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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Lyxen

Great Old One
I put more weight on the designers’ latest thinking than I do on their original intent. Whatever they originally planned for rogues, Steady Aim strongly suggests they saw holes in the design.

And here you go, holeS, plural... sigh... Rogues have always functioned well, players like them in general, and anyone playing them even morderatle cleverly could make them very efficient indeed. There was no errata, no changes, just an additional option 7 years later when most classes received minor upwards or flexibility adjustment is an extremely flimsy claim for having holeS in the design and for the overall intent of a class intent of 7 years earlier. As usual, this is the internet, I should not be bugged by this type of attitude, but it still gets to me.
 




P.S. And, anyway, what I’m describing does not contradict that. You come out from cover, roll to see if you Hide from your target, and if successful you remain hidden until the attack is resolved.

I get that's how you do it, but that's not the rule.

There is no roll to Hide (unless you take the Hide action) and you dont 'come out from cover' you attack from cover, and retain the benefit of being hidden until AFTER the attack is resolved.

You can attempt to hide (and remain hidden) as long as a creature cant see you clearly enough. In other words, you can poke around a tree you're hiding behind and shoot a target, and you do not reveal yourself till after making the attack roll (hit or miss).

Those are the rules. You do it your way, but you're not playing by the rules.
 

Nothing states that you have to take an action to be hidden,

Nothing states you have to take an action to Dodge either.

Does that mean I can Dodge as a free action on my turn? No, I take the Dodge action if I want to Dodge.

The Hide action is how one hides in combat. JC has been crystal clear on this on podcasts and tweets.

He did leave room open for extraordinary situations (you're magically silenced and in darkness, and 100' away from the battle) where a DM could rule that the Hide action is not needed to Hide, but they're outliers.

The general rule is (to Hide):

1) Obtain cover or concealment from your target sufficient to be unable to be seen clearly. Total cover or Invisibility works great.
2) Take the Hide action
3) Succeed in a Stealth check vs their passive Perception.

Until you manage all three things, you're not hidden. You're just either invisible (and can be attacked normally, at disadvatage) or behind total cover., or similar. Your target knows where you are.
 

I get that's how you do it, but that's not the rule.

There is no roll to Hide (unless you take the Hide action) and you dont 'come out from cover' you attack from cover, and retain the benefit of being hidden until AFTER the attack is resolved.

You can attempt to hide (and remain hidden) as long as a creature cant see you clearly enough. In other words, you can poke around a tree you're hiding behind and shoot a target, and you do not reveal yourself till after making the attack roll (hit or miss).

Those are the rules. You do it your way, but you're not playing by the rules.

Sorry but the rules don't say that. Maybe JC clarified later that's what he meant, but that's not what the rules say.

Look, if the rogue finds a good hiding spot where they can also see their target I'm going to consider the circumstances. But I'm specifically addressing the scenario we've all seen where the rogue repeatedly, every round ducks completely behind a wall or other large object. Here's the definition (from SRD) of full cover:
A target with total cover can't be targeted directly by an attack or a spell, although some spells can reach such a target by including it in an area of effect. A target has total cover if it is completely concealed by an obstacle.

In any event, I also don't really care. I happen to think what I'm describing is within the scope of RAW, but ultimately who gives a flying $%#^? If it clearly broke the rules I'd still do it. (Or, at least try it; I haven't actually done this yet. This thread gave me the idea.)

More interesting than rules technicality is the impact on play. And I think there are two positive impacts:

1) For the same reason that I don't make rogues roll stealth until the moment when they might be spotted, I think it's more elegant to wait until they poke their head out to take a shot. Presumably they always think they are well hidden, it's not until the moment of truth that they discover whether or not they are. (FWIW, I disagree with you about secret rolls, too. I don't think they add any tension in a useful way. But you do you.)

2) As I said, it levels the playing field for rogues who then want to sneak up and make a melee attack.

And I agree in principle with @Oofta: the rogue who just does the same thing each round will find it increasingly difficult to fool the monsters. (Depending on the monster.)
 

