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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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Plaguescarred

D&D Playtester for WoTC since 2012
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). .
What if it never take such action next round?

Becoming invisible does not make a creature hidden. It simply now enable it to try to hide. Until it takes the Hide action, it's simply unseen and it's location can still be detected by any noise it makes or any tracks it leaves.
 

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Plaguescarred

D&D Playtester for WoTC since 2012
Then you've deliberately chosen not to he hidden or to even attempt to Hide.

Your general rough location is presumed known until you do.
That's not how Hiding works at all. Hide is not passive effect, it's an action. Being invisible or heavily obscured doesn't make you automatically hidden, it allows you to try to hide, where you otherwise couldn't by being visible. It's the only benefit after you've become unseen hiding grant, conceal your position.

Not only hiding is the only way RAW to conceal your position, its also RAI. Being heavily obscured or invisible doesn't conceal one's position or automatically make you hidden. It requires a seperate check (which usually takes an action)

@wax_eagle can you target a creature who is obscured but not hidden? More precisely, is hidden the only way to conceal position?
@JeremyECrawford Being hidden is the by-the-book way to conceal your position. The DM may decide that other methods can also conceal it.


https://twitter.com/JeremyECrawford/status/536686682213744642?ref_src=twsrc^tfw|twcamp^tweetembed|twterm^705947031362281473|twgr^|twcon^s3_&ref_url=https://www.sageadvice.eu/does-hidden-and-hide-mean-took-the-hide-action-or-neither-seen-nor-heard-well-enough-to-locate/
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
For me, this sounds much like the Ranger's Natural Explorer feature which kinda steps on their toes, which occurs alot with homebrew stuff.
Natural explorer gives you a whole bunch of other features, being stealthy is just one minor bullet point.

In addition a lot of class features are shared. Anyway, it rarely comes up, it's just how I rule.
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
Sorry to be a bit of a thread-necromancer, but the following issue came up in our game last night and caused strong differences of opinions.

The issue was that one of the characters cast 'Pass Without Trace'. The text of this spell says,

A veil of shadows and silence radiates from you, masking you and your companions from detection. For the duration, each creature you choose within 30 feet of you (including you) has a +10 bonus to Dexterity (Stealth) checks and can’t be tracked except by magical means. A creature that receives this bonus leaves behind no tracks or other traces of its passage.

The party then tried to walk past a guard. At one point, the party had no cover other than any effects of the spell, so I ruled that the guard could see them.

The debate revolved around the text of the spell. It says a 'veil of shadows' radiates out from the targets, which suggests some type of obscurement. But the more mechanical description of effect just says a +10 bonus to Stealth, and never specifies light or heavy obscurment specifically.

Was my ruling fair or unfair?
 


Hurin88

Adventurer
Thanks very much Plaguescarred.

How should I be explaining Pass Without Trace's mention of a 'veil of shadows and silence' to my players? Should I say that the 'veil of shadows' doesn't really count as light or heavy obscurement?

And would the 'silence' mask the footsteps of an invisible creature (if the party cast Invisibility on top of Pass Without Trace)?
 

Plaguescarred

D&D Playtester for WoTC since 2012
Thanks very much Plaguescarred.

How should I be explaining Pass Without Trace's mention of a 'veil of shadows and silence' to my players? Should I say that the 'veil of shadows' doesn't really count as light or heavy obscurement?

And would the 'silence' mask the footsteps of an invisible creature (if the party cast Invisibility on top of Pass Without Trace)?
It's fluff and has no mechanical ties. Spell that create lightly or heavily obscured area do mention it clearly. You can describe its a faint shadow that muffle sound, but is otherwise not deep enought to conceal or mute in any significant way.
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
It's fluff and has no mechanical ties. Spell that create lightly or heavily obscured area do mention it clearly. You can describe its a faint shadow that muffle sound, but is otherwise not deep enought to conceal or mute in any significant way.

That is how I ruled it too, but I do still understand why my players were a bit unsatisfied with that interpretation.

The PHB does say I believe, '“The creature’s location can be detected by any noise it makes or any tracks it leaves.” The description of Pass Without Trace then specifically mentions a 'veil of... silence' and leaving no tracks!
 

Plaguescarred

D&D Playtester for WoTC since 2012
That is how I ruled it too, but I do still understand why my players were a bit unsatisfied with that interpretation.

