6/18/2017 UPDATE: Although the original text of this article remains below, it’s really only a primer that barely scratches the surface. I can admit when I don’t do something justice, especially when there’s a thing that does do a subject justice, and in this case that thing is Live to Tell the Tale – An Introduction to Combat Tactics for Dungeons & Dragons Players by Keith Ammann. Feel free to read my words on the subject below, but honestly, I highly recommend clicking that link, reading that review, and then immediately buying Live to Tell the Tale. You won’t regret it.
And now, back to your regularly scheduled article…
Questions about hiding, Stealth checks, and interactions with invisibility come up time and time again on forums across the web. Despite 5th Edition D&D’s best attempts to streamline rules and rely on DM fiat for corner cases, the consequences of so many rules interacting with the simple concept of being hidden — light, obscurement, conditions, targeting unseen creatures — creates a confusing situation for players and DMs of all experience levels.
Let’s try to suss out some ways to present the rules so we can clarify stealth, hiding, and invisibility in D&D.
The rules for using stealth to hide from opponents and its many common interactions — vision, invisibility, combat — are spread over a pretty large number of sections:
- Ability Scores: Hiding (PHB 177)
- The Environment: Vision and Light (PHB 183)
- Combat: Actions in Combat: Hide (PHB 192)
- Combat: Unseen Attackers and Targets (PHB 194-195)
- Conditions: Blinded (PHB 290)
- Conditions: Invisible (PHB 291)
Divvying up the info this way makes sense within their respective subjects, and each section is arguably pretty clearly worded. However, the consequence is that each of these rules often comes into contact with any number of the others quite often in the course of a D&D session, especially with certain character types: rogues using the Stealth skill, wizards casting invisibility, a tiefling or warlock invoking an area of darkness, darkvision allowing for attacks from obscured areas all contribute to a interaction of these rules.
Rules As Written
First, let’s put all of these rules together.
Ability Scores: Hiding (PHB 177)
The DM decides when circumstances are appropriate for hiding. When you try to hide, make a Dexterity (Stealth) check. Until you are discovered or you stop hiding, that check’s total is contested by the Wisdom (Perception) check of any creature that actively searches for signs of your presence.
You can’t hide from a creature that can see you clearly, and you give away your position if you make noise, such as shouting a warning or knocking over a vase.
An invisible creature can always try to hide. Signs of its passage might still be noticed, and it does have to stay quiet.
In combat, most creatures stay alert for signs of danger all around, so if you come out of hiding and approach a creature, it usually sees you. However, under certain circumstances, the DM might allow you to stay hidden as you approach a creature that is distracted, allowing you to gain advantage on an attack roll before you are seen.
Passive Perception: When you hide, there’s a chance someone will notice you even if they aren’t searching. To determine whether such a creature notices you, the DM compares your Dexterity (Stealth) check with that creature’s passive Wisdom (Perception) score, which equals 10 + the creature’s Wisdom modifier, as well as any other bonuses or penalties. If the creature has advantage, add 5. For disadvantage, subtract 5. For example, if a 1st-level character (with a proficiency bonus of +2) has a Wisdom of 15 (a +2 modifier) and proficiency in Perception, he or she has a passive Wisdom (Perception) of 14.
What Can You See?: One of the main factors in determining whether you can find a hidden creature or object is how well you can see in an area, which might be lightly or heavily obscured, as explained in “Adventuring.”
The Environment: Vision and Light (PHB 183)
A given area might be lightly or heavily obscured. In a lightly obscured area, such as dim light, patchy fog, or moderate foliage, creatures have disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight.
A heavily obscured area—such as darkness, opaque fog, or dense foliage—blocks vision entirely. A creature effectively suffers from the blinded condition (see appendix A) when trying to see something in that area.
The presence or absence of light in an environment creates three categories of illumination: bright light, dim light, and darkness.
Bright light lets most creatures see normally. Even gloomy days provide bright light, as do torches, lanterns, fires, and other sources of illumination within a specific radius.
Dim light, also called shadows, creates a lightly obscured area. An area of dim light is usually a boundary between a source of bright light, such as a torch, and surrounding darkness. The soft light of twilight and dawn also counts as dim light. A particularly brilliant full moon might bathe the land in dim light.
