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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Literally everything you wrote contradicts the rules:

/eyeroll

This is not the rule. To become hidden, the rule is:

1) You must first enter cover (or obscurement) sufficient to be able to 'not be seen clearly' by your opponent.
2) You must then take the Hide action with your Action (or bonus action for Rogues and the like)
3) Succeed on a Stealth check by your opponents Passive Perception score.

Then (and only then) are you hidden.

You forgot a step in the action resolution loop. If the player declares they are hiding, the DM can simply declare it an auto-success without a dice roll. I very explicitly said "this is how I would rule it", and was writing in the context of rogues using their bonus action to Hide. Rather than waste time rolling (at that point) I'll just grant them the success, assuming they have total cover.

That's not the rule either.

The rule is thaat when you're hidden, you can attack from your hiding spot and you retain the benefit of being hidden (advantage on your attack) for the entire attack (hit or miss) until after the resolution of your attack, at which point you are no longer hidden.

Not quite. The rules says that's how it works if you are hidden. But obviously if you are behind total cover you can't see your target, so in order to shoot you have to move, and if you come out from behind your cover, the DM can rule you are no longer hidden.

What I'm saying is that at that point, when they emerge from total cover, I'd be willing (in general) to let the rogue roll, to see if they can remain out of the target's view.

I realize that's not how most DMs (at least the ones I've played with) do this. Most people just let you pop out and shoot. And I'm not going to make any claims about whether or not that's RAW, RAI, or whatever. But what I'm describing does not contradict the rules.


This one is a bit more subjective.

By default you cannot approach a creature while hidden (unless you can do so without 'being seen clearly' as you approach, such as in a darkened room for example).

A DM could let a PC sneak up behind a creature, but that's entirely up to the DM.

Um, yeah. As I was saying above, I wrote "this is how I would rule it" not "what the rules say you must do".

I'd be happy to keep discussing this with you...I might be missing something. But please drop the arrogance.
 

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Asisreo

Patron Badass
If the PC's (as a group) move stealthily, then that's a group check surely?
Could be. Depends on the DM or the situation. I'd say so, but a DM might want to add tension by forcing the decision to either have only the stealthy party scout ahead (oh no, Splitting the party!) Or have the Paladin take the time to remove his loud armor. Or have the caster cast Pass Without Trace.

It's not necessarily bad either way.
 

Could be. Depends on the DM or the situation. I'd say so, but a DM might want to add tension by forcing the decision to either have only the stealthy party scout ahead (oh no, Splitting the party!) Or have the Paladin take the time to remove his loud armor. Or have the caster cast Pass Without Trace.

It's not necessarily bad either way.

You can add tension with secret rolls.
 

You forgot a step in the action resolution loop. If the player declares they are hiding, the DM can simply declare it an auto-success without a dice roll.
Where is that rule in the PHB?

Can you direct me to it?
I very explicitly said "this is how I would rule it", and was writing in the context of rogues using their bonus action to Hide. Rather than waste time rolling (at that point) I'll just grant them the success, assuming they have total cover.
Great, but that's not how the rules work.

You can rule however you want at your table though. I'm not stopping you.
Not quite. The rules says that's how it works if you are hidden. But obviously if you are behind total cover you can't see your target, so in order to shoot you have to move, and if you come out from behind your cover, the DM can rule you are no longer hidden.

No, you're wrong. This has been covered a billion times already, including by the dude that wrote the rules who clearly states you're wrong, in a tweet, sage advice and on a podcast.
What I'm saying is that at that point, when they emerge from total cover, I'd be willing (in general) to let the rogue roll, to see if they can remain out of the target's view.
You're not following the rules.

The Rogue remains hidden until the attack is resolved, hit or miss. Says so in the PHB, as confirmed by JC in multiple sources.

I realize that's not how most DMs (at least the ones I've played with) do this. Most people just let you pop out and shoot.

