Stealth represents a character’s ability to move silently, to hide in less than ideal places, and to sneak around undetected by all and sundry.
What can you do with this skill?
Pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. If you want to hide, or sneak up on something, or run away unseen, this is the skill for it. While every version of D&D has had some form of Stealth, I’m specifically looking at the Pathfinder RPG in this post, although the philosophies espoused herein could be applied elsewhere. Actually, I prefer to use the latest playtest rules coming out of the Paizo blog as a starting point (these rules are modifications of the Core Rulebook).
So what do these rules mean for Stealth? Let’s start with the basics: Stealth can be complicated. The original rules published in the Core Rulebook are unclear on several points, and the playtest rules are an attempt to clear things up. I think that they’re a step in the right direction, but they could be better. There are those who argue that facing rules are required to properly employ stealth rules; I respectfully disagree. It’s not that facing rules wouldn’t make stealthy activity easier to model (they would); it’s that they complicate other things, and also, my minis have round bases (and I’m trying to change as little as possible). Let’s take a look at what we have here, then, and make it work without facing.
We can see that Stealth is opposed by Perception (which is its own nightmare). Stealth’s interaction with the action economy is defined, sniping is defined and covered, size modifiers are addressed, and the hidden condition is introduced and defined. So what’s missing? More than I’d like, and I’ll list these issues point by point below.
1. Hidden is poorly worded. It should read like this:
- Hidden: You are difficult to detect visually, but you are not invisible. A hidden creature gains a +2 bonus on attack rolls against opponents relying on sight, and ignores such opponents’ Dexterity bonus to AC (if any). You do not have line of sight to a creature or object that is hidden from you.
These may seem like nitpicky, pedantic changes, but just because something is obvious doesn’t mean that the wording should be imprecise, especially if a new condition is going to be introduced, and the invisible condition is going to refer to this new condition. Fine, okay, a minor point, but one I felt I had to address. Also, check out point 2 for why hidden is a lousy condition.
2. Hidden should not be a condition. Taking a look at all of the conditions in the game, we can see that a condition refers to the state of a creature or object independent of observation or relation to others. Obviously, concealment is completely dependent on observation, and is thus not a condition. Oh, but wait, now we have hidden, a condition which a character can have relative to some creatures but not others. This is a problem that needs addressing, as it appears to violate the implicit criteria for a condition.
3. Concealment is not mentioned in the blog post, nor is it defined in the rules section. Concealment and total concealment are not conditions (see point 3), and they’re also poorly defined. Quick question: what is concealment? How does it differ from cover? Where is it defined? A quick search of the PRD reveals no such clear definition, although we can infer some things. So here the problem; there’s a term that appears in the rules quite a bit without any clear definition. That’s actually okay if we’re doing some old-school play, but for Pathfinder it’s bad form. One of Pathfinder’s strengths is that it has such concise terms and definitions (feel free to disagree – you may not find this to be a strength). Not for concealment, apparently.
4. Stealth doesn’t really deal well with senses other than sight or hearing. It doesn’t address odor, but the game has an ability called Scent, which specifically deals with perception via the olfactory system. The game assumes a human norm, and humans don’t really do all that well in the scent arena, but the game makes it really hard to sneak by something with Scent, even if you should know how to do such a thing (any good hunter should know this). Should Stealth address this area, or does Scent fall into a different bailiwick? Touch and taste are irrelevant to Stealth, for obvious reasons.
An awful lot of digital ink has been spilled over how Stealth should work, what it allows, what the RAW vs. RAI are, etc. Certainly, if you read C’s work at Hack & Slash, and follow the links provided there, you can view the tip of the massive iceberg that is writing on the subject of Stealth and Perception. I haven’t read every word on the subject; who has? So please understand that what follows is my interpretation, and that it builds on work and writing by other fine individuals who have had something to say on the subject. That being said, here are some things to know and ideas to consider.
Hidden need not be a condition, any more than flanking is. Hidden is a relative state, like flanking, and is easily defined concisely without resorting to calling it a condition. This may seem like pointless pedantry; it isn’t. A condition should be true regardless of relationship. If your character is invisible, he’s invisible even if someone can see invisibility. Similarly, if she’s sickened, she’s sickened whether or not enemies can see or threaten her; she suffers in either case. So we can keep the definition of hidden; it’s just not a condition.
