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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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MarkB

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).
True enough - in many cases, multiple abilities will be in play when making a single check. In this case you need intelligence to analyse the situation and come up with a good approach, wisdom to monitor whether or not anything's going wrong with your approach, and charisma to pull off the appropriate corrective actions without being too obvious about it.

Likewise a task like climbing a cliff will bring a lot of abilities into play - strength to haul yourself up, constitution to maintain that exertion over a long period, dexterity to reach for those awkward hand and foot holds, wisdom to perceive the path above you, and intelligence to plan the best route along those potential paths.

I suppose that's why, despite it being mentioned as a possibility, the usage of different abilities when making skill checks is seldom actually encouraged in official materials.
 

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Reynard

Legend
True enough - in many cases, multiple abilities will be in play when making a single check. In this case you need intelligence to analyse the situation and come up with a good approach, wisdom to monitor whether or not anything's going wrong with your approach, and charisma to pull off the appropriate corrective actions without being too obvious about it.

Likewise a task like climbing a cliff will bring a lot of abilities into play - strength to haul yourself up, constitution to maintain that exertion over a long period, dexterity to reach for those awkward hand and foot holds, wisdom to perceive the path above you, and intelligence to plan the best route along those potential paths.

I suppose that's why, despite it being mentioned as a possibility, the usage of different abilities when making skill checks is seldom actually encouraged in official materials.
In the end, 5E is really not intended to be a granular game. It largely uses action adventure movie logic and asks for simple checks the vast majority of the time. Which is generally for the best since it keeps things moving at a brisk pace.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
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).
For me, Wisdom is only two unrelated things:

• the five senses
• willpower

Actually both of them are a kind of saving throw: willpower versus enchantment, perception versus invisibility/hiddenness.

By contrast, Insight is a social skill thus Charisma is normally its key.
 

Asisreo

Fiendish Attorney
By contrast, Insight is a social skill thus Charisma is normally its key.
Charisma is not a "social ability score" in a true sense. Practically, it can be seen as such, but in reality, Charisma is merely your personal presence and ability to control the perception of yourself to those around you.

So Insight being something about noticing an external factor of someone else's intentions means it doesn't really have a place with Charisma. Same with Animal Handling.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
Charisma is not a "social ability score" in a true sense. Practically, it can be seen as such, but in reality, Charisma is merely your personal presence and ability to control the perception of yourself to those around you.

So Insight being something about noticing an external factor of someone else's intentions means it doesn't really have a place with Charisma. Same with Animal Handling.
The DM has wide latitude for how to apply and interpret skills.

For me, Charisma is the go-to ability for all social skills. (Except Deception in my eyes is almost always Intelligence dependent.) I find it impossible for a person to be "charismatic" without the ability to read people. Insight is a Charisma skill. It is part of forming a rapport with an other person. Part of inspiring an other. Part of recognizing the desires and needs of others, so as to appeal to these.

For me, Wisdom is an ill-conceived ability score. It handles Willpower and Perception. That is pretty much it. All of the Lore is really Intelligence.

If I had my way, Wisdom would no longer exist. The Willpower would go to Charisma. The Perception would go to Intelligence. Done.

Without restructuring the six ability scores, it is legal to reassign the key abilities. All Lore skills go to Intelligence, including Survival, Medicine, etcetera. Insight and Animal Handling go to Charisma.

Intelligence Investigation = "intuition"

The sensory Perception skill is extremely powerful. Wisdom having both Perception and Willpower is potent enough to keep Wisdom a competitive ability.



By the way, for several important reasons, including enabling D&D to represent the swashbuckling genre better:

Athletics & Acrobatics merge into a single skill. The skill is Athletics, but I call it "Gymnastics" to avoid confusion. The player can choose either Strength or Dexterity as the key for ALL Gymnastics checks. So, only one ability is necessary for all athletic stunts, including running, jumping, tumbling, climbing, balancing, falling, and so on. I prefer an agile Strength to handle everything. But other players prefer a beefier Dexterity to handle it, at least as far as moving ones own weight agilely. Gymnastics is the go-to for all swashbuckling stunts.
 