That's because those are the rules.

Bill, you're wrong by the Rules. That's all Im saying here.

Im not questioning your ruling (go crazy with how you do it at your table, I dont play at it). Im just pointing out that the rules as written do not support your interpretation, and what you posted are not the actual rules for how hiding works.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
You can add tension with secret rolls.
Yes, we always do this for stealth, especially since they can (and IMHO should, as it speeds up play a lot and reduces metagaming) be kept for a very long time (until you are discovered or stop hiding).

Both VTTs and face to face there are very simple mechanics to do this, and it works really well.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
In my experience too many DMs are willing to give it to the ranged rogue, but when the melee rogue wants to approach they say you can’t.

Maybe I have a more cinematic view of rogues than most, but in the same way a magician (of the Penn and Teller ilk) can hide something in plain sight, using distraction and psychology, I’m fine with the image of rogues knowing how to stay in somebody’s blind spot.
Using a grid, I find that circumstances where hiding is clearly enabled do more often suit ranged attackers. One can certainly do as you do and allow an approaching rogue to stay hidden. Rogues are intended to frequently have advantage.

It can feel a bit unnatural if they repeatedly kite back into cover and then - surprise! - back again. The skulker feat and wood elf trait both can make a big difference. (I like to also be thoughtful of those in refereeing stealth.)
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Where is that rule in the PHB?

It's not a PHB rule, it's a DMG resolution, check "The Role of Dice", it's a very interesting section. Basically, it's never the players who decide to roll, the DM can absolutely decide that an action auto-fails or auto-success based on declaration and circumstances. If Bill decides that, in his campaign, as long as you are out of sight, you are considered hidden, it's still absolutely in line with the rules (and, I might add, with all the advice from the Devs that say, basically, that stealth, even more than many areas of the rules, is under the jurisdiction of the DM).

The Rogue remains hidden until the attack is resolved, hit or miss. Says so in the PHB, as confirmed by JC in multiple sources.

On this, point, you are correct, the rules are actually fairly clear, although I might point out that all the elements in the rules, from "see you clearly" to " if you come out of hiding and approach a creature, it usually sees you" are subject to a DM's interpretation.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Using a grid, I find that circumstances where hiding is clearly enabled do more often suit ranged attackers. One can certainly do as you do and allow an approaching rogue to stay hidden. Rogues are intended to frequently have advantage.

No, they are intended to use their sneak attack frequently, which is very different. And using a grid is an option only, and a very undevelopped one in 5e, so I would not base anything on this, it's not the standard.

It can feel a bit unnatural if they repeatedly kite back into cover and then - surprise! - back again. The skulker feat and wood elf trait both can make a big difference. (I like to also be thoughtful of those in refereeing stealth.)

And everything here is very unnatural, which is why disadvantage on stealth and advantage on spotting (or even auto-failure / -success) are a DM's best friend in case of abuse.
 

Asisreo

Patron Badass
Yes, we always do this for stealth, especially since they can (and IMHO should, as it speeds up play a lot and reduces metagaming) be kept for a very long time (until you are discovered or stop hiding).

Both VTTs and face to face there are very simple mechanics to do this, and it works really well.
Actually, the way I do it is that they don't roll stealth until they know there's someone nearby to detect them. If no one's there, I'll wait until someone appears.

If someone is hidden somewhere else such that neither might notice each other, I either roll secret rolls or use passive Stealth.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Actually, the way I do it is that they don't roll stealth until they know there's someone nearby to detect them. If no one's there, I'll wait until someone appears.

It's one way to do that, but the problem as I see it is that it alerts the player to the fact that there is someone, and his behaviour will be modified even with good players. By rolling secretly when someone goes stealthy, you can manage everything potentially using passives, and the suspense will be total for the player who will not know what to expect.

If someone is hidden somewhere else such that neither might notice each other, I either roll secret rolls or use passive Stealth.

