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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.
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?
Stealth is one of those areas where they left it "The DM decides". If you can be clearly seen - and pass without trace just enhances existing circumstances it doesn't make you invisible - you can't hide.

Being invisible means you are heavily obscured and thus can hide but may be detected by other means. If they aren't taking the hide action then it's really up to the DM. Think of it this way. I'm sitting out on the porch right now, enjoying the nice weather. There's probably a fly somewhere within 10 feet that I am completely unaware of because it's too small and I can't see it. It's not buzzing or doing anything I could possibly detect. If there was an invisible elephant in the driveway, I might be able to see footprints in gravel or hear it moving around.

Does that make sense? I mean, there just is no one true answer. Read the section in the PHB on hiding and make your best judgement. IMHO not taking the hide action does not automatically mean you are detected. After all I assume you don't know exactly where I am as I type this other than on a porch somewhere in the world, being paranoid about flies and invisible elephants.

If you think someone would not automatically be detected but they have not taken the hide action (and thus don't follow the normal rules) you have to decide if it's possible and if so how likely. From there I would use the standard Typical DCs in the DMG under running the game versus their passive perception.

But that's just me.
 

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Hurin88

Adventurer
I think I am pretty clear on the RAW now.

I guess the thing that bothers me about the 5e rules for invisibility though -- the root of maybe why I find these rules a little odd -- is the idea that people automatically know the location of invisible beings. Yes, people make noise when they walk, but really, beyond about 10' or 20', are you really going to hear them, and to the extent that you now know exactly what 5' square they are in? When they are 50' or 100' away? That seems unlikely to me. And that rather questionable assumption, which lies at the root of the invisibility rules, is what seems to be causing strain on the rest of the rules.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I think I am pretty clear on the RAW now.

I guess the thing that bothers me about the 5e rules for invisibility though -- the root of maybe why I find these rules a little odd -- is the idea that people automatically know the location of invisible beings. Yes, people make noise when they walk, but really, beyond about 10' or 20', are you really going to hear them, and to the extent that you now know exactly what 5' square they are in? When they are 50' or 100' away? That seems unlikely to me. And that rather questionable assumption, which lies at the root of the invisibility rules, is what seems to be causing strain on the rest of the rules.
Why do you think people automatically know where you are? The PHB says their position "can be detected by any noise it makes or any tracks it leaves" not that they are automatically detected. If they aren't making noise, leaving tracks or somehow interacting with the environment in a way that can be detected, nothing in the rules says they are automatically detected.
 

Asisreo

Fiendish Attorney
the idea that people automatically know the location of invisible beings.
Its not really automatic. Actually, there are noise levels in D&D but its behind the purchase of a DM screen and the players don't have the native option to choose.

Though, a few ways to avoid noise is: maintaining an adequate distance from enemy, moving in a noisy environment, walking through an area of Silence spell, deafening the enemy, or causing a distraction.

Really, only two of these options have official rules behind them, but the others are implied through some regard.

If you take the leaving tracks and making noise as charitable to the invisible creature as possible, it even makes Ranger's Feral Senses make more...well, sense.
 

ad_hoc

(he/they)
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?

The book says that the DM is there to make rulings. That is what RAW is.

In 3e they tried to make a rule for everything and it failed spectacularly at that because there should and will always be something that doesn't have a rule written about it. The DM always has to come up with rulings. 5e baked this into its design.

Does the guard notice them when they step out from behind cover? You decide whether they do, whether they don't, or if the outcome is in doubt. That is RAW.
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
The book says that the DM is there to make rulings. That is what RAW is.

In 3e they tried to make a rule for everything and it failed spectacularly at that because there should and will always be something that doesn't have a rule written about it. The DM always has to come up with rulings. 5e baked this into its design.

We're not talking about crazy cases and obscure rulings. We're talking about basic movement and stealth. There should be clear and consistent rules for that.

I could make my own system in 5 minutes by just saying, 'The DM will decide everything.' But that's what I pay WotC for -- so I don't have to do it.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
We're not talking about crazy cases and obscure rulings. We're talking about basic movement and stealth. There should be clear and consistent rules for that.

I could make my own system in 5 minutes by just saying, 'The DM will decide everything.' But that's what I pay WotC for -- so I don't have to do it.

There's an old podcast on this here that discusses stealth and why they did it the way they did it. At around the 28 minute mark he specifically talks about losing track of an invisible individual even though the individual did not take an action to hide.

In other parts he explains how they had a set of rules and realized they couldn't cover every edge case and decided to leave it in the hands of the DM. I think it was the right call, rules from previous editions occasionally had us scratching our head from time to time because they were illogical. YMMV.
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
Thanks for posting that Oofta. I listened to that part. He says that a DM could rule that characters can't tell the location of an invisible creature if for example a barbarian was yelling, or explosives had gone off, or they weren't paying attention. But then he says that it is also acceptable to assume people know the location of invisible creatures. So basically, the designers have abrogated any responsibility for making rules; it is all just 'A DM could do this, or a DM could do the opposite.'

Personally, I would prefer the rule to be that people do not generally know the location of invisible creatures. Trying to pinpoint the exact 5' square of a moving, invisible creature from hearing or circumstantial clues alone would seem to me to be a very difficult thing to do, and definitely not the sort of thing I would assume everyone routinely does.

But in any case, thanks for sending me that, because I realize now that the designers have deliberately punted the responsibility of figuring all this out to the DM. I find that disappointing, but at least I know the problem (at least it is a problem to me) is not my fault; it is a built-in 'feature' of the rules -- or more precisely the lack thereof. I guess that's the reason we need EN World articles and series like the one we're commenting on here.
 

ad_hoc

(he/they)
We're not talking about crazy cases and obscure rulings. We're talking about basic movement and stealth. There should be clear and consistent rules for that.

