Questions on Surprise

Scenario 1: Ed the Explorer (+1 surprise from Animal Reflexes) is leading a bunch of surly Gnomes through the woods. A gang of orcs leap out. Does Ed’s surprise bonus only help Ed, or can he shout enough of a warning to give the gnomes a surprise bonus too?

Scenario 2: Bill the Barbarian (-1 to enemy surprise due to Naturally Stealthy) sneaks up on a patrol of hobgoblins. If he’s alone, I’d be sure the hobgoblins would get a -1 to surprise. What happens if Bill is accompanied by a bunch of surly Gnomes? Is Bill’s surprise advantage neutralized by their constant grumbling?

Great questions. In both cases, some judgment by the Judge is required.

Scenario 1: Is Ed “on point” ahead of the Gnomes? If so, then I’d allow Ed’s surprise bonus to apply to the whole party. On the other hand, if Ed is safely ensconced in the midst of the Gnomes, then he’d have no advance warning.

Scenario 2: Is Bill scouting ahead of the Gnomes? If so, I’d allow Bill’s advantage to stand. If Bill is in the midst of the Gnomes, I wouldn’t.

In both cases, the question to ask yourself is, “if the enemy got the drop on Ed/Bill, would Ed/Bill be at heightened risk due to his position relative to the rest of the party?” If so, then his own Surprise benefit should apply.

This is how we’ve done it too. If you’re “scouting ahead” (Judge’s discretion), you get these bonuses.

I’ve never understood the 1d6 surprise system, going all the way back to AD&D. Most games I have played have used something like: roll perception. Success=you heard the monsters. Roll a contest of your stealth vs the monsters’ perception to sneak up on them.

Under the 1d6 system as written, a player could say “I knock an arrow and watch the door ready to shoot anything that comes through” and if a monster appears that character would have exactly the same chance to be surprised as if he was just standing there. Or, to use the example from pg 97, characters could burst through a door weapons in hand, fully intending to attack whatever they find, and still be surprised by the goblins waiting for them.

Some of these situations can be handled by DM judgment but the default seems to presuppose two groups, both moving with equal levels of stealth and alertness, running into each other unexpectedly. Leftover from an old wargaming “meeting engagement” rule perhaps. Does not seem to account very well for deliberately trying to sneak up on a sentry or many other situations.

But it’s a popular system used in many games. Maybe I am not getting how it is supposed to work?

The presumption of the system, as best as I can gather, is that it assumes everybody is always trying to be alert all the time. You’re in a hellish underworld where death awaits you at every moment. You have to be constantly mindful of danger every moment.

And that’s just utterly exhausting! No one can do it. The mind wanders. Attention lapses. Thoughts drift in that distract us. I think the 1d6 check is to simulate that. “Is your character fully alert or mindful or did his attention lapse for that crucial moment that leaves him surprised.”