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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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Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
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.

The problem I have with hard and fast rules is that there are simply too many variables. Walking on soft grass or marble? Dead quiet or the middle of a riot? There's also the question of knowing exact location - you may know general area or direction without knowing specifics.

I guess that's why I just prefer a DM make the best judgement call they can, as long as they are reasonably consistent.
 

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mrpopstar

Sparkly Dude
The problem I have with hard and fast rules is that there are simply too many variables. Walking on soft grass or marble? Dead quiet or the middle of a riot? There's also the question of knowing exact location - you may know general area or direction without knowing specifics.

I guess that's why I just prefer a DM make the best judgement call they can, as long as they are reasonably consistent.
I will say (in my opinion) that the game does a pretty good job with the "three degrees" approach to most things: Audible distance (trying to be quiet, normal, very loud), cover (half cover, three-quarters cover, total cover), vision (clear, lightly obscured, heavily obscured), light (bright light, dim light, darkness), general difficulty (easy, medium, hard), proficiency (not proficient, proficient, expert), travel pace (fast, normal slow), starting attitude (friendly, indifferent, hostile), etc., etc.

The variables are much reduced in that regard.
 

I simply prefer/like the idea of just rolling the Stealth Check and then if it's comparing/seeing if its higher than the Passive Perception score. But I can see something like rolling against an active search check/or having whatever roll for a Perception check if something is up.
 

mrpopstar

Sparkly Dude
Alright, so I made a quickie example of audible distance in action. I like to use graph paper, pencil, and clear plastic area of effect overlays behind the screen to help me keep combat organized. It's super simple, nothing fancy, and my description of the action benefits immensely.

Disclaimer: This is not intended to be my masters thesis on mapping or combat on a grid, nor is it intended to be indicative of anything other than the scribbles you might find in my recycling bin after a game. Please acknowledge that we're vulnerable when we invite eyes behind the screen, so be kind and ask questions if you have them without making it about me and my game (which is a joy that I love sharing with my friends).
:)

For the sake of fitting one round of combat on one page in my word processor, I went with rolling snake eyes on 2d6 x 5 (resulting in 10 ft. diameter). There are five adventurers (A1 thru A5) and one invisible monster (M).
 

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Xeviat

Hero
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.
I'd rule it that way personally, unless the hiding character has cover or concealment from scent (or masked their scent in some way). Maybe a survival check?
 

Xeviat

Hero
I simply prefer/like the idea of just rolling the Stealth Check and then if it's comparing/seeing if its higher than the Passive Perception score. But I can see something like rolling against an active search check/or having whatever roll for a Perception check if something is up.
Thinking of passive perception as a stealth DC is how I do it.
 

Xeviat

Hero
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.
I can definitely add that. I hadn't forgotten about them, those rules are actually what made me always assume Hide was an action you had to attempt each round (thus, you can't dash, so your overland speeds are slowed).

I'll see when I can put in an edit.
 

Xeviat

Hero
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
I imagine the pixie's wings are buzzing or its otherwise making noise until it Hides. But at a certain range, pinpointing rather than knowing general direction would come up.

Mutants and Masterminds, and other systems, have tags for senses. In humans, vision is precise and acute, but hearing is only acute. Acute means you can use the sense to identify things. Precise means you can use the sense to target things. So a typical human can hear a creature and identify it (or maybe just attempt to), but can't target it without a penalty. Different systems do the guessing differently, though.
 

ad_hoc

(he/they)
I can definitely add that. I hadn't forgotten about them, those rules are actually what made me always assume Hide was an action you had to attempt each round (thus, you can't dash, so your overland speeds are slowed).

I'll see when I can put in an edit.

Dash is a combat action. Overland travel doesn't use it. Rogues don't travel faster because they can Bonus Action Dash. Or am I misinterpreting?
 


Xeviat

Hero
Dash is a combat action. Overland travel doesn't use it. Rogues don't travel faster because they can Bonus Action Dash. Or am I misinterpreting?
@Lakesidefantasy has it. In Overland travel, 3 mph is the baseline, which is 30 ft movement. 4 mph is fast and 2 mph is slow. I would have allowed for pushing 6 mph, but I suppose they're assuming some amounts of difficult terrain where pushing it isn't possible.

Yeah, you don't use combat actions out of combat, but I look at them to infer what's going on with out of combat. And yes, I'd let a Rogue by themselves stealth while traveling at normal speed and still do another task, but that's DM fiat, not raw. I wouldn't let a Rogue travel faster Overland, though, but that's because I don't let people "double dash" (though I do have a sprinting action, but you wouldn't be doing that for minutes).
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
@Lakesidefantasy has it. In Overland travel, 3 mph is the baseline, which is 30 ft movement. 4 mph is fast and 2 mph is slow. I would have allowed for pushing 6 mph, but I suppose they're assuming some amounts of difficult terrain where pushing it isn't possible.

