The title's actually not a typo. We’ve gone a few more times around the sun since I last poked my head into adventuring rules and my bookending post before burning out like a motherfucker back in twenty-nineteen had been precisely on systems for stealth and just as I was grinding the axe for another go at it, fancying myself full of new ideas, I went back for a refresher course on my own thinking on the matter. Surprisingly, the prose was impenetrable, the style was insufferable, the pictures were pretty… and the ideas were mostly all there already. Talk about being one’s own wet blanket.
Despite turning up late for my own party I’ve nevertheless come to embrace a different stance on the rules and believe it is time to dust off and readress the systems governing these actions now under a more minimalist and mature perspective. My most recent post featured a few instances of numeric bonuses to stealth, either in the shape of Hide in Shadows or Moving Silently so this post seems appropriate, as what I’ve intended for these systems begets some explaining.
The Elusive Nature of Stealth
I stress the topic of stealth as much as I do because, along with the trusty companionship of the chase rules, it is one of the bulkwarks of old school play, a vital fallback position for when things don’t go so well and forty orcs appear where the manual for precious softball throws would suggest no more than four, so as not to cause undue heroic indigestion. Because if one is serious about doing away with artificial encounter pre-calibration or storygamey godly foists of salvation (and this to say nothing of the slimy matter that is fudged rolls), one is behooved to have credible rules to support all those better parts of valour. Looking at it another way, I love me a good heist, seeing stealth as a prime ground for sowing tension, later to be reaped and squeezed for gaming juice through the vise-grip of uncertainty, oftentimes on deceptively low or controllable stakes: will or won’t the protagonists be found out, and if so, when?
Mirroring the AD&D book, I embrace the separation of Stealth into two sub-headers – Hide in Shadows and Move Silently – , which despite not being by any length an absolute conceptual necessity, do come in handy for partitioning possible racial abilities, item bonuses and thief skills without supercharging a character too quickly. On the other hand, in a clear move of mechanical compromise with the new school, percentile roll resolutions are eschewed for thief skills (many of them generalist adventuring fare), their resolution to rely instead on either attribute checks or other rules where appropriate.
Ultimately, stealth to me is a process in search of the right mix of abstraction, agency and procedural flow. Whereas my previous proposal advocated witholding all information from the player here you’ll find me experimenting with a bit more transparency, something which might pluck an unrealistic chord but could turn out fruitful in terms of player engagement. I also want things to flow smoothly in the abtract mind’s eye, avoiding reliance on mapped situations or exhaustive description of spaces whenever possible, something which can tax a referee, especially in an urban setting, and end up acting as a subconscious driver against strealth attempts.
Shy of stating that I’ve hit upon a simple rules solution, I can only say that I’m limping along the path to simpler solutions overall.
Approaching a target by stealth
If a character attempts an approach that relies mainly on visual avoidance it is classed as an attempt to Hide in Shadows; if it’s noise that’s the deciding factor, then Move Silently is what gets checked. This has implications on the spotting distance thresholds and possible penalties, as hiding in shadows is of use to remain undetected while stationary and on approaches reliant on cover while moving silently is called to the fore when trying to gain the last few feet on an unwary target.
Whether ambushing or trying to escape undetected – witnesses, victims, guards or monsters – all are classed as “targets” to a stealth attempt. A check is only called at a point from which proximity or dispersion of cover is such as to require skill to conceal one’s presence.
The rationale for silent progress is that anything beyond the bare essential applies penalties and little short of skill training will grant bonuses. The penalties are deliberately made stringent, as the lightest scrape or rattling noise from carried objects or wielded weaponry can give away one’s position.
· In order to move silently, a character may move no faster than half his walking speed
· The standard spotting distance for noise is 3d6 * 5 feet
· The above can be modified by floor surface, the wind’s direction or the level of background noise (the crash of seawaves, spatter of rain, a street’s bustle, etc.)
· -1 per point of AC bonus
· -1 per size above d4 of the largest weapon carried (or other cumbersome object)
· -1 for each inventory slot filled beyond the hands
Hide in Shadows
This skill applies to all attempts at visual concealment involving cover of any sort, be it shadows, rainfall, fog, building nooks or foliage. It can only be attempted away from onlookers, after which the character’s capacity for movement without compromising his stealth will vary from bursts of speed from cover to cover to inching at a slow crawl, depending on the situation.
