How to Run D&D 5e Stealth Encounters and Make Better Stealth Checks
Title Image © Andis Reinbergs
The Important Rules, Issues, and Solutions for Making Sneaking Really Fun!
By Riley Rath
Table of Contents
- Stealth Encounter = Exploration
- Official D&D 5e Stealth Rules
- 5e Vision Rules
- 5e Movement Rules
- 5e Group Checks
- 5e Passive Ability Checks
- 5e Travel Rules
- What About the "Hide Action"?
- "How Do I Get Better Stealth in D&D 5e?"
- The Problems with 5e Stealth
- Homebrew Solution 1: Passive Ability Mechanic
- Homebrew Solution 2: Suspicion Mechanic
- General Tips for DMs Running Stealth Encounters
- Half Movement Bonus
- Reward Player Prep and Creativity
- Use Multiple Skills for Stealth
- Takedown (coup de gras) Rules
"5e players are bloodthirsty murder hobos."
That's the sentiment of frustrated Dungeon Masters everywhere. It's a conclusion drawn after watching their players use "I attack" to tackle every single problem they cannot walk away from. When you're a hammer, every problem is a nail... right?
To many DMs, it feels like a lack of imagination or creative laziness. They want to run an exciting adventure, and they know that heart-pounding, covert missions are often a key ingredient. But their players rarely attempt a sly approach.
That said... you wanna know why players are butchers rather than burglars?
Because 5e stealth is too risky and not rewarding.
Yes... DnD is a combat heavy TTRPG. And YES, a lot of new players are eager to do really cool stuff in combat... but crucially, combat is a more reliable way for players to solve problems than role-playing or sneaking away instead. Simply put, 5e combat is more reliable than stealth!
The downside is that players don't get to experience the wide variety of encounters that make D&D so fun. But with a few reminders of the rules and a few homebrew solutions, we can make stealth as fun for players as it is safe for player characters.
Stealth Encounter = Exploration
Before we make stealth better for players, we need to first make it better for Dungeon Masters. To do that, we need to reframe how we as DMs think about stealth missions and encounters. And what's the number one way DMs get stealth wrong?
DMs (incorrectly) think a stealth mission is just a modified or potential combat encounter.
Take the typical stealth mission: the player's Rogue, sneaking through the castle, is trying to avoid the night watch as they make their rounds. Clearly it is a conflict between the guards and the player... right?
WRONG. The challenge facing the players is to navigate the environment without being detected, and guards are just one of the elements that threatens success.
In a stealth encounter, it's all about player vs ENVIRONMENT.
When stealthing, players are simultaneously crossing, discovering, and overcoming their environment. Alongside guards and walls are natural barriers, traps, and locks. And don't forget anything that could give away the player's position, like stuff that makes sound or light sources!
So when Dungeon Masters start a stealth mission from the perspective of combat and ignore the environment in favor of the potential for combat... they are already heading off in the wrong direction. They forget that every time players attempt stealth, they are trying to resolve the problem without fighting... THEY ARE SOLVING A PUZZLE.
Stealth missions are puzzles and belong to the Exploration Pillar of D&D.
Other 5e encounters that are considered part of exploration include dungeon delving, overland travel, solving puzzles, and wandering around a city. All of these, just like stealth, primarily fit into the following definition:
Of course, stealth missions can lead to special and combat encounters, and there can be social and combat encounters mixed into a stealth mission. But for the most part, a stealth mission is a high-stakes, very sneaky form of exploration.
© Wizards of the Coast
Official D&D 5e Stealth Rules
Now that we have a perspective shift (stealth = exploration pillar), let's address the rules as written. After all, many tables have problems with stealth because the players and DM do not know the rules.
There are GOOD reasons you should read all the way through the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide before you ever DM your first campaign. I was told that... like everyone else, I ignored that... and like every table, my players paid the price when their clandestine operations transformed into "guns a-blazing shootouts."
