D&D 3.5: How to Stealth

Stealth in the quintessential Rogue skill. We’re the sneaky people, after all. However, stealth rules are scattered, complicated, and sometimes counter-intuitive, so let’s untangle this mess.

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Hide

In order to Hide, you need:

  1. somewhere to hide (cover or concealment)
  2. privacy (you must not be observed at the time)

In combat, privacy is tricky. You can create a diversion using the Bluff skill, but it will cost you a standard action, and nobody wants that unless you’re in the process of running the fuck away. (The feat Improved Diversion makes it a move action, but it’s not very helpful.) No matter how chaotic combat is, assume that all foes observe you at all times, as long as they have Line of Sight.

To hide, then, you must first position yourself in a way that blocks Line of Sight. Always remember that you don’t hide “in general”, you hide from specific creatures. So for example, say you fight cultists inside a temple lit with torches. There are columns, some areas have bright illumination (20 ft radius around each torch), and some areas have shadowy illumination. You can dash behind a column so as to get total cover (pick one that’s in shadowy illumination) and then step out again and keep moving: roll a Hide check, and if you succeed, from that point on you’re hidden – thanks to the shadowy illumination which gives you concealment, and the fact that you just broke Line of Sight, so you weren’t observed. BUT, if you step into an area of a bright illumination without cover, you’ll be immediately spotted. And if dashing behind that column didn’t break Line of Sight  from all the cultists, then you’re NOT hidden from all of them, and your Hide roll simply doesn’t count for those who had Line of Sight. They could see you the whole time, and they see you now.

Such tactical positioning is not always feasible. Your movement will be halved (or you’ll have a penalty to your hide check), and every time you attack you’ll probably be seen (it’s a -20 penalty to Hide while attacking), and you’ll have to do it all over again. It’s even worse if you don’t have concealment, and you need to move from cover to cover. Thanks to the additional Hide rules from Complete Adventurer, you can move from cover to cover out in the open, and you can also sneak up on a target. Unfortunately, the distance you can cover like that is very short (it depends on your ranks in Hide: at 2nd lvl you can go 5 ft, at 7th lvl 10 ft, at 12 lvl 15 ft, and at 17th lvl 20 ft), and it comes with a corresponding penalty to Hide, -5 for every 5ft.

So Greater Invisibility, Camouflage, and/or Hide in Plain Sight are the standard ways to turn stealth from a situational tactic used for defence and scouting and the occasional ambush to a regular offensive tactic.

Hiding does not take an action by itself unless you Snipe (do NOT Snipe). If you move, attack, run, or charge, it happens simultaneously with that action, so typically you need at least a move action to hide. That said, a 5 ft step is also movement, and there are ways to move as a swift action, which are VERY useful for sneaky rogues. With all the penalties and the logistics of positioning, if you value stealth, then you value mobility.

Distance makes stealth easier: Spot/Listen checks suffer -1 penalty per 10 ft of distance. (Of course, too much distance will put you out of sneak attack range, so this tactic has its limitations.) Reduced size makes stealth easier: it’s +4 for Small creatures, +8 for Tiny, and +12 for Diminutive.

Finally, the most important stealth-related rule for Rogues is not anywhere in core. It’s in the Rules Compendium, and reads: “If you’re successfully hidden with respect to another creature, that creature is flat-footed with respect to you. That creature treats you as if you were invisible.” And that’s why Rogues can Hide and sneak attack. (Note that a lot of people who’ve never seen the Rules Compendium in their life play like that anyway, because it makes freaking sense, and should have been in the PHB in the first place. *grumbles*)

Errata

There are no errata for the Hide skill, but there should have been. Counter-intuitively, it’s described as part of a movement. But what if you don’t move? What if you are not observed, and have cover or concealment right where you are? Does it take an action then? What kind of action? Can you not hide at all? That would be daft, because if you can hide while you move, run, attack, or freaking charge at a foe (albeit at a penalty), well you should be able to hide while doing something much less conspicuous. Say, drink a potion, draw a weapon, use a supernatural ability, manipulate an item, or absolutely nothing. And if you’ve already hidden, can you even take any such action without revealing yourself? Nobody knows, ask your DM.

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[Hide is described as part of a move/run/attack/charge action, but not defined as such. So you can make a case that these specific actions are mentioned only because they carry a penalty, that nothing prevents you from Hiding while doing anything else or nothing at all, that in all cases except Sniping it doesn’t take an action (“Action: usually none”), and that if you’re already hidden, then only the mentioned actions can visually reveal your presence. I suggest you DO make that case, dear rogues. It’s midway between Rules As Written and Rules As Make Sense, bypassing Rules As Intended because the designers had the mental image of someone “sneaking away” as opposed to simply trying to conceal himself – hence this mess with the Hide skill in the first place.]

