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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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Lakesidefantasy

Adventurer
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”
Yes.

I require us to roll Stealth checks only when and if it's needed, rather than when we decide to be sneaky. This helps to preserve the tension rather than knowing if we are well hidden (high roll) versus not well hidden (low roll).

In fact, depending on the circumstances, I always consider us to be sneaking to some degree when moving through a dangerous landscape (dungeon, lava pit, giant's entrails). The difference between movement at a Slow Pace versus a Normal Pace just doesn't matter most of the time. We are not typically keeping track of how many hundreds of feet we're moving per minute. If the circumstances require that we do know, then we'll decide if we're going to be stealthy or not; but most of the time it's not an issue.

Ya' know, I feel there is a strong desire to end debates with rules, I feel it too, but I believe this latest iteration of the game recognizes that that is not achievable while still having a game we can play without a computer.
 

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Lakesidefantasy

Adventurer
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.


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.
I found another page of rules that you may have not included. They concern movement rates and stealth on pages 182-183 of the Players Handbook. Perhaps you could include them in an edit. Or not, it's no big deal. I'm trying to be helpful, not critical.
 

OptionalRule

Adventurer
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”
This seems reasonable to me. I generally try to vary techniques depending on the needs of the particular session, setup, etc.

One technique I often use in a situation like this is give the player a choice between what they want to risk. So rolling with this example I might say something like:

"Okay, sneaking toward the camp isn't terribly hard but it depend on how close you want to get and how much you want to hear. I'll give you a choice, you can sneak up without them noticing but have to make a perception check to see how much you hear. Alternatively, you can hear it all but need to roll a sneak check to see if they catch you at the end. Which is it?"
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
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.

This was another one of 4e's babies that 5e threw out with the bathwater. The mess we have now in 5e is the result.

I enjoy these ENWorld 5e rules articles because they help clarify much of the ambiguity that is inherent in the new system. I would much rather have rules rather than vague and unhelpful statements such as 'it is up to the DM to decide'. This is a perfect example of why.
 

Stalker0

Legend
My only remaining beef with 5e stealth is invisibility. The idea that a pixie can go invisible, move 30 feet, and the players know exactly where it is…just doesn’t work for me.

So I allow an automatic stealth check for Invis if you move 10 or more feet. That covered me biggest gap
 


Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Personally I like the stealth rules in 5E and prefer them over the rules from 4E. They do require a DM to be fairly clear in descriptions while also giving the PCs proper feedback, but I greatly prefer flexibility to trying to hard code it because to me that never seem to really work. There are just too many variables. That, and I like the flexibility to set the tone and style of the game.

I also don't find the rules that hard to understand, although of course you do have to have a decent understanding of some basic rules. D&D is a somewhat complex game, but I don't think it's too much of a burden to look up what obscurement is.

In my session 0 with new players I explain how I run stealth and that it's okay to ask, I'll try to set up environments that allow for stealth, but it really depends on how I envision the setting. That, and being hidden doesn't make people forget you exist. Oh, and I do follow a "fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me." Basically in most cases you can pop out of hiding once and get advantage but doing it a second time from the same location and they know to look for you. You can get advantage multiple turns in a row, you just have to work for it a little bit.
 

MarkB

Legend
My only remaining beef with 5e stealth is invisibility. The idea that a pixie can go invisible, move 30 feet, and the players know exactly where it is…just doesn’t work for me.

So I allow an automatic stealth check for Invis if you move 10 or more feet. That covered me biggest gap
That seems like a reasonable houserule. Maybe just give invisible creatures the rogue's "hide as a bonus action" ability.
 


Reynard

Legend
One thing that is super important is to double check abilities that require you SEE a target. Sometimes you can target something you are aware of otherwise, but many things -- including opportunity attacks -- require you actually see the target. This is important for those Scent empowered creatures, etc.
 

OptionalRule

Adventurer
My only remaining beef with 5e stealth is invisibility. The idea that a pixie can go invisible, move 30 feet, and the players know exactly where it is…just doesn’t work for me.

