How do you handle surprise in 2e?

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Illuminatus
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How do you handle surprise in 2e?

Post by Illuminatus » Mon Jul 29, 2019 4:12 pm

I’d be interested to know how other 2e DMs have handled surprise. The 2e system always seemed incomplete and poorly thought out to me. A few issues I grapple with:

1) Leaving things like invisibility aside, there doesn’t seem to be an allowance for any scenario where the surpriser remains completely un-noticed by the surprisee, and can just sneak away or eavesdrop. This seems to close the door on many fantasy literature tropes.

2) As near as I can find, neither the PHB nor the DMG specifically present the surprise bonus for Move Silently or Hide in Shadows. The ability description for Move Silently states only that it can “improve the thief’s chance to surprise a victim.” The description for Hide in Shadows doesn’t even mention surprise. Table 57 in the DMG gives a +2 surprise bonus for “Silenced” and “Invisible,” which are the nearest equivalents I can find. So a poor low-level thief who barely has a chance of stealth to begin with succeeds on his roll…and his big reward is a lousy +2 on ANOTHER roll (giving a lousy 50/50 chance of surprise)?

3) Races like elves and halflings get an AUTOMATIC super-duper surprise bonus for being “stealthy.” So is this cumulative with surprise bonuses for Moving Silently and Hiding in Shadows? Is an elf thief Moving Silently twice as silent as a normal elf? Why doesn’t their “stealthiness” allow them to sneak up on things, like Move Silently? Why don’t they just have Move Silently and Hide in Shadows abilities instead? Are there two different kinds of quiet in this universe?

Ah, the things that keep a DM awake at night.

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Re: How do you handle surprise in 2e?

Post by AuldDragon » Mon Jul 29, 2019 4:56 pm

Illuminatus wrote:
Mon Jul 29, 2019 4:12 pm
1) Leaving things like invisibility aside, there doesn’t seem to be an allowance for any scenario where the surpriser remains completely un-noticed by the surprisee, and can just sneak away or eavesdrop. This seems to close the door on many fantasy literature tropes.
That's not a mechanical thing; it's up to the DM to determine. Sometimes there is no chance for one party to surprise another; for example, a group of dwarves in mail wandering through a forest compared to a group of elves in light or no armor: The elves inflict a surprise bonus, while the dwarves are noisy and have no chance to surprise the elves. In this situation, the elves can easily decide what they want to do without the dwarves knowing. Further, if they set up an actual ambush and remain undetected, the elves can actually get *two* rounds of combat against the dwarves (one for the ambush, one for the surprise) before the dwarves can react (if you use individual surprise, some of the dwarves may react earlier and only have one round before they can react).

For the specific situation you're describing, of one party encountering another and being able to flee without notice, you need to look at Table 58: Encounter Distance in the DMG, and the prior section "Surprise."
Illuminatus wrote:
Mon Jul 29, 2019 4:12 pm
2) As near as I can find, neither the PHB nor the DMG specifically present the surprise bonus for Move Silently or Hide in Shadows. The ability description for Move Silently states only that it can “improve the thief’s chance to surprise a victim.” The description for Hide in Shadows doesn’t even mention surprise. Table 57 in the DMG gives a +2 surprise bonus for “Silenced” and “Invisible,” which are the nearest equivalents I can find. So a poor low-level thief who barely has a chance of stealth to begin with succeeds on his roll…and his big reward is a lousy +2 on ANOTHER roll (giving a lousy 50/50 chance of surprise)?
Generally a successful Move Silently and/or Hide in Shadows in appropriate conditions will prevent other creatures from noticing a thief entirely; this is how they successfully use their backstab. If they're not using it to backstab (i.e. they come out of the shadows within a creature's visual range), then it is very reasonable to use a -2 penalty to the opponent's surprise roll.

Remember that if the DM determines it, surprise can be automatic.
Illuminatus wrote:
Mon Jul 29, 2019 4:12 pm
3) Races like elves and halflings get an AUTOMATIC super-duper surprise bonus for being “stealthy.” So is this cumulative with surprise bonuses for Moving Silently and Hiding in Shadows? Is an elf thief Moving Silently twice as silent as a normal elf? Why doesn’t their “stealthiness” allow them to sneak up on things, like Move Silently? Why don’t they just have Move Silently and Hide in Shadows abilities instead? Are there two different kinds of quiet in this universe?
You generally should not double-up on bonuses or penalties for similar things. The elven and halfling abilities are *only* surprise modifiers, and they only work in specific situations. In any given situation, you should determine which mutually exclusive bonuses or penalties apply.

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Re: How do you handle surprise in 2e?

Post by Illuminatus » Tue Jul 30, 2019 4:39 pm

Thanks for the response Auld Dragon. This is why this forum is so great. For those of us who are “out of the loop,” it’s the only way to find out how the game is generally played by others.

I had always suspected that most DMs treated Hide in Shadows and Move Silently as an automatic surprise unless conditions dictated otherwise. And after reading your post I will too, going forward. Still…it would have been nice if the descriptions of the Hide in Shadows and Move Silently abilities had actually SAID that! And not actually included a line that seemed to contradict it! I’ve been making life hard on my rogue-players for decades due to those vague and poorly worded descriptions.

I also agree with your response to Item (3) in general, that the bonuses shouldn’t stack. But I do think that having two separate mechanics of modeling the same thing (stealth) in the same game is fundamentally broken. Here’s why this whole topic has become front-burner for me:

My current game includes a human thief (cattle rustler actually) and an elf druid. The party spied a tower in the distance and wanted to scout. A 30-minute discussion ensued about whether to send the thief, the elf, or both, with a lot of “Why’s” and “What ifs…” Relevant to Item (3), both characters are supposedly stealthy, but if they go together they will each defeat the other’s stealth. The systems are not only separate, they are mutually exclusive! And if they run into an enemy, then the Item (1) issue ensues, as there is no clear rule for the elf escaping detection. (Item 1 is the only issue where your response brings me no solace. This is potentially life or instant-death stuff for the PC involved, and I’m not comfortable with it being my judgment call. It needs a rule.)

But back to Item (3) I’m actually thinking of house-ruling that ALL stealth characters (i.e., thieves and rangers) get the elf/halfling surprise bonus, just to save me the embarassment of having to explain the inexplicable to players again. Then at least the thieves and the elves can play nice together, and the thief abilities are a bonus “super-stealth” rather than a completely separate and incompatible model of stealthiness. This would actually have a bunch of positive secondary effects too, like a much-needed boost to low-level thieves for whom attempts at stealth are otherwise pretty suicidal, giving low-level rangers a worthwhile reason to wear leather, making human thieves a little less gimped compared to elf/halfling thieves, etc.

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Re: How do you handle surprise in 2e?

Post by genghisdon » Wed Jul 31, 2019 2:27 pm

I think on needs to apply some DM fiat to make it work as you desire...

for 1. MS &/or HiS ought do the job...

for 2. I always picture the invisibility -2 mod as being for travel/general use. So it covers grass or bushes moving, catching the scent, etc. Invisibility (or Hiding) that is stationary & in a more specific situation will invoke DM fiat. Same goes for the low level thief overall, to me. The character moving silently through the forest merely nets the -2 vs a wandering monster encounter. If a thief was hidden in shadows. let a watchman pass them, then moves silently up behind him to backstab, I use BOTH...if EITHER works, then they can backstab the guard they were waiting for. So DM judgement & fiat, based on the specifics.

for 3. I'd guess it's just a hold over from earlier editions, but I'm more inclined to let them add in some cases, not in others. HiS, honestly, doesn't often help in the same way, as it is (generally) stationary & if it works, well, it works.

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