And that’s not all. You can hide if your opponents are “momentarily distracted”, but other than using Bluff yourself to create a diversion, what counts as sufficient distraction for this purpose? Nobody knows, ask your DM.

And what the bloody hell’s the deal with Sniping? You can make a single ranged attack and then “immediately hide again” with a -20 penalty, as a move action which doesn’t even move you? I’m sorry, what? If hiding while attacking (even in melee!) is feasible with the exact same penalty, then why should I reveal myself at all, and betray my exact position? Why not hide while taking a shot, and have a move action left to go anywhere I please, as long as I have cover and remain hidden and therefore unobserved? What’s even the point of Sniping? Nobody knows, ask your DM.

Move Silently

Unlike Hide, Move Silently is pretty straight forward: it’s an opposed roll, end of story. What interests us is that, if you have successfully hidden from a creature, a successful listen check only reveals your general direction. And a VERY successful listen check (+20 DC) will pinpoint your exact position, so they’ll know where to strike. Even then, you are still considered hidden, you have total concealment (50% miss chance), and the creature is considered “flat-footed in respect to you”, so you can typically sneak attack it. That’s why Move Silently isn’t as crucial as Hide for sneaky Rogues.

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Invisibility

Invisibility

Becoming invisible has many obvious benefits, but it’s not a win button. For one, using the spell with a (sneak) attack will only work for a single attack – at which point the effect ends, and you have to reactivate it somehow before attacking again. Then there are all sorts of environmental features that will hinder your movement or reveal your presence. It’s a good idea to roll for stealth even when invisible. A DC 20 Spot check lets people become aware of invisible creatures near them, and we wouldn’t want that.

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And soon, more and more foes will be able to perceive you regardless. Spellcasters will cast See Invisibility, Faerie Fire, or Glitterdust, tricky foes will throw Dust of Appearance, glyphs will activate Invisibility Purge, creatures will have blindsense, blindsight or tremorsense, and in the end, all the bosses will have True Seeing always on. At some point, a good mundane Hide check becomes a lot more reliable than invisibility. So no matter what you do, invest in Hide.

That said, invisibility is a wonderful thing, so a Ring or a couple of Eternal Wands of Invisibility (you have Use Magic Device, so please use magic devices) is a solid investment. Your friendly spellcaster could also be helpful here.

Swift Invisibility

This spell is personal, lasts only a round, and can be cast as a swift action. An (Eternal) Wand of this will definitely see use. Fortunately, wands of spells that are cast as a swift action can be activated as a swift action.

Greater Invisibility

This spell doesn’t help with Blindsight and other annoying senses, but it allows you to (sneak) attack for as long as the effect lasts, and that’s fantastic. If your friendly spellcaster has access to this, there’s no better option than casting it on the Rogue.

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Superior Invisibility

The best and highest level spell, it lets you attack and ignores a bunch of annoying spells (See Invisibility, Faerie fire, Glitterdust, Invisibility purge, oh, and Dust of Appearance), and all Extraordinary senses except Mindsight and Lifesense. It’s a Wizard/Sorcerer 8th level spell with 1 minute/level duration. Not full-proof, though: Detect X spells, Arcane Sight and similar will reveal your location, while True Seeing and Touchsight will make you completely visible.

Camouflage

Camouflage is a class feature that allows you to hide without needing cover or concealment. You still can’t hide while observed, though, so hiding in combat remains tricky. It helps, but again, it’s not a win button.

Camouflage is an Extraordinary ability which only functions in natural terrain. It’s available to: Ranger (lvl 13), Wilderness Rogue (lvl 10 minimum),  Scout (lvl 8), Druid (halfling substitution level, lvl 13), Prestige Ranger (lvl 9, ECL 15), and Highland Stalker (lvl 7, ECL 12).

Of these, rogues are most likely to use the Wilderness Rogue variant, or Scout with Swift Ambusher (popular Scout/Rogue combination, stuff stacks) – though if you take Scout all the way to lvl 8, you’ve probably just dipped Rogue.

A similar ability is Stone’s Hue, available to the Dark Hunter PrC at lvl 4 (ECL 9). It’s a Supernatural ability which functions within 5 ft of a stone or earth wall, and also gets you a +10 circumstance bonus to Hide. Limiting restriction, though arguably more useful in a dungeoncrawl than traditional Camouflage. Finally, Stonedeath Assassins get Stoneskulk at lvl 2 (ECL 7), which is Ex and functions “when underground and touching a stone surface”.

