Hiding and awareness in D&D 5e

This is an area of the D&D 5e rules that I personally have found tricky as I started using the edition, and I see a lot of other people having trouble with. In online chat, I hear of different GMs running it different ways, and I even see knowledgeable rules experts disagreeing to some extent on what the rules are. So I’m going to have a go here at picking out the rtelevant Rules As Written, explaining what I think they mean and why, and saying how I may run this at my tables going forward.

(This is a complex subject and as I was drafting it got rather long. I have left out some of the detail and I will post a few follow-ups afterwards. I may even need to revise this post a little as I finish going through some notes. I will in the end link from this to the follow-ups.)

Credit for helping me fathom out these mysteries goes to the “D&D 5th RAW – Ask a simple question, get a simple answer” Facebook group and its admins, especially Kristen Mork. Remaining misunderstandings are my own.

The Rules As Written

I’m going to list the relevant sections here with book and online references. I will put for ease of reference the relevant text in a later post.

The main rules for hiding and being unseen are in the sections on:

Specific other relevant points include:

  • racial abilities such as the Lightfoot Halfling’s Naturally Stealthy (PHB p28; http://5e.d20srd.org/srd/races.htm#Halfling) and the Wood Elf’s Mask of the Wild (PHB p24, not in SRD)
  • feats (not in the SRD) such as Alert (PHB p165) and Skulker (PHB p170)
  • forms of vision and other special senses, described in the PHB (p183-185) and Monster Manual (p8-9), plus the Devil’s Sight warlock invocation (PHB p110) and the notes on senses in various monster stat blocks too numerous to list here
  • spells such as Blindness/Deafness (PHB p219), Darkness (p230), various detections (p231-233) and Silence (p275-276)
  • Darkness and Light in the DMG (p105)
  • conditions (PHB p290-291) such as Blinded, Deafened and Invisible

What does all this mean?

First, I will outline the possible situations that can apply between an observer and another creature, which I will call the creeper. Later, I will examine what these situations mean and how we determine which one applies.

Note that, at certain points, in order to make sense of the rules as written I’m going to go slightly beyond them. I will tell you when I’m doing that.

Let us first establish the easiest distinction in the rules: between seen and unseen. If the observer can see the creeper, the creeper is seen and normal rules apply for their interactions. If the observer cannot see the creeper, the creeper is unseen.

 SightingNo sighting
ObserverSees
Can see creeper
Cannot see
Cannot see creeper
CreeperSeen
Is seen by observer
Unseen
Is unseen by observer

Now let us consider hearing (or detecting other non-visual or indirect visual signs of the creeper’s location). This is not important if the observer sees the creeper, but it makes a difference if the observer does not, so we split the right-hand, ‘no sighting’ column of the table.

 SightingSigns of locationNo location
ObserverSees
Can see creeper
Locates
Knows where creeper is but cannot see them
Hidden from
Does not know where creeper is by any sign
CreeperSeen
Is seen by observer
Unseen
Is unseen by observer but located by other signs
Unseen & Hidden
Is neither seen nor otherwise located by observer

Then there is the question of whether the observer is aware of the creeper at all. Obviously if there is any sign of location then the observer is aware, so this is another division of the rightmost column of the table, where the location is unknown, to differentiate no location from no awareness.

 SightingSigns of presenceNo observationNo awareness
ObserverSees
Can see creeper
Locates
Knows where creeper is but cannot see them
Aware of but cannot locate
Does not know where creeper is
Unaware of
Does not know that the creeper is present
CreeperSeen
Is seen by observer
Unseen
Is unseen by observer but located by other signs
Hidden
Is neither seen nor otherwise located by observer
Unknown
Is not known to the observer to be present

And finally there is the question of whether the observer is aware of any kind of threat or presence, or not. This again is a division of the rightmost column. (Note that this final division is, I think, suggested by the rules, but it is not made explicit and you might find some players or GMs who do not find it familiar. Note also that the rules are as usual focused on combat, so they discuss awareness of threat. You might expand the same structure to handle awareness of a presence in a non-hostile situation.)