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Reynard

Legend
The DM has wide latitude for how to apply and interpret skills.

For me, Charisma is the go-to ability for all social skills. (Except Deception in my eyes is almost always Intelligence dependent.) I find it impossible for a person to be "charismatic" without the ability to read people. Insight is a Charisma skill. It is part of forming a rapport with an other person. Part of inspiring an other. Part of recognizing the desires and needs of others, so as to appeal to these.

For me, Wisdom is an ill-conceived ability score. It handles Willpower and Perception. That is pretty much it. All of the Lore is really Intelligence.

If I had my way, Wisdom would no longer exist. The Willpower would go to Charisma. The Perception would go to Intelligence. Done.

Without restructuring the six ability scores, it is legal to reassign the key abilities. All Lore skills go to Intelligence, including Survival, Medicine, etcetera. Insight and Animal Handling go to Charisma.

Intelligence Investigation = "intuition"

The sensory Perception skill is extremely powerful. Wisdom having both Perception and Willpower is potent enough to keep Wisdom a competitive ability.



By the way, for several important reasons, including enabling D&D to represent the swashbuckling genre better:

Athletics & Acrobatics merge into a single skill. The skill is Athletics, but I call it "Gymnastics" to avoid confusion. The player can choose either Strength or Dexterity as the key for ALL Gymnastics checks. So, only one ability is necessary for all athletic stunts, including running, jumping, tumbling, climbing, balancing, falling, and so on. I prefer an agile Strength to handle everything. But other players prefer a beefier Dexterity to handle it, at least as far as moving ones own weight agilely. Gymnastics is the go-to for all swashbuckling stunts.
You have a bunch of ideas about how things work and what aspects of a person's aptitudes control for things that I absolutely don't agree with. And tat is totally fine -- except if I sit at your table at a con and choose the charismatic pregen because I want to be a suave liar and later find out I should have picked the brainy guy instead. The rules serve to create a common language for play, even if in places we disagree with them. And while it doesn't matter much if you play at your one table with your one group forever, it gets troublesome as soon as you start interacting with other players of the game. As someone who runs a lot at cons, I have to start with a baseline of the rules' assumptions and be clear where I deviate from those assumptions.

I have a friend who insists on using "Insight" as a check to get an idea when you're stuck on a puzzle or what to do next. I hate that.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
You have a bunch of ideas about how things work and what aspects of a person's aptitudes control for things that I absolutely don't agree with. And tat is totally fine -- except if I sit at your table at a con and choose the charismatic pregen because I want to be a suave liar and later find out I should have picked the brainy guy instead. The rules serve to create a common language for play, even if in places we disagree with them. And while it doesn't matter much if you play at your one table with your one group forever, it gets troublesome as soon as you start interacting with other players of the game. As someone who runs a lot at cons, I have to start with a baseline of the rules' assumptions and be clear where I deviate from those assumptions.
I agree about the need for consistent expectations among players. All the more reason, the abilities themselves need to be crystal clear and non-overlapping. It needs to obvious, when to use Charisma and when to use intelligence. It needs to be obvious when to use sensory Perception and when to use analytic and intuitive Investigation.

I have a friend who insists on using "Insight" as a check to get an idea when you're stuck on a puzzle or what to do next. I hate that.
Heh. Yeah.

For me, it is impossible to use emotional people-reading "Insight" to figure out a logical or a visual puzzle. (Putting Insight in Charisma helps stop this kind of shenanigans.) Insight would only get clues about the needs, motives, and mood of the puzzle-maker, and is unlikely to supply solutions to the puzzle.

It is unambiguously, an Intelligence Investigation check to get a hint from the DM to solve that puzzle.
 
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Doctor Futurity

Adventurer
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).
And to contrast I am totally confused at why it wouldn't be a deception check to avoid being noticed in a crowd.
 