Turns out, D&D 5e actually has a lot of rules dedicated to stealth. They may be all over the place... but they ARE there. And if I had read it all he way through, things may have gone better. Put together, they take some of the risk out of players' options for stealth. (NOTE: there is a summary of the rules at the end of this section if you just want the summary).
Visibility Rules = Stealth Rules (PHB 183)
First thing's first... D&D 5e visibility rules are a bit vague and difficult to use in your games. In fact, they are so confusing that we wrote a whole blog post clarifying, simplifying, and improving them. Go check out our visibility post here, which really boils it down and makes it easy to weave into your campaign. Here is the over-simplified spark-notes version:
- 5e Vision Rules: If something is blocked by an object or the environment, they are considered obscured. There are two types of obscurity: "lightly obscured" provides disadvantage on perception checks relying on sight (-5 passive perception), and heavily obscured makes a seeker effectively blinded. Blinded = you auto-fail any perception checks based on sight, all your attacks are made at disadvantage, and all your enemies' attacks (if they can see) are at advantage.
- 5e Light Rules: If it's noon on a sunny day, then it is bright light, and everything unobscured that the light touches is visible. But if they are in a large room with a single flickering candle... or a shadow-filled alleyway... or under the soft moonlight of a waxing moon... well, all of these would be dim light and could cause disadvantage/-5 on any perception checks based on sight. Darkness is "heavily obscured"... meaning you suffer from the blinded condition.
And BTW, darkvision is not a "cure all" for this. Darkvision just means you can see really well in dim light and darkness becomes dim light... but only for 60 feet. Basically, darkvision does not equal night vision goggles (check out our post on new types of darkvision).
Seriously... Our Post on Visibility
Makes This Issue Crystal Clear
Movement Rules = Stealth Rules (PHB 182-183)
Sometimes players will attempt to dash across an alley when a guard isn't looking or leap over a chasm. At many tables, the DM will call for some sort of check; stealth or athletics or acrobatics... But this is not the rules, and for good reason: IT'S TOO EASY TO FAIL.
If players are jumping or climbing, there is no athletics or acrobatics or stealth check.
- Climbing: you climb at half your walking speed (so, on average, you can only climb 15 feet in a round).
- Long jump: you can jump a number of feet equal to your strength score.
- High jump: 3 + your strength modifier (if you extend your arms... you could add 1.5 to your height as well).
However, there are exceptions to these rules...
Difficult Terrain: If the rock face is slippery or lacks handholds, or if players lack solid footing as they jump or land, THEN you apply an athletics or acrobatics check with a DC of 10.
Carrying Capacity: Also important, but a notorious hassle. But if you don't want to do that hard math, I would say a player with heavy armor or a full pack would have their jump distance cut in half.
© Carol Adamski
Group Rules = Stealth Rules (PHB 175 and 192)
If the party is stealthing through an area together, then it might be better to run a single skill check rather than each player individually making stealth checks. There are two ways to do this: players taking the help action and group skill checks.
The Help action means one player assists another player in making a skill check... but here's the catch: it must be a skill that could involve two players.
Good example: pulling the rope on a sail, reading an ancient language, etc.
Bad example: threading a needle, picking a lock, etc.
Group checks are different. In these, the entire group rolls the check, using their own modifiers. If half the group succeeds, the entire group succeeds. Ignore critical successes or failures. Group checks are particularly good for situations like navigating a swamp or getting past a sleeping guard dog.
Passive Ability Checks = Stealth Rules (PHB 175)
To calculate an NPC's or a player's passive skill, just take the number 10 and add/subtract any of the normal modifiers (skill, proficiency, expertise). In the case of avoiding any sort of guard, the DC for a stealth check becomes the guard's passive score.
But advantage/disadvantage works differently when rolling against a passive score. Instead of rolling twice and taking the higher/lower... a player rolls once, but the DC is adjusted. Advantage is +5 to the DC, disadvantage is -5.