The efficacy of hiding in shadows is determined by lighting and abundance of cover. Unlike with hearing, visual spotting distances are prone to varying greatly due to circumstances, shifting the distance pool’s number of dice, unit of measurement or die sizes accordingly: the greater the density of cover and the worse the visual conditions, the shorter the overall spotting range.
· The standard spotting distance is 3d6 * 5 yards
· Hiding attempts will only get a character as far as cover allows, ending where the treeline does, regardless of rolls
· If hiding in close proximity to a target, the character must keep almost entirely still to avoid detection, being allowed only slow, careful gestures (such as drawing a weapon)
· Vision-blocking cover supercedes the above considerations (unless sound comes into play)
· -1 if wearing garish clothing (-1 per 2 points of AC bonus for metal armour)
· -1 per other exposed metal item carried (weaponry, etc.)
· -1 if carrying a large (two-handed) weapon or similar object
· -1 per level of encumbrance
The Standard Procedure
1. Player declares an attempt to approach a target through stealth, if it is deemed possible
2. Referee classes the attempt as either Hiding in Shadows or Moving Silently and evaluates a rough spotting distance, as well as any check penalties, communicating these conditions to the player
3. If the player proceeds, referee secretly rolls the spotting distance pool along with a single d20, organizing the distance dice into decreasing tiers, each constituting a sensory threshold at which the character may be detected
4. Every time the character reaches a spotting threshold, referee informs the player of the remaining distance and asks for further action, checking the character’s stealth at increased difficulty if he decides to get closer
a. The outermost threshold (highest spotting die) corresponds to a check made at standard difficulty, meaning the d20 is compared to the character’s Dexterity attribute
i. A character that crosses this threshold and then decides to attack has initiative and target must roll for surprise (1-3 in d10)
b. For the second threshold to be crossed, the check becomes difficult, as the d20 is compared to half the character’s Dexterity attribute
i. As above, but target is surprised on 1-5 in d10
c. When the third threshold is crossed, the check becomes very difficult, and the d20 is compared to the character’s halved-again Dexterity attribute
i. If still undetected and no more thresholds remain, the character may come as close as he will to the target, and attempt a take-out or assassination, being assured of complete surprise
d. If any distance thresholds remain past this point, it implies a minimum distance that cannot be overcome by stealth alone (this may happen in certain circumstances of cover scarcity as well as if trying to approach a monster or animal with a keen sense of smell or other exotic sense)
e. Certain protracted attempts may shift at midpoint from being Hide in Shadows to being Moving Silently. Either fold them under one or the other or, if too egregious to ignore, calculate new penalties and take it from there. The dice roll itself should remain untouched.
- When a character is found out, simply roll Initiative and play out the aftermath from there (not to imply that there will be a combat, as the sneaking character may be found out quite a distance away from a target)
Alternate Procedures – Fading from sight
On discrete instances where no one is specifically paying attention to the character and immediately hiding under nearby cover is all that matters, a single difficult check rolled by the referee can determine if a character manages to make himself scarce, either when slinking into the deepest shadows in time to avoid a guard patrol, dissolving into a crowd after cutting a purse or leaving an inn’s common room without being noticed.
