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November 2014

The November Blog Carnival hosted by Roleplaying Tips, is winding up – there are just a few days left to post your articles on the subjects of Aliens and Races.

December 2014

That also means that its time for me to gear up for the December Carnival, because I’ve put Campaign Mastery’s hand up to serve as Host. The subject this time around is going to be “With A Twist” – surprises, plot twists, the unexpected in any form, and anything else that’s relevant to these subjects.

I’ve got one two-part article aimed at the topic so far (not counting this one), and I’m looking forward to the variety of interesting submissions that such a broad topic should produce. Remember, anything that has anything at all to do with surprises, tricks, twists, or the unexpected is fair game!

This page is the anchor for the month – Bloggers, link to this page to generate a pingback and drop me a comment here about your article, so that it can be included in the end-of-month roundup on the subject.

But I’m not the type (usually) to simply put up an empty “send your comments here” and call it an article. So I’m kicking the month off early with a modest essay on the subject of — Well…



Let’s start with a definition, from TheFreeDictionary.com:


  1. To encounter suddenly or unexpectedly; take or catch unawares.
  2. To attack or capture suddenly and without warning.
  3. To cause to feel wonder, astonishment, or amazement, as at something unanticipated.
    • To cause (someone) to do or say something unintended.
    • To elicit or detect through surprise.


  1. The act of surprising or the condition of being surprised.
  2. Something, such as an unexpected encounter, event, or gift, that surprises.

Surprise is also a vital game mechanic in many if not most game systems. And that’s only fair enough; the ability to cope with the unexpected is a key factor in events in real life, and some can react while others only stand and gape.

Surprise is also a huge tactical advantage, one that many game systems don’t simulate very well, usually severely underestimating its impact. There are some good reasons for this – surprise takes away from the PCs ability to act or react to a situation, and that’s no fun for the PCs. However, the lame implementations that are common are so mild as to make surprise tactically almost-insignificant, and that’s going too far. Ideally, you want surprise to dump the PCs just deep enough into trouble that they can fight their way back out – barely.

The effects of Surprise

Game systems have all sorts of different ways of simulating the condition of surprise. Before we can discuss them, though, we need to understand what the effects of surprise are.

My research says:

  1. Surprise causes hesitation even in the face of the immediate need to act.
  2. Surprise causes a gap in comprehension; and if another unexpected event occurs while in a surprised state, it can extend that surprise state as the mind struggles to integrate perceptions into a view of the world that it can comprehend and act upon.
  3. Surprise can redirect or refocus attention onto something new instead of maintaining concentration on whatever someone was doing at the moment they were surprised. If the new focus of attention is perceived as threatening (whether it is or not), it can trigger an involuntary fight-or-flight response, whether or not that response is actually warranted by the degree of threat. Note that fight-or-flight means that the focus shifts immediately once again away from the threat to search for escape routes; if one presents, it will be taken if surprise is still in effect, regardless of how unsafe it may be. If no escape route presents itself, focus will return to the threat; if there is an opening to attack, it will be taken, otherwise a defensive posture will probably be adopted.
  4. Responses to surprise can be trained, but this conditioned response will only be applicable to stimuli that match those trained for. These responses may be triggered as any other conditioned response, regardless of whether or not the person is surprised at the time.
  5. People can be desensitized to particular types of surprise, which over time leads to a decrease in the level of surprise intensity experienced. This doesn’t mean that they won’t be surprised in a scary movie, just that they might expect the startling scene due to familiarity with past movies of the genre, lowering the level of surprise.
  6. Some studies show that higher IQ corresponds to a shortened surprise reaction. Some show that higher IQ corresponds with an increased propensity to be surprised. Some studies that don’t differentiate between these two aspects of the phenomenon suggest that IQ makes no quantifiable difference. None of these results have been proven to a statistical certainty.

By my count, that’s six criteria that any surprise system has to simulate in order to correspond with reality. I doubt any will, simply because playability mandates some level of compromise. But let’s take a look at one or two and see how we go.