So I allow an automatic stealth check for Invis if you move 10 or more feet. That covered me biggest gap
It's perfectly reasonable to say you hear the wings flapping or even see a trail of pixie dust. It's not unreasonable to say this works as written even in this very specific edge case.
 


Asisreo

Fiendish Attorney
False Appearance.

Admittedly, this isn't exactly direct with Stealth, but it has to do with Surprise and yet nothing being hidden. What do I mean? False Appearance, and its other variations like Polymorph or a simple Disguise Self. Anything that has to do with not being unseen/unheard but still being camouflaged.

What's interesting is I found that a creature using this feature doesn't need to be hidden to surprise an enemy. Nor do they have to roll for stealth. The only condition that surprise needs is that a creature doesn't notice any threats when combat starts.

So, technically, no matter how much passive Perception or how well they roll on active Perception, they would still be surprised by a Rug of Smothering or a Mud Mephit.

This is the interpretation that seems most closely aligns with what I read in the "surprise" section, but I'm curious if that's a more common ruling.
 

ad_hoc

(he/they)
False Appearance.

Admittedly, this isn't exactly direct with Stealth, but it has to do with Surprise and yet nothing being hidden. What do I mean? False Appearance, and its other variations like Polymorph or a simple Disguise Self. Anything that has to do with not being unseen/unheard but still being camouflaged.

What's interesting is I found that a creature using this feature doesn't need to be hidden to surprise an enemy. Nor do they have to roll for stealth. The only condition that surprise needs is that a creature doesn't notice any threats when combat starts.

So, technically, no matter how much passive Perception or how well they roll on active Perception, they would still be surprised by a Rug of Smothering or a Mud Mephit.

This is the interpretation that seems most closely aligns with what I read in the "surprise" section, but I'm curious if that's a more common ruling.

Is there a rule about False Appearance that states this?

I think FA is far different than Disguise Self.

I know some people like to play that the PC or creature who declares attack first gets 'surprise' but I don't like that. Initiative is the best way to resolve the conflict of who goes first. This will also apply when a creature is perceived to be non-threatening which may be the goal of Disguise Self. The PCs/creatures still know that they could be a threat and so aren't surprised in most circumstances. In this case as a DM I might give the duped PCs/creatures disadvantage to their initiative.

False Appearance on the other hand could result in Surprise. What is the difference between a Mud Mephit being a pile of mud and a creature hiding within a pile of mud? In both cases the mud can be seen but the creature cannot. In game I would think about the circumstances and whether there would be any clues about things being off. Would it make sense for there to be a pile of mud there given the current circumstances?

This is the same for Animated Objects. Does the object look like it belongs in its surroundings or is there something off? Perhaps it is the only object without a layer of dust.

Avoiding Surprise against creatures with False Appearance is not about seeing it, it's about noticing that something isn't quite right about it.
 

Reynard

Legend
So, technically, no matter how much passive Perception or how well they roll on active Perception, they would still be surprised by a Rug of Smothering or a Mud Mephit.
I don't like this interpretation because I presume that anything that can attack you can also potentially give itself away. The rug bristles with anticipation, or the mud mephit moves just a little closer in the muck or whatever. I don't think "no save" style situations fit 5E's design ethos very well.
 

Asisreo

Fiendish Attorney
I know some people like to play that the PC or creature who declares attack first gets 'surprise' but I don't like that.
This isn't quite what I'm advocating for. Of course, if I'm in an area like a bar in the seedy part of town, anyone could be a threat and I'm aware of them. But if I'm at home, I'd certainly be surprised if my spouse suddenly lunged at me with a knife.

So while Disguise Self doesn't inherently make your enemy surprised just from not recognizing you, its certainly possible to disguise yourself as a nonthreat until the time for combat.

And I understand the fear of "breaking the game" but its a bit more difficult than that. Something like Disguise Self is only a self-spell and you'd probably have to split the party to have that surprise factor work since they'd notice the hulking Half-Orc barbarian before they'd notice the bard disguised as a housemaid.

