "talking" as the action for that round. So either players think they can gamble on winning the initiative after talks break down, or worse, they're guaranteed to get to strike first by choosing to attack instead of continuing talking.

    But what if it could be like in the movies? You walk into a room and two skeletons surprise you. They say "get out" and you know that you either retreat or get effed up by them. Or they say "pay tribute or die" and you know it's your money or your life. Or they say "lead us to the surface, mortal" and you know, KNOW, that if at ANY point you stop guiding and start fighting, they're going to get their surprise round attacks before you even get to roll initiative.

    The old surprise round damage is still there, hanging over you, except instead of just HAPPENING and then you're dead, it encourages you to parlay because you know what will happen if you don't.

    (I guess the reverse is true too - if the player characters surprise the monsters, they can attempt negotiations confident that they're not giving up their tactical advantage by talking rather than immediately attacking.)

    1. Thank you for this post!

      I can think of many ways to use this in a more heroic game and have it be interesting.

      When the action hero lets the villain monologue and go for his gun, he never flinches because he already knows he's the quicker draw.

    2. I personally don't have a problem with losing HP in a surprise round; it's just part of the game for me - but this suggestion is really cool! Players do feel pressured when they manage to surprise someone to actually wreak havoc because they fear they will lose the upper hand otherwise, and it sucks.

  3. I guess I'm all for monster equality when it comes to ambushes, but I do like the potential you offer for alternatives to violence (again, for both sides).
    I've got a bit of a reputation in our group for wanting to talk to the monsters, which can annoy the guy who is just itching to try out his new super weapon... it would be fun to meet my opposite number, who insists on trying to befriend me.

  4. Instead of one or the other, I suggest a mix. Sometimes the skeletons get the drop on you, and sometimes they do an alternative action. It creates variety, and diminishes the sudden HP loss without removing the possibility

  5. I tend to think that, once you are creeping into a monster's lair with a torch and a pitchfork, you have already given informed consent to being surprised. And, while it may suck to get killed that way, *being able to be killed that way* certainly increases the tension of the game.

    Surprise should be a function of the fiction of the game.

    If the PCs really do look up when they pass into the room, then there is no need to roll to see if the spider surprises them. It does not. Likewise, if the PCs encounter a creature that is 200' away with clear line of sight, and the PCs are carrying torches, they do not surprise the creature. If it has a torch, neither does it surprise them.

    IMHO, anyway. YMMV.

    And, as others have pointed out, surprise doesn't automatically mean an attack...and an attack doesn't automatically mean an intent to kill.

    Even so, I would far, far rather play the game with the safety protocols off than one where the walls are padded for my protection. But, then again, (1) I play a version of the game where a new PC can be created in 10 minutes, and (2) I am old. The sting of an ignominious death from time to time is, to me, worth what it adds to the game for characters who make it.

    1. I'm not disagreeing with the fiction. It *does* make sense for the cave bear to ambush the hell out of the villagers.

      I'm disagreeing with the effect. I think it leads to overly cautious gameplay. When their HP could be hit at any time, without warning, they are more likely to retreat based on *their current HP totals*.

      When surprise attacks are ruled out, players are more likely to retreat *when faced with a bad situation*.

      The first group retreats as soon as they can't keep they're HP topped off. The second group retreats as soon as they find the room with 50 sleeping goblins. This might happen at almost the same point (the sleeping goblins were only one room further) and yet the second party probably had more fun, because they got to discover more and feel like they were pushing their luck a little harder.

  6. Agree, hugely - and monsters should have those cool things to do surprise or no surprise (just surprise makes it harder to defend against!)

  7. Great write up - just learned that level drain lesson when I surprised one of my players with level drain and they were not pleased. I ended up saying Greater Restoration gets you the level back combined with some additional quest-like tasks since I felt bad to jump it on them.

    Another interesting issue along the same lines is held actions. It kind of seems like having held actions for a trigger ("I train my crossbow bolt on the door, and I'll shoot anything I see when X opens it") is basically a surprise round by another name. If both sides have held actions you could go moment by moment resolving different triggers, but I often find that just rolling initiative gets the job done better.

    The benefit I see to held actions over surprise rounds is it forces the characters to make choices with incomplete information (what if a friendly NPC is on the other side?) but the downside is it bogs the game down and players often interrupt each others turns, which gets confusing for me as a DM.

    I would be interested to hear if other DMs have held actions in their game and to what extent they feature compared to surprise rounds.

  8. Wahey, you're back! I'm in the middle of reading through your entire blog. Good stuff!

    I saw that first pic and immediately thought "Holy shit, that's a bone needle man."

  9. I had not thought of the monsters doing something other than attack to take advantage of surprising the party but I will definitely try that. But sometimes, especially with beasts there is not much else that they can logically do. Surprise comes up infrequently in my games but if the party is making no attempt to be quiet and careful then being ambushed (and surprised) is definitely an option.

    On other thing that your article did make me think about was that you could give those surprising a bonus to initiative instead of the full benefits of surprise. Anyway the interesting article.

  10. This is a really important idea and it's worth exploring. Having the monsters do something other than hit the surprised heroes is a good idea... but in some cases, couldn't it be *worse* than being hit? The vampire extinguishing all the torches for example... that could be a winning move - if the party doesn't have any means of creating light quickly, the vampire is going to wreck them.

    1. This is This is getting on towards my personal philosophy, but IMO. . .

      D&D is a resource-management game. Hit points are the primary resource that PCs spend to perform dangerous activities. When a player chooses to attack an ogre, they are wagering 1d12 of their precious hit points. When they run out of hit points, its a bit like running out of chips in poker--you leave the table (run away) or lose it all (your character dies).

      This is the central contract of hit points that exists between the DM and the players. At the heart here is the idea that the player chooses to wager their HP on something. They *choose* to charge the ogre, because they have 13 HP. They choose not to pull the lever, because they have 1 HP.

      Exceptions can exist (and should exist), but you should try to use them carefully. The more damage you put on the player without them choosing to accept the risk, the more unfair it feels.

      Ideally, when a PC dies, the player should nod and say, "yeah, I guess I deserved that".

      (Yes, you can argue that entering the dungeon involves the acceptance of risk, but (a) it's more abstract and so it feels more undeserved, and (b) the game is about entering dungeons, and a party that doesn't want to enter the dungeon basically can't play the game.)

      When a vampire ambushes a party, it's fair to assume that they can drop a substantial amount of damage on a surprise round, and again if they win initiative. It drop a player's HP enough that they only feel comfortable fleeing, or they could just die from that damage. Either way, they don't have any interesting choices to make.

      Extinguishing all the torches might be worse (in the sense that it harms their chances of victory more), but it doesn't limit their options. The goal here isn't to make the game easier/harder, it's to give the player more interesting options.

  11. I agree with much of this, but I'd say that the informed consent aspect is situational. If they go into the den of something that is known for hiding invisibly, lurking in the shadows, or otherwise surprising people as part of its thing, then informed consent has already been given and surprise is already on the table.