Oofta

Legend
Nothing states you have to take an action to Dodge either.

Does that mean I can Dodge as a free action on my turn? No, I take the Dodge action if I want to Dodge.

The Hide action is how one hides in combat. JC has been crystal clear on this on podcasts and tweets.

He did leave room open for extraordinary situations (you're magically silenced and in darkness, and 100' away from the battle) where a DM could rule that the Hide action is not needed to Hide, but they're outliers.

The general rule is (to Hide):

1) Obtain cover or concealment from your target sufficient to be unable to be seen clearly. Total cover or Invisibility works great.
2) Take the Hide action
3) Succeed in a Stealth check vs their passive Perception.

Until you manage all three things, you're not hidden. You're just either invisible (and can be attacked normally, at disadvatage) or behind total cover., or similar. Your target knows where you are.

That's ... not at all what I'm saying. There are times when you can be effectively hidden without taking the hide action. If there's an invisible animated statue in the middle of the room that has not activated and is not being affected by the environment in any way, it's hidden as far as I'm concerned. Technically it may not be hidden, but if no one knows it's there it's just semantics. Same way that someone may be effectively hidden if they're just not seen and aren't doing anything that could reasonably cause you to be detected.

We've had this argument before: I just disagree. If you want to actually quote rules, talk about specific podcasts that refute what I've said please post. But just repeating the exact same assertion? I don't see the point.
 

That's ... not at all what I'm saying. There are times when you can be effectively hidden without taking the hide action. If there's an invisible animated statue in the middle of the room that has not activated and is not being affected by the environment in any way, it's hidden as far as I'm concerned.
So there is absolutely no way for anyone to notice it? It's completely impossible to spot tracks on the floor or scuff marks from where it's moved around in the centuries it's been there animating, or to notice the smoke from your torches or the dust in the air flowing around it, or the slight warping of the air from it's magical invisibility?

Personally, I wouldn't say it's 'completely impossible' to notice it.
 

Plaguescarred

D&D Playtester for WoTC since 2012
That's ... not at all what I'm saying. There are times when you can be effectively hidden without taking the hide action. If there's an invisible animated statue in the middle of the room that has not activated and is not being affected by the environment in any way, it's hidden as far as I'm concerned. Technically it may not be hidden, but if no one knows it's there it's just semantics. Same way that someone may be effectively hidden if they're just not seen and aren't doing anything that could reasonably cause you to be detected.
I would treat such invisible statue like the Transparent trait of the gelatinous cube, as opposed to hidden. It's a unique trait that can achieve surprise without relying on stealth by being unseen to unaware creature while in plain sight.

Transparent. Even when the cube is in plain sight, it takes a successful DC 15 Wisdom (Perception) check to spot a cube that has neither moved nor attacked. A creature that tries to enter the cube's space while unaware of the cube is surprised by the cube.
 

Oofta

Legend
So there is absolutely no way for anyone to notice it? It's completely impossible to spot tracks on the floor or scuff marks from where it's moved around in the centuries it's been there animating, or to notice the smoke from your torches or the dust in the air flowing around it, or the slight warping of the air from it's magical invisibility?

Personally, I wouldn't say it's 'completely impossible' to notice it.

Air "warps"? How does that work? The assumption is that unlike the alien cloaking technology from the Predator movies it's impossible to see. Assuming no air flow, no cobwebs, no fly bumping against it? Is the statue making noise? No, it's inactive. Is it leaving tracks? In my scenario, no. Is there anything other than sight that could give it's position away? On a hard floor with no dust?

Are there some situations where it could be detected? Sure. There could be a birds nest on it's head. Somebody could have painted it with neon glowing colors.

There has to be something you can perceive*, which will be up to the DM and their vision of the environment. Feel free to run it differently in your game, there's nothing in the rules that states that you automatically have a chance to notice invisible objects or creatures.

