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Rules FAQ How Does Stealth Work in D&D 5E?

Stealth is a complex skill. The rules can be found in the Player’s Handbook, largely on page 177. On the surface, it seems simple: it is a Dexterity (Stealth) check opposed by a Wisdom (Perception) check. But, there is more to it than that.


This is the part of a weekly series of articles by a team of designers answering D&D questions for beginners. Feel free to discuss the article and add your insights or comments!

So let’s break it down step by step. Using stealth generally means using the Hide action. Hiding is a 4 step process:
  1. Are you sufficiently obscured from the creatures you're hiding from?
  2. Use Hide action; this could be a bonus action if you have certain abilities, like the rogue’s Cunning Action or the Ranger’s Vanish.
  3. Compare Dexterity (Stealth) check to the passive perception scores of any creature you are hiding from and against any active Wisdom (perception) checks to search for you
  4. While you remain hidden, use the same Dexterity (Stealth) result until you are detected or are no longer hiding.

o.l.d page 140 copy.jpg

While Hidden
When you are hidden (which means you have used the Hide action and a creature has not noticed you with passive or active perception):
  • You have advantage on attack rolls against creatures that can’t see you.
  • When you make your attack, though, you reveal your position and are no longer hidden, whether the attack hits or misses.
  • If a creature tries to attack you while you are hidden (and is able to guess the space you are in), it makes its attack roll with disadvantage.
Staying Hidden
You remain hidden until you are discovered, you stop hiding, circumstances no longer allow you to hide, or you make a noise or otherwise alert others to your presence.

You do not need to continually use the Hide action every round to remain hidden, but you will need to use it again to hide once you become detected or stop hiding (this could be complex to track, as being hidden is relative to each creature).

When Can I Hide?
According to the Player’s Handbook, you “can’t hide from a creature that can see you clearly”. The complicating factor is the line "The DM decides when circumstances are appropriate for hiding”.
  • The book reminds DMs that they might allow a player character to sneak up on a distracted creature, even leaving their concealment to do so, if circumstances allow it.
  • It goes on to say "An invisible creature can always try to hide", noting that being unseen does not mean you are undetected.
  • The Player's Handbook reminds us that the "Lightly obscured' and "heavily obscured" lighting affect what one can see. Being lightly obscured imposes a -5 penalty on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight, while being heavily obscured effectively blinds creatures to things in the obscured area and makes Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight automatically fail.
We still do not have a definition for “clearly”; it is left up to DM interpretation in this context.
  • We know that being invisible counts. Being invisible makes one heavily obscured "for the purposes of hiding", so heavily obscured also counts.
  • Full cover is not mentioned, but since it fully blocks line of sight, it is safe to assume full cover for an opaque object would be sufficient to hide behind.
This leaves the question "Can I hide when I am only lightly obscured" or "Can I use half or 3/4ths cover to hide?" The answer seems to be left up to the DM, as there are special abilities which interact with creatures who are lightly obscured.
  • The skulker feat allows you to try to hide when you are lightly obscured" implying you couldn't otherwise do this.
  • Wood Elves have the mask of the wild ability that lets them use the hide action "when you are only lightly obscured by foliage, heavy rain, falling snow, mist, and other natural phenomena''.
  • Lightfoot halflings have the naturally stealthy ability, which lets them hide "even when you are obscured only by a creature that is at least one size larger than you".
There are two ways to read this. The strict interpretation would be that you need these abilities in order to hide within lightly obscured areas. The loose way to interpret would be that these abilities allow you to use stealth to Hide in certain kinds of light obscurement even while being observed. As the Hide rules state you "can't hide from a creature that can't see you clearly" it depends on how the DM interprets “clearly. And, if a DM is going to allow lightly obscured areas to count as “not seen clearly”, then they may allow half cover or three-quarters cover as well.

Be sure to discuss with your DM how they intend to interpret when a creature can and cannot see you clearly.
 
