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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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Iry

Hero
My interpretation of RAW is that you can "stay hidden" in light obscurement. You need a good place to start Hiding (like heavy obscurement), but then you can move through light obscurement and remain hidden as long as you're not seen clearly. This makes it much easier to explain a wide variety of real life hiding that 5E normally doesn't support if you assume moving into light obscurement immediately reveals you.
 
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cmad1977

Hero
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?"

Laying the stakes out in the open is something I do sometimes too.
 

Asisreo

Fiendish Attorney
I mean, that involves making rolls to determine if the PCs notice something. I'm not sure what we were disagreeing on that case.
Well, I was admittedly lazy because I didn't do the case in which the player just doesn't catch onto cues.

"Your master enters the room, its usually his training time and he never misses."

"Oh, OK. I want to go to the dojo and train."

"Your master interrupts your training by saying 'Your return is cause for great celebration!' And he smiles."

"Alright."

"He walks behind you, out of your sight."

"Yeah."

"He pulls out a dagger! Roll initiative, you're surprised!"

While no roll was directly called for, the player would have had several chances to find the Assassin suspicious and investigated further.

This is what I mean. Sure, there's opportunity to roll and avoid surprise and those opportunities don't have to be too difficult to find, but its not reliant on dice at all times.
 

Reynard

Legend
Well, I was admittedly lazy because I didn't do the case in which the player just doesn't catch onto cues.

"Your master enters the room, its usually his training time and he never misses."

"Oh, OK. I want to go to the dojo and train."

"Your master interrupts your training by saying 'Your return is cause for great celebration!' And he smiles."

"Alright."

"He walks behind you, out of your sight."

"Yeah."

"He pulls out a dagger! Roll initiative, you're surprised!"

While no roll was directly called for, the player would have had several chances to find the Assassin suspicious and investigated further.

This is what I mean. Sure, there's opportunity to roll and avoid surprise and those opportunities don't have to be too difficult to find, but its not reliant on dice at all times.
I am more inclined to challenge the characters than the players. That's just a playstyle preference. I don't want them to have to pixelhunt or play DM-may-I. Players aren't their characters, and there is no reasonable way to be sure I as DM am providing enough contextual information to be sure it is the player's "fault" and not mine. So I give them a (potentially secret) roll.
 

Stalker0

Legend
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.
I agree, which is why I give a free stealth check, not automatic stealth.

pixie fails, her wings gave her away.

what I don’t like is that invisibility is so poor that unless a pixie makes some kind of effort to mask their sound that a PC 100 feet away can tell where she is from wing sound with no check…that’s just too unbelievable for me…hence the small house rule
 

Iry

Hero
what I don’t like is that invisibility is so poor that unless a pixie makes some kind of effort to mask their sound that a PC 100 feet away can tell where she is from wing sound with no check…that’s just too unbelievable for me…hence the small house rule
Have you ever heard a pixie? Their wings buzz like jet engines!
 

Stalker0

Legend
Have you ever heard a pixie? Their wings buzz like jet engines!
Except when they take 3 secs (aka use stealth) to not do that? And then once they do they can now move freely around at full speed and remain under stealth…again just a bit weird for me

and if pixie doesn’t work, choose an invisible human instead.
 

Asisreo

Fiendish Attorney
I am more inclined to challenge the characters than the players. That's just a playstyle preference. I don't want them to have to pixelhunt or play DM-may-I. Players aren't their characters, and there is no reasonable way to be sure I as DM am providing enough contextual information to be sure it is the player's "fault" and not mine. So I give them a (potentially secret) roll.
And this is where we disagree. The players play the game, not the characters ;) If your players enjoy that style of play, that's absolutely fine though.

For what its worth, I'd also not even run this scenario until the players are at least level 17 as that would ensure the surprise isn't fatal.
 

mrpopstar

Sparkly Dude
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.
Halflings have a lot going for them in this regard: Small, unassuming, and stealthy. All those things together inform in their Naturally Stealthy trait, but nothing moreso than the fact that they're physically able to make use of the obscuring cover provided by a crowd of creatures larger than themselves.