If they risk that, I think they should be rewarded. If it falls flat, they'd have known the risks.

So it's less letting the first person to attack get surprise and more having the players actually work in creative and potentially cooler ways in order to get surprise.
 

Reynard

Legend
This isn't quite what I'm advocating for. Of course, if I'm in an area like a bar in the seedy part of town, anyone could be a threat and I'm aware of them. But if I'm at home, I'd certainly be surprised if my spouse suddenly lunged at me with a knife.

So while Disguise Self doesn't inherently make your enemy surprised just from not recognizing you, its certainly possible to disguise yourself as a nonthreat until the time for combat.

And I understand the fear of "breaking the game" but its a bit more difficult than that. Something like Disguise Self is only a self-spell and you'd probably have to split the party to have that surprise factor work since they'd notice the hulking Half-Orc barbarian before they'd notice the bard disguised as a housemaid.

If they risk that, I think they should be rewarded. If it falls flat, they'd have known the risks.

So it's less letting the first person to attack get surprise and more having the players actually work in creative and potentially cooler ways in order to get surprise.
I would say this is where Deception vs passive Insight comes into play. The assassin is trying to convince you they are someone who they aren't in order to lull you into a false sense of security so they can gut you. By not allowing a roll, what you are saying as GM is that there is NO chance that the assassin will fail in this regard, and that strikes me as antithetical to design paradigm. D&D uses dice because we can't account for every little detail. If the assassin flubs the check, for example, maybe they said "she" when talking about the dog who is actually male, or any other number of telltale signs from any number of disguised assassin scenes in other media. I know as a GM I would feel like I was cheating if I just made it so the assassin got a free deadly attack against a PC without putting a lot of effort into the setup and description etc... And as a player -- well, I would probably not be playing with that GM again.

In other words, in D&D there is always a chance within reason, especially when you are talking about PCs interacting with things like disguised enemies.
 

Asisreo

Fiendish Attorney
I would say this is where Deception vs passive Insight comes into play. The assassin is trying to convince you they are someone who they aren't in order to lull you into a false sense of security so they can gut you. By not allowing a roll, what you are saying as GM is that there is NO chance that the assassin will fail in this regard, and that strikes me as antithetical to design paradigm. D&D uses dice because we can't account for every little detail. If the assassin flubs the check, for example, maybe they said "she" when talking about the dog who is actually male, or any other number of telltale signs from any number of disguised assassin scenes in other media. I know as a GM I would feel like I was cheating if I just made it so the assassin got a free deadly attack against a PC without putting a lot of effort into the setup and description etc... And as a player -- well, I would probably not be playing with that GM again.

In other words, in D&D there is always a chance within reason, especially when you are talking about PCs interacting with things like disguised enemies.
Hm...I think the place we'd disagree on is that the dice are the only way of giving the PCs a chance.

For context, if I were to have an Assassin cast Disguise Self (kinda a scummy creation already), it wouldn't be that the player has no chance of detecting them before combat because I would design the situation to have ample opportunity to make the player suspicious.

The Assassin might greet the PC but call them sugar instead of honey. They might not know information that the disguised character should know.

Point is, I'd give the players chances by design specifically because I don't want to be an inherently hostile DM.

However, if I were to flip it to the player's side, I have no real need to protect my NPCs so they are free to make themselves appear disguised and be silent and unnoticeable until the moment to strike. Of course, I might add some tension by having the target say something like "Do you have that report I ordered yesterday?" Or "Remind me what I was supposed to do today again?" Where a player with high deception gets rewarded.


For a more concrete example with context:

The Order of the Rose has been silently stalking the party from the shadows. They know their every move and when they're most vulnerable. An expert assassin, known as The Thorn, is currently hunting the party's monk. He knows that the monk trusts his sensei more than anyone in the world, so The Thorn hatches a devious plan to impersonate the master with a Disguise Self spell.