Travel Rules = Stealth Rules (PHB 181-182)
These rules consider the speed that an adventuring party travels at. There are times in an adventure where they will need to book it in order to escape pursuers or cross a mountain path before the snow comes. Other times they can travel in leisure, taking it easy and living off the land... or sneaking through enemy territory.
If players choose the "slow" travel pace, they do not travel as far, but they are "able to use stealth," which implies that they can travel relatively undetected.
Our post on travel, "How DnD 5e Travel Gameplay Can Be Better," offers several of the most popular options, most of (if not all) work with the official travel rules.
Summary of Relevant Stealth Rules:
Obscured + low visibility = disadvantage on perception checks.
For most jumping/climbing, your players do NOT roll. Jumping and climbing are NOT athletics or acrobatics checks.
Heavily obscured + darkness = auto-fail checks based on sight.
Darkvision does NOT equal night vision goggles.
Hiding and stealth are only required at the DM's discretion.
If using passive perception, then advantage is +5 and disadvantage is -5
If you travel at a slow pace, you can travel stealthily.
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What About the "Hide Action"?
You may have noticed that the "hide rules" were conspicuously absent from the above section. After all, what does it mean to "stealth" other than to remain hidden?
The fact is... I have been dreeeeeeeading this section because, as you shall see, the 5e hide rules are a self-contradicting mess. That said, here goes nothing...
© Wizards of the Coast
Here is a summary of all the hide rules in the D&D 5e Player Handbook:
Page 177 (under "Stealth"):
- You make a dexterity (stealth) check when you try to hide or move without anyone noticing you.
Page 177 (under "Hiding")
- DMs decide when a player can attempt to hide.
- Whether or not a hidden character is found depends on if the stealth check is higher than the perception check of any creature searching.
- The enemy needs to be distracted.
- You cannot hide if you are clearly visible.
- You stop being hidden if you come into view or make noise.
Page 192 (under "Actions in Combat: Hide")
- In combat, a player can attempt to hide as their action. They follow the rules on pages 177-178 (above).
- If they succeed, they have the benefits of an "Unseen Attacker."
Page 194-195 (under "Unseen Attacker")
- An unseen attack gains two advantages: 1) attacks against them are at disadvantage, 2) when you make an attack while you are hidden, you have advantage on your attack.
- However... once you attack, you are no longer hidden (even if you miss).
At first glance, you may think that makes sense. You hide using dexterity... when you hide, people can't see you... and when you attack while hiding, you get advantage. Simple, straightforward, easy... right?
Read what redditor "Injunctive" says about it:
"The rules say you cannot hide if you are clearly seen. So if you want to hide, you have to go somewhere where you are unseen before doing so—i.e. behind cover. But the hide action isn't invisibility, and so the rules also say that you don't stay hidden in combat if you approach an enemy who can see you when you do so, and that's presumably also the case if the enemy moves..."
The post goes on and on and on and on, with most of the commenters saying they ignore the hide rules. If you have swaths of your community straight up disregarding the rules, then clearly there is something wrong with the rules!
And here is what I believe is the primary issue:
Hiding in D&D 5e is hard because it is not clear what hiding is.
- What does it mean "to hide"?
- Are you out of sight?
- Are you invisible?
- Does the enemy suffer from the Blinded condition?
- Where can you hide? What if the enemy moves?
- What if the enemy is not actively looking?
- What if you move?
- Can you do a ranged attack while hidden?
This other video by Treantmonk's Temple addresses the same issues, pointing out that the rules-as-written contradict the abilities of the Skulker Feat and wood elf "Mask of the Wild" ability. But he also highlights that the problem appears because D&D 5e has no "front facing" rules. This keeps the game simple, but makes it very mechanically confusing.