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.
I call for a Charisma check when players try to blend into a crowd, and a Charisma (Deception) check when resolving contests. Just feels right to me.

Personally, because Perception and Stealth are already so powerful, I try to restrict them to the five senses only.
In many ways, the game restricts Perception and Stealth to just two (sight and hearing).

Touch (in the form of vibrations) and smell are barely mentioned outside of the special senses and special traits specific to monsters, and taste makes the weakest showing.

I mean, poisons are designed for stealth, but you mean to tell me that a potion of water breathing is cloudy green, smells of the sea, and tastes like nothing!?
 

Iry

Hero
Except when they take 3 secs (aka use stealth) to not do that? And then once they do they can now move freely around at full speed and remain under stealth…again just a bit weird for me

and if pixie doesn’t work, choose an invisible human instead.
I'm always REALLY loud when I'm invisible. Until I choose not to be. Sage nods.
 

Reynard

Legend
And this is where we disagree. The players play the game, not the characters ;) If your players enjoy that style of play, that's absolutely fine though.
In my experience, players want to use the things they took the effort to put on their character sheets.
For what its worth, I'd also not even run this scenario until the players are at least level 17 as that would ensure the surprise isn't fatal.
Interesting. I wouldn't have an assassin target a PC unless I wanted there to be some chance the assassin succeeded.
 

Asisreo

Fiendish Attorney
In my experience, players want to use the things they took the effort to put on their character sheets.
Don't get me wrong, their character sheets very much do matter. Its just that they're going to have to use their features, I'm not going to put that on myself. (I include skill/ability checks as well. I only ask for dice rolls after a player does something that requires it. Exceptions are saving throws and initiative).
Interesting. I wouldn't have an assassin target a PC unless I wanted there to be some chance the assassin succeeded.
They'd succeed in that they'd surprise them and if the player's careless, the threat is still there. But I don't want the NPC to succeed, I want the players to succeed just with a bit of tension in the mix.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
I call for a Charisma check when players try to blend into a crowd, and a Charisma (Deception) check when resolving contests. Just feels right to me.
It occurs to me, a Charisma (History) check is alot like the 4e Streetwise check.

In many ways, the game restricts Perception and Stealth to just two (sight and hearing).
Heh, I know, I do!

I make a point to emphasize, Perception isnt a knowledge check. It is only the ability to perceive some subtle sensory input. What that visual information means wont always be obvious.

Ideally, I would want characters to make an Intelligence (Stealth) skill check to try find someone that is hiding. The idea is, they understand how to hide, and know what clues to look for, when scanning for someone else who is hiding.

But as of now, I use the Perception skill to find, because it is part of the Passive Perception in the statblocks.

I mean, poisons are designed for stealth, but you mean to tell me that a potion of water breathing is cloudy green, smells of the sea, and tastes like nothing!?
To identify a potion by a smell test as an action, I would want an Arcana check. (If they spent a short rest with a magic item, they would automatically identify it.)

To identify a poison, I would want a Medicine skill check or Poisoners tool check.
 
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mrpopstar

Sparkly Dude
It occurs to me, a Charisma (History) check is alot like the 4e Streetwise check.
I can see that!

Heh, I know, I do!

I make a point to emphasize, Perception isnt a knowledge check. It is only the ability to perceive some subtle sensory input. What that visual information means wont always be obvious.

Ideally, I would want characters to make an Intelligence (Stealth) skill check to try find someone that is hiding. The idea is, they understand how to hide, and know what clues to look for, when scanning for someone else who is hiding.

But as of now, I use the Perception skill to find, because it is part of the Passive Perception in the statblocks.
Sounds like on opportunity for both Intelligence (Investigation) and Wisdom (Perception) checks to come into play!

Hm, I don't use the "skills with different abilities" variant much it seems.
🤔

To identify a potion by a smell test as an action, I would want an Arcana check. (If they spent a short rest with a magic item, they would automatically identify it.)
An Intelligence (Arcana) sniff test fits the bill! However, a little taste is all that's needed to identify a potion (if you're brave enough to taste it!).

