[RPG] How does sneaking past hidden enemies work? (and other D&D-5e stealth questions)


Short version:

  • When sneaking around an area, does a single stealth roll at the beginning apply to everything encountered?
  • If so, what stops players from hiding on all characters and going with the best roll or hiding/un-hiding until a favorable roll occurs?
  • If not, how do I get a stealth roll from a player who encounters a hidden enemy without revealing that there IS a hidden enemy?
  • Can you sneak through a creature's field of view without cover?

Long version:

So my group and I made our first stab at 5e last night. With one exception this was our first attempt at pen and paper in general, so very new to all of us. I was DM, and after the session I went back to the books to try and pin down a few things that felt off while we were playing. Most were easily cleared up, but unfortunately the rules around stealth seem painfully vague. I think a big part of the problem is that the terms hide, sneak, and stealth all seem to be completely interchangeable.

For example, I've seen a lot of stealth related answers here mention that you have to be in cover to hide, but as far as I can tell the rules only say that you cant hide from a creature that can see you. I can see how some people would interpret that as 'you cant hide in the open' but because of the interchangeable terms I would read that as 'you cant initiate a hide/sneak/stealth attempt when the target is already looking at you'. I would assert that you and the target could be in an open field in broad daylight, and as long as you're behind him you can attempt to 'hide'. You're not actually HIDDEN by any standard definition of the term, but you have to 'hide' to be able to sneak, and even in this context you should be able to attempt to sneak up on the target. So yeah… the terminology is confusing.

So here's the actual scenario we hit that raises most of my questions: We had a rogue sneaking through a cave tunnel to scout ahead a bit. The tunnel was dark, and there were no observers when the rogue began sneaking. Upon rounding a bend of the tunnel, the rogue enters the field of view of a goblin who is himself hiding in an elevated position. This is where things start to get ambiguous. By some interpretations I've seen, the rogue is not currently in cover so she cannot hide AT ALL and so the goblin sees her immediately. According to the player's handbook errata, however:

Also, the question isn’t whether a creature
can see you when you’re hiding. The question
is whether it can see you clearly

So even with the goblin's darkvision, the rogue is in dim light and already in a hidden state, so my assertion is that she should be able to continue to sneak by. Even without the dim light, it seems like a character with adequate dexterity and stealth specialization should be able to sneak through a field of view, perhaps by waiting for a turned head or a sneeze, etc. As long as the character is hiding before entering the field of view and the area they need to cross isn't impossibly broad (determined by the DM) this seems like it should be possible. Is this a reasonable interpretation, or am I missing a detail in the rules someplace?

The rules for hiding specify that the hiding character makes a single stealth check, and then this check is compared to the active perception check of any active searchers and the passive perception checks of anyone else nearby. Since hiding and sneaking seem to be the same thing in the rules, this would seem to strongly indicate that a rogue at the beginning of a dark cave could make one strong roll when initiating the 'hide/sneak/whatever' at the entrance, and then as long as she doesn't step out into the direct brightly lit view of anyone, she could sneak through the whole place basically risk free on the strength of that one high roll. Is this what the rules intend?

This part may be more gameplay etiquette than rules, but if the above is true, then what's to stop players at the mouth of the cave from all making stealth rolls and sending in whoever rolls best, or even having one person hiding and unhiding until a strong roll occurs? I'm guessing that the working theory here is that the group decides who will be going in before rolls are made, and then once they're committed to the action one roll happens and even if it's very low, the attempt has to carry on. Is that how it generally works?

If the above is FALSE, however, and the rogue must make some sort of roll for each enemy encountered, how do I handle the example above where both parties are hidden when they come into sight of each other? I can make the goblin's stealth roll and compare it to the passive perception of the rogue, but then I'd have to ask the rogue for a stealth roll, revealing that SOMETHING is nearby. This would seem to lend strength to the above being true, but it still feels off to me. Any insight would be very much appreciated.

Best Answer

Does a single stealth roll at the beginning apply to everything encountered?

Generally, yes. Unless circumstances change. For instance, if they "unstealth," they will have to roll again to hide again.

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.

PHB p.177 green side bar box "hiding".

Also, some DMs might ask for a roll if the lighting or items they are using for concealment changes (i.e. they were hiding behind trees, and they get to an open field, or they were hiding in the shadows and they come upon a brightly lit area).

What stops players from hiding on all characters and going with the best roll or hiding/un-hiding until a favorable roll occurs?

Each player that is trying to be sneaky makes a roll to see how sneaky they are being. They don't know what "success" looks like, and the character doesn't know how sneaky they are being. So, it isn't they all roll until they get something they like. The noisiest or least hidden character will likely give away the threat.

So, a party rolls stealth. Gets 20, 18, 15, and 2. The player who rolled a 2 says, "Can I hide again." The DM says, "No, you think you are being really sneaky."

They come upon a creature with a passive perception of 13. The creature sees/hears the party member that rolled a 2, and that gets the creature to look around (rolls perception) to see if there is anyone else hiding. Say the creature rolls a 16. Now the creature knows about 2 of the players. It can attack either.

Can you sneak through a creature's field of view without cover?

No, you can't hide from a creature that can see you. Just like in real life. Well lit room with nothing to hide behind, you're not going to just "vanish" by a good stealth roll.

You can't hide from a creature that can see you. and if you make noise (such as shouting a warning or knocking over a vase), you give away your position. An invisible creature can't be seen, but it can always try to hide. Signs of its passage might still be noticed, however, and it still has to stay quiet.

PHB p. 177 same green sidebar box.

In the case of the goblin, your character is in the dark, visibility is low... If the stealth roll is greater than the goblin's passive perception (-5 for dim light), the rules would say the Goblin knows he's there, but can't see him clearly. Likewise for the goblin's stealth roll and player's passive perception (-5 for dim light). The goblin would be attacking at disadvantage as per the rules about attacking an unseen target PHB p. 194-195. It's also likely someone will get surprise.