How Surprise Works

Fuzzy
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How Surprise Works

Postby Fuzzy » Wed Aug 07, 2019 10:49 am

So... Here is a situation in which I'm trying to understand whether a party is surprised, and how the surprised rules work.


Party comes to an end of a tunnel, sees a clear threat in a room (which they suspect is trapped). Let's say it's something like a statue that they are quite certain will animate and attack them, or trigger some sort of trap.

It turns out there are other enemies in the room that are hiding, which the storm knights fail to detect. The storm knights expect trouble before entering the room. In fact, they cast a few short duration (1 minute) spells before entering the room and go in prepared for a fight or trap of some sort, but other than the stature they don't see a clear threat.

At that point, drama card is flipped, it's Hero/Villain.

The surprised text reads: "If the player characters are the ones surprised,
they cannot play cards into their pool for the first
round. Likewise if they would act first according
to the Drama card skip over their turn (and any
effects) and start with the villains."

There are two possible outcomes here...

1) Heroes are surprised because they did not see the second enemy. Heroes lose the first turn (since it's Hero/Villain), then villains go. Heroes do not put any cards into their pool. Villains go, including the hidden one and the obvious one they saw (the statue) on the villain round. The statue does something unexpected (i.e. magical attack) rather than triggering a trap.

2) Heroes are not surprised... they enter the room, take action normally, but cannot engage the enemy that they cannot see. After they take their action and put cards into a pool, the villains go (both the statue and the hidden villains). The hidden villains attack from stealth, and the heroes are flat-footed against that attack.

The challenge here is the all/nothing nature of surprise. There's no definition of "is surprised". In DND5e, for example, only the characters that escape detection get surprise (a free round of action before the combat begins). In this case, the hidden enemies. But here, if surprise is granted to the villains, then everyone in the villain side gets surprise.

Another part of the issue is that the storm knights were clearly expecting danger, but the danger that they encountered was different than the danger they expected. So, is that surprise, or is that flat-footed? Is surprise intended for situations when danger is unexpected? (i.e. you are walking down the street in Cairo and you get jumped by some street thugs, or a sniper shoots you from a rooftop in Tokyo)?

Let's just say the outcome of this rules question has a fairly significant impact. :)

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Gargoyle
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Re: How Surprise Works

Postby Gargoyle » Wed Aug 07, 2019 11:11 am

Might be a while before Deanna gets back from vacation, so here's my two cents:

Player characters are always expecting danger, they are always "on their guard", so to speak. Sometimes I do narrate that they weren't ready for trouble when surprise happens, in particular when I start something in medias res or in a peaceful setting. But when they're adventuring, they're always looking for danger. Assuming otherwise has a negative impact on the flow of the game...they will constantly be telling the GM how they are prepared for danger, etc and therefore CAN'T be surprised. So it's best to assume that when they are surprised, it's not going to be because they weren't expecting trouble. It's going to be because the villains just did a better job ambushing them. And that's what's happening here with what I presume is the villains doing well with Stealth.

So in my opinion the way to handle this is to just rule that they are surprised because they failed to detect the hidden enemies.
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Kuildeous
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Re: How Surprise Works

Postby Kuildeous » Wed Aug 07, 2019 11:22 am

Based on what you described, I would say the heroes are not surprised. They expected the statue to do something, and it did, so the heroes are certainly prepared for it.

The heroes may not be aware of the other villains, in which case they couldn't target the hidden villains. Since the villains get the drop on the heroes, they do catch them flat-footed, which makes the heroes Very Vulnerable and could trigger abilities that rely on flat-footedness.
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Atama
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Re: How Surprise Works

Postby Atama » Wed Aug 07, 2019 11:27 am

One common trope in movies, stories, and so on is to create an obvious trap (say, a very visible tripwire) that a person is expected to see and disarm. Right after that trap is the “real” trap, like a hidden pressure plate on the floor after the tripwire. The idea is that once the obvious trap is disarmed it creates a false sense of security and the characters put their guard down, making them more susceptible to another trap.