To identify a poison, I would want a Medicine skill check or Poisoners tool check.
The expansion on tool proficiencies in Xanathar's Guide to Everything offers various ways a poisoner's kit can be used, one of which is determining the effects of a poison with a DC 20 skill check (which I assume allows you to identify it?).
 

Plaguescarred

D&D Playtester for WoTC since 2012
No, they’re not saying that.

You automatically fail to see a hidden creature (or anything else) when blinded. Not detect.
Agreed as you generally have to be already invisible or heavily obscured in some way in order to even attempt to hide. An unseen creature is not a creature you can see for targeting purposes as well.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
When it comes to invisibility and being detected, there's nothing that says everyone automatically knows where you are unless you take an action to hide.

For invisibility (and darkness), the rules are actually quite sparse. Basic rules page 105 for invisibility says:
• 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.
• Attack rolls against the creature have disadvantage, and the creature’s attack rolls have advantage.

Note that the location "can be" detected. Not "is always" detected. In addition "noise it makes or any tracks it leaves." What happens if it's not making noise or leaving tracks? A flying creature in a zone of silence in the dark is going to be undetectable in most cases.

If you say that an invisible person is always detected unless they have taken the hide action, Invisibility suddenly becomes virtually useless to many, if not most, casters. Why ever bother casting Invisibility if you could get the same benefit from the Blur spell? Invisibility should be useful to characters other than Arcane Tricksters or for the wizard casting casting the spell on a sneaky character.

So let's say there's an invisible golem on a hard floor. It's not moving. I don't think you would know where it is without some other effect giving it away. It doesn't breath, it isn't moving, it is literally making no sound. Assuming there are no cobwebs hanging off of it or similar the only way to detect the golem is to stumble into it since the only way to perceive it would be to see it, which you cannot do.

If the golem activates because you enter the area and it starts moving, you can hear it and now you may know something is out there. You may even have a pretty good idea of it's location depending on the situation, but it's not automatic. The way I run it, you may not know exactly where it is until it attacks. At that point you can target it with disadvantage.

I agree that this does leave a lot up to the DM and different DMs are going to rule it differently. That may bother rules lawyers (not saying you are one or that it's even a bad thing) but it's just part of the structure of 5E.

So yes, you have to ask your DM how they handle stealth and invisibility. I think the DM making rulings based on common sense when the rules aren't explicit is a strength of 5E, not a weakness. Feel free to disagree.

The rules tell you how to hide so that creatures do not know where you are. That does not mean that creatures know where you are if you are not hidden any more than stating that all mammals are bats because bats are mammals.

If you are invisible and have not successfully taken the hide action, other creatures may or may not know where you are. Your PC in full plate just turned invisible while walking in mud in a light rain? Everybody probably knows where the PC is because they can hear him, see their tracks and the rain is outlining their shape. In a zone of silence (or in a situation where there is enough noise to hide the sound the PC makes) on hard ground leaving no tracks? There is no reason to assume they are detected. Throw in the light rain to outline the creature (something not explicitly mentioned in the rules) and the invisible creature walking in a zone of silence on concrete may still be easy to detect because you can see the creature's outline.

There's a reason I prefer D&D to computer games. The rules do not need to be encapsulate every single possibility, the DM can make judgement calls.
 


ad_hoc

Hero
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:)
I actually disagree with the surprise being important to assassins.

The way I read the ability the main thing they get is advantage for winning initiative.

The extra part about auto critting when winning initiative after surprise is just an addded bonus because they probably already have initiative in that scenario.

I believe they designed it knowing that surprise doesn't happen often.

Whenever a new player chooses rogue I tell them that it is a group game and so they will not often be sneaking around on their own getting into fights.
 

Lakesidefantasy

Adventurer
I actually disagree with the surprise being important to assassins.

The way I read the ability the main thing they get is advantage for winning initiative.

The extra part about auto critting when winning initiative after surprise is just an addded bonus because they probably already have initiative in that scenario.

I believe they designed it knowing that surprise doesn't happen often.

Whenever a new player chooses rogue I tell them that it is a group game and so they will not often be sneaking around on their own getting into fights.
Yeah, I get it. I play a duergar assassin in Adventures League and I don't think I've ever gotten to use that part of the ability. But I still have fun.