Camouflage is very nice, but thanks to those CAdv rules about moving between cover and sneaking up on people, a solid Hide modifier (which stealthy rogues strive for) could make it redundant for short distances. And at least for ranged sneak attacks, short distances may be all you need.

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Hide In Plain Sight

Hide In Plain Sight allows you to hide while being observed. Now THAT’S a win button. Combine with camouflage, and it’s like you can vanish into thin air. Combine with an insane Hide modifier (which is entirely feasible), and you can move anywhere and sneak attack anyone remaining hidden the whole time. But beware: there are many abilities with this name, which do different things with different restrictions, so always read carefully the entry.

The most common form of HiPS in the game is the Ranger’s (Ex ability, works only in natural terrain). It’s what you’ll end up with if you’re a nature-loving rogue, either as Wilderness Rogue or as Swift Ambusher. In both cases, you’ll have already Camouflage by the time you get it. Limited application, but solid and with nice flavour.

The most classic form of HiPS for rogues is the Assassin’s (Su ability, works within 10 ft of some sort of shadow, includes a camouflage effect). “Some sort of shadow” is specific enough to mean ANY shadow, even that of a fallen leaf, or a tiny crack in the ground. So expect it to work 99% of the time. It’s also available to rogues who become Shadowdancers. Rogues can typically qualify at ~lvl 9. It will gobble all your feats, but getting this type of HiPS early is THAT good, so it’s worth it. A third lovely option is Ninja Spy from Oriental Adventures (ECL 11), a PrC tailored for Rogues, which I personally prefer to the Ninja class itself.

Another much coveted form, if you’re not willing to invest class levels, is the Dark template. This has bigger and somewhat vague restrictions (doesn’t work “in natural daylight”), and it doesn’t include a camouflage effect, but it’s really cheap. It’s an LA+1 template which can be easily taken with LA buyoff, if your DM allows that rule, or can be gained with a 22k magic item (Collar of Umbral Metamorphosis from Tome of Magic). If you have access to Forgotten Realms material, there’s a variant in “Cormyr: The Tearing of the Weave“ that includes camouflage and is strictly better.

Then there’s the Urban Ranger from Unearthed Arcana, which is a pretty roguish class actually. It gets HiPS late, at lvl 17, and does not get Camouflage. However, by that time you’ll be able to move between cover and sneaking up on people from 20 ft away, and this HiPS works everywhere. No restrictions, still Ex, deserves an honourable mention at least.

Finally, I bemusedly inform you that the quickest way to get camouflage AND Hide in Plain Sight from class levels is with Paladin. The Shadow Cloak Knight (Champions of Valor) substitutions levels are for gnomes only, and it has some limitations, but you get it at level 6, and it’s an Ex ability. Damn.

There are other, less common forms of HiPS. You can check the full list here.

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Stealth Vs Annoying Spells and Abilities

A successful Hide roll often isn’t enough, because your foe has scent or blindsense or whatever. There’s a wonderful Guide to Scouting by JaronK which covers all the bases in that regard, so I won’t get into details here – just follow the link. However, he focuses on scouting, when you want to be completely undetected. Get in, get intel, get out, and don’t let anybody know you were there. Rogues scout too, of course, but they also use stealth to:

  • kill things
  • avoid getting killed

And for these purposes, the requirements aren’t so steep. If your foe senses that you’re “somewhere over there”, or even knows you exact location but can’t actually see you (or effectively “see” you with other senses), things are good. You can’t be targetted by spells (area effects can hurt you, though), and attacks against you have a 50% miss chance assuming they even aim at the right square. And crucially, you can still sneak attack them.

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So of all the annoying spells and abilities in JaronK’s list, Rogues need mostly to worry about:

  • Darkvision (because it ignores many forms of concealment, which you often need to hide). Get a Ring of the Darkhidden, off you go.
  • Blindsight. Just get the Darkstalker feat. (Will also get rid of scent, tremorsense, and blindsense).
  • Touchsight. Unfortunately that’s full-proof, all you can do is position yourself in a way that blocks Line of Effect, or somehow become incorporeal. Fortunately, it will very rarely come up.

[Well this is long enough, so the section on optimising stealth will be a post of its own later, a proper Stealth Handbook.]

Credits: The Order of the Stick by Rich Burlew | Vax fanart by @theothershiroki​ | Thief gifs via @nostrromo​, I think

[originally posted by Rogue on tumblr]

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