On Surprise, and How Life Sucks Sometimes

One of my current players made the comment that surprise doesn't seem very realistic or fair. After all, if you roll a 1 and the monsters roll a 10, they get nine segments of actions to act. In one of those segments you may:
  • Make a full round of attacks
  • Make a full round of missile attacks
  • Move a number of feet equal to your movement rate in inches. (basically 2" or 10' if your movement is 9" or 12", or 1" or 5' if your movement rate is 3" or 6"
  • Cast a one segment spell or begin casting a longer spell
  • Perform any action that can be completed in one segment.
Surprise exists to allow weak monsters to f&*( you up.  It isn't realistic, and it's not explicitly supposed to simulate nine separate attacks.

That many attacks are rolled, because the damage they do to you in the surprise round is much more devastating then any wound they could give you during a round of combat in which you are prepared.

Now of course, this all falls apart when the surprise segments suddenly turn into real segments of activity. In that case, you wouldn't still be surprised after someone struck you for the ninth time in 54 seconds. I imagine it would be difficult to remain surprised for that long.

So as long as these represent real values of explicit time in which you are tracking activity during the round then my player is right. If it instead represents the damage done to you while surprised, or what you can reasonably accomplish before your opponent is prepared, then it works quite well for that purpose.

We have agreed to compromise on using a d6 for surprise.


  1. Using a D10 for surprise seems excessive. AD&D has the most lethal surprise rules of the systems I've seen, and it only uses a D6. That gives only a 1/3 chance of getting more than 2 surprise segments, compared to 56% for a d10, and with a much steeper curve thereafter.

    My concern would be that the party could run into a high level monster, roll badly on their surprise die, and get TPKed without any chance to react.

    1. "My concern would be that the party could run into a high level monster, roll badly on their surprise die, and get TPKed without any chance to react."

      Sauce for the goose.

    2. This sort of thing would make it far more appealing to put an elf or halfling or ranger taking point a good deal ahead of the rest of the party. The rules will influence the way the game's played; smart players will find a way to deal with and exploit that.

    3. "At any time, any place, without warning, your party could be subjected to nine full attack routines from a hydra. Reduce your probability of unforeseeable, unavoidable, instantaneous death by putting the elf in front." :P Yeah, two surprise segments is plently lethal enough for me. Surprise shouldn't be so important as to overshadow everything else completely.

  2. This is an argument for using a more "analog" (neo-old-school, rulings-not-rules?) system for surprise where you logically work out actions from the alertness, noticeability and relative distance of both parties. In my game, there is only one round of surprise attacks possible (unless you happen on a deeply sleeping creature) and any roll is for the state of alertness of a being. See here.

  3. In AD&D most monsters (and PC's) surprise on a 1-2 on a d6, with 2 surprise segments being the max. Some monsters have a higher chance of surprising opponents, 1-7 in 8, for example. In that instance, the player's would roll a d8 and the monster a d6. If the players rolled a one, they're surprised for one round. If they rolled a 7, then for seven rounds, unless the monster rolled, say, a two, which would drop the number of segments the PC's are surprised to five.

    Usually, 2 segments are the max, which is enough to F*** you up, but not too, too bad. Unless you're surprised by readied archers, who can fire at three times their normal rate. The moral of that story, is "never get surprised by a company of elven archers."

  4. I don't think there's a maximum number of surprise segments in AD&D. The DMG shows a surprise dice difference of 5 to 2 as giving 3 surprise segments, for instance. But the example given on the next page is so ludicrously convoluted that I'm not sure.

    I normally just use the rule that 1 = surprised for 1 segment, 2 = surprised for 2 segments, everything else = not surprised.

  5. I might just put a cap on the number of 'surprise' attacks that you get when your opponent is surprised... because, well, a bugbear stabbing your guy 9 times just because the bugbear caught him taking a leak does seem excessive. Maybe put it at 3 max by dividing the difference the surpriser gets on the surprisee by 3 and rounding down?
    I like the idea of using a d10 rather than a d6 since it will decrease the chances for surprise/being surprised.

  6. 1-2 on d6 is the standard, but the Ranger, certain races (conditionally) and several monsters have increased or decreased chances to surprise or be surprised (see pages 61-62 of the DMG.)

    Also, the Dex. Reaction Adj. can modify surprise on an individual basis, but not for the whole party. So, a dex. of 18 means that particular PC is surprised for 3 segments less than the rest of the party.

    Under most circumstances, 2 is the max. If the side in question rolls a 1, they're surprised for one segment. If they roll a 2, they're surprised for two segments.

    If one side rolls a 1 and the other rolls a 2, then the "1" for both sides cancel out (they're both surprised for that segment) and the side that rolled a 2 will be subject to one round of surprise.

    I prefer B/X style surprise myself, but when running AD&D I run it by the book! :)


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