Part of the issue is that we, as players (Dungeon Master included), don't like to split the party. With any rogue I play, I like to sneak ahead of the party to scout out things or get into a hidden position, it's just the way I envision a rogue. But, I usually get shut down pretty quickly by the Table when I try that--usually, some Tables are different.

To me an assassin's abilities call on them to set up a situation of surprise. And, if we work to do that, I want to reward it with Advantage and a Critical Hit.

Now, I don't want us to abuse it with a 'wash, rinse, repeat' approach to encounters, and I understand many Tables play like that. In that case surprise would be too common for my tastes, but not all Tables play the same way.

Perhaps 'important' is too strong of a word, or maybe just the sense of the word in this case. In my experience surprise is important to the Player of an assassin. Or at least it is to me (and the few other players of assassins I've had the pleasure to play with).
 
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mrpopstar

Sparkly Dude
Agreed as you generally have to be already invisible or heavily obscured in some way in order to even attempt to hide. An unseen creature is not a creature you can see for targeting purposes as well.
When it comes to invisibility and being detected, there's nothing that says everyone automatically knows where you are unless you take an action to hide.

For invisibility (and darkness), the rules are actually quite sparse. Basic rules page 105 for invisibility says:
• 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.
• Attack rolls against the creature have disadvantage, and the creature’s attack rolls have advantage.

Note that the location "can be" detected. Not "is always" detected. In addition "noise it makes or any tracks it leaves." What happens if it's not making noise or leaving tracks? A flying creature in a zone of silence in the dark is going to be undetectable in most cases.

If you say that an invisible person is always detected unless they have taken the hide action, Invisibility suddenly becomes virtually useless to many, if not most, casters. Why ever bother casting Invisibility if you could get the same benefit from the Blur spell? Invisibility should be useful to characters other than Arcane Tricksters or for the wizard casting casting the spell on a sneaky character.

So let's say there's an invisible golem on a hard floor. It's not moving. I don't think you would know where it is without some other effect giving it away. It doesn't breath, it isn't moving, it is literally making no sound. Assuming there are no cobwebs hanging off of it or similar the only way to detect the golem is to stumble into it since the only way to perceive it would be to see it, which you cannot do.

If the golem activates because you enter the area and it starts moving, you can hear it and now you may know something is out there. You may even have a pretty good idea of it's location depending on the situation, but it's not automatic. The way I run it, you may not know exactly where it is until it attacks. At that point you can target it with disadvantage.

I agree that this does leave a lot up to the DM and different DMs are going to rule it differently. That may bother rules lawyers (not saying you are one or that it's even a bad thing) but it's just part of the structure of 5E.

So yes, you have to ask your DM how they handle stealth and invisibility. I think the DM making rulings based on common sense when the rules aren't explicit is a strength of 5E, not a weakness. Feel free to disagree.

The rules tell you how to hide so that creatures do not know where you are. That does not mean that creatures know where you are if you are not hidden any more than stating that all mammals are bats because bats are mammals.

If you are invisible and have not successfully taken the hide action, other creatures may or may not know where you are. Your PC in full plate just turned invisible while walking in mud in a light rain? Everybody probably knows where the PC is because they can hear him, see their tracks and the rain is outlining their shape. In a zone of silence (or in a situation where there is enough noise to hide the sound the PC makes) on hard ground leaving no tracks? There is no reason to assume they are detected. Throw in the light rain to outline the creature (something not explicitly mentioned in the rules) and the invisible creature walking in a zone of silence on concrete may still be easy to detect because you can see the creature's outline.

There's a reason I prefer D&D to computer games. The rules do not need to be encapsulate every single possibility, the DM can make judgement calls.
When trying to be quiet, activity is audible out to a distance of 2d6 x 5 ft. (or 35 ft. on average).

Anytime an invisible monster that isn't hidden uses their movement in combat, establish the distance out to which their movement is audible.

Using the average, adventurers within 35 ft. are targeting a monster they can hear but not see. Adventurers further away are guessing at the monster's location.
 

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