Moving with Subtlety, and How to Roll Dice for it

Promotional image for "Beware the Batman" from D.C. and Cartoon Network
Promotional art for “Beware the Batman,” from D.C. Comics and Cartoon Network

I’ve been pondering how stealthy action could be handled better at the table. When I assessed Pathfinder’s stealth skill earlier this year, I came to the conclusion that while the rules were dangerously unclear on specifics, they could still be interpreted as a pretty solid stealth mechanic. To refresh: Pathfinder’s stealth skill is rolled as an opposed check. The character wishing to be subtle makes their check, and any characters they wish to avoid the detection of rolls a perception check. Highest result wins. If the GM only calls for the check under the proper conditions, and the D&D 3.5 optional facing rules are used, then the skill as written works respectably well, all things considered.

Nevertheless I’ve recently found myself attracted to a ternary stealth system. I hesitate to call it simpler, because in some ways it is more complicated, but ultimately I believe it is more enjoyable and more streamlined than Pathfinder’s raw ruleset. In many ways, it is similar to the Streamlined Skills System I wrote about back in September. It would function thusly:

Characters are either “Subtle,” or “Unsubtle.” If the game is a retroclone, then characters like the thief or assassin will obviously be the subtle ones, whilst all other classes would be unsubtle. In Pathfinder, a subtle character is one who has a bonus in stealth not less than their HD + 1. (So a level 6 rogue must have a +7 or more in her stealth skill if she wishes to be a subtle character.) -OR- if you are concerned about stealth becoming a skill tax, a subtle character is any who has 10 ranks or more in the Stealth skill. (I would discourage my fellow GMs from having subtle characters be those of a class for whom stealth is a class skill. While it is reasonable, the entire benefit of the skill system is that any character can use it to excel at a given task).

Anytime any character wishes to go unseen, and that character has a reasonable chance of failure (more on this below), they must make a stealth check. In a retroclone, the check would likely be defined by the subtle character’s class abilities. In Pathfinder, the DC will be based on the environment. A field of grass would be the baseline of 10, a stone floor would be  DC of 15, creaky wood a DC of 20, crunchy leaves or a floor filled with trash a DC of 25. Darkness would reduce the DC, while something like a large mirror would increase it. Obviously, armor check penalties would apply. GMs of both type of game are encouraged to grant circumstance bonuses to characters who take extra precautions like camouflage, and impose penalties on characters who fail to observe common sense precautions like moving at a slow pace.

Attempts at stealth should be rejected by the GM outright in any circumstance where moving undetected would be completely unreasonable. For example, moving in plain sight of the creature you wish to hide from.

If an unsubtle character fails their stealth check, then something has happened which alerts those around them. Perhaps they kicked a stone or scraped their foot on the floor. Perhaps something out of their control occurred, like the door they were opening being poorly maintained, and causing a loud squeaking sound when it opened. If an unsubtle character succeeds on their check, then they are moving pretty quietly. However, nearby creatures may be entitled to a perception check to detect the character anyway. In a retroclone, this perception check is a 1d6 roll, and could have a range of 1, 2, or 3, depending on how likely it is that the nearby creatures heard the player. In Pathfinder, this perception check is a skill check, directly opposed to the result of the player’s stealth roll.

If a subtle character fails their check, they receive the same result that an unsubtle character would on a successful check. If a subtle character succeeds on their check, then they are (within reason) moving with absolute stealth. Their victims are not entitled to any perception checks at all.

A single successful check is only good for so long, however. It would be ridiculous for a rogue to succeed on a stealth check, then move all the way down to bottommost level of the dungeon, retrieve the treasure, and walk back without requiring any further checks.  A new check must be rolled any time the situation changes. Some examples of when a new check must be rolled include:

  • Anytime the character enters a new area, such as moving into a new room.
  • Anytime the character abandons something which aided them in their stealth, such as moving out of an area of darkness, or moving into an area where their camouflage would no longer be effective.
  • Anytime they attempt a maneuver which might get them caught, such as making a quick dash from one hiding place to another, or when they open a door.

As mentioned above, checks should only be called for if there is a reasonable chance the character will be detected. Checks should not be called for if the player is crawling on their belly to glance over a hill at an enemy fortress in the valley below. Nor should checks be called for if the character is merely attempting to use some form of cover to hide themselves, without moving. Anybody can crawl inside of a barrel and be essentially undetectable. Exceptions may be made if the character needs to remain in their hiding place for an extremely long time (perhaps an hour or more), or if their hiding space is ill suited to them (such as hiding behind a pole barely large enough to conceal your body while standing sideways).

Ultimately, I hope this system will turn sneaking into a more active process, where players must discuss their actions in detail with the GM. I’m quite happy with this, and plan to implement it in all of my games so I can work out any bugs there may be. I’m eager to hear what others think as well.

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One thought on “Moving with Subtlety, and How to Roll Dice for it”

  1. A few thoughts.

    Anybody can crawl inside of a barrel and be essentially undetectable.

    What about perception derived from other senses? For example, a dire wolf’s sense of smell.

    A 2×2 matrix of subtle (success, failure) and unsubtle (success, failure) might be useful for understanding the system.

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