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I'll be honest, I don't think I've ever gone by the official rules for hiding in 5E. However, in the games I've run so far I haven't had any players who's PC needed to hide often.
 

It's nice to have all this stealth stuff on one page.

As a DM, I tend to say "if you can justify it, you can hide." But I always have the players describe how they are hiding. I remember a rogue hiding on the other side of a door. I knew an enemy would be passing through that door soon, which would mean the rogue would be revealed. But then the player described leaping up and bracing themselves against the walls and the ceiling. It was perfect, because they got to hide in plain sight, then leap down on the enemy. And what's cooler than that?
 


Xeviat

Hero
It's nice to have all this stealth stuff on one page.

As a DM, I tend to say "if you can justify it, you can hide." But I always have the players describe how they are hiding. I remember a rogue hiding on the other side of a door. I knew an enemy would be passing through that door soon, which would mean the rogue would be revealed. But then the player described leaping up and bracing themselves against the walls and the ceiling. It was perfect, because they got to hide in plain sight, then leap down on the enemy. And what's cooler than that?
The openness of the rules as written makes for these types of interpretations easy to apply. The tough part is, though, as a player going from table to table having one DM who is open and one DM who is strict. But you'd probably have that issue with any rule.
 

R_Chance

Adventurer
It's nice to have all this stealth stuff on one page.

As a DM, I tend to say "if you can justify it, you can hide." But I always have the players describe how they are hiding. I remember a rogue hiding on the other side of a door. I knew an enemy would be passing through that door soon, which would mean the rogue would be revealed. But then the player described leaping up and bracing themselves against the walls and the ceiling. It was perfect, because they got to hide in plain sight, then leap down on the enemy. And what's cooler than that?
Wedging yourself in the angle formed by the wall and ceiling above a door and dropping on the enemy (or staying up there and sneaking down after they pass through) has been a standard "Thief" tactic since there were Thieves. It's a classic, and yes, it's cool :D
 


Reynard

Legend
I think the only real question in stealth that gets people confused is the bit about no longer being hidden when you make an attack. I have seen arguments arise regarding when exactly that happens and in relation to whom.

Otherwise it isn't very difficult to adjudicate.
 

Clansmansix

Explorer
I think the only real question in stealth that gets people confused is the bit about no longer being hidden when you make an attack. I have seen arguments arise regarding when exactly that happens and in relation to whom.

Otherwise it isn't very difficult to adjudicate.
Yeah, I mean technically the second you step out from hiding, you break stealth, but when I DM, l allow the PC to move out and attack (up to their speed) and still get advantage. While the opponent may be trying to maintain awareness, a rogue (or other hidden PC/enemy) can take advantage of a distraction to get the drop on them - i.e. the target was looking the other way, getting ready to defend from another attacker, and so on. The other DMs I game with do this as well. Otherwise you are wasting the action to use Stealth and (ultimately) denying a rogue or adversary with sneak attack a chance to use their ability. Now, once stealth is broken, it may be difficult to hide again. And even if a character hides, the opponent may realize they have only a very small set of squares to be occupying and can easily guess where a PC or foe is at. So it's never foolproof, but I think a good DM should err on the side of PCs and monsters being cool.
 

Clansmansix

Explorer
I think the only real question in stealth that gets people confused is the bit about no longer being hidden when you make an attack. I have seen arguments arise regarding when exactly that happens and in relation to whom.

Otherwise it isn't very difficult to adjudicate.
Oops. Double post.
 

Lakesidefantasy

Adventurer
If a creature tries to attack you while you are hidden (and is able to guess the space you are in), it makes its attack roll with disadvantage.
I take issue with the word 'space' in this sentence. It is needlessly grid-centric language. I for one enjoy playing within the theatre of the mind--where there is no grid and no 'spaces'. I prefer the word 'location'.

