Wednesday, October 4, 2017

D&D: Basics of Stealth and Hiding in 5e

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).
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Stealth

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.

Hiding

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.
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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.

7 comments:

  1. Yes the DM can rule the Lightfoot Halfling can't hide but I think the entire intent of giving the Halfling the Naturally Stealthy special ability is specifically to encourage this. Essentially yes, the enemy beligerant may be aware that the Lightfoot Halfling is flitting around the other combatant but they are more focused on the main combatant which allows the Halfling the chance to spring out. If the Halfling is not a rogue they have to forgo a whole action to get this chance, so essentially they are trading two straight shots to hit for one with Advantage. In the case of rogue with cunning action, yes they don't have to forgo the one action but that is what makes the LH such good rogues. I would regularly allow this.

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  2. @jbakter - Sure, Halflings specifically have a special ability that allows them to hide more easily than others. My examples are just that -- examples that cover specific cases that may be a different ruling based upon circumstances.

    This post is more about the generalized case where hiding in plain sight appears to be the default mode for most Rogue players... which is not what was intended by the RAW (especially given that there are some build who do get a "hide in plain sight" ability at later levels).

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  3. Google+ comments:
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    Oct 5, 2017
    Daniel (ShadowDrakken)

    Point number 1 is wrong. RAW if you're making an active check, you can absolutely roll lower than your passive. You may be actively looking for a certain thing, but you can still overlook it if your mind is convinced it needs to find a fingerprint instead of a footprint (as an example). Nothing says you can't houserule it your way though, there's certainly justification for it.

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    Oct 5, 2017
    Daniel (ShadowDrakken)

    Looks like rpg.stackexchange.com - Perception Check vs Passive Perception also bring this up. And one of the developers has not been helpful in the ambiguity of it. Officially RAW it works one way, but then the developer says it works the other way, and yet it's never been errata'd to match what the developer claimed. That makes it a messy topic and in a way makes both answers right :\

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    Oct 5, 2017
    Marty Walser (Raging Owlbear)

    +Daniel - Jeremy Crawford's point is that the Passive Perception is "always on", so the PC would detect the hidden foe even before announcing his search check.

    In other words, there is no need to roll to actively search if the Hiding PC (or creature) did not beat the DC of the Passive. They are already detected, hence you can't "do worse" than your Passive Perception.

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    Oct 5, 2017
    Daniel (ShadowDrakken)

    No,I totally understand the justification and don't disagree with it. But mechanically speaking it's not worded that way and is very ambiguous. It can easily be interpreted either way and not be wrong

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    Oct 5, 2017
    Marty Walser (Raging Owlbear)

    +Daniel I agree. While I understand Jeremy's point about not trying to outline all the edge cases, the rules still could have used some additional detail and polish on the non-edge cases.

    I especially hate the "I move 10 feet, duck behind the rock, Hide, and snipe with Advantage" belief that most players have.

    One cannot pop-tart on literally every freakin' turn and expect the foes to stand there stupidly not knowing where you are. That's just silly.

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    Oct 5, 2017
    Daniel (ShadowDrakken)

    The big issue is that if you use the interpretation that passive checks are always honored even if an active check is being made, it breaks rogue's Reliable Talent ability, which enables rogues to specifically always get their passive as a minimum.

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    Oct 5, 2017
    Marty Walser (Raging Owlbear)

    +Daniel Not at all. The Reliable Talent works for any skill, not just Passive Perception. That's a huge difference. Nowhere else do other PCs get the "passive" skill checks in the game.

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    Oct 5, 2017
    Daniel (ShadowDrakken)

    Page 175 in the PHB: "A passive check is a special kind of ability check that doesn't involve any die rolls. Such a check can represent the average result for a task done repeatedly, such as searching for secret doors over and over again, or can be used when the DM wants to secretly determine whether the characters succeed at something without rolling dice, such as noticing a hidden monster." suggesting that ANY skill can be done passively by any character

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    Oct 5, 2017
    Marty Walser (Raging Owlbear)

    Those are not "always on", but are specific to DM-determined circumstances. I still don't see the issue. Reliable Talent is used any time an active check would be rolled. When other PCs roll a 1 on an active check, they fail. They do not get the Passive number. That is only used for Perception. Passive Perception is a special case that has its own rules.

