[RPG] Surprise, ready an action and bashing doors


I'm a bit confused about how "surprise" and "ready an action" interact in the following situation:

  • Behind a door two ogres are having breakfast.
  • One PC kicks the door, the others PCs says that they ready an action: if an enemy comes into their FoV they will shoot an arrow.
  • The PCs fail to kick the door on the first try. The ogres are therefore prepared and they ready an action to throw their javelins at whoever is kicking the door when the door breaks.
  • The PCs fail to hear the sound of the ogres readying their weapons.

The problem is:

Any character or monster that doesn't notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter. [PHB p. 189]

I assumed that because the PCs didn't perceive anything, they had not 'noticed the threat', therefore they were surprised.

  1. I judged that the ogres therefore surprised the PCs, so the PCs couldn't use their reaction until the end of their first turn and the ogres could suse their reaction to throw their javelins, and they also have a whole turn on the surprise round (so they can move and bash some heads).

Alternative Possibilities:

  1. The PCs kick down the door on the first attempt. When they kick down the door, both the ogres and the players are surprised, but the PCs readied an action, and according to the rules of surprise, creatures can use reactions after their first turn ends, so they can use their reaction on the readied action. The PCs can shoot their arrows at the ogres.

  2. They fail to kick the door at the first try and pass their perception check, so neither of the groups are surprised and both groups shoot each other.

How many of these interpretations (1, 2, 3) are correct?

Best Answer

What Surprise Means

Surprise is a judgement call on the DM's part that is situational.

The DM determines who might be surprised. If neither side tries to be stealthy, they automatically notice each other. Otherwise, the DM compares the Dexterity (Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of each creature on the opposing side. Any character or monster that doesn't notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter.

Readied Action

Readied action uses the reaction for the same round that the action was readied. If every party member readies an action for the door to break down, and the door doesn't get broken down that round, the action is wasted. They can re-ready the same action the next turn. In that case, when the trigger happens, they all take their action (in initiative order (or [Dex] order) since they all have the same trigger) and the DM resolves them.

If a surprise round were to occur without the trigger being able to fire, the readied action is lost and the players will take normal actions on their next turn. I don't think that's how this should play out.

How I'd Rule

In the situation you describe, the players are alert because they are kicking down a door, so they expect something to be on the other side. They have even readied actions to take, so the ogres can't really get the jump on them -- the players aren't surprised.

The ogres would have been surprised if the party successfully beat the door down, but they failed the roll and the ogres heard the sound. They know that something is trying to come through the door -- the ogres are not surprised.

Readied actions will happen on triggers as usual (or not if trigger doesn't come, or if reaction is used to do something else like Opportunity Attack), as no one is surprised.

The three scenarios

RAW, there shouldn't have been a perception check. The players took no action that would give them one. That said, as a DM you can give them that extra heads up...

  1. The Players' turns (and thus reactions) would be lost during the first round if the ogres surprised the players. Second round they'd act as normal. That is what surprise does. Otherwise, it is legal.

  2. If everyone is surprised, no one can act for the first round. That's 6 seconds of everyone looking at each other in shock. No actions taken. Otherwise, it's legal.

  3. It's legal.