Yeah, you don't use combat actions out of combat, but I look at them to infer what's going on with out of combat. And yes, I'd let a Rogue by themselves stealth while traveling at normal speed and still do another task, but that's DM fiat, not raw. I wouldn't let a Rogue travel faster Overland, though, but that's because I don't let people "double dash" (though I do have a sprinting action, but you wouldn't be doing that for minutes).
While a rogue can't dash outside of combat, I would also say that they can move at normal speed and be stealthy because of their cunning action feature.

I guess I think of taking an action to be stealthy as an action tax - you are being so careful not to be undetected that you don't have time to do anything else. For a rogue it's just second nature.
 

Xeviat

Hero
While a rogue can't dash outside of combat, I would also say that they can move at normal speed and be stealthy because of their cunning action feature.

I guess I think of taking an action to be stealthy as an action tax - you are being so careful not to be undetected that you don't have time to do anything else. For a rogue it's just second nature.
I've always interpreted cunning action not as getting an extra action, but as letting the rogue move and do other things at the same time. So yeah, I'd go with that in my games.
 

Asisreo

Fiendish Attorney
While a rogue can't dash outside of combat, I would also say that they can move at normal speed and be stealthy because of their cunning action feature.

I guess I think of taking an action to be stealthy as an action tax - you are being so careful not to be undetected that you don't have time to do anything else. For a rogue it's just second nature.
For me, this sounds much like the Ranger's Natural Explorer feature which kinda steps on their toes, which occurs alot with homebrew stuff.
 


Something perhaps to address in the main rules summary is who wins a tie in stealth roll vs. passive perception or active Wisdom checks.

The general rule is that a tie means the pre-existing condition continues, so if you are already hidden, someone must beat your stealth roll in their active Wisdom check, or if they approach relying on passive perception (on a tie, you remain hidden). On the other hand, if you try to hide from someone who already knows of your presence, your stealth check must beat their perception (on a tie, you fail to hide).

But I'm not sure how it would go if you are sneaking up on (or past) someone - if your stealth check ties their PP, do you succeed in sneaking, or do they notice you? The initial state was not hidden, but also the initial state was they didn't know you were coming. It's this contested check which gets a bit complicated.
 

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.
A Mastiff (Passive perception 13) has advantage on all Perception checks that rely on hearing or smell (Keen senses).

Meaning to Hide from one, you'll need at least an 18 on your Stealth check to do so.

Even if you succeed, and are also invisible, it has advantage to its Perception checks to find you via the Search action (as those checks are reliant on hearing and smell).

It would sniff you out within a round or two unless you rolled a 24 or higher.
 

Something perhaps to address in the main rules summary is who wins a tie in stealth roll vs. passive perception or active Wisdom checks.

Your passive score is the DC for the check, so = to or higher as usual.

That Stealth check then sets the DC for the Perception check on subsequent turns to find you.
 

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 just punishes rogues unfairly, as it devalues cunning action.

You're using the artificial nature of rounds to parse the action at the table.

The pixie is hidden when it takes the hide action (which happens right after becoming invisible, even it has to wait till the next 'round' to do so). The fact it has to wait an entire round to do so just represents the time spent being (invisible but not hidden) giving its enemies a fleeting chance to attack it (swinging wildly in its general vicinity) before its position becomes unknown.

Also remember, creatures are not frozen in time while other creatures move around for 6 seconds or so. The action of a round is happening simultaneously. The players know where the Pixie is (sort of; they dont really know where it is anymore so they get disadvantage to attack it, and cant target it with most spells and abilities) because it is becoming invisible and moving at the same time they are attacking it.
 

Plaguescarred

D&D Playtester for WoTC since 2012
Something perhaps to address in the main rules summary is who wins a tie in stealth roll vs. passive perception or active Wisdom checks.

The general rule is that a tie means the pre-existing condition continues, so if you are already hidden, someone must beat your stealth roll in their active Wisdom check, or if they approach relying on passive perception (on a tie, you remain hidden). On the other hand, if you try to hide from someone who already knows of your presence, your stealth check must beat their perception (on a tie, you fail to hide).

But I'm not sure how it would go if you are sneaking up on (or past) someone - if your stealth check ties their PP, do you succeed in sneaking, or do they notice you? The initial state was not hidden, but also the initial state was they didn't know you were coming. It's this contested check which gets a bit complicated.
If you are not hidden, you fail to sneak up on guard in a tied Stealth vs Perception.

My rule of thmb is that an active check must beat a passive score to succeed. Equality = passive > active .

1. An equal or higher Passive Perceptive score beat a Stealth check roll
2. An equal or higher Stealth score beat a Passive Perceptive check roll.
 

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