If there’s one skill that almost every specialist trains, it’s stealth. Stealth is almost an obligation. If the party wants the specialist to climb or to search, and they say “sorry, I don’t have any points in that,” then the group will just move on to other possible solutions. If the party wants the specialist to stealth, and they don’t have any points in that, they’re probably going to have to endure some jokes about how useless they are.
Stealth is also one of those things that every referee seems to run just a little differently. There’s no consensus on what can and can’t be done with the skill. Players end up learning one way of doing things in one game, then, they carry those assumptions into other games where the skill is run differently. Because they’ve got these false assumptions, they ignore opportunities that other referees wouldn’t have allowed to them.
For my own sake, I thought it would be a valuable exercise to articulate exactly how I run Stealth. Hopefully, someone out there will find something they like about my methods. Or, maybe somebody with better methods will share them in the comments.
And no, I totally haven’t done this before. This is the first time. Don’t look through the archives, you won’t find it.
When Should Stealth Be Checked?
If there’s nothing that might detect the player, then there’s no reason for them to roll a check. Every game has that player who announces the success or failure of their stealth check anytime the party goes anywhere or does anything. It’s boring. I want to find out what referee has taught them this behavior, and punch that neckbeardy fuck in the face.
In most cases, a stealth check can be reactive. If the characters are walking around through city streets, exploring the wilderness, or crawling through a mostly empty dungeon, it can simply be understood that the stealthy character is trying to move with some degree of subtlety.
When something does appear that a character would want to be hidden from (i.e., an encounter), then the character can make a check. If they’re alone, it means the encounter simply doesn’t see anyone. Maybe they thought they heard or smelled or saw something, but now there isn’t anyone for them to find.
If the character is with the rest of their party, then a successful stealth check probably means that the encounter is so distracted by everyone else, that they don’t notice the stealthy character blending into the shadows.
In other, rarer circumstances, the environment may be full of people the stealther doesn’t want to be detected by. This might happen if they’re infiltrating an enemy fortress, or trying to move around in an active combat zone. In these cases, the stealth check should be made up front.
When Does Stealth Need To Be Renewed?
When a check succeeds, stealth lasts until it is disrupted. Characters do not need to make a new check just because it has been awhile since the last one, or because they’ve entered a new area.
Rarely, a disruption may cause stealth to be forcibly ended. In most cases, though, a disruption only requires that a new stealth check be made. If the new check fails, then the disruption caused them to be discovered. If it succeeds, then they managed to skillfully avoid being noticed.
There are three types of disruption which require a new check to be made:
- The stealthed character makes a non-obvious attack. This includes stuff like a silent ranged attack made from a reasonably good hiding spot, or any attack which successfully kills the target. You can’t notice where the attack came from if you’re dead.
- The stealthed character ends their movement in an observed location. Quickly dashing across a guarded hallway is easy. There’s no need to check stealth for that. Moving down the length of that same hallway, however, would be significantly more difficult.
In other words, a stealthed character can easily pass through someone’s line of sight, so long as they start and end their movement in a reasonable hiding place. If they can’t, that will require a new check.
- The character performs any action which requires them to disrupt their environment, or act in a conspicuous manner. This includes most actions other than simply moving around. Stuff like picking locks, searching rooms, listening at doors, or even opening doors if there are people on the other side. Some judgement calls from the referee are needed here to determine what can easily be done with subtlety, and what would be likely to draw attention.
What is a “Reasonable Hiding Place?”
Anywhere that no one is specifically looking, or which provides some kind of cover or shadows to hide in. Standing right behind an NPC is a reasonable hiding place from that NPC.
When Does Stealth End?
Aside from a failed check, there is only one way* for a character to be forced out of stealth.
If they make an obvious attack against someone, and that person isn’t killed, then the jig is up. The stealthy character has been spotted, and cannot attempt to re-enter stealth unless they escape from combat, or succeed on a Vanish check. (I’ll discuss the Vanish check more below).
An obvious attack is any melee attack, or a ranged attack made from somewhere out in the open.
It hardly seems worth mentioning, but Stealth also ends when the character takes any obviously non-stealthy actions, such as openly conversing / traveling with their non-stealthy party.
*If the game includes guns, then using a non-silenced gun is also enough to end stealth, whether the target is killed or not.
What Does a Successful Stealth Check Mean?
Stealth is not about crouch-walking, or wearing black clothing. It’s a whole suite of skills. Sometimes it does rely upon acrobatics or camouflage. Other times, though, it’s as simple as walking around with enough confidence to convince people that you’re supposed to be there. If all else fails, maybe they’re just scooting around in a cardboard box.
What Does a Failed Stealth Check Mean?
You’ve been spotted, and you’ve probably gotta either fight, or run away. If the stealthy character was making a specific movement when their check failed, roll a d% to determine how far along they were when they were spotted.
That’s how I run things. But, as you can see, I’m also pretty liberal with what stealth can do. I like to balance that with potentially harsh consequences for failure.
I’m going to divert for a moment here to mention a different way of resolving a failed check, which works well when the stealth skill is more limited.
When the check fails in my friend Brendan‘s game, it doesn’t mean the stealther has been noticed. It just means that they, as an expert in stealth, can’t see any way to do what the player wanted to do without being noticed.
So if the player says “I want to stealth across this room,” then rolls a failed check, Brendan will say “If you move across the room, you will be spotted. Do you still want to do it?” In most cases the player says ‘no,’ and the party goes back to the drawing board.
That’s some tasty retention of player agency, right there.
What is the Vanish skill?
The Vanish skills is a completely separate skill from stealth, which I use in my games. Unlike the Stealth skill, which can be trained by any character, the Vanish skill is available only to specialists.
A successful check allows the character to become stealthed, even in situations where stealth would not be allowed.
So, if a specialist is surrounded by a dozen men pointing crossbows at them–when they definitely would not be allowed to make a stealth check–they can make a vanish check. On success, everyone will have lost track of them, and they can then move around as though they are stealthed, using the same conditions listed above for when stealth ends, or needs to be renewed. (Renewals are rolled using the stealth skill. Vanish is used only for the initial disappearance).
In addition to requiring a whole separate skill, using vanish is also more costly than using stealth, in an ‘action economy’ sense. A stealth check can be made for free, as part of whatever else the character is doing. A vanish check requires a full round of action, so the character can’t do anything else until the next turn.
As an aside, I also allow my players to purchase flash pellets, an encumbering item which grants a +1 to their vanish check.
Can a Group move with Stealth?
A character with investment in the stealth skill can “carry” others who don’t have any subtlety of their own. For each person they’re carrying, they take a -1 penalty to their check. So, if a character with a 6-in-6 stealth wants to, they can take 2 unskilled characters along with them, and make their check with a functional 4-in-6 chance of success.
If the characters who are being carried have some stealth ability themselves, then every 2 of them provide a penalty of -1 to the trained character’s check, rounded down. So if you’ve got one character with a 6-in-6 stealth, and three characters with a 2-in-6 stealth, then the better trained character can make their check at -1 to carry the other three along with them.