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The best-laid plans of mice and men on a D&D night. The orc raiders are coming, and you have little time to stop them from reaching their camp with the kidnapped merchant. There are trees on both sides of the road; good for hiding. How well does your party have to roll on their Stealth checks to ambush them?
The DC you must beat to succeed on a Stealth check is set like this: If the opponent is not alert, the DC is their Passive Perception score: 10 + their Perception modifier. If they are alert and actively looking for you, it’s a contested check: your Stealth against their Perception (PHB, pg 177).
A group can succeed collectively on a Stealth check if at least half its members succeed individually on their checks (Player’s Handbook (PHB), pg 175). This is interpreted as the sneakier characters helping the others out.
Still, Stealth is tricky in 5E. There are lots to consider if you want to go skulking about. We break it all down in this handy guide for players and DMs alike.
How does Stealth Work?
Stealth is a Dexterity (Dex) skill that represents your ability to move through space without being noticed by whoever else might be there. It’s light feet, spatial awareness, staying out of sight, or blending in so that the eye glides over you.
When you make a Stealth check, you’re doing it against an opponent’s Perception, either their passive score (10+[perception score]+[proficiency bonus, if proficient]) or the result of their Perception check (rolling a d20 instead of “Taking 10”, and the same modifiers).
Perception is special because it has a skill-floor: not only is its passive version always available, but when you—or any other creature—make a Perception check and the result is below the passive score, it’s the passive that counts. More on Passive Perception here.
To even attempt sneaking, you must not be seen or heard at the moment when you do it. For all you rogues, bonus-action-hiding in combat: remember to break line of sight between you and your target, or somehow get obscured. Depending on your race or other methods, this could be as simple as standing behind an ally.
Armor and Stealth
Depending on what armor type you’re wearing, you might have to make stealth checks with disadvantage. All heavy armor gives disadvantage on stealth checks, as do scale mail and half plate (medium) and padded armor (light).
You’re probably wondering why does padded armor have disadvantage? Truly, this is one of life’s eternal mysteries.
The only way around this, without switching to a different type of armor, is wearing armor made of Mithral—a magical metal that removes this penalty. Padded armor can’t be made of Mithral. For more on armor, check out my post here.
How Do I Get Proficiency in Stealth?
There are several ways you can start out with proficiency, but depends on your race, class, background and feats. If you decide to gain proficiency later on, you can always get training. The main ways to get proficiency are:
The PHB (pg 187) and Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG)(pgs 131 and 231) provide training options for downtime that let you gain levels, learn languages, become proficient with tools and skills, or earn a Feat. This includes the above feats that give Stealth proficiency.
The PHB specifies that learning a skill takes 250 days at the cost of one gold piece (gp) per day, with a willing instructor. This can also be seen as 2000 hours (250 days X 8h a day), supposing one teammate wants to train another during their limited downtime.
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Cover and Stealth
There are different types of cover in 5E. Half- and three-quarters covers are meant only as added difficulties for someone trying to hit you, including with melee attacks. For Stealth, full cover is the only relevant one—you can’t break line of sight with half or three-quarters cover.
When using cover to hide during combat, it’s important to switch to other cover spots after revealing your position by attacking or casting a spell.
According to the 5E SRD, creatures can provide cover as well as objects. This is great for lightfoot halflings, whose racial feature Naturally Stealthy allows them to hide behind medium or larger creatures. Not only do they get advantage on ranged attacks from hiding behind their medium or larger friends, but they also enjoy full cover even if the enemy knows they’re there.
How Does Obscurement Work?
Obscurement is a state of the environment that badly affects visibility. In 5E, things and creatures are either clearly visible, lightly obscured, or heavily obscured.
Visibility is clear in any area lit by bright light and where obscuring factors such as fog, floating dust, or rainfall are absent. When visibility is clear, everything related to sight works as intended.
Something is lightly obscured when in dim light, patchy fog, or behind moderate foliage. Perception checks relying on sight have disadvantage against lightly obscured areas, objects, and creatures. Dim light is a frequently used condition, and it’s usually the shadowy area between a bright light source and total darkness.
Most creatures can’t hide when only lightly obscured. Wood elves are an exception due to their Mask of The Wild feature, which allows them to hide when lightly obscured by natural phenomena, such as rain, snowfall, or behind light foliage.
Another way to be able to hide when only lightly obscure is picking up the Skulker feat. This feat’s usefulness extends beyond just natural sources of obscurement and removes the disadvantage from your sight-based Perception checks when in dim light.
“The DM decides when circumstances are appropriate for hiding. Also, the question isn’t whether a creature can see you when you’re hiding. The question is whether it can see you clearly.”
Some people have accused this of nerfing (opposite of a buff) the wood elf’s Mask of The Wild feature, making it so that anyone can hide when only lightly obscured. I’m inclined to agree.
Something is heavily obscured when it’s completely blocked from sight by things such as darkness, thick fog, a sandstorm, or heavy foliage. When you look into a heavily obscure area, you are effectively blinded.
The most common way for something to be heavily obscured is when it’s in darkness, such as inside a cavern with no light source or on a moonless night.