Passive stealth is a good idea as well, I use it fairly often for these circumstances or just to see how discrete characters are, in case they are being observed when they don't know about it.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
No, they are intended to use their sneak attack frequently, which is very different. And using a grid is an option only, and a very undevelopped one in 5e, so I would not base anything on this, it's not the standard.
Agreed on Sneak Attack, but also advantage, mechanically. Breaking down the classes it is easy to see that rogues sit at one end of the #attacks dmg/attack spectrum. They only look moderately balanced if they get advantage on most attacks. Then TCoE has the optional Steady Aim giving advantage at about the same tempo cost as hiding every turn.

It's possible the designers were optimistic about the balance on release and then realised where they had left things. Either way, giving rogue frequent advantage is intended.

And everything here is very unnatural, which is why disadvantage on stealth and advantage on spotting (or even auto-failure / -success) are a DM's best friend in case of abuse.
I believe DMs should not rule something works that they're unwilling to rule always works in the same circumstances. Therefore anything that might count as abuse should basically never work.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
It's one way to do that, but the problem as I see it is that it alerts the player to the fact that there is someone, and his behaviour will be modified even with good players. By rolling secretly when someone goes stealthy, you can manage everything potentially using passives, and the suspense will be total for the player who will not know what to expect.
Rolling when it matters avoids the opposite metagaming issue of why friends can't notice the rogue botched their roll. I find these concerns to be a wash, and prefer the tension of roll when needed.

Passive stealth is a good idea as well, I use it fairly often for these circumstances or just to see how discrete characters are, in case they are being observed when they don't know about it.
Likewise.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Agreed on Sneak Attack, but also advantage, mechanically. Breaking down the classes it is easy to see that rogues sit at one end of the #attacks dmg/attack spectrum. They only look moderately balanced if they get advantage on most attacks.

That is a very weak argument, since they are not based on as many attacks as other classes in general, and someone has to be on the low end anyway. Whereas it's been said by the devs about sneak attack (and they added lots of easy cases to have sneak attack without advantage), nothing has ever been said about advantage.

Then TCoE has the optional Steady Aim giving advantage at about the same tempo cost as hiding every turn.

It's an option and comes with consequences which more or less invalidate cunning action.

It's possible the designers were optimistic about the balance on release and then realised where they had left things. Either way, giving rogue frequent advantage is intended.

Again, no proof of it, as with most options it just gives capabilities to choose from. And making that change 7 years later just shows that the situation was really not that bad, especially in a game where balance is certainly not a major aim (and again, from the dev's own mouth). Moreover, once more, basic design is supposed to take into account the standard game, without options such as feat and multiclassing, where the rogue actually is not doing that badly.

I believe DMs should not rule something works that they're unwilling to rule always works in the same circumstances. Therefore anything that might count as abuse should basically never work.

That is not the way 5e is designed. Rulings before rules, and circumstances are extremely variable. There is absolutely no need to rule that you cannot ever hide in the same place. It might work in some circumstances with some adversaries and not work in similar (but still slightly different) circumstances, so there is again no need to strictly define "abuse" up front.. On the other hand, the game is all about giving adv/dis based on circumstances and the way the player describes his actions.
 
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Lyxen

Great Old One
Rolling when it matters avoids the opposite metagaming issue of why friends can't notice the rogue botched their roll.

It does not work that way, the roll is just to see how the PC will behave when it matters, but he does not have to step on a stick just in front of his friends for them to notice... :)

I find these concerns to be a wash, and prefer the tension of roll when needed.

To each his own...
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
That is a very weak argument, since they are not based on as many attacks as other classes in general, and someone has to be on the low end anyway. Whereas it's been said by the devs about sneak attack (and they added lots of easy cases to have sneak attack without advantage), nothing has ever been said about advantage.
Steady Aim says otherwise:) Also, multiple analysts of DPR converge on the same point: rogue is at the low end (beaten out by monks.)