To Wizards of the Coast's credit, One D&D tries to clear up the hide action... it adds a required DC 15 and requires that a player be heavily obscured or be in ¾ to total cover in order to hide. Buuuuuuut, even still, it uses vague terms like "conceal yourself" and conflates hiding with invisibility.
It is indisputable: hiding in D&D 5e is a mess.
A complete fluster cluck. So much so that it is impossible NOT to come up with a homebrew solution. And while I cannot wave a magic wand and solve it perfectly, I do have my "hiding chart" from the visibility post (read it here).
Does it contradict the One DnD rules and add the homebrewed "Shaded Light"?
Does it solve everything wrong with stealth?
No, more on that later, tho.
But it is CLEEEEEEAR:
- Players can immediately understand the likelihood of remaining hidden.
- It allows players to ask specific questions to DMs about the environment and allows DMs to answer confidently.
- Instead of making hiding the same as invisibility or blinding a searcher, it just means "you are not perceived right now."
- It equates hiding to stealth, forcing the player to act or roll as the situation changes.
- It also maintains the basic rules of stealth: hider's stealth check vs searcher's perception check.
"How Do I Get Better Stealth in D&D 5e?"
Before I go on to my homebrew solutions for stealth as a whole, I know that some of you do not ever... without exception... under any circumstances... want to change the rules as written. It is 100% off the table, non-starter.
And I can sympathize with that.
So if that is the case, and you want to improve your experience with stealth in your D&D 5e campaign, what should you do?
Simply put, you should build a character that is REALLY good at stealth. That means choosing a stealthy race, picking the right stats, and choosing a stealthy character class.
© Wizards of the Coast
1. First thing's first: pick a race with high dexterity.
Stealth is almost always a dexterity ability check. So if you want to be stealthy, you need to put your highest ability score into dexterity. You should also choose a D&D 5e playable race (if you are using the classic rules) that gives you a bump in dexterity.
+2 in Dexterity: Elves (high, wood, drow, eladrin, sea, Shadar-Kai), halflings (lightfoot and ghostwise), aarakocra, tabaxi, feral tieflings, kenku, goblins, and kobolds.
+1 in Dexterity: Human, gnome (forest and deep), half-elf, air genasi, bugbear, and satyr.
To see the ability score increases for ALL D&D 5e playable races, check out Summoning Grounds.
The two standouts here are wood elf and lightfoot halfling, which additionally have special abilities that aid them in remaining stealthy. The wood elf is able to hide in nature even when lightly obscured. The lightfood halfling, on the other hand, can use its small stature to hide behind its allies in combat.
2. Next, get proficient in the stealth skill.
There are TONS of ways to do this...
Feats: Feats are bonuses you can take when you level up instead of taking an ability score improvement. So if you already have a high DEX score, but need stealth, consider taking "Skill Expert" and "Skilled."
Backgrounds: Backgrounds are largely to guide role-playing, but many of them expand the skill options for your character. There are so many (I had never heard of "Iron Route Bandit" until writing this...), but the most popular posts are "Criminal," "Spy," and "Urchin."
© Luka Milasevic
3. Third, choose a stealthy character class...
And any class that thrives with a high dexterity ability score would work great... IF you already have the stealth skill. Barbarians, bards, and rangers all automatically solve the "get the stealth skill" problem. And druids can wild shape into all manner of stealthy animals!
However, there is one class that dominates stealth in D&D 5e... where no matter what subclass you choose, you are guaranteed to be one sneaky bastard unless you go out of you way to make them a hopeless clutz...
If wizards are the apex casters... and barbarians are the apex "damage sponge"... then rogues are the apex "stealth character class." Not only do they have everything you need to roll high when you roll for stealth, but nearly ALL of their class abilities are designed with stealth in mind.
That said... if you wanted to minmax... and create a character that is so stealthy everyone assumes they are a ghost... then you need to go 2 levels of rogue and 10 levels of Gloom Stalker ranger. This page details the exact benefits you'd get... resulting in a whopping +11 to your stealth checks!