"You walk into the monastery, its a bit dirtier than usual. Your sensei enters the room even though this is his usual training time."

"I ask 'Sensei, what's wrong? You're usually training.'"

"Sensei says 'Your return is a cause for celebration after your difficult mission."

"Did my master ever celebrate anything? I want to see if he's lying"

"Roll an insight check" (rolls a hidden deception contest, monk fails).

"You can't discern if he's lying or not."

"I want to subtly see if there's anything off about him."

"Make a DC 12 Intelligence (Investigation) check" (Spell Save of Assassin, Succeeds).

"You discern that its merely an illusion, its not your true master at all!"

"'Who are you, impostor!'"

"'Mehehe,' the impostor says 'You're more cunning than you look. You are still a fool though, nyeh!' He lunges at you with his dagger drenched in poison, roll initiative!"
 

Lakesidefantasy

Adventurer
Surprise is important to an Assassin's Assassinate feature. I don't want us to abuse it, but I do want us to use it. If it's too hard to use then we'll stop trying. If we make an effort to get surprise as an assassin, I can only hope we would be able to fight our urge to foil abuse in order to facilitate our urge to use.

As for False Appearance. If we're not getting surprised by mimics then what the heck are we doing? On the other hand, I do want us to have a chance of discovering the beast before it surprises us, but I want that to happen tangentially. What does that mean? Well, I've noticed in recent publications the developers usually point out a way we can put two and two together to detect a mimic.

For instance (and this is not an actual example in order to avoid spoilers), imagine you walk down a long 5 ft. wide corridor into a square 15 ft. by 15 ft. room. To the left and right are similar corridors leading out of the room, each positioned in the center of each wall similar to the corridor you just entered from. However, directly ahead, on the opposite wall, is a wooden door--with a big, fat padlock on it.

It's too easy. As Players we just cannot resist opening that door.

(By the way, Grammarly is terrified at the content of this post. :eek:)
 

Reynard

Legend
Hm...I think the place we'd disagree on is that the dice are the only way of giving the PCs a chance.

For context, if I were to have an Assassin cast Disguise Self (kinda a scummy creation already), it wouldn't be that the player has no chance of detecting them before combat because I would design the situation to have ample opportunity to make the player suspicious.

The Assassin might greet the PC but call them sugar instead of honey. They might not know information that the disguised character should know.

Point is, I'd give the players chances by design specifically because I don't want to be an inherently hostile DM.

However, if I were to flip it to the player's side, I have no real need to protect my NPCs so they are free to make themselves appear disguised and be silent and unnoticeable until the moment to strike. Of course, I might add some tension by having the target say something like "Do you have that report I ordered yesterday?" Or "Remind me what I was supposed to do today again?" Where a player with high deception gets rewarded.


For a more concrete example with context:

The Order of the Rose has been silently stalking the party from the shadows. They know their every move and when they're most vulnerable. An expert assassin, known as The Thorn, is currently hunting the party's monk. He knows that the monk trusts his sensei more than anyone in the world, so The Thorn hatches a devious plan to impersonate the master with a Disguise Self spell.

"You walk into the monastery, its a bit dirtier than usual. Your sensei enters the room even though this is his usual training time."

"I ask 'Sensei, what's wrong? You're usually training.'"

"Sensei says 'Your return is a cause for celebration after your difficult mission."

"Did my master ever celebrate anything? I want to see if he's lying"

"Roll an insight check" (rolls a hidden deception contest, monk fails).

"You can't discern if he's lying or not."

"I want to subtly see if there's anything off about him."

"Make a DC 12 Intelligence (Investigation) check" (Spell Save of Assassin, Succeeds).

"You discern that its merely an illusion, its not your true master at all!"

"'Who are you, impostor!'"

"'Mehehe,' the impostor says 'You're more cunning than you look. You are still a fool though, nyeh!' He lunges at you with his dagger drenched in poison, roll initiative!"
I mean, that involves making rolls to determine if the PCs notice something. I'm not sure what we were disagreeing on that case.
 

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