Using Skills – Stealth

After a month’s hiatus, we return with a new Using Skills! Last time we discussed sticky fingers and grabby hands with Sleight of Hand. This time we talk of Stealth, possibly the most used and certainly most useful skill for most characters in Dungeons and Dragons.

Using Skills – Stealth

(As a note, this episode of Dragon Talk has Jeremy Crawford discussing Stealth.)

The foot-pad ambles slowly across the cobblestone street in the dark of midnight, feet not making a sound as she slips past the searching watchmen. The hunter nocks an arrow, aiming with her short bow from the brambles and bushes waiting for this one perfect shot at the great wolf as it pads slowly into view. The acrobat steps off the precipice and silently begins to fall downward towards the unwary thug in the alleyway, his daggers held high for the killing strike. Stealth is the cornerstone of surprise, which is the cornerstone of victory.


The Player’s Handbook describes it thus: “Make a Dexterity (Stealth) check when you attempt to conceal yourself from enemies, slink past guards, slip away without being noticed, or sneak up on someone without being seen or heard.” (PHB, pg.177)


Normal Usage

Stealth is used to remain concealed from other creatures. Doing so allows you to slip past them or attack them from an advantageous position. While using stealth to hide from another creature, your Dexterity (Stealth) roll is compared against a creature’s Passive Perception if there’s any chance the creature might notice you. If a creature is actively looking, however, it may roll a Wisdom (Perception) check contested against your roll.

You cannot hide from a creature that can see you, so there must be some way to conceal yourself. There’s no hiding in an open well lit room, for instance. While you are hidden making a noise loud enough to hear, attacking, or approaching a creature that is not distracted breaks you out of stealth.

Attacking a creature that you are hidden from at the time of attack grants you advantage on the attack. A creature attempting to attack you while hidden (and thus guessing where you are) gets disadvantage, or misses completely if where they target is not where you are. Attacking from stealth always breaks stealth, however, even if you miss.

Stealth comes down to DM adjudication in a few areas. One is: is there sufficient concealment to hide? Another is: does a certain action reveal you from stealth?


What it is Not

  • Invisibility – Stealth relies on concealment of both sight and sound. Being invisible makes it so that you cannot be seen, however you can still be heard and thus must still roll Stealth checks like normal to attempt to hide. You may, however, always try to hide no matter where you are when invisible (like in the middle of a well lit room), and creatures have disadvantage on attacking you (or miss if they guess where you are wrongly). Being invisible in of itself does not make you automatically hidden or “stealthed”. (Note, however, that being invisible always grants you advantage on attack rolls and enemies disadvantage when they attempt to attack you, whether you are hidden or not.)
  • Surprise – Being surprised is different then generally being attacked from stealth, though they share similarities. To be surprised means to lose your first turn of combat due to failing to notice any creatures who are stealthed before they initiate combat on you. This surprised state grants certain benefits for attackers such as the assassin archetype’s Assassinate ability. So if your party surprises anyone in a group of enemies, those that are surprised do not act during the first turn of combat. During this turn they are considered surprised. Later in the battle, if your PC hides and then attacks from hiding against a distracted creature, that creature is not surprised (and thus you do not gain the automatic critical from the Assassinate ability). Just remember that after the first round of combat, no one is in a surprised state.
  • A supernatural ability – Stealth in D&D is different then what is portrayed in modern RPG video games like Skyrim. Entering into a stealth mode doesn’t make you an unseeable croucher moving across people’s lines of vision at will, and when the DM adjudicates they are keeping in mind what other creatures can see and hear in the situation. Hiding in combat is thus quite difficult. As long as a creature CAN see you, you cannot attempt to hide. Approaching a creature that is NOT distracted breaks the stealth state, even if you have not attacked yet.


Optional Uses

The following are optional or edge cases for Stealth, and are entirely dependent on the Dungeon Master.

  • Group Stealth – Okay, this isn’t optional so much as rarely used. In the Player’s Handbook, on page 175, there are rules for “Group Checks”. Essentially, the party can make an ability check as a whole. Everyone rolls a check, and if half the party succeeds then the check is considered successful. In the case of a contested roll like Stealth vs. Perception, how this works is you compare everyone’s Stealth roll to the Perception check. If at least half exceed the Perception check, the entire group is stealthed. This is useful for travel and exploration, and represents the more sneaky members of the group leading the others in such a way as to be hidden. Think of it like Aragorn and Legolas trying to keep Boromir, Gimli, and the Hobbits quiet as they travel into Lothlorien (and failing). My personal addition to this rule would be a critical failure from any one member causes the whole group to fail.
  • Concealing others or objects – With your DMs permission, you might use your stealth abilities to conceal creatures or objects such as an item or even an entire campsite. To conceal something in this way, you must make a Wisdom (Stealth) check. This check is contested against Wisdom (Perception) or Passive Perception normally. If someone or something moves or is moved that you have concealed, the stealth you have given it is automatically broken.


Dungeon Master Examples

I won’t construct any hard examples for using stealth, it will end up being one of the most used skills in your game and probably provide the largest benefit to your PCs. Instead you must as a DM fully understand Stealth and Hiding to make sure it does not become overpowered in your game. Remember that a creature must be distracted to not notice a hidden PC approaching. You might rule that a PC approaching a creature from behind is enough of a distraction, and I would agree in most cases, but if a guard or some such is actively looking around and is on alert for an intruder even this might not be enough. Also remember that surprise is only the first round of combat, that attacking breaks stealth, and that you cannot hide if you can be seen. This will go a long way in ensuring Stealth is useful but not overpowered, and cause your PCs to use it tactically.

Well there we have it, the second to last article in this series. Next week we’ll be looking at Survival, and that will be the end! Of this series, anyway. I plan on going back and making an index entry for this whole series to make it easier to quickly look up an article. I’ll probably also go back through and do some edits and clean up.

Until then, happy gaming.

Author: Patrick McGill of 9th Key Press

Content creator for 9th Key Press.

4 thoughts on “Using Skills – Stealth”

  1. When are we getting Survival?! I’ve been loving this series, and I’m ready for the whole collection. 🙂 Been checking back daily.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very soon! Life got in the way and sort of destroyed my writing time, but things are leveling out. Going to have Survival out either tomorrow or the next day, and a full index soon after.


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