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  4. Oct 5, 2017
    Jeremy Murphy

    The issue here is that as a DM, you shouldn't ASK the player to make an active Perception check. If the opponent's stealth roll is less than Passive Perception, the player notices automatically. So why would you ever make them roll?

    If the PC asks to make a perception check, then rolls lower than Passive Perception - no harm no foul, but if passive perception would have detected the foe, then they already detected it - the roll does not trump that.

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    Oct 5, 2017
    simontmn

    I think this approach weakens an already fairly weak class, and discourages Rogues from using the terrain, so I wouldn't use it. Unless the enemy is actually focused solely on the Rogue who ducks behind the pillar, I would let them use their bonus action to get a Hide check and shoot with advtg.


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    Oct 5, 2017
    Ralph Mazza

    This interpretation is awfully generous towards situational awareness of people engaged in melee. Probably an artifact of the artificial stop motion effect of round based miniatures use.

    If one imagines a circular template roughly the size of a movement radius, and puts the center of that template on the figure, the actual location of the figure at any point during the round could realistically be anywhere in that circle facig any direction (after accounting for terrain and tactical specifics like trying to hold a position).

    Likewise the halfling rogue has a similar circle as does every other combatant, and the swirling Venn diagram of melee (which by definition is "a confused mass of people") means that any given target is unlikely to have eyes on awareness of anyone other than the enemies they are currently engaged with and maybe a small radius around that.

    The idea that a fighter who attacked one enemy and is being attacked by two others is going to be able to simultaneously keep track of the exact position of a halfling scampering around strikes me as wishful thinking.

    Could the fighter manage it? Sure. Is that a reasonable default assumption? Hardly.

    Fortunately the game provides a handy way to adjuticate things that are possible but not certain. It's called making a roll.

    If the roll fails, then hey, that fighter did manage to keep his eye on you this time. If it succeeds then he lost track of you in the confused melee.

    The times when a character should be denied the opportunity to even attempt to hide during a melee should be few and far between, and dependent on unique situational circumstances.

    Otherwise, hell yes they get to roll.

    And that's speaking as someone who usually DMs and hates playing rogues.

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    Oct 5, 2017
    Marty Walser (Raging Owlbear)

    +Ralph Mazza IF the PC is actually moving around, I have no problem with that interpretation.

    This issue that I've seen come up in play (often) in both home games and organized play, is the Rogue basically hiding in the same spot all combat, popping out to take an attack at Advantage, and then literally hiding behind the same rock/corner/tree/whatever... and then the player insisting he can get Advantage every turn with a successful roll.

    Baloney. If you know where the sniper is, you are not going to forget simply because they take the "Hide" action again.

    IF the PC moves to a different location, then OK,, there are circumstances where the confusion of combat lends to the possibility of hiding... but I call BS if you are just pop-tarting from behind the same cover every turn and insisting that you get Advantage.

    Nope... that just doesn't fly... but that's how many, many players interpret the rule.

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  5. Oct 5, 2017
    Robert Fairbanks

    "POP-TARTING"!?
    "Pop-Tarting".....I fk'n love it.

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    Oct 5, 2017
    Ralph Mazza

    +Marty Walser? there are certainly situations where your ruling may make sense. But the issue isn't, "the fighter forgot the sniper was there".

    The issue is "what's the fighter going to do about it".

    "Hidden" here means the sniper is in a relatively secure location, has all the time they need to line up their shot (because no one is messing with them), and the fighter is way too busy dealing with existing combatants to do anything other than hope the sniper misses.

    Now if you have a situation where the fighter is not in melee, they have a shield and they're advancing on the sniper's last known location, then sure the sniper has no advantage for that.

    But if a sniper is otherwise undisturbed (i.e. qualifies for the RAW re: "hiding") and has the luxury of lining up their shot against an opponent who is too busy to react, then absolutely that deserves advantage.

    Don't get so caught up in what the the thing is called that you miss what it's actually modelling.

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    Oct 5, 2017
    Marty Walser (Raging Owlbear)

    That's not how the Advantage rules read.

    Unseen Attackers and Targets:
    "When a creature can’t see you, you have advantage on attack rolls against it."

    "Hidden" means the target can't see you. Your example/interpretation of the "secure position" is not RAW, but your own version.