 SightingSigns of presenceNo locationNo awareness of creeperNo awareness of threat
ObserverSees
Can see creeper
Locates
Knows where creeper is but cannot see them
Aware of but cannot locate
Does not know where creeper is
Alert
Does not know that the creeper specifically is present, but knows of an unspecific threat or presence
Unaware
Does not know that any threat is present
CreeperSeen
Is seen by observer
Unseen
Is unseen by observer but located by other signs
Hidden
Is neither seen nor otherwise located by observer
Unknown
Is not known to the observer to be specifically present
Unsuspected
Is not suspected by the observer and nor is any threat or presence

Effects of these situations

The effects of the above situations are relatively straightforward.

If the observer sees the creeper, the standard rules apply. The observer knows that the creeper is there, can see the creeper for purposes of spells and abilities, knows the creeper’s location, and so forth. Also, the GM can describe the creeper’s appearance and anything it can be seen to be doing.

If the observer locates the creeper (cannot see it but hears it or locates it by other signs), then the observer is aware of the creeper’s presence and knows its location. The observer (if in range or reach with a clear path etc.) can target the creeper with weapon attacks, and with some spells and special abilities (those that do not require the user to see the target) but at disadvantage on any attack roll because the target is unseen. (If no attack roll is required, as with an area effect spell, the resolution is normal.) The creeper also gains advantage on attacks against the observer. (Note that if neither attacker nor target can see the other, advantage and disadvantage both apply, so the die roll reverts to normal and cannot have any overall advantage or disadvantage from other sources.)

It is not discussed in the rules, but I think common sense tells us that if the observer cannot see the creeper, then the observer also cannot gain information from its appearance, which might include what kind of creature it is and what it is doing. The observer can gain information only from sounds, smell, footprints or whatever other signs are detectable.

If the observer is aware of the creeper but neither sees it nor perceives any other sign of its current location, then the observer must guess at a location to target with an attack or area effect. If the location guess is correct, any attack roll required is still at disadvantage because the creeper is unseen. If the location guess is incorrect, the attack cannot hit. (The GM typically calls for a disadvantage attack roll either way, to avoid revealing whether the guess is correct.) If the observer uses an area effect spell or ability, they must place the area without knowing the location of the creeper, but such effects are otherwise resolved normally.

I do not think that the rules say that a hidden target prevents targeted spells that do not require the caster to see the target; most of these are touch spells (which I guess would require the caster to guess where to try to touch the target and roll an attack at disadvantage if the target is trying to avoid the touch) but a few beneficial spells like Aid and a very few (potentially) hostile spells like Antipathy/Sympathy or Destructive Wave can be targeted on a creature or creatures within range that you choose but do not have to see. I think that, RAW, if you are aware of a creature’s presence you can select it as a target even if you do not know where it is, as long as sight is not required.

If the observer is unaware of the creeper, the observer obviously cannot take any action that purposefully involves the creeper, such as attempting to attack it or casting a spell intended to affect it. If the observer casts a targeted spell for some other reason, I would rule that the observer cannot choose the creeper as a target. However, if the observer casts an area spell for some other reason, and happens to include the creeper in the area, then the effect is resolved as normal, potentially affecting the creeper. (If there is an issue with a player using information to target a spell that the character is not privy to, then that is a group play style question and outside the scope of the rules as such. Personally I usually appeal to the player to play in character and give them as many chances as necessary to declare an action in accordance with character knowledge.)

However, if the observer is alert to a threat in the immediate time and area, then this counts for something. The observer is not subject to surprise if combat breaks out. If combat is already in progress the combatants (and I think any other observers) are alert to threats and cannot be surprised by the entry of a new combatant to the fray.

If the observer is unaware of any threat, then they are surprised if combat occurs.

Determining which situation applies

How do you see?

Generally, if the observer has line of sight to the creeper and if other conditions depending on the observer’s visual capabilities are satisfied, then the observer sees the creeper.

The conditions for normal vision include available light at the creeper’s location. Distance is not explicitly a factor in 5e, though GMs may apply common sense when determining how much detail can be seen at long distances, and even how reliable visual detection may be.

Special forms of vision such, as darkvision, blindsense and truesight, rely less or not at all on lighting but do have limited range, and may be subject to other conditions. I will go deeper into special forms of vision in a later post.