Darkness creates a heavily obscured area. Characters face darkness outdoors at night (even most moonlit nights), within the confines of an unlit dungeon or a subterranean vault, or in an area of magical darkness.
Combat: Actions in Combat: Hide (PHB 192)
When you take the Hide action, you make a Dexterity (Stealth) check in an attempt to hide, following the rules for hiding. If you succeed, you gain certain benefits, as described in the “Unseen Attackers and Targets” section.
Combat: Unseen Attackers and Targets (PHB 194-195)
Combatants often try to escape their foes’ notice by hiding, casting the invisibility spell, or lurking in darkness.
When you attack a target that you can’t see, you have disadvantage on the attack roll. This is true whether you’re guessing the target’s location or you’re targeting a creature you can hear but not see. If the target isn’t in the location you targeted, you automatically miss, but the GM typically just says that the attack missed, not whether you guessed the target’s location correctly.
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.
Conditions: Blinded (PHB 290)
- A blinded creature can’t see and automatically fails any ability check that requires sight.
- Attack rolls against the creature have advantage, and the creature’s attack rolls have disadvantage.
Conditions: Invisible (PHB 291)
- An invisible creature is impossible to see without the aid of magic or a special sense. For the purpose of hiding, the creature is heavily obscured. The creature’s location can be detected by any noise it makes or any tracks it leaves.
- Attack rolls against the creature have disadvantage, and the creature’s attack rolls have advantage.
Sum It Up
Next, let’s look at different ways to parse all of this information. Different folks learn things in different ways, so presentation matters.
Stealth & Hiding
Dungeon Master Assistance has a great article on D&D 5E – Stealth and Hiding that breaks it down like this:
- You can attempt to hide whenever a creature can’t see you. There’s a host of things that help in ensuring a creature can’t see you, but there’s room for plenty of DM fiat whenever those abilities and other mechanics aren’t in play.
- You attempt to hide by making a Dexterity (Stealth) check. The result becomes the number that must beat an opponent’s Passive Wisdom (Perception) to remain hidden to them, or against their Wisdom (Perception) check if they start actively looking for you. Things like obscurement can modify the checks.
- You gain some benefits from being hidden, such as a surprise round if you were hidden before combat begins, advantage on attacks (although you lose the hidden benefits whether your attack hits or misses), and the opponent must try to detect you in order to fight back.
That article does a great job of noting some specific class abilities or situations that modify the chances of being hidden, or that shut down being hidden.
Invisibility & Hidden
Here’s a great quote from user fearsomepirate on an RPGNet thread regarding Why 5e Is Good that sums up Invisibility and being hidden in a single entry. It’s a useful way of presenting the same information in a different format, which might ruffle some feathers regarding being repetitive, but shows how useful concise, bullet-point lists can be for parsing the information that is immediately useful in a lot of game sessions.
All of the information to resolve things should have been under the Invisible status description, which should have read like something like this:
* Ability checks against you requiring sight automatically fail, as do spells requiring the caster to see the target.
* You can use the Hide action anywhere, even in the middle of a group of enemies.
* You must Hide to be hidden, as you still leave footprints, make sounds, etc.
* If you Hide, your hidden status ends as normal. For example, you are no longer hidden if you make an attack.
* You have advantage on attacks, and attacks against you have disadvantage.
You can also look at the interaction between invisible and hidden using Neil Slater’s quote from Stack Exchange:
Being invisible means you continually qualify for the conditions to become hidden. Its one Stealth check away to upgrade and gain protection from being targeted, even after you have been “detected.”
Finally, you can look at how the designers have handled some of the weird corner cases. The following links include responses to rule questions by Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford. They are a great way to gain insight on the Rules As Intended, as opposed to As Written.
The Sage Advice article on the official D&D site includes an updated PDF of rules clarifications, which includes a lot of combat-related stealth rulings.
What corner cases have you come across?
10 Most Common Mistakes DMs and Players Make in 5e D&D (but make sure to refer to the Reddit thread for corrections in the article)
If you enjoyed this article, please comment, like, and share! You can support future reviews and articles at our Patreon. We publish supplements, campaign accessories, and adventures for Dungeons & Dragons at Dungeon Masters Guild as well as other OSR games and Cortex Plus at DriveThruRPG.