I see this as a similar situation. The characters go into the room, expecting a mechanical trap. Paying attention to the obvious danger has them not paying attention to what else is there (as in the trope), and that makes it easier for enemies to sneak up on them.

I would not accept the argument that “we can’t be surprised because we were expecting trouble”. Once you allow that, forget ever having surprise in your game. Because there is nothing stopping your players from declaring in every room/scene that they are expecting trouble. They should be reminded that just because they weren’t surprised as players, that doesn’t mean their characters aren’t surprised.

Here’s another trope to help explain things... The lone security guard who hears a noise, and goes searching around a dark room with his flashlight. He’s freaked out, paranoid, and extra alert. As he’s peering into the shadows, a silent figure creeps up behind him and strikes! Was he surprised? He was clearly expecting danger. The thing is, he wasn’t expecting that specific danger coming at him from behind at that exact moment. Despite his vigilance, and his expectation of trouble, he was still surprised.

And everything I’ve said is backed up by the Core Rules:
After the first round, play proceeds normally. A side might gain surprise by sneaking up on their enemies with stealth (page 82), setting up an ambush, or with the aid of an appropriate distraction (GM’s call).


All it takes to be surprised is for you to be distracted or someone to sneak up on you. It doesn’t mean you aren’t expecting any trouble.
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Count Thalim
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Re: How Surprise Works

Postby Count Thalim » Wed Aug 07, 2019 12:09 pm

Fuzzy wrote:The challenge here is the all/nothing nature of surprise. There's no definition of "is surprised". In DND5e, for example, only the characters that escape detection get surprise (a free round of action before the combat begins). In this case, the hidden enemies. But here, if surprise is granted to the villains, then everyone in the villain side gets surprise.


If I was running this encounter then I would run it as follows:

The players enter the room expecting the statue to attack and stating they are guarding against that threat.
They are ambushed by the hidden enemies they didn't expect, they lose their turn, don't play down a card but the statue also doesn't act.
New round and combat continues as normal.

It may not be as the rules are exactly laid out, but the flow feels smoother than forcing an all or nothing situation.

Fundamentally the game needs to be adjusted to the players and GM. If you have a group that wants to follow the rules exactly then I would go with the statue getting a free attack even though they are guarding against it.

For my group that treats the rules as guidelines then we would go with what feels more appropriate to us.
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Fuzzy
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Re: How Surprise Works

Postby Fuzzy » Wed Aug 07, 2019 12:42 pm

Here’s another trope to help explain things... The lone security guard who hears a noise, and goes searching around a dark room with his flashlight. He’s freaked out, paranoid, and extra alert. As he’s peering into the shadows, a silent figure creeps up behind him and strikes! Was he surprised? He was clearly expecting danger. The thing is, he wasn’t expecting that specific danger coming at him from behind at that exact moment. Despite his vigilance, and his expectation of trouble, he was still surprised.


So, what this basically describes is flat-footed. The guard takes an action (makes a perception roll using his flashlight), then fails. Attacker has successfully used stealth, so the guard can't do much other than look around (and fail to detect). Then the silent figure stabs him in the back (flat-footed attack). Surprise would be when the guard is on routine patrol, and generally "on guard", but has no specific incidence to cause him to be on high alert.

Player characters are always expecting danger, they are always "on their guard", so to speak. Sometimes I do narrate that they weren't ready for trouble when surprise happens, in particular when I start something in medias res or in a peaceful setting. But when they're adventuring, they're always looking for danger.


100% agree with this generally. Players can't always be "expecting danger". If the players are walking down a tunnel or through a ruin, generally expecting trouble, and they get ambushed, that's clear surprise. Here, however, there was a clear and present specific danger, and that danger attacked them.

The characters go into the room, expecting a mechanical trap. Paying attention to the obvious danger has them not paying attention to what else is there (as in the trope), and that makes it easier for enemies to sneak up on them.


To be fair to the players, they aren't expecting a mechanical trap... they cast melee defense spells. They expected the "trap" was summoning some sort of enemy to attack them. As it turned out, the enemy was already there and hiding.