D&D 3.x

3.x has two mechanisms for simulating surprise: “Surprise” and “Flat-footed”.

“Surprise” is described as the situation when combat begins and you are not aware of your enemy while they are aware of you. Awareness is up to the GM to decide, there are some examples and guidelines. In the event that some participants are surprised and others are not, combat begins with a “Surprise Round” in which only those who are not surprised can act.

Actions in a surprise round consist of a Standard Action, and any additional Free Actions that the GM permits. This is slightly more restrictive than a normal combat round. Those who don’t get to act in a Surprise round are considered flat-footed. Interestingly, the term “Surprise” is mentioned only in the heading of the rules section summarized above.

“Flat-footed” sounds impressive, but in fact everyone who has yet to act in a combat is in that condition. It means that you can’t use your Dexterity Bonus to AC, and can’t make attacks of opportunity. What’s more, some classes have the potential to avoid being considered flat-footed.

So what does “surprise” amount to under these game mechanics? A delay in the end of a slightly-reduced ability to defend yourself for one combat round – and some characters can avoid that penalty – and the inability to act for that same fixed period of time. Full stop.

Comparing that with our list of real-world effects, we can rate this system as one out of six. If we allow for the uncertainty of the last and assume that everyone not trained to do otherwise will react the same overall, two out of six.

It can be argued that it’s unreasonable to mandate effect three, that’s a matter of roleplay. I consider that true, as far as it goes – but since players don’t typically so roleplay, instead focusing on the threats displayed under the situation, I would argue that some game mechanics should be at least considered.

However, there’s one vital element that the rules quoted above don’t mention, and it changes the entire picture. How long is a combat round? For how long should surprise continue, in combat rounds?

I’ve always been told that there’s one surprise round and then the characters act normally, but a stricter reading of the rules suggests otherwise. Surprise rounds continue as long as one or more characters are unaware of the presence of a hostile force. That means that if the hostile force does something sneaky instead of attacking in their surprise round, surprise will continue to apply. However, the number of participating characters might change.

The big shortcoming is that Surprise is all or nothing, and being caught “Flatfooted” is not all that significant. While the DEX bonus to AC is useful, it is not all that substantial.

Proposed Optional Rules

I have four House Rules to propose that, in combination, would lift the score to five out of six, possible six out of six.

Proposed Optional 3.x Rule Number One:
“Flatfooted” also prevents the use of a shield (including any AC bonuses it may confer) and prevents any weapon from being reloaded, i.e. if you have an arrow in hand, you may fire that arrow, but may not then draw another arrow from the quiver; if your crossbow is cocked and loaded, you can fire it, but cannot cock and reload it.

Proposed Optional 3.x Rule Number Two:
The round after a character is attacked while in a state of surprise, they enter “fight-or-flight” status. While in this status they are no longer considered flat-footed and may act as any other character within the Surprise Round, but must make a WIS check at DC15 or be forced to use their one standard action for movement in the direction of the nearest escape route in as straight a line as possible, which may subject the character to attacks of opportunity. If there are no escape routes, the character may attack. If presented with multiple foes, they will attack in the direction of what would be the most immediate escape route if the target attacked were not there. Thereafter, in any round in which they are not attacked, they may make additional WIS checks at DC15 to end this condition. If they are attacked, they may also save, but the DC is increased by 1 per dice of damage inflicted on the character in that round.

2a: Any class ability or feat that prevents the character from being caught flatfooted while surprised places that character in “Fight or Flight” mode immediately, as though they had just exited the condition of being surprised, but also confers a +2 to the first WIS check. Furthermore, they may choose their route of movement towards the escape route rather than being restricted to straight-line movement as described.

2b: Fighters and other soldiers may, at the GM’s discretion, make a save vs military class level to avoid this status completely by virtue of their training.

Proposed Optional 3.x Rule Number Three:
While in “fight-or-flight” condition, the character must make an INT check (same DCs) to use any INT-based skill or ability, including the ability to cast spells. Exceptions are at the GMs discretion but should normally include wands, scrolls, and quickened spells.

