**Disclaimer** The following blog is a parody. For avoidance of doubt, Otto von Quarzis is NOT a prophet and his former Rules Firm is NOT a law firm, does not provide legal advice, and, you know... isn't real. Carry on.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Rules Lawyers - Fight - The Alertness Feat

Welcome to a new segment on the Quarzis Games' blog.  This segment, I am tentatively titling "Rules Lawyers - Fight"; at least until my counterparty disagrees with me and thinks of something more clever to title it.  The gist of this segment is that I and my good friend, Mark, at Dustpan Games will take a topic of contention in the D&D (and possibly other games) universe and battle it out. The Dustpan Games cross-post can be found here.

This episode - the "alertness feat" in 5th Edition D&D. A player in my 5e campaign took this feat... and it has made my life a living hell, as a DM, ever since.  Now, let me take a step back - it really isn't that bad.  I just kept forgetting he had it - and so my carefully planned ambushes... well, they didn't work out so well.  The question arose - how can anything ever allow a character to "never be surprised"?  The answer that I hope to argue is - this isn't the right question to ask.  As I will illustrate - I f''ed up.  I didn't adjudicate the situation correctly.  I'll explain why below the jump.

First, lets look at the feat's description.  It gives a +5 bonus to initiative. Okay, I believe that makes sense. Nothing game breaking about that.  Feats are relatively rare, and as they are taken in lieu of attribute increases, they should be pretty powerful.  Here is the kicker though "You can't be surprised while you are conscious."  Really?!

At first blush, this appears to be a hugely over-powered, and unrealistic (even taking into account suspension of disbelief element) mechanic.  However, lets look at what the alert feat is meant for. The description says that characters with this feat "are always on the lookout for danger..."  Okay, that makes sense. They are... in a word... alert.

It is also telling that a character with this feat does not suffer from hidden creatures attacking it - normally such hidden creatures would get advantage; not if the target has the alert feat.  The reason for this is right in the description, the character is always on the lookout. They are hyper sensitive.

If you think about a combat round, it is 6 seconds of "game time."  Surprise is based on an individual character.  The PHB notes (pg. 189) that a member of a group can be surprised, even if other members of its group are not.  The best way to think about it is reaction time. I have horrible reaction time - I most certainly don't have the alert feat.  However, you've seen the movies where an arrow comes out of nowhere, and the guy (or gal) catches it out of thin air.  It may have "surprised" them as in "they were not expecting it."  However, their reaction time was so great that they did not suffer the affects of being surprised.  They were... in a word... alert.  Think about playing Battlefield 4 (or other shooter of your choice). Often times two people will come around a corner - both are caught unaware. However, one of those players probably has such an awesome reaction time that they blast the living beatlejuice out of the other.  I know... I'm the guy getting the beatlejuice blasted out of.

I went back to D&D 2e to get more color on the mechanics of surprise.  I love 5e, but the rules are "light" in the explanation of things.  2e, however, has a rich and often wordy explanation for just about everything.  In fact, while 5e's description of surprise is about 1 paragraph, 2e's description of surprise runs 5 paragraphs - almost an entire length of a page.  The entire description of the whole surprise/ambush concept runs even more - almost an entire page is dedicated to this subject.  The 2e PHB notes that surprised characters are "caught off guard and thus can't react quickly."  This is very different from being "ambushed" - and in fact, 2e makes a clear distinction.  In 2e, there is a separate concept of "ambush." An ambush is when one group makes an "unexpected attack" on another and the other group can't detect the ambush.  It specifically says "if the DM decides the other group cannot detect the ambush."  This ambush provides another full round of actions for the ambush-ors to use. In 2e, surprise is then rolled. If a character is surprised... guess what, that is 2 free rounds of attacks the ambushors get to make.  However, the important point is the distinction between ambush and surprise.

Being surprised is a reaction. Being ambushed is one party intentionally trying to catch another party unaware and in a way - attack first.  One could almost think of it as guaranteed initiative success. After the ambush round, you could have a surprise round, and then you roll imitative. In the 5e context, a character with the alert feat could be ambushed - i.e., the ambushing orcs go first and get a free attack (if not noticed), then the character with the alert feat's reactions kick in.  She isn't surprised, so you roll initiative normally. In addition, the ambushing party doesn't get advantage on her - because, after all, she's looking out for attacks.  She might not be aware when the attack first happens, but she can react quick enough that she isn't "caught off guard." She is always on guard.

So how did I screw up? Simple, I confused the concepts of ambush and surprise.  One is an action - the other is a reaction.  The orc, if not noticed by the party, should have gotten a free ambush attack. However, the character with the alert feat couldn't' be surprised, so she would go normally after the ambush.  She wasn't aware of the attack, and so couldn't possibly have taken an action before the ambush commenced.  However, she was not caught off-guard, and could react normally and not with surprise after.

I checked the net a bit when this question came up at the table the other day.  I found this quote from Jaelis on the Wizards of the Coast's forums "You might be mixing up the game effect, surprised, vs the normal usage. A character with the feat can certainly be taken unawares, he just reacts fast enough that it doesn't affect his fighting."

I agree completely.  In addition, I will note that most of the posts were pro-alert feat. As many of the posts noted it is a pretty well balanced feat.  I believe once you accommodate a concept of ambush, any concerns as far as balance go out the window.

I urge you to consider keeping the alert feat as written in your own 5e campaign. By all means, differentiate "ambush" from "surprise" - but the feat itself is solid.

My verdict - Not guilty!

Until next time... may you roll a crit and not...