The PHB does say I believe, '“The creature’s location can be detected by any noise it makes or any tracks it leaves.” The description of Pass Without Trace then specifically mentions a 'veil of... silence' and leaving no tracks!
Which is represented by +10 to Stealth, which is an unconventional and extraordinary bonuses in 5E terms. Normally something good gives advantage which is the equivalent of +5
 

MarkB

Legend
Thanks very much Plaguescarred.

How should I be explaining Pass Without Trace's mention of a 'veil of shadows and silence' to my players? Should I say that the 'veil of shadows' doesn't really count as light or heavy obscurement?
I'd say "well, the veil of shadows will certainly help prevent the enemy from seeing you specifically. But if you're moving in plain sight rather than through cover, they're certainly going to notice this weird blob of shadow moving across the landscape"
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
I'd say "well, the veil of shadows will certainly help prevent the enemy from seeing you specifically. But if you're moving in plain sight rather than through cover, they're certainly going to notice this weird blob of shadow moving across the landscape"

That actually did come up once before so that's fine; that's a good explanation.

I'm having a harder time explaining why monsters can still locate the target of the spell when he is invisible (but not hiding). The general rules seem to be that an invisible creature can still be located because it still makes tracks and noise, but the spell explicitly states that the target makes no tracks and is surrounded by a 'veil... of silence'.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
That actually did come up once before so that's fine; that's a good explanation.

I'm having a harder time explaining why monsters can still locate the target of the spell when he is invisible (but not hiding). The general rules seem to be that an invisible creature can still be located because it still makes tracks and noise, but the spell explicitly states that the target makes no tracks and is surrounded by a 'veil... of silence'.
So invisible and pass without trace?
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
So invisible and pass without trace?
Yes. It would seem (RAW) that even if a character is Invisible and has Pass Without Trace on him, he is still located by default when he moves so long as he is not taking a hiding action.

I find that a bit hard to explain. Unless perhaps we are saying that that 'veil... of silence' is not total silence, just like the 'veil of shadows' does not count as obscurement.
 

MarkB

Legend
That actually did come up once before so that's fine; that's a good explanation.

I'm having a harder time explaining why monsters can still locate the target of the spell when he is invisible (but not hiding). The general rules seem to be that an invisible creature can still be located because it still makes tracks and noise, but the spell explicitly states that the target makes no tracks and is surrounded by a 'veil... of silence'.
It's not a perfect veil, it's just a +10 veil.

If the players protest, ask them if they want to be unable to communicate with each other or cast spells with a verbal component while the spell is running.
 


Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Yes. It would seem (RAW) that even if a character is Invisible and has Pass Without Trace on him, he is still located by default when he moves so long as he is not taking a hiding action.

I find that a bit hard to explain. Unless perhaps we are saying that that 'veil... of silence' is not total silence, just like the 'veil of shadows' does not count as obscurement.
Some of that's DM discretion IMHO. It depends. Is the invisible person moving through brush, past a curtain, perhaps walking on muddy ground? In a quiet hallway on a hard floor? Are there guard dogs that may be relying on scent instead of sight and sound?

Pass without trace mutes the sound of your passage, it doesn't eliminate it completely. On the other hand I do rule that to notice a creature there has to be something to detect. You can't detect an invisible person flying over a busy marketplace in my campaign for example unless that person gets unlucky and a bird runs into them for example. But a person walking down a marble hallway in an otherwise quiet corridor? The invisibility takes care of the seeing them, the muted sound gives them the +10.

You are not going to get 100% agreement on this though, some people will run it very much by the book.
 

MarkB

Legend
Incidentally, the general rule isn't that an invisible creature can still be detected. It's that it "can be detected by any noise it makes or any tracks it leaves." If it isn't making any noise or leaving any tracks, it is absolutely within the rules as written to declare that it can't be detected.
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
You are not going to get 100% agreement on this though, some people will run it very much by the book.

My main goal is to figure out what 'the book' says. :) I'm trying to run this campaign strictly by the RAW.

The characters were moving across a dressed stone floor of a Temple, but there was some commotion and shouting outside, as two armed groups were in a shouting stand off. By the RAW, then, the guard would spot them as they broke cover, and he would also know the location of the character who also had invisibility on but was not taking the hide action?
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
Incidentally, the general rule isn't that an invisible creature can still be detected. It's that it "can be detected by any noise it makes or any tracks it leaves." If it isn't making any noise or leaving any tracks, it is absolutely within the rules as written to declare that it can't be detected.

Ok, that makes sense. The characters definitely weren't leaving any tracks (Pass Without Trace eliminates them), but I think they would be making some noise, even if it was muffled by the Pass Without Trace.
 

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