Proposed Optional 3.x Rule Number Four:
If a character is attacked from behind or the side, or by any foe they did not realize was present, while in “fight-or-flight” condition, they resume being flatfooted for their subsequent action in the current or next combat round, whichever comes first. If anything else occurs that could be considered surprising or unexpected, they must make a WIS check at DC15 to avoid reentering a surprised state for a round. These events occur even if the character is now aware of hostile forces (but this would mean that they will automatically come out of surprise after one combat round. Characters who are not subject to being flatfooted by virtue of class abilities or feats do not lose a round to surprise; the primary effect on such characters is to restart the saves sequence in “fight or flight” status.

The first proposed rule employs the logic that if you can’t effectively dodge to one side in combat (i.e. employ your DEX-based AC Modifier, you shouldn’t be able to do anything else similar, like moving a shield into position to block an attack. My first draft outlawed all ranged weapons fire – can’t aim at anything for the same reason – but I decided that was too harsh and restrictive.

The second rule creates an intermediate combat condition after a character is surprised in which they are less in control of their actions, while permitting players the chance of regaining control. It also confers the opportunity for a character to be returned to a state of surprise if attacked unexpectedly, or some other surprising development occurs. Rule 2a describes how Rogue and Barbarian immunity to surprise is interacts with this combat condition. Rule 2b gives an out to those who can reasonably be described as having trained for surprise combat if they are experienced enough will still letting surprise pose a risk to these characters.

Rule number three deals with the difficulty in comprehending the environment and in performing complex mental tasks while surprised.

Lastly, Rule Four permits the unexpected to disturb mental equilibrium even once a character has started to recover from being surprised.

Personal assessment:

I would keep Rule number one. I would consider rules two through four on a trial basis before committing to them; they may complicate combat too much, failing the playability test. But the description of “Surprise” that results is so much closer to the real condition that it’s definitely worth considering.


Unsurprisingly, there aren’t many differences between 3.x and Pathfinder. They are explicit in stating that characters are only flatfooted when surprised because they haven’t acted yet, and until they become aware of a hostile opponent, they won’t get to act. Free actions are no longer only if the GM permits them.

That means that they don’t even meet the same standard as the 3.x rules in terms of realism because they don’t fully replicate the one aspect of being surprised as well as 3.x does. However, the rules are considerably simpler in explanation, and so would score more highly in terms of playability.

Optional Rules

The optional rules stated above work fine in principle but are out of step with the relative simplicity of the pathfinder rules. So I would simplify them somewhat to bring them more into line:

Proposed Optional Pathfinder Rule Number One:
When you are “Flatfooted” you cant use a shield or get any AC bonus from a shield. You can’t reload a ranged weapon, but may use any ammunition already in hand.

Proposed Optional Pathfinder Rule Number Two:
When a character stops being surprised, they enter “fight-or-flight” status. They must move in as straight a line as possible toward the nearest escape route unless they make a WIS check at DC 15. This may subject the character to attacks of opportunity. If the escape routes are blocked by enemies, the character must attack the enemy blocking the most accessible escape route until the character makes a WIS Check as described. As soon as the character succeeds in a WIS check, they are free to choose their actions as normal. Characters with the Uncanny Dodge ability who would otherwise be flatfooted are forced to move as described until making a successful WIS check but may choose the direction of movement. Fighters and other martial character classes may, at the GM’s discretion, make a save vs military class level to avoid this condition completely by virtue of their training.

Proposed Optional Pathfinder Rule Number Three:
While in “fight-or-flight” status, the character must make an INT check (DC 15) to use any INT-based skill or ability, including the ability to cast spells. Exceptions are at the GMs discretion but should normally include wands, scrolls, and quickened spells.

This says effectively the same thing, but with a some simplification, and it eliminates the fourth proposed house rule entirely, more in keeping with the simplicity and increased emphasis on playability. They do take a little of the flexibility away from the characters but simplify the mechanics considerably in the process.

