Were You Surprised?
When I first saw the movie Black Dynamite, I certainly was! We had to pause the move because we were laughing so hard! In this video, the character Black Dynamite is able to subdue a guard before the guard has a chance to warn his master. This provides Black Dynamite the opportunity to prepare a well-timed attack on an unsuspecting opponent.
Too often surprise rounds in Dungeons and Dragons consist of the Dungeon Master saying, “OK, put your characters on the map in this area, and then you get one action, and combat advantage”. This is OK once and awhile, but becomes lame very, very quickly.
Elements of Surprise
There are plenty of interesting ways that a party can get the drop on their target. As a DM, you don’t always have to resort to a default surprise round.
Reconnaissance Provides Valuable Intel
A scout is one of the simplest ways to know what dangers lurk on the road ahead. If a stealthy rogue or ranger is able to successfully perceive danger and relay the information to the party, this opens up a world of possibilities.
The party might change their route to obtain a tactical edge, set traps and try to lure the enemy in, try to find a different path and avoid the issue entirely (skills challenge), or the party might even choose to give up and head back the way they came.
The iconic phrase “we have you surrounded” would never be uttered if a group was not able to sneak up and position themselves around a target.
If a party succeeds at identifying a target and sneaking up on them, consider allowing characters to be placed on the battle map in more places than you would have allowed otherwise.
Luring Enemies Into Traps
Everyone loves a booby trap (so long as they’re not the boob). If the party learns of a threat and wants to attempt a creative scheme that involves time and resources, by all means, don’t railroad their inspiration! A skills challenge can determine the quality of the trap, and if the target is effectively lured near the trap, the quality of the trap might determine the DC to perceive it, or it might affect the damage or effects that occur once the trap is sprung.
Catch the Enemy at Their Weakest
Reconnaissance intel might inform the party that their enemies are making camping and resting, which might provide the party with an opportunity to make a stealthy, surgical strike. If the party can quietly remove anyone standing guard, or any magical defenses, the players might even earn an opportunity to coup de grace a sleepy enemy! My players always become very excited when they have a chance to coup de grace anything.
Add Your Flavor to the Pot
As a DM, how do you add flavor to an otherwise tasteless surprise round? As a player, what best way you’ve ever gotten the drop on an enemy?