    Note -- We are not talking about Sneak Attack here, which does not require the Rogue to be hidden, but can also be triggered by an allay engaged with the target. Even though the two are related (because Advantage can trigger SA bonus damage), I'm speaking strictly of Hiding, not Sneak Attack related to ally engagement.

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  6. Oct 5, 2017
    Ralph Mazza

    No..."can't see you" is exactly what I'm talking about. If you think that in a swirling melee you can "clearly see" the sniper just because you knew where he was a minute ago...I fundamentally disagree.

    That is arguing for a superhuman level of awareness in most melee situations.

    In the intervening minute: you've turned your back to that position, had 3 different combatants pass through your field of vision blocking your view of that position, hidden your face behind your shield to ward off a blow, and exchanged strokes with 2 different enemies...while probably struggling to see through the reduced vision of your helmet.

    Cuz that's what being in a melee looks like when it's not frozen in time on a hex map.

    After all that you expect me to believe you have a clue where that sniper is? Is he still in the same position? You don't know, there were plenty of opportunities for him to leave when you weren't looking. Maybe you caught a glimpse of him, maybe you didn't. That's what a roll is for.

    Now if the sniper does the same thing 3 times in a row, is that grounds for giving him a disadvantage on the roll to hide? Sure is. That's what using the fiction is about.

    Further, depending what kind of concealment the sniper is using, the position of the figure on the table may not even represent his exact precise position in the battle. If the figure is in a hex inside a copse of trees, then theoretically over the course of a round he could well be moving throughout the whole radius of that copse, even if his figure was never moved...because to treat it otherwise is to pretend that stop action miniatures is really what a fight looks like.

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    Oct 5, 2017
    Marty Walser (Raging Owlbear)

    A round is 6 seconds. Not one minute. In the rules as written (which is what I'm talking about here, not anyone's homebrew), an attacker's location is revealed when an attack hits or misses. Therefore, the target knows the location of the attacker. Because you can't attack from behind a position of full concealment, the target can see the attacker, which prevents the hide action.

    Those are the mechanics as written.

    If the PC moves to a different location, then they can hide. But they cannot hide while they are seen.

    When the guy ducks behind the barrel at the OK Corral, I'm not suddenly befuddled at where he has gone. I know he's behind the barrel. I expect him to shoot at me from behind the barrel, even if I can't see him. I know where he is. He is not hidden.

    No Advantage.

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    Oct 5, 2017
    Huy Tran

    Subbed. Thanks +Marty Walser and +Ralph Mazza for exploring this--it's actually super helpful to see you both bounce on the topic.

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    Oct 5, 2017
    Ralph Mazza

    +Marty Walser?? I guess that makes sense if you like treating your RPGs like a computer game.

    I'm not talking home brew. I'm talking making rulings based on what's right in the fiction. And fictionally, yeah, there is a completely RAW case to be made to allow the ATTEMPT.

    That's what rolls are for. To see if the attempt works.

    If it makes sense in the fiction, you allow it. If it doesn't make sense in the fiction, you don't.

    Most cases will totally make sense in the fiction because fictionally melees are hectic confused places. Especially if the DM is being an advocate for their players.

    But that's the key advantage to table top play. You can look at the situation and make a judgement (makes sense here, doesn't make sense there) rather than just live with what a programmer/author thought made sense when they wrote the code/rules.

    And the nice thing about 5e is it's easy to fine tune the difference between "that makes total sense" and "ehh, maybe, but sounds like a stretch" simply by granting advantage or disadvantage to an attempt to reflect how reasonable it is.

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  7. Oct 5, 2017
    Marty Walser (Raging Owlbear)

    I know there are alternative cases, especially when movement and other distractions are involved... but for the pop-tart attack where the PC continues to attack from the same location, I don't grant Advantage because the foe is expecting attack from that location.

    Once the PC moves elsewhere, as I note in the article, cover, terrain and concealment can alter the equation.

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    Oct 5, 2017
    Marty Walser (Raging Owlbear)

    I'm not against ruling with the fiction of the encounter, but I am against the players trying to take unfair Advantage (pun intended) when a foe obviously knows where they are.

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    Oct 5, 2017
    Ralph Mazza

    Absolutely. I believe I agreed with that point above. That's a fair ruling with all stupid player tricks (like the loathsome Trip Monk build in Pathfinder).

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