P.S. @Plaguescarred, invisibility is different than transparent in 5E. The definition of invisibility:
  • An invisible creature is impossible to see without the aid of magic or a special sense. For the purpose of hiding, the creature is heavily obscured. The creature's location can be detected by any noise it makes or any tracks it leaves.
*or magical detection, blindsight, feral sense and so on
 


Oofta

Legend
I know it's different, one is a condition and the other a trait.
My point was that there is no default DC for seeing an invisible creature. An invisible creature does not have to take the hide action to be undetected and therefore hidden.

But run it however you want at your table. Do we really need to argue this yet again?
 

The assumption is that unlike the alien cloaking technology from the Predator movies it's impossible to see.

Where in the rules is that 'assumption' stated exactly?

Assuming no air flow, no cobwebs, no fly bumping against it? Is the statue making noise? No, it's inactive. Is it leaving tracks? In my scenario, no.

More assumptions, also not in the rules.

Could Batman or Sherlock Holmes deduce there was an invisible statue in a room from rhe smoke or dust acting differently, or from scuff marks or footprints from where it has moved before, or even simply from a hunch?

If so, rhen so can your PCs. Give them a DC and a check.
 

Oofta

Legend
Where in the rules is that 'assumption' stated exactly?



More assumptions, also not in the rules.

Could Batman or Sherlock Holmes deduce there was an invisible statue in a room from rhe smoke or dust acting differently, or from scuff marks or footprints from where it has moved before, or even simply from a hunch?

If so, rhen so can your PCs. Give them a DC and a check.
I quoted the rules. It is not possible to see an invisible creature. They have to interact with the environment in some way that can be detected. The examples given are making noise or leaving tracks.

An inactive statue is not making noise. There's no reason to assume that it left tracks.

Run it with whatever house rules or ruling that you want. I see no reason to continue with you if you're just going to ignore the rules of the game and make assertions that you can't back up with actual text from the books.
 

Asisreo

Patron Badass
So, a Gargoyle doesn't need to make a stealth check because it's not hiding. In fact, as soon as the PC's see the gargoyle, they notice it. If it was hiding, then it would make a stealth check. For example, a gargoyle might think it's suspicious for a statue to just be in the middle of an unexplored forest, so it may want to hide.

But it doesn't need to make a stealth check to surprise. The trigger for surprise is that the creature failed to notice a threat. They notice the "harmless statues" but they fail to notice the threat it poses.

Now, if players had encountered every statue as a gargoyle, then when they say "I'll prepare to fight any statue." They notice the threat a given statue poses and won't be surprised. It may be fun to throw in a random mundane statue, though, to provoke paranoia.
 

Oofta

Legend
So, a Gargoyle doesn't need to make a stealth check because it's not hiding. In fact, as soon as the PC's see the gargoyle, they notice it. If it was hiding, then it would make a stealth check. For example, a gargoyle might think it's suspicious for a statue to just be in the middle of an unexplored forest, so it may want to hide.

But it doesn't need to make a stealth check to surprise. The trigger for surprise is that the creature failed to notice a threat. They notice the "harmless statues" but they fail to notice the threat it poses.

Now, if players had encountered every statue as a gargoyle, then when they say "I'll prepare to fight any statue." They notice the threat a given statue poses and won't be surprised. It may be fun to throw in a random mundane statue, though, to provoke paranoia.

In some cases I'd let the PCs know or at least give them a chance to notice something "off". Maybe most of the statues are covered in bird poo but one of them is clean and there are feathers lying around it. Maybe it's inside and the gargoyle is dripping wet.

Or not. It largely depends on the mood I'm trying to set, what role I see the gargoyle playing and so on.
 

Asisreo

Patron Badass
In some cases I'd let the PCs know or at least give them a chance to notice something "off". Maybe most of the statues are covered in bird poo but one of them is clean and there are feathers lying around it. Maybe it's inside and the gargoyle is dripping wet.

Or not. It largely depends on the mood I'm trying to set, what role I see the gargoyle playing and so on.
Seems like a perfect place for a passive Investigation check
 

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