Creatures with Darkvision can see in darkness as if it were dim light, and in dim light as if it were bright light, within a specified radius.
Movement Speed and Stealthy Traveling
Although it makes sense to slow down when sneaking, Rules-as-Written (RAW) your movement speed remains the same when engaging in Stealth in most situations.
The PHB (pg 182) only specifies a reduced movement speed as part of Stealth during overland, long-distance travel. To be inconspicuous, you have to travel at half speed. A normal traveling pace is 4 miles (about 6.4 km) per hour, so you travel at 2 miles per hour.
Additionally, when traveling, creatures can see ~2 miles in any direction on a clear day unless something blocks their sight. Rain halves this visibility range, and heavy fog can pull it back to 100 or 300 ft. Creatures looking from a high vantage point like a mountain top can see 40 miles around them.
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The Surprised Condition
The first step in any 5E combat is determining if anyone involved is surprised (PHB, pg 189). If no one is trying to be stealthy, no one is surprised. Otherwise, anyone unaware of the threat is surprised at the start of the encounter.
“If you’re surprised, you can’t move or take an action on your first turn of the combat, and you can’t take a reaction until that turn ends. A member of a group can be surprised even if the other members aren’t.” (PHB, pg 189)
This is why we set up ambushes. It’s also why some people think there is such a thing as a surprise round in 5E. RAW, there is no such thing, but the effect is basically the same.
Another relevant point about surprise-attacks is that the target being surprised doesn’t give you advantage on the attack roll. This comes from being hidden (see next section) or unseen (like from the Invisibility spell).
Attacking from Stealth
When attacking from a position of hiding, you roll with advantage for the first attack. It doesn’t matter if you can attack more than once per action—attacking makes the target aware of you, regardless of whether it hits or misses (unless you have the Skulker feat and miss with a ranged attack).
The only conceivable way to get advantage on a full Multiattack from being unseen is by having the Greater Invisibility spell cast on you.
Attacking from stealth is at its best when you can do massive, single-target damage in one strike.
That’s what rogues do with their Sneak Attack. Once per turn, and also with opportunity attacks, a rogue can deal Sneak Attack damage on top of their normal weapon damage if:
- They are hidden from the target
- They have an ally engaged in melee with the target
- Or they get advantage from any other source (prone target, flanking, blind target, etc.)
Magic and Stealth
As with physical attacks, spell attack rolls have advantage against targets unaware of the caster. If you’re a level 9 or higher arcane trickster rogue (PHB, pg 98), casting spells from hiding gives the target disadvantage on the saving throw made against the spell on this turn.
Still, casting a spell gives away your position, too. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything has a rule for this (pg 85): “To be perceptible, the casting of a spell must involve a verbal, somatic, or material component”. This means that spells cast by way of the Innate Spellcasting feature or altered by the Subtle Spell Metamagic can go unnoticed.
Metamagics are normally exclusive to the sorcerer class, but you can dip a toe into it by taking the Metamagic Adept (TCE, pg 80) feat instead of an Ability Score Improvement when leveling up. More on Feats here.
But what spells are useful for staying hidden outside of combat?
These spells can be categorized between spells that hide you from sight, spells that help you pretend you belong where you are, spells that distract enemies, and spells that wipe away traces of your presence.
The following bullet points are non-exhaustive, but should prove useful:
- Be (nearly) invisible
- Pretend you belong
- Get in People’s Heads
- Make them look the other way
- Thaumaturgy – make a place feel haunted, useful for stealth and social interactions to intimidate.
- Create Bonfire – an instant 5ft-cube of fire from 60ft and it sets fire to things around it? Great!
- Dancing Lights – 120ft range makes it easy to draw attention elsewhere
- Minor Illusion – Autosuccess unless they interact with it, or take an action to inspect then pass an Investigation check
- Major Image
- Hypnotic Pattern
- You were never there
- Bonus: need to get rid of inconvenient cadavers?
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Fixing Stealth (Missions)
You might be scratching your head at this subsection. With all that was covered above, does Stealth need fixing?
The DMG itself contains some useful tools for this. In the “Resolution and Consequences” (pg 242) section it proposes:
- Success At a Cost: this is about finding gray areas between “everything goes off without a hitch” and “you’re found, the whole place is coming for you”. Sometimes it’s more dramatic to allow a Player Character (PC) to succeed at an action despite them having failed the test by a small bit, punishing the low roll with a complication.
- Example: they managed to succeed despite rolling just below the Stealth check DC, but, in the process of pressing their backs to the wall and holding their breath, they didn’t notice that a snag on the rock caught a piece of their cloak. Later on, it’s used to scry on them after the mission.
- Degrees of failure: Same fundamental principle as the above, but specifically for when the outcome is a failure.
- Example: a PC tries to stealthily jump from a rooftop to another and fails their Acrobatics check by one or two. Instead of letting them plummet to some fall damage and the waiting blades of their enemies, let them try to catch onto the brickwork with an Athletics check at a higher DC and pull themselves up. Tell them it made some noise, and the guards are now actively looking for them.