Concealment and cover are not defined in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook. They are, however, defined in the 3.5 edition PH. This omission (indeed, the complete lack of a glossary as per the 3.5 PH) is a minor one if you have that knowledge, but is still quite annoying. Those terms really should be defined somewhere. I’m posting them here so I can refer to them.
- Concealment: Something that prevents an attacker from clearly seeing his or her target. Concealment creates a chance that an otherwise successful attack misses (a miss chance).
- Cover: Any barrier between an attacker and defender. Such a barrier can be an object, a creature, or a magical force. Cover grants the defender a bonus to Armor Class.
Note that cover can provide concealment as well. This can lead to interesting situations, and the two mesh in strange ways. Concealment gives a flat miss chance; the attacker’s combat skill is irrelevant once the roll is made; yes, the attacker has to hit, but 20% of hits will miss anyway. Cover, on the other hand, provides an AC bonus, which is more valuable the more you have, up to the point where an attacker can only hit on a natural 20 (at which point any further increase is valueless). I can’t think of any situation where a character might have full cover with no concealment; there are really not that many situations that could be corner cases. I can only think of one, off the top of my head: arrow slits. You know where the target is, you just can’t see or reach that much of it. Because this meets both definitions I’d give cover and concealment both, YMMV. It’s not all that important to how Stealth works, just something to be aware of in the grander scheme of things. That little digression being covered, we can now use the 3.5 definitions to assist in understanding the stealth rules.
Note that both cover and concealment give the chance to try a Stealth check; they don’t automatically make one hidden. Also, in bright and normal light concealment is not enough; you can’t cast blur in a sunny field and then try to hide using just the spell.
You will occasionally want your character to sneak past a sleeping dog. Because dogs have excellent senses of smell, they are often used to guard things that people don’t want disturbed or stolen. Without proper preparation, it’s pretty damn near impossible to sneak past a guard dog with a good nose, that’s why we’ve been using them for thousands of years. Stealth is really only relevant in that if you want to be sneaky, you’ll need to know which way the wind is blowing (which is not something you can control). Otherwise, you’ll need a false scent to throw the dog’s nose, or some similar trick. So Stealth really doesn’t apply to Scent; it is, after all, just a combination of the earlier Hide and Move Silently skills. So Scent is properly covered under Perception.
The new rules define pretty explicitly what hidden does for a character, and what the effect being hidden has on combat. The action of sneaking past something is still problematic; the rules assume no facing, and everybody effectively has 360 degree vision all of the time. If you read any of the linked (or linked to linked) threads on Paizo, you know that that can be annoying. This is sort of moving into Perception’s territory, but the long and short of it is this: either you need facing, or you don’t. I don’t particularly feel like adding facing, so I won’t. Being a reasonable GM requires, believe it or not, some judgment calls that the rules can’t make for you. Just because there’s no facing in the rules doesn’t mean that people aren’t sometimes oblivious, or just looking the wrong way. The new blog rules for Stealth actually take this into account; that’s why you can move from cover to cover across someone’s field of vision, something you can’t do with the Core Stealth rules. But it still behooves the GM to take what the player is saying they want to do into account; to make the scene fun to play and exciting to be a part of. Sometime you have to Rule Zero a situation; that’s what it’s there for. Indeed, the whole point of Rule Zero is to deal with things like this; it’s just that I don’t think that pointing to RZ is a valid fix for every problem – sometime you have to fix the underlying issue. For Stealth, the new rules are a move in the right direction. The problem isn’t so much the rules for Stealth (there was a problem, it’s just not the main problem), the problem is the rules for Perception, which is a massive issue of its own.
Final Analysis: And so we have some rules to try out. All of which, of course, obfuscates the real point, which is to have fun playing. What is the point of Stealth? The point is to sneak around, and presumably do things that require sneakiness. Since Stealth meets the conditions for when we should roll a skill, it has a place in the game. Player skill can help, here, in description, but ultimately it has to come down to the dice. Of course, the opposing skill is Perception, which is a whole other thing. So much so, in fact, that I’ll cover it in Part Two of this piece. You didn’t think that I’d forgotten about that, did you?