Their challenge is they get only one attack roll per turn. Soulknife is also revealing of where the designers see mechanical space for improving rogues. The blades improve the damage type and typically give a second attack per turn, effectively advantage (1pt of damage is lost on the weapon die.) Noting also Homing Strikes: Rogue precision.

It's an option and comes with consequences which more or less invalidate cunning action.
Usually rogues spend movement + cunning action to get cover and hide. Steady Aim does about the same (consumes the bonus action and movement.) Therefore it is mechanically a wash.

Again, no proof of it, as with most options it just gives capabilities to choose from. And making that change 7 years later just shows that the situation was really not that bad, especially in a game where balance is certainly not a major aim (and again, from the dev's own mouth). Moreover, once more, basic design is supposed to take into account the standard game, without options such as feat and multiclassing, where the rogue actually is not doing that badly.
I don't believe the situation is bad for any class. They are what you make of them. When it comes to the mechanical facts, rogues are off the pace and to my eye TCoE shows the most contemporary take on the intended balance.

That is not the way 5e is designed. Rulings before rules, and circumstances are extremely variable. There is absolutely no need to rule that you cannot ever hide in the same place. It might work in some circumstances with some adversaries and not work in similar (but still slightly different) circumstances, so there is again no need to strictly define "abuse" up front.. On the other hand, the game is all about giving adv/dis based on circumstances and the way the player describes his actions.
I can only advise as to what I have seen work well in play. YMMV. Certainly circumstances can differ for all kinds of reasons, and those reasons can - and should - inform what one might decide. Where circumstances don't impactfully differ, consistency is a virtue.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
I don't believe the situation is bad for any class. They are what you make of them. When it comes to the mechanical facts, rogues are off the pace and to my eye TCoE shows the most contemporary take on the intended balance.

And that is an option just like all the other options in the game, when you add them up and compensate for everything optional, you have a different balance than the original intended one, where sneak attack was certainly intended to happen frequently, but certainly not advantage, as it is linked to too many other variables unrelated to the rogue specifically. And adding an option to incite advantage only goes to show that it was NOT the original intent, otherwise it would have been in the original set of rules.

I can only advise as to what I have seen work well in play. YMMV. Certainly circumstances can differ for all kinds of reasons, and those reasons can - and should - inform what one might decide. Where circumstances don't impactfully differ, consistency is a virtue.

This is going nowhere, since my take is that the principle of the game, and stealth in particular, is that circumstances are infinite and extremely variable (it's an open game), hence rulings over rules, consistency of rulings is not an aim of 5e in its core design. The game intrinsically resists defining everything in advance and forever as, as the devs say "it would make the game unplayable" (and this has indeed been proven before).

As a DM, I might decide that a certain guard is particularly inattentive and and that hiding twice in a row in a certain spot would possibly work, and that for another guard it would not work as well, because it's a roleplaying game where NPCs have their personality or distractions matter. Or that it works behind a certain crate and not behind a slightly smaller one somewhere else. Once more, this is not 4e where everything was cut up and dried initially in neat little squares and where visibility was determined exactly ("An alternative would be for the rules to severely limit what characters can do, which would be counter to the open-endedness of D&D"). Some people prefer this and it's fine, I don't and not only is it fine as well, but it's clearly the spirit in which 5e was written.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
I said STEP AWAY FROM YOUR KEYBOARDS, PEOPLE! I was very clear! Shame on you for not listening! SHAME! SHAAAAAAAAAAAME!

Hey! Stealth thread! BACK TO THE SHADOWS WITH YOU! BEGONE, VILE THING! BEGONE!!!!
 

I put more weight on the designers’ latest thinking than I do on their original intent. Whatever they originally planned for rogues, Steady Aim strongly suggests they saw holes in the design.
 

Oofta

Legend
This response, to me, is why how people handle stealth should be left up to the DM and the group. A lot of "the rules say" with little actual quoting of the rules.