- Critical success and failure: Crits technically don’t exist outside of combat, but they could!
- Example: A natural one on a lockpicking check could mean the PC just broke their lockpick in there, and now the door can’t be unlocked this way. A natural twenty on an Insight check might give them a good idea of just what to say to get someone to cooperate.
There’s also the Massive Damage optional rule (DMG, pg 273), that helps us get closer to proper stealth gameplay. Anyone familiar with stealth-focused videogames knows that the ability to one-shot-kill or incapacitate an enemy is paramount.
The rule goes:
“When a creature takes damage from a single source equal to or greater than half its hit point maximum, it must succeed on a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or suffer a random effect determined by a roll on the System Shock table.”
Below are the contents of the System Shock table. A d10 roll determines the massive damage effect:
- 1: The creature drops to 0 hit points, dying.
- 2-3: The creature drops to 0 hit points but is stable.
- 4-5: The creature is stunned until the end of its next turn.
- 6-7: The creature can’t take reactions and has disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks until the end of its next turn.
- 8-10: The creature can’t take reactions until the end of its next turn.
If the DM scales the enemy sentries and targets accordingly, the aforementioned tweaks could be all it takes to make proper Stealth missions possible. I did something similar in my solo PC adventure, The Yeast Heist Fiasco Getaway.
So, all you DMs can rule that enemy HP drops by X% when they’re totally unaware, making them more liable to stealth-takedowns, guilt-free. Enemy CR in relation to player level could probably be used as a guideline for how much their HP can drop from being unaware.
Homebrew Options for Stealth Takedowns
Finally, if you want to look for homebrew takedown rules, there are some floating around on the internet:
This one from Wyrm Works has some good variety and crunch. Due to the DC formula, someone with expertise in Stealth can quickly become a god of death.
The TL;DR is:
- You and your target must be out of combat.
- The Approach: you must successfully sneak up on your target—you must beat them in a contested Stealth check.
- The Kill: make an attack
- (a) if attempting to keep it quiet, roll with disadvantage.
- (b) if attempting a nonlethal takedown, must be with a bludgeoning weapon or unarmed.
- (c) if attempting a nonlethal takedown and keep it quiet, must sustain a grapple for 2 rounds (all grapple rules apply).
- The Resolution: the target saves versus the character’s Stealth Takedown DC: 8 + Stealth Bonus (Ability Score bonus, too, since this includes your Proficiency bonus). If they fail, they’re dead or incapacitated. If they succeed, they break free.
For some good discussion and workshopping, you can always hit Reddit threads likes this one.
Stealth is often misunderstood in 5e. Sure, most use it to avoid generally being detected, but they often overlook its utility in combat, and this sometimes includes people playing rogues. Here’s a quick run-down of what we covered in the article:
- Competing Checks: When you make a Stealth check, you have to beat the opponent’s Passive Perception if they’re unalerted or beat their Perception check if they’re looking for you. More on Passive Perception here.
- Passive Perception: Perception has a skill-floor. When you—or any other creature—make a Perception check and the result is below the passive score (10+[Dex mod]+[Proficiency bonus, if proficient]), it’s the passive that counts.
- Group Checks: A group can succeed collectively on a Stealth check if at least half its members succeed individually on their checks.
- Armor: All heavy armor gives disadvantage on Stealth checks. Scale mail and half plate (both medium armors) do the same, as does padded armor (light) for some reason.
- Proficiency: Certain races, classes, backgrounds, and feats grant proficiency in Stealth. You can also get it through training (PHB, pg 187; DMG, pgs 131 and 231).
- Cover: Useful in Stealth only when it’s full cover because it breaks line of sight. Lightfoot halflings can take cover behind medium or larger allies.
- Obscurement: A state of the environment that badly affects visibility. Things and creatures are either clearly visible, lightly obscured, or heavily obscured.
- If something is lightly obscured, creatures have disadvantage on Perception checks to see it. Wood Elves can hide when lightly obscure by natural phenomena, such as foliage and rain.
- A creature looking into a heavily obscured area is effectively blinded. Anyone can hide in such an area (darkness, sandstorms, heavy rain).
- Movement Speed: You only move stealthily at half-speed when traveling long-distances on land. This does not apply to combat, which retains full movement speed.
- Ambushes: The first step in combat is determining who’s surprised. A creature is surprised when they haven’t noticed any threats when the fight breaks out. A surprised creature can’t move, take an action, or reaction until their first turn ends. There is no “surprise round,” and having a high initiative makes surprise hurt less because its effects wear off sooner.
- Stealth Attacks: Only your first attack has advantage when attacking from Stealth, even if you have multiattack. High single-target, single-hit damage is optimal for Stealth-focused builds, like rogue’s Sneak Attack.
- Magic: Useful for Stealth, way more than just invisibility and disguises.
- Stealth missions: To make them more viable, use success at a cost, degrees of failure, critical successes and failures (DMG 242), and the Massive Damage rule (DMG pg 273).
And that’s the long and short of Stealth in 5e! Thanks for tuning in, and happy rolling.