The loss of proposed house rule four removes the simulation of recurring panic from the mechanics, and so this would only score four or five out of six – but that is a great deal better than the original state of the simulation, and makes Surprise something to be avoided if it is at all possible, something that is not the case in many high-level campaigns.

Personal Assessment:

I don’t currently run a Pathfinder campaign, but if I did, I would adopt all the rules as given above. I might raise the DC required, bearing in mind how easy it is for most mid-level characters to achieve this standard.

D&D 4e

I don’t run this system and have never played it; I quickly became convinced that it moved its emphasis in a direction that didn’t suit my existing campaigns. Those campaigns are still running and 5e is now out, so I kind of doubt that I ever will. So I’m not qualified to comment. I did an online search for the relevant rules but found everything pointing at one of the online 3.5 SRDs, so that was a bust, too. If anyone wants to synopsis how 4e handles Surprise and assess it against the six criteria listed earlier, drop your contribution into the comments section!

D&D 5e

A similar story with the latest iteration of the D&D rules, I’m afraid – they have simply been beyond the reach of my wallet so far, and while I have access to the playtesting drafts of the rules, if there was no change from those to the final game rules I would be quite disappointed. Once again, if anyone wants to synopsize and evaluate the surprise rules, please direct the info to a comment!

Hero System 5e

The Hero System is another game system that I use frequently because it’s the basis of the Pulp Campaign. It recognizes two distinct types of Surprise – there’s an attack from an unexpected direction or quarter while already engaged in combat or expecting combat, and a more severe situation when you aren’t expecting an attack at all.

Being surprised in-combat makes you easier to hit. There are no other direct effects. And, of course, once you’ve been surprised by a given combatant, it’s much harder to be surprised by them again, though there are ways it can be done using powers like invisibility combined with some stealthy movement capability.

Being surprised when you aren’t expecting combat is far more serious. Such targets are not only easier to hit but take double stun damage, which can be enough to induce other combat effects. It’s also easier for attackers who have the advantage of surprise to target using a Placed Shot, which can compound the effectiveness of the attack.

It’s those “other combat effects” that are critical. If the attack inflicts more STUN damage than the targets’ CON, after his defenses are taken into account, then the character is Stunned. This is bad news – not only can you not act, but powers which are voluntary shut down, you remain at half-defense (so subsequent attacks continue to be easier to succeed with), and the character doesn’t get some of his normal recoveries, meaning that he is vulnerable to running out of STUN completely, inducing unconsciousness. Finally, in order to get to act normally, he has to use a full action to Recover from being stunned, and ANY damage inflicted while he is attempting to do so prevents the Recovery from succeeding.

In effect, this means that if the initial hit (the surprise, in other words) is big enough, the character can do nothing but gape and try to make sense of what is going on until he gets an action in which he is not successfully hit again – with his defense against being so hit reduced.

By my count, that’s two or three out of six of the effects of stun. What’s more, tucked away in the relevant rules is the statement that Soldiers, Police, etc, can’t be surprised while on duty – that seems a little too generous to me, but it’s close enough to the “trained response” to add another one to the score. In fact, the only real-world effects not modeled by this system are the contentious “INT differences” and the “fight-or-flight”.

But that’s not the end of this particular story.

While characters can start “Recovery from being Stunned” in their action, it takes their FULL action. Depending on how you interpret the rules, that can be significant.

The easier option, in terms of game playability, is to have a character complete a full round action at the point when they act in the battle sequence. The more realistic option is for this action to be complete the instant before their next action begins. This makes a huge difference in terms of the rule that “any additional damage that penetrates defenses prevents the success of the Recovery”.

Optional Rules

There are a number of rules variations possible that attempt to combine the more playable game mechanics with what seems to be the intent of the rules, i.e. the more severe combat effects.