After the first round, play proceeds normally. A side might gain surprise by sneaking up on their enemies with stealth (page 82), setting up an ambush, or with the aid of an appropriate distraction (GM’s call).


So, the problem is the thing on the "side" that was hidden which did the harm was actually the one thing they were aware of... Although the precise attack (non-physical) was not exactly what they expected.

Here's the flip argument (to avoid being too nice to players), that the players make:

"So, we're in a room preparing to ambush some villains. One of us stands in the middle of the room next to a control panel with a button that activates some defense lasers and summons guards, with his finger over the button. Two others hide. We lure the villains into the room. The villains know it's a trap but they don't see the well hidden heroes. Before the villains enter the room, the villains stand outside for several rounds, readying themselves for a fight they know is coming. Then the villains enter the room. The players argue they get ambush... all three of them (not just the hidden two). The enemies go first on the card, but lose their actions completely. Then the heroes go, and the two hidden heroes attack without doing damage. But the hero in the middle of the room that was standing in front of a control panel mind blasts the villains, killing them without the villains getting a chance to do anything."

So, as a GM, would you grant the heroes surprise in this situation, or rule that it's a standard combat but the villains don't get to attack the hidden heroes, and the hidden heroes catch the villains flat-footed when they get their turn to go?

Interesting quandary. Among other things, if we set this precedent, then the players will consistently argue that they can do the above scenario since it was done to them.

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Kuildeous
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Re: How Surprise Works

Postby Kuildeous » Wed Aug 07, 2019 1:08 pm

Atama wrote:One common trope in movies, stories, and so on is to create an obvious trap (say, a very visible tripwire) that a person is expected to see and disarm. Right after that trap is the “real” trap, like a hidden pressure plate on the floor after the tripwire. The idea is that once the obvious trap is disarmed it creates a false sense of security and the characters put their guard down, making them more susceptible to another trap.


I can dig it, but I don’t think it’s analogous to the OP’s situation. The statue is also attacking. The heroes wouldn’t be surprised by this. And since surprise is all or nothing, if any one of the villains doesn’t surprise the heroes, then the surprise rules do not apply. As I said, the heroes are flat-footed, which is too bad since the statue can benefit from the Very Vulnerable (but not the flat-footed).

What I think is perfectly analogous to hypothetical situation is the group prepping for a fight only to learn the statue is just a statue. When they let their guard down, then the villains catch them by surprise.

I could see an argument for the statue not animating until round 2 so that the villains get surprise with the statue joining later, but that just smacks heavily of “gotcha,” and I don’t appreciate that encounter design.
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Gargoyle
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Re: How Surprise Works

Postby Gargoyle » Wed Aug 07, 2019 4:30 pm

I could definitely see a ruling that they are not flat-footed against the statue. That's why we have GM's. Always err in the side of the players.
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Re: How Surprise Works

Postby Istrian » Thu Aug 08, 2019 4:01 am

The way I'd run that specific scene would be:
- First round the hidden critters attack, following the usual Surprise rules. The statue does NOT act. If I had doubts I'd roll the hidden critters' Stealth vs the highest Find of the group. If one player had declared they were looking at every dark corner, then I would have made the roll contested (i.e. both sides roll) to check for Surprise.
- Second round the hidden critters and the statue act normally.

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Count Thalim
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Re: How Surprise Works

Postby Count Thalim » Thu Aug 08, 2019 4:38 am

Kuildeous wrote:I could see an argument for the statue not animating until round 2 so that the villains get surprise with the statue joining later, but that just smacks heavily of “gotcha,” and I don’t appreciate that encounter design.


I see where you come from with this. A case of "Ha, I tricked you"
But my view is from the other side. The players had a chance of spotting the ambush and presumably have failed their dice rolls. I am rewarding them for identifying one part of the trap through their roleplay.

But as I have often said, my group is heavy on the drama side and less on the mechanics. I will happily bend and twist rules for the sake of the story and my group are fine with that. Other groups may want the rules to be more structured, especially if the GM and players don't know each other as well such as in a convention game.
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