I could make my own system in 5 minutes by just saying, 'The DM will decide everything.' But that's what I pay WotC for -- so I don't have to do it.

You said you wanted to play by RAW.

Now you're saying you would rather make your own system.

Make a choice.
 


Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Thanks for posting that Oofta. I listened to that part. He says that a DM could rule that characters can't tell the location of an invisible creature if for example a barbarian was yelling, or explosives had gone off, or they weren't paying attention. But then he says that it is also acceptable to assume people know the location of invisible creatures. So basically, the designers have abrogated any responsibility for making rules; it is all just 'A DM could do this, or a DM could do the opposite.'

Personally, I would prefer the rule to be that people do not generally know the location of invisible creatures. Trying to pinpoint the exact 5' square of a moving, invisible creature from hearing or circumstantial clues alone would seem to me to be a very difficult thing to do, and definitely not the sort of thing I would assume everyone routinely does.

But in any case, thanks for sending me that, because I realize now that the designers have deliberately punted the responsibility of figuring all this out to the DM. I find that disappointing, but at least I know the problem (at least it is a problem to me) is not my fault; it is a built-in 'feature' of the rules -- or more precisely the lack thereof. I guess that's the reason we need EN World articles and series like the one we're commenting on here.

I can practically guarantee the devs made some decision about 5E that every person that plays the game will disagree with at some point or other. Personally, I dislike the rules on items that modify ability scores. I prefer 3.x's version where you add to your ability instead of replacing it is one example for me.

No game is perfect for every individual. If you listen to the whole podcast they talk about why they did what they did and personally I agree with their choice.
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
You said you wanted to play by RAW.

Now you're saying you would rather make your own system.

Make a choice.

Playing by RAW doesn't mean you give up the right to criticize rules you think are poorly designed. As I said, I'm playing strictly by the RAW this campaign. If I ever play 5e again, I will be houseruling a great deal.
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
No game is perfect for every individual. If you listen to the whole podcast they talk about why they did what they did and personally I agree with their choice.

Fair enough. I'm glad you can play the way you want, and thanks for your perspective.
 

ad_hoc

(he/they)
Playing by RAW doesn't mean you give up the right to criticize rules you think are poorly designed. As I said, I'm playing strictly by the RAW this campaign. If I ever play 5e again, I will be houseruling a great deal.

Okay, so you've changed what you want to do.

Before you said you wanted to find out what the rules were so you could play by RAW.

People told you what the rules are.

Now you want to complain about the rules.

You can do that, but it's a different conversation.

Just because you don't like the rules doesn't mean they aren't the rules. And here's the great thing, you can just not play by them if you don't like them.
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
Okay, so you've changed what you want to do.

Before you said you wanted to find out what the rules were so you could play by RAW.

People told you what the rules are.

Now you want to complain about the rules.

You can do that, but it's a different conversation.

Just because you don't like the rules doesn't mean they aren't the rules. And here's the great thing, you can just not play by them if you don't like them.

I had forgotten that there were thought police who would try to forbid people from criticizing rules after they learned what they were. Happily, there actually isn't any rule like that on these forums, and anyone is free both to ask what the rules are and criticize the ones they think are poorly implemented. You can actually walk and chew gum at the same time.

What a wonderful world we live in!
 

ad_hoc

(he/they)
I had forgotten that there were thought police who would try to forbid people from criticizing rules after they learned what they were. Happily, there actually isn't any rule like that on these forums, and anyone is free both to ask what the rules are and criticize the ones they think are poorly implemented. You can actually walk and chew gum at the same time.

What a wonderful world we live in!

You asked what the rules were.

I told you.

Then you quoted me to complain about how much you don't like the rules.

Me criticizing your reaction to me is not 'thought police'. It's also not 'thought police' to tell you that if you don't like the rules you should simply not play by them instead of dogmatically following 'RAW' despite hating it. I haven't forbidden you from doing anything.

I, too, am allowed to post things.
 

Larnievc

Explorer
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.
Crikey, that’s a lot of thinking for very little pay off.

I just say ‘make a stealth check’ and set the difficulty in my head before they roll. If they pass they do what they wanted to do.
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
You asked what the rules were.

I told you.

Actually, you started edition warring by saying how much 3e dropped the ball by trying to give clear rules, and how awesome 5e was because it does not give clear ones. Then you started issuing ultimatums to me to make a choice, then criticized me for criticizing the lack of clear rules, all the while suggesting that the RAW consists of nothing but whatever the DM decides. So that wasn't all that helpful.

Anyhoo, we're good to move on if you're done with all that. We've clarified what the actual rules are, identified the areas that are especially open to DM judgement, and I've noted how I dislike the idea that characters are assumed to be able to know the precise location of invisible creatures by sound alone. So, all good.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
I hadn't considered the interpretation that characters can hide in lightly obscured areas if not being observed, and the specific features extend it to while being observed, but I'm definitely going to consider it now.
I think it partly depends on how valuable you want those features to be, and on how crisp you want the distinction to be between where a character can and cannot hide.

If you like the features to be valuable, that argues for saying that you can't hide when lightly obscured without them.
If you want the distinction to be as clear as possible for your players, that argues for saying - you need to be out of sight, invisible or heavily obscured.

If you don't use feats, or don't want to make them hard for rogues to ignore, or want to be more permissive for your players, then you might prefer the alternative. It does give rise to odd edge cases, but then the game isn't a simulation.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
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”
For me the problem with that is

"Orc lifts head as if hearing something, and warns the others"

If you roll ahead of time then that can happen, otherwise... what prompted the orc hearing something? OTOH that depends a lot on the context of play. It's nicer if player rolls the check at the table, but then they know the result which can be SOD breaking. So I think it justified to leave rolling such checks until they matter.
 

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