Wednesday, October 4, 2017

GM 101: Basics of Stealth and Hiding in D&D

Dragon Magazine #88 cover by Jim Holloway
Why is stealth so hard in D&D?

Based on recent social media chatter, it appears GM’s have some confusion when adjudicating stealth and hiding, and players believe their Rogue skills give them Advantage more than the rules as written would suggest. A re-review of the rules as written with a few examples should help.

To break this down a bit, let’s start with the rules as stated in the SRD 5.0 (bold emphasis added).


Make a Dexterity (Stealth) check when you attempt to conceal yourself from enemies, slink past guards, slip away without being noticed, or sneak up on someone without being seen or heard.


The GM decides when circumstances are appropriate for hiding. When you try to hide, make a Dexterity (Stealth) check. Until you are discovered or you stop hiding, that check’s total is contested by the Wisdom (Perception) check of any creature that actively searches for signs of your presence.

You can’t hide from a creature that can see you clearly, and you give away your position if you make noise, such as shouting a warning or knocking over a vase. An invisible creature can always try to hide. Signs of its passage might still be noticed, and it does have to stay quiet.

In combat, most creatures stay alert for signs of danger all around, so if you come out of hiding and approach a creature, it usually sees you. However, under certain circumstances, the GM might allow you to stay hidden as you approach a creature that is distracted, allowing you to gain advantage on an attack roll before you are seen.

Passive Perception

When you hide, there’s a chance someone will notice you even if they aren’t searching. To determine whether such a creature notices you, the GM compares your Dexterity (Stealth) check with that creature’s passive Wisdom (Perception) score.

So there are a few things that are implied by the above rules that could be stated more clearly, or at least clarified with examples.

1) When a creature is actively searching for a hidden foe, the minimum Perception for that contested check is the creature’s Passive perception. This mean that whether the player or a creature rolls a “1” on their active Perception check, their score to notice a hidden foe is at least as high as their Passive Perception. As I read it, you can’t be less aware when actively searching than passively just standing there. This was clarified by Jeremy Crawfod in a recent official D&D podcast about stealth.

2) You can’t hide from a creature that can see you clearly which means that even though your has a bonus action to Hide, that doesn’t imply the circumstances are appropriate for the Rogue to hide at any time. It doesn't matter how high the Rogue rolls. They just can't use that Hide action if opponents can see them. As noted in the rules, most creatures stay alert for signs of danger all around during combat. Your foe’s heightened awareness means the circumstances may not be appropriate for hiding. It is the GM’s call.

The problem lies in those fuzzy words “clearly see you”.  If I’m standing in some underbrush, does the creature “clearly” see me? If I have some cover from the creature, does he “clearly” see me? If I duck around a corner or behind some cover and do a pop-tart snipe, does that mean I can Hide and get Advantage on my attack?

In my game, absolutely NOT.

Ducking behind terrain does not mean you can attempt to Hide
if the enemy already knows you are there.
As an example, think of the gunfight at the OK Corral (or any Western movie equivalent). If I duck behind the water barrel or horse trough, or around the corner of the saloon, my enemy doesn’t stand around confused like “Hey! Where’d he go?!?”

The other combatants know that I’ve ducked behind an object and expect me to shoot from around my cover. Even if I take the “Hide” action (which the GM should not allow), that’s not going to fool them. They saw me. They know where I am. Object permanence is a thing. The circumstances are not appropriate for the Hide attempt in these situations. To claim that I get combat Advantage for pop-tart sniping is silly and unrealistic… but that appears to be how many players interpret the rules.

Now, if the situation allows that PC to move away from that position stealthily to another location and snipe from a different spot, that may be a different story depending on terrain, cover, light conditions, etc. If the foes are not able to easily detect the Rogue's movement or change in position, then you should probably allow the stealth/hide attempt.

In one game session, my rogue player ducked behind a house, but then moved around the back side and snuck over to a different location to attack the foes from a different angle. I allowed the rogue the stealth action given that he had taken a couple turns to move to a new location, but gave the enemy Advantage on their perception rolls because they were expecting an action like that. However, they were not actually able to see where the PC was moving due to buildings and terrain. Despite the foe's heightened awareness (represented by Advantage on their Perception), the situation allowed the rogue to attempt the stealth maneuver. That is a perfectly acceptable scenario for stealth and hiding.

So where is the line?

It does leave a lot up to the GM to decide what is considered “appropriate circumstances” as stated in the rule. In my game, once a foe is aware of the PC, generally the PC does not get to use stealth or hide again unless circumstances change. That means, once the Rogue has attacked from a hidden position, their position is revealed as stated in the rules (unless there is a Feat or other special ability that may allow them to remain hidden).

In order to re-establish stealth, the PC needs to be able to move away from the detected position, assuming there is concealing terrain or other distractions to allow that stealthy movement. However, a foe will often anticipate this, so it is left up to the GM to decide how well they can be fooled if they expect another snipe or similar ambush situation. A PC definitely cannot hide if the terrain is open. Similarly, a Halfling's ability to Hide behind a larger creature does not automatically mean circumstances are appropriate for the Hide action. Just like ducking behind the horse trough at the OK Corral, this Halfling ability does not remove the foe’s situational awareness, and the ability does not alter the stealth rules as stated above, except to allow another creature to be the “concealing terrain,” as it were.

If a foe is engaged in melee with another PC, that also does not automatically mean they are distracted enough to grant combat Advantage due to the Rogue’s hide ability (of course, the Rogue does still get the bonus damage in that circumstance without the Advantage due to the Sneak Attack rules, but that's a different topic). If the melee-engaged PC decides to use the Help action to provide additional distraction, then maybe I’d allow a rogue the hide attempt, depending again upon the circumstances.

Final Thoughts

Just because a Rogue has “Hide” as a bonus action does not mean that the Rogue has the ability to hide under any circumstances. It goes above and beyond the rules as written that a Rogue gets to Hide at any time due to their Cunning Action. Keep in mind that in a combat situation, foes are going to have their situational awareness heightened which means circumstances are usually not favorable or appropriate for a Hide maneuver. And lastly, on a contested Hide roll, Passive Perception is the minimum for the seeker’s Perception score when actively searching.

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