Dungeons & Dragons 5e does not generally track which way a creature is facing. The Hiding sidebar is explicit that normally in combat observers look all around them and will see any creeper in a position that is not obscured from them. But it provides for DM discretion in cases where the observer may be distracted and not see something behind them. There is also no such rule stated for non-combat situations, so these also rely on DM judgement.

There can be marginal cases between ‘can see’ and ‘can’t see’. Only very early printings of the Player’s Handbook stated “You can’t hide from a creature that can see you.” It was quickly amended to “You can’t hide from a creature that can see you clearly.” Marginal cases are generally resolved with a Dexterity (Stealth) check by the creeper, opposed by either the observer’s Wisdom (Perception) check or their Passive Perception.

There are abilities (such as Skulker, Naturally Stealthy and Mask of the Wild) that allow a creeper to attempt to hide when partly or potentially visible to the observer. Many GMs also allow creepers to attempt to hide or at least to stay hidden by using sufficient cover, even if they can peek around or through the cover enough to see the observer. I will go more into such cases in my later post on vision and hiding, but for now let me suggest that if you fail to hide when potentially visible then I think you are seen as well as located. (I’m not sure this is explicitly stated in the rules, but it seems common sense to me – if you give away your position by failing to hide, then the observer can look carefully in the right place and see you unless you’re completely concealed; also, being unseen is such an advantage that I think if the game designers had meant it to apply to cases of light obscurement and partial cover they would have said so.)

There is a rule that if you are lightly obscured then Perception checks against you that rely on sight are at disadvantage. I read this as meaning that disadvantage applies only if the check relies *solely* on sight. A Perception check to detect by sound a creeper in total darkness is not at disadvantage. And I don’t think you make that creeper harder to detect if you provide dim light instead of darkness. So I apply the light obscurement disadvantage only for Perception checks that can’t use sound (or maybe other senses). These might include checks in an area of magical silence, or checks to detect some silent object like a hidden door or a trap trigger.  

How else can you locate?

Most points of the rulebook assume that the primary way of locating an unseen creeper is by sound. The combat section even glosses ‘hidden’ as ‘unseen and unheard’. So I think we can take it that sound is the primary way of locating an unseen creature. I would generally treat the Stealth skill in these cases as being about staying quiet, and the opposing Perception roll as relying on hearing. This would mean that the Perception roll automatically fails if the observer is deafened or the creeper is in the area of a Silence spell.

But the hiding sidebar refers to ‘signs of your presence’ and ‘signs of its passage’, which could be more general than sound.

Certainly a creeper who is invisible can be located by sight if they leave footprints or otherwise disturb their surroundings. Even a flying creature or one on a hard surface may create a draught or otherwise disturb the surroundings in ways that can be seen. In these cases the Perception roll to locate them can use sight as well as hearing and is not defeated by Silence or deafening.

I would generally allow an observer to confirm a creature’s location by touch if they reach or attack into that location and hit or otherwise make contact. There is also the rule that a creeper gives away their location if they make an attack (applied after the attack hits or misses).

I will cover some further questions in another post on locating or detecting unseen creatures.

How else can you become aware of a creature?

It is possible to make Perception checks based on smell (there are a number of creatures in the Monster Manual with advantage on these checks from Keen Smell); I would not generally allow smell to pinpoint a creeper’s location (but see further discussion in a forthcoming post) but I would allow it to give awareness of a creeper.

If you have previously seen (or otherwise located) a creeper then you remain aware of their presence, even if they move stealthily away from their last known location. (And obviously you remember where you last located them, even if they successfully re-hide in the same spot.)

There are effects such as spells that will detect the presence of a creature without revealing its location (Detect Thoughts is one example)

You could also be informed by another observer of a specific creature’s presence, though depending on the circumstances they may not be able to communicate the precise location to you, or not so quickly.

How else can you be alerted?

You may receive a less specific warning that there is some threat or need to be alert—I sometimes (if there is enough time before any ambush) rule that this allows the warning recipient not to be surprised.

There are also rules (for example the Alert feat) that prevent surprise without providing for the observer to gain any information about the imminent attack. Groups are left to narrate how this happens—you could imagine it as an uncanny sixth sense, or simply as very sensitive normal senses and reflexes that allow you to begin to act before consciously perceiving a full image or sound.