Literally everything you wrote contradicts the rules:



This is not the rule. To become hidden, the rule is:

1) You must first enter cover (or obscurement) sufficient to be able to 'not be seen clearly' by your opponent.
2) You must then take the Hide action with your Action (or bonus action for Rogues and the like)
3) Succeed on a Stealth check by your opponents Passive Perception score.

Then (and only then) are you hidden.

Nothing states that you have to take an action to be hidden, hidden just means you are unseen and unheard.
Page 73 of the basic rules:​
When a creature can’t see you, you have advantage on attack rolls against it.​
If you are hidden—both unseen and unheard—when you make an attack, you give away your location when the attack hits or misses.​

A simple example. It's night and the target doesn't have darkvision and is relying on a torch to see. They're also standing next to a thundering waterfall that drowns anything but the loudest noise. I would consider an attacker a hundred feet away with a longbow hidden and would therefore get advantage. They wouldn't even give away their position, other than general direction. Because at some point the rules simply don't, can't, and aren't intended to cover every situation.

That's not the rule either.

The rule is thaat when you're hidden, you can attack from your hiding spot and you retain the benefit of being hidden (advantage on your attack) for the entire attack (hit or miss) until after the resolution of your attack, at which point you are no longer hidden.
Nope. Nothing says that. Please provide a quote from an official book. What it does say on page 60 of the basic rules is that "You can't hide from a creature that can clearly see you". I rule that that if you have to step from behind cover in order to fire (not always the case) then the target may be able to clearly see you. As stated in my previous post the way I run it, in most circumstances you can attack from a specific location once, but you'll have to move to a new position to attack the same target a second time. It's not an ironclad ruling however.

Another example. There's a guard for a door at the end of a 30 foot well lit hallway with a clear line of sight to the T intersection. The guard is looking down the hall at the T intersection, awake, alert and ready for action. I don't care if you had a 30 on your stealth check as you come to the intersection, if you lean out in order to get a shot at the guard they are going to clearly see you and you cannot hide.

There is no grace period for hidden stated, nor implied, in the rules.
This one is a bit more subjective.

By default you cannot approach a creature while hidden (unless you can do so without 'being seen clearly' as you approach, such as in a darkened room for example).

A DM could let a PC sneak up behind a creature, but that's entirely up to the DM.
I agree, approaching in melee is up to the DM to decide.

As always, run the game the way that is most fun for you and your group. But if you're going to say that "the rules say" please provide an actual quote from the books.

P.S. As far as rogues "needing" advantage on most attacks, I don't see it. They should be getting sneak attack most of the time but you don't need advantage for that. Rogues are designed with a lot of skills, they are not designed to be the biggest damage dealers. They are supposed to be really good at some skills as reflected by expertise. In my experience, rogues do plenty of damage in combat although of course most martial types would benefit from it.
 

Where is that rule in the PHB?

Can you direct me to it?

Great, but that's not how the rules work.

You can rule however you want at your table though. I'm not stopping you.
As a previous poster mentioned, it’s in the DMG not the PHB. (Which makes sense, even though nobody reads it.)

No, you're wrong. This has been covered a billion times already, including by the dude that wrote the rules who clearly states you're wrong, in a tweet, sage advice and on a podcast.

You're not following the rules.

1. Sage advice, tweets, and podcasts are not rules.
2. If JC feels like he needs to repeatedly clarify across multiple channels, there must be ambiguity in the text. Right?

The Rogue remains hidden until the attack is resolved, hit or miss. Says so in the PHB, as confirmed by JC in multiple sources.
Ibid

P.S. And, anyway, what I’m describing does not contradict that. You come out from cover, roll to see if you Hide from your target, and if successful you remain hidden until the attack is resolved.

Note that this ruling wouldn’t apply to, for example, a wood elf using partial natural cover, because they could still see their target from their hiding place.
 
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