:)
 
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Hussar

Legend
I have to admit, and not to open an edition warry can of worms, but, 4e has the clearest, easiest hiding rules in D&D. If you are invisible, or other wise can't be seen, you are unseen, but, once you use the stealth action, then you are Hidden, which is a specific condition in 4e that has specific rules. The addition, and subsequent removal, of the Hidden condition was a mistake AFAIC. They should have kept it in there and all the vagueness around stealth, hiding, invisibility and whatnot goes away. There are many reasons you can't see something but it isn't hidden.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
Hopefully a future Players Handbook will write everything about Stealth on one page, and clearly.

Guessing thru the current rules, makes it seem like,

• A character can hide in Lightly Obscured if and only if not being directly looked at

• "Distracted" isnt even a technical condition, but seems to vaguely equate to both not looking directly and the hider Lightly Obscured
 

MarkB

Legend
The stealth rules work okay for combat, but it'd be nice to have at least a nod to formal "social stealth" rules whereby people 'hide' by not drawing attention to themselves. As it stands, only a halfling can hide by blending into a crowd.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
The stealth rules work okay for combat, but it'd be nice to have at least a nod to formal "social stealth" rules whereby people 'hide' by not drawing attention to themselves. As it stands, only a halfling can hide by blending into a crowd.
I tend to use the Deception skill to be "bland" to blend into a crowd.

But I normalize Intelligence for most Deceptions checks. (One really needs to know what one is doing to get away with a deception, especially if under scrutiny.)

An other way I look at it is, blending into a crowd is about understanding how the crowd of a culture operates, thus is a History check for social customs. In a weird way, being bland is a kind of etiquette.

Either way, for me, Intelligence turns out to be the key for this kind of "hiding" in plain sight.
 

MarkB

Legend
I tend to use the Deception skill to be "bland" to blend into a crowd.

But I normalize Intelligence for most Deceptions checks. (One really needs to know what one is doing to get away with a deception, especially if under scrutiny.)

An other way I look at it is, blending into a crowd is about understanding how the crowd of a culture operates, thus is a History check for social customs. In a weird way, being bland is a kind of etiquette.

Either way, for me, Intelligence turns out to be the key for this kind of "hiding" in plain sight.
That makes sense, though I think charisma would still play a part in being able to implement that knowledge in practice without it looking forced or artificial.

I like the concept of linking skills to different abilities depending upon circumstances, so I'd probably go with a Charisma (Stealth) check for something like this.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
That makes sense, though I think charisma would still play a part in being able to implement that knowledge in practice without it looking forced or artificial.

I like the concept of linking skills to different abilities depending upon circumstances, so I'd probably go with a Charisma (Stealth) check for something like this.
Relating to "disguise", and acting, I see the Charisma Performance skill or the Disguise Kit tool as relevant.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
Charisma (Stealth) check for something like this.
Charisma (Stealth) can make sense.

Personally, because Perception and Stealth are already so powerful, I try to restrict them to the five senses only.

In any case, using a mental ability to hide in a crowd as applying social observation and behavior is appropriate.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
I also use Intelligence Deception for any kind of illusionism or simulation, to determine accuracy and precision.

For example, if trying to visually disguise oneself as a specific person, it would require a very specific appearance.

If painting a very realistic painting, the Int Deception check, is for technically mastery to make it look convincing. Charisma Performance would determine its esthetic appeal and ability to please crowds. Most artwork requires two checks, one for technical skill and one for esthetics. The monetary value tends to lean toward the esthetic appeal, but the technical skill tends to make it notable.

An illusion spell might require Deception for a fun virtual reality experience, even when there is no attempt to deceive. The Deception check is just to see if it looks and sounds exactly right. So, a Star Trek "holodeck" would require Deception checks to determine how convincing the simulation is.
 
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Reynard

Legend
The above few posts illustrate the weakness of the attribute system as opposed to its versatility, I think. To me. Social stealth is surely a wisdom based check because you would essentially be making constant insight checks to remain unnoticed. Others think it is intelligence or charisma to do that thing. That's not a good thing for understanding the game between tables (within a table it doesn't actually matter as long as everyone is clear on the interpretation, preferably prior to character generation).
 

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