Every time I’ve seen a surprise round happen, the rule has been different with every DM. The entire rule, including fluff, is around 150 words. Maybe I can try and explain the RAW rule in a few bullet points.
- Surprise happens when the at least one member of the fight is being sneaky.
- Foreach person being sneaky, compare their Stealth with the Passive Perception of each opponent.
- Any opponent which fails the contest at least once is surprised.
- Surprised means you can’t move, take an action (including bonus actions), or use a reaction.
- They do still have a turn; any “at the start of your turn” and similar triggers still happen.
(Hey, only 72 words!)
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it played like that.
If I recall properly, in the game I play in most weeks, if we have surprise, we basically get a free round. This works in my head just fine: we all get to do something really quickly before they even notice what’s hit them. I believe we also typically get advantage on attacks, which may come from being Hidden.
Ultimately, I think most ways I’ve seen fulfil the purpose of what Surprise was intended to do: reward players for being smart in combat. Whilst running head first, swords blazing, is always an option, it leads to combat becoming stale. So long as there’s a reward for changing up combat somehow, I’m down for it!
Hiding isn’t the only way to kick start a fight in your advantage though. The rule ignores scenarios where the characters burst into combat mid-conversation. In this case, my group’s house rule makes a lot more sense.
Alternatively, maybe just swapping out the Passive Perception check for a Dexterity save or contested Sleight of Hand. (The downside here is that now the DM has to roll for all the NPC’s they’re running. Could Passive Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) be a thing?)