Intention, action economy and speed

Hiding is an active effort. Creepers need to choose to hide; it is for each playing group to decide whether this means that the players need to declare every time that their characters are hiding, whether the GM should ask them, or whether the GM should take stealth as routine in some or all situations. The sorts of situations where stealth might be assumed could include exploring a dungeon or other likely-hostile location, or for a Rogue character who can hide as a bonus action in combat (and has not used their bonus action for anything else, and satisfies the conditions for being able to attempt to hide). I also tend to assume Hiding where a PC stays out of sight of the enemy and does not otherwise use their action in a round. I generally don’t assume stealth in (apparently) friendly territory.

The exploration timescales and movement rates on p182 of the PHB allow stealth during slow movement, but not during normal or fast movement. If the players are familiar with these rules, the GM can use the distance moved per exploration turn as a signal of whether the party is in stealth mode or normal without explicitly asking (and thereby likely giving away that stealth is important).

In combat, the trade-off between stealth and speed comes because the action (or bonus action) with which you Hide could otherwise generally have been used to Dash.

I do not think that the rules are explicit on how long you stay hidden if you successfully hide once. I think this must mean that you remain hidden until you do something to give yourself away—if it only lasted for the turn on which you hid then you would never be hidden from your opponents on their turns, and if it lasted for a fixed time such as until your next turn then this would be stated in the rules. Certainly other GMs in rules discussions mostly don’t seem to require hiding every turn. Your one initial Stealth check result is the number to beat for any Perception checks against you.

So what gives you away once you have successfully hidden? Making an attack explicitly does reveal your location—whether it hits or misses, but not until after it hits or misses, so you can still benefit from being hidden when resolving that attack. Making a noise reveals your location, so I would rule that dropping an object, striking something, or other vigorous activity would likely make sufficient noise (depending on the object, surface or whatever in question). Casting a spell with a verbal component I think also makes enough noise to reveal your location. Other actions such as drawing a sword or drinking a potion I think would not necessarily prevent stealth if the character attempts to do them quietly. Moving also does not necessarily give you away, as long as you stay out of sight. However, if you can move and dash in combat without ending a previous Hide, then I feel there is an incoherence with exploration (in which the speed/stealth trade-off is ongoing) . So either characters do have to Hide every turn (requiring the action economy cost every turn to create an ongoing speed differential in combat as with exploration), or a GM might want to house rule that moving and dashing in the same turn makes enough noise to give away your position.

Moving into view generally means you are seen. I think GMs vary but the rules and the game’s lead designer are clear that, if you have to move away from your cover or obscurement and into full view before attacking, then you are not an unseen attacker (you may still surprise your opponent, but would not gain advantage for being unseen). You can, however, make an attack while peeking through or around cover and remaining hidden while the attack is resolved—I will discuss hiding in cover further in a further post. Attacking from cover would typically be a ranged attack but could be a melee attack if your victim has come within reach without seeing you.

I have seen GMs describe trouble with a stealthy PC rogue finding a hiding place and repeatedly attacking from it and re-hiding each turn using their Cunning Action ability. This is a case in which it is important to apply common sense and an understanding of the game world. The enemy knows the location of the rogue following the first attack. Even if the rogue makes a successful Stealth check to hide again, the enemy can remember where they located the rogue and may well attack that space, go closer for a good look, or include the spot in an area attack.

Passive Perception

Hiding is one of the only cases (perhaps the only case) where a passive check is mandatory in Rules As Written. If the observer is not specifically looking for the creeper, they might notice them anyway and the Stealth check is opposed by the observer’s Passive Perception. I think it is Rules As Intended (there’s a tweet somewhere) that the observer’s PP acts as a floor for their Perception check if they are actively looking—the observer uses their Passive result if it is better than the modified roll. GMs who really don’t like passive checks might house rule that Perception must always be rolled. They then need to decide who should roll the die and whether to tell the player what they’re rolling for (possibly giving away that there is something afoot). The alternative would be to allow the chance of noticing a creeper only if the player asks to make a Perception check, which I think would be contrary to the intention of the rules and shift the balance heavily in favour of (non-player) sneaks and ambushers.

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