Plaguescarred

D&D Playtester for WoTC since 2012
  • 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.
Are you saying that you automatically fail to detect a hidden creature when blinded?
 


Plaguescarred

D&D Playtester for WoTC since 2012
Do you define detecting a hidden creature as relying upon sight? You might also be able to hear them, or smell them if you have Keen Scent or they haven't bathed in awhile.
No and it's exactly the point i was going to make if it's what was meant
 

MarkB

Legend
No and it's exactly the point i was going to make if it's what was meant
I think the intention is that it doesn't just rely upon sight, but it does mean that if you can eliminate other factors - for instance if you're battling in a storm or next to a waterfall, making sound-based detection impossible - then technically that clause would kick in, and any attempt to detect a heavily obscured hidden target would automatically fail.

I'm kind-of okay with that, because if the circumstances are stacked that far in the hidden character's favour, it makes sense that they're not going to get spotted, but it certainly makes stealth more powerful in that situation.
 

Xeviat

Hero
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'.

:)
Even if you aren't playing on a grid, you still exist in a space, but fair point.
 


Xeviat

Hero
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.
I agree that 4E had clear stealth rules.
 

Xeviat

Hero
Good description. I don't really get why people have such a hard time with stealth and perception but they obviously do.
It being on multiple pages in the PHB, and it having multiple steps and conditional checkpoints and circumstantial issues ends up making it complicated. The act of making it broad enough to apply to more situations or making it free for DM interpretation opens it up to confusion.
 

OptionalRule

Adventurer
It being on multiple pages in the PHB, and it having multiple steps and conditional checkpoints and circumstantial issues ends up making it complicated. The act of making it broad enough to apply to more situations or making it free for DM interpretation opens it up to confusion.
Sure, that seems like the most likely mechanism. I wrote a whole article breaking down Surprise in 5e that has a similar failing. I think this thread shows there is also a mix of people having locked in conceptions, or thinking it should be some other kind of way that is no better defined or understandable.

I think people are overcomplicating it. The biggest comments I'm seeing are either on skill rolled or obsessing over sight as the sense. The skill issue seems easily solved by the "make a case for some other skill or ability" to the DM. The sight issue seems solved by just saying "You can't be immediately apparent".
 

Xeviat

Hero
Are you saying that you automatically fail to detect a hidden creature when blinded?
You automatically fail sight-based Perception checks when you are blinded. But you can still hear their sounds, possibly smell them, or any other trace of their passage if they're not "hidden".

Other systems have being blinded impose a penalty on perception checks for creatures that primarily rely upon sight (like humans who have not gotten used to being blind). When 5E came out, I was surprised it doesn't have this; lightly obscured only penalizes sight and heavily obscured entirely negates sight. The DM is left to determine hearing entirely separately.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
You automatically fail sight-based Perception checks when you are blinded. But you can still hear their sounds, possibly smell them, or any other trace of their passage if they're not "hidden".

Other systems have being blinded impose a penalty on perception checks for creatures that primarily rely upon sight (like humans who have not gotten used to being blind). When 5E came out, I was surprised it doesn't have this; lightly obscured only penalizes sight and heavily obscured entirely negates sight. The DM is left to determine hearing entirely separately.
I was wondering if dogs because of their superhuman sense of smell, are effectively immune to invisibility and hiding, the moment they take note of an unusual sound and guess where it comes from.
 

cmad1977

Hero
The biggest issue with the stealth rules is the presumption that they must be rolled and some condition determined whenever someone wants to be sneaky.

Half the time my players want to ‘sneak up’ somewhere I simply let them.
The stealth check comes in when and if someone might encounter them.

“I roll to sneak up on the campfire… “
“Don’t roll. You sneak up to the fire.”
“Ok… I listen to the orcs”
“They’re talking about how they’re gonna cook the prisoners tonight. Right after the biggest orc goes number 1 in the bushes… he stands up and turns your way! “
“Oh shucks! I dive behind a tree trunk”
“Stealth check”
 

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