Art by Protokitty
4. Boost with stealthy spells:
D&D 5e is high fantasy, so it makes sense to augment your stealth with magic. Some classes/subclasses might allow you to select one of these spells as you level up. But if you need them ASAP, then you might need to turn to Feats that allow you to learn some spells, such as shadow touched or fey touched. Here are the spells you should target:
Pass Without Trace 2nd level spell: add +10 to your dexterity (stealth) rolls.
Invisibility 3rd level spell: You are always heavily obscured while hiding (impossible to detect with perception checks relying in sight).
Greater Invisibility 4th level spell: Allows you to cast other spells and make attacks while invisible.
Teleportation Spells (Misty Step, Dimension Door, etc.): Allows you to cross open, guarded areas with the guarantee of not being noticed.
In conclusion, a stealthy player character would be a lightfoot halfling, Arcane Trickster with expertise in stealth and casting the Pass Without Trace spell.
The Problems with 5e Stealth
1) The rules needed for a stealth mission are scattered throughout the DMG and PHB rather than isolated or repeated in a single location.
2) The rules have some glaring issues that players experience on a regular basis (ex: hiding), causing many to neglect them.
3) The rules as written make it too easy for players to fail, no matter how much they plan.
4) There are mechanics for hiding in combat, but none for a stealth "mission" (stealth encounters).
Waaaaaaaay too many campaigns run stealth missions by just having players make stealth check after stealth check after stealth check against an environmental DC or the guards' passive perception. This is guaranteed to bore your players and rob them of the thrill of a covert mission.
(Pssst! I mention this in our blog post on how to run the perfect dnd 5e heist).
That said... even if your DM knows that stealth belongs in the exploration pillar, and even if one player at the table creates one sneaky SOB, and even if everyone at the table knows the stealth rules... you will STILL have problems running stealthy encounters in your D&D 5e campaigns. Why is that?
Execution © Gilles Beloeil
Because it is extremely easy for players to fail when stealthing.
In fact, it's so easy to fail that the vast majority of stealth missions ends in players getting caught and having to fight their way out. And don't get me wrong, this is fun once and a while... but it should be the exception, not the rule.
Take a look at the math:
- If the DC is 10, pretty low by most table standards, they still have a 25% chance of failing.
- Even if they cast Pass Without Trace—an automatic success if they add 1+10—many tables will say that a NAT 1 STILL FAILS... which is statistically likely to happen if you have 4 players making multiple stealth checks (I'm bad at math, sorry).
Not only that, but there are additional mechanical problems:
- Guards usually seek with passive perception, which means they cannot perceive any lower than (for example) an 8. BUT... players do not get the same advantage of a passive or stealth floor (Zee Bashew points this out in this video).
- According to the rules as written, players, on their turn, make a stealth check while moving and take the hide action while not moving... and they cannot do both in the same turn.
A SINGLE bad roll and all stealth is ruined...
What 5e stealth needs is a simple mechanic that makes it easier for players to succeed IF they make stealthy decisions. There are two ways to do this: 1) Make it harder for the players to fail, and 2) make it harder for the environment to succeed. Each are different homebrew solutions.
To return to the "murder hobo" problem in the introduction, if we want to encourage players to explore everything that makes a stealth mission fun, then we need to provide them with the means to do so and positive reinforcement when they do it!
We need clear, simple rules and mechanics players can work with and that result in FUN encounters. If players discover they have more control over the outcome of their sneakiness... and have fun doing it... they will attempt sneak instead of slaughter more often.
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Howard Lyon © Wizards of the Coast
Homebrew Solution 1: Passive Ability Mechanic
This 5e stealth homebrew solution is all about making it harder for players to fail.
As stated earlier, with R.A.W., a single misstep means instant failure. That's enough to make most players refuse to take any steps at all. Especially when that "misstep" isn't because of their poor planning or execution, but just bad dice rolls.