Proposed Optional Hero System Rule Number One:
The simplest such variation that I have found is to define an additional combat status, “In Danger of being Re-Stunned”, which the character enters after executing a “Recovery from being Stunned” action. In this half-way state, the character has all the game effects of being stunned lifted, but any damage that penetrates his defenses immediately makes the character Stunned again.

That leaves the question of how and when a character exits this combat status. There are two options here, and while the difference might seem trivial at first, it is actually rather profound.attempt

Proposed Optional Hero System Rule Number Two – standard rules:
As soon as the character is permitted to act following an attempt to “Recover from being Stunned”, they are no longer “In Danger of being Re-Stunned”.

Proposed Optional Hero System Rule Number Two – ‘fight or flight’ rules:
As soon as the character completes a full action following an attempt to “Recover from being Stunned” and is permitted to make a second full action, they are no longer “In Danger of being Re-Stunned”.

The second version means that a character may have a full action after recovering from being stunned, but remains vulnerable to being Re-Stunned until they commence the action after that – which means that there is a tactical imperative to use that first full action to minimize the dangers of being hit again. This constrains what the character should choose to do to the normal “fight or flight” responses – head for a point of protection, take cover, or try to get whatever is in between them and safety out of the way if there is no other option. It’s not a perfect implementation but it comes close.

Personal Assessment:

Implementation of the first rule should be pretty much universal, since it does nothing but simplify the game mechanics without changing them. The choice between versions one and two of the second rule is a little more problematic, and should be made along genre lines, and possibly even on a case-by-case, combat-by-combat, basis.

The players in the Adventurer’s Club campaign are the types to seek cover in this sort of situation anyway, do I don’t think version two would be needed very often in that campaign – we can trust our players to behave sensibly. If I were running a superhero campaign, genre conventions dictate that superhero slugfests are over the top, so I would commit to the first version of the rule. A super-agents campaign, on the other hand, should emphasize melodramatic combat and high-stakes danger, so I would commit such a campaign to the second version of the rule, and this would also be the case with Fantasy Hero campaigns (with possible exceptions). The same would probably hold true for Ninja Hero and Star Hero campaigns, for the increased gritty realism and heightened melodrama, respectively.

Other Game Systems

There are a LOT of other game systems out there, from TORG to who-knows-what. I’m sure that some of them have innovative or unique methods of simulating Surprise, and it would not surprise me if some of them ignored the subject entirely. The purpose of this article is not so much to be comprehensive (though I would like to have covered the most popular game systems), but to act as an example and a template for others to consider the way in which the game system they are playing simulates Surprise.

Does it do it well? Does it miss any of the key criteria? Does it play well? I want each GM reading this to spend 60 seconds asking how well the game system they are using handles this aspect of the simulated reality – and whether or not some house rule to implement a closer simulation would be worth the experiment.

By all means, if there is a different way of handling surprise, tell me about it in the comments. If you try a house rule to better simulate surprise, I want to know if it’s an improvement or not. Let’s make this a month of pleasant surprises!

An unsurprising conclusion?

All game systems are a compromise between reality, an idealized genre-rooted distortion of reality, and playability. Each occupies a different position within this triangle. The trend should always be towards a point on the axis between the latter two, with “reality” harnessed in service of the other goals, which in turn exist only to create entertainment for the participants.

The rules for Surprise in a game system are representative of this point, varying from “very close to reality” in some cases to “extremely compromised” in others.

However, in all cases examined, it is not all that difficult to frame rules that more accurately simulate reality without compromising the other priorities; the inevitable question has to be, why were these rules not included in the game systems in question. Is it simply a case of human error, or was it a necessary compromise to make room for something judged more essential?

Regardless of the reason, the fact remains that every game system examined was compromised to at least some extent, perhaps unnecessarily. The decision as to whether or not to leave things in that state for your game is up to you, as GM, after due input from your players. This article tells you what you need to know in order to make an informed decision; what you make of it is up to you. It’s your campaign, I can only offer food for thought.

There’s always something unexpected creeping up behind you…

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