Quick sidebar here... the truth is, the dice can take away player agency as much as an overbearing DM. And while dice rolling is an important part of what makes Tabletop Role-Playing Games special (and different from improv!), sometimes it has too much power in determining the course of our campaigns.
Remember: your player's characters are HEROES... when they are focused, the odds of them critically failing are closer to 1% than 5%! So how can we make it so it is harder to fail in these moments when all their attention is centered on being sneaky?
Limit dice rolling with this "Passive Sneak Mechanic":
A. NPC's Use Passive Perception: As stated above, passive perception is 10 + the NPC's wisdom modifier. This mechanic depends on you NEVER rolling for NPCs, so their passive perception should stay constant and you don't have to worry about advantage and disadvantage.
B. Players Have a "Stealth Lowest Roll": This is similar to a "Stealth Passive Floor"... but not the same. Instead of a floor, I'm advocating that they "cannot roll any lower than a ___". For more stealthy characters, I would make that a 7; for less stealthy characters, a 4. It is not as good as the 10+ for NPCs, but sneaking is A LOT harder than just searching.
C. Players Refer to a "Stealth Bonus Chart": When attempting to stealth, players refer to the chart below (an augmented version from our visibility post). If they are strategic, they will focus on choosing actions that give them the best BONUS to their roll. In general, the bonuses replace advantage/disadvantage.
This mechanic turns stealth missions into a tense, interesting puzzle:
- It keeps a fast pace of play and the focus on the players' rolls.
- Players can assess risk knowing how different cover and visibility will benefit them.
- If players are crafty and creative, they can AVOID rolling at all.
- They will ask questions of the DM and immerse themselves in the environment.
- When characters move, it is risky... when they are still and hidden, it is safer.
- This method works well with the other PHB stealth rules (particularly group checks).
© Wizards of the Coast
Before, even IF players knew aaaaall the stealth rules all over the place (and that is a big "if"...), they would just have to hope to get lucky when they made a stealth check. Now, they can minimize the risk of a low roll with good questions, a quick wit, and solid strategy.
And when weird circumstances arise for the DM, resolving them is intuitive. What if players cause a distraction? Then they are effectively in "darkness," since no one is looking in that direction. What about getting advantage from inspiration dice? You can still use that! What if I feel like they should get a bigger/worse bonus? Then do that... you're the DM!
And, of course, if your players add Pass Without Trace and they get tooooooo sneaky, then you can place the area on high alert and raise the passive perception of the guards!
The Passive Stealth Mechanic:
Players Roll OR Lowest Roll +
Stealth Skill Modifier + Chart Modifier
is > or =
NPC's Passive Perception
Homebrew Solution 2: Suspicion Mechanic
While I stand by the first 5e stealth mission solution, for some tables, it might come across as "tedious." Because it is focused on game mechanics, it is a more detailed experience for players and DMs. It solves the "stealth mission" problem by making it harder for players to fail; if the players engage with the rules of the same and act wisely, they will almost certainly succeed.
However, some tables prefer to focus on narrative and storytelling... and that is the focus of this alternative 5e stealth mission mechanic. Instead of trying to solve player failure, it solves the D&D 5e stealth mission problem by "making it harder for the environment to succeed." Or, in other words, players get many chances to fail before they are "found out" and they can no longer proceed with stealth.
Here is how the Suspicion Mechanic works:
A. NPCs have a "suspicion meter" at around 20 or 30. The meter is hidden from the players.
B. Players make stealth checks as normal following R.A.W.
C. When players fail, the DM rolls a die: d4 for low fail, d6 for mid fail, 2d4 for high fail (crit fail is double dice).
D. Once they reach the number, the next player failure "sets off the alarm"; NPCs are on high alert and actively hunt for the players.
This is different from a skill challenge because the players have NO IDEA how close they are to failure. After a failure or two, EVERY and ANY mistake could be the end of them. This keeps the all-important feeling of SUSPENSE; they should feel the FEAR of getting caught... but not so much that they never attempt to be sneaky!
The beauty of this method is its simplicity. It works with the existing rules, both normal and passive. No bonuses, no numbers, no charts. DMs do not have to track the awareness of every NPC. The downside? It requires a lot of improve and creativity from the DM. It still leaves a lot of the decision making up to the dice rolls. And I have no idea if it actually increases the odds of them SUCCEEDING in being stealthy (I ain't doing that math!).
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General Tips for DMs Running Stealth Encounters
So... I spent a ton of time brainstorming those two mechanics, and there were some leftover bits that didn't fit perfectly into either one of them, but still fit with both of them. None of these are theory, rules, or homebrew... just a few suggestions to help make a stealth encounter run smoothly and be fun for everyone at the table.
© Dice Cove
Half Movement Bonus
According to 5e travel rules, when the party travels across long distances at a slow pace, they can also travel stealthily. In certain situations, it might make sense to prove players with an additional bonus to their stealth roll when they move at half speed.
Reward Player Prep and Creativity
Maybe let players do certain prep ahead of time: have a good meal, stay hydrated, take off armor and jingling things, practice, stretch, take a drug, cast a spell—all things that can raise their stealth floor.
Use Multiple Skills for Stealth
Remember, all the ability scores assigned to the skills on the character sheet are SUGGESTIONS... if the player or DM can justify it, a player can use any ability to accomplish a specific skill!
I think this should be applied during a stealth mission. Think about it: the street-rat rogue would have a lot harder of a time sneaking through a dense jungle than a druid or ranger. But maybe the druid isn't proficient in stealth... should the rogue really be better than them? Alternatively, you can let the druid roll stealth with their nature skill!
Here are some other ideas for other skills used for stealth:
- Intelligence saving throw to muffle their armor
- Perception check to scan the area and find a good route
- Insight check to see what direction the guard will go or how alert they are
- Performance or deception check to blend in with a crowd
- Roll an arcana check to look for enchantments or magical traps
- Persuasion check to bribe a guard
- Intimidation check to threaten a guard into not sounding the alarm
Assassin © Russel Dongjun Lu
Takedown (coup de gras) Rules
Despite all my talk about stealth belonging to the exploration pillar, there are going to be situations where violence is called for. But if the guard has even a modest amount of HP, there is a good chance the player will need to use several attacks to take them down. And when maintaining a low profile, the last thing players want to do is start a combat encounter.
Past editions had "coup de gras" rules... also known as takedown rules. These would be the type of attacks where you sneak up behind a bad guy and snap their neck... or cut their throat with your hand over their mouth. It doesn't matter how much HP they have... these are precise, surprise attacks designed specifically to kill quickly and quietly. I suggest checking out Wyrm Works excellent homebrew takedown rules.
And no, I do not think this takes away all the fun of being a rogue! A rogue still gets to use their sneak attack during normal combat... but this isn't a combat encounter... this is an exploration encounter, remember! (If it makes you feel any better, you can give the rogue an additional +1 or +2 to hit).
You can also give a more sneaky character the option of "knocking out" a character... something most players would definitely not know how to do (maybe an additional roll to see if they kill them or not).
D&D 5e is awesome for combat and social encounters, and it's high time we stop neglecting exploration encounters. Maybe the first step is giving some love and attention to our stealth missions to make them fun for our players.
And it isn't all that much effort. All you have to do is know the necessary ingredients for a fun stealth encounter, know the rules, and pick and choose some homebrew rules for your table.
And, as always... when all else fails... improv your way with the rule of cool!
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Based out of Spokane, Riley is a freelance copywriter that combines his love of reading, writing, and people into something useful! He is thankful to be applying his passion for imaginative role-playing to help DnD related businesses communicate their value in the best way possible. He's kinda like a bard giving inspiration, except without the annoying pop covers!