By way of example
Let us take for example a narrow moonlit street, slightly ascending and ending at a gatehouse to the city’s inner defensive wall. Heurgon, a 4th level assassin, wishes to make his way up the length of the street, climb the wall of the gatehouse and ultimately plant a dagger between the shoulderblades of the sentry manning the battlements before lowering a rope to his confederates. Having stated this intent, the referee identifies the first part of the attempt as Hiding in Shadows and adjudicates a spotting distance of 3d6 * 5 yards for the bored sentry’s occasional glances at the street. Upon some questioning from the player for further means of access, it turns out that a jutting wooden balcony on one of the houses adjacent to the gate provides a sizable blindspot that can be worked with, as it will block the view of roughly the last ten yards of the left side of the street from the sentry’s position. Heurgon decides to advance along that side of the street, prompting the referee to secretly roll the sentry’s spotting distance – 3, 5 and another 3 come up: 55 yards. The referee detains the character at this distance, revealing it’s total (but not the pool’s roll) to the player and informing that the assassin has sneaked as far as possible without requiring a check and asking if he wishes to continue, to which the player replies affirmatively. A d20 is equally rolled in secret, coming up a 7, well within Heurgon’s dexterity of 16 (minus 1 for being burdened with the rope and a few other items, plus 2 for his level) – the referee pours some description on the table as the character negotiates the dim street, flitting from shadow to shadow, stopping at a point, thirty yards from the sentry (and twenty from the balcony), where it is to become yet more difficult to proceed while avoiding detection. Weighing his chances, the player chooses to continue. The referee now compares the rolled 7 to the assassin’s halved dexterity rate of 9 (8-1+2) and shaves a further fifteen yards from his silent trek, explaining that it takes a fair bit longer to traverse this distance, as Heurgon is forced to pause time and again to make absolutely sure that he hasn’t been found out. Finally, the referee states that the assassin is now peering from behind a resting cart at a distance of roughly 15 yards from the sentry, five yards shy of the desired cover, which to be reached will unfortunately require a new difficulty increase (that would allow unfettered access all the way to the wall itself). Weighing his options, it soon becomes apparent that the penalties for low visibility and the protection of the crenellations make a killing shot from his crossbow highly unlikely at this range, leading the player to state that he feels like Heurgon’s going to have to back out. Now, since our referee has a soft spot in his heart for eaters of hemp and the matter can be framed as one of crossing a short amount of ground to hide in the immediate surroundings, he points to the alternative of an attempt at Fading from View (see above). The player takes up the chance, and is prompted by the referee to roll the check himself, given that the result will be immediately apparent to the character. The player rolls a 3 and so Heurgon manages to slink under the balcony right as the sentry unleashes a full-bellied yawn. Reaching the foot of the wall below the unwary guard, the assassin proceeds to hug it as he crosses the street, so as to attempt the climb at some distance from where the sentry stands, fearful that the noise might give him away. As he does this, the grating sound of a throat being cleared is heard from above, followed by a plump wad of spit landing heavily at Heurgon’s feet with a rich thud (DMs need their fun, too). Unfazed, the assassin sagely waits out for the guard to exchange his quarter-hourly shoutout with the sentinels from the neighbouring towers before starting his ascent. From here, this little fable could go a number of ways, from a completely successful infiltration to the assassin dislodging a loose piece of shingle on his way up and getting a crossbow bolt through the windpipe for his troubles. But what matters is the stealth portion was resolved on the back of a single roll of 3d6 + d20 for the referee.
A note on Collective Checks
In the above example, if a whole party wished to follow suit, all it would take would be to compare the individual dexterity attributes and respective modifiers with the exact same standing numbers. No matter how many characters attempt to approach a target, the same set of rolls is used as comparison against their stats. This is crucial in protecting a party from variance, as multiple different checks, no matter how easy, would invariably lead to one of them being blown and the game being up. If a target is somehow distracted or circumstances change in any substantial way, a second roll may replace the first, providing it is lower (if the conditions improve for the stealth attempt) or higher (if the attempt becomes more complicated).
Variance for groups of characters collectively attempting stealth, long a splinter in the shoe, is thus finally adressed to my satisfaction as, by rolling just one die independently of the number of participants in a group, the procedure organically tests only the weakest character involved: if he passes the check, all others necessarily do as well.
Ambushes are a mixed bag in terms of adjudication, mostly hinging on the balancing of two factors inherent to each attempt: concealment and ambusher field of vision.
A high-field of vision, low-concealment ambush would be one in which the party can clearly see the approaching enemy and coordinate their actions unimpeded but that relies on cover that does not guarantee perfect concealment, such as trees or undergrowth. Here a standard Hide in Shadows attempt could be made, which would work exactly like an inversion of the usual mechanic, with the characters remaining stationary as their target approaches.
On the other hand, a low-field of vision, high concealment situation would be something as presented by an alleyway’s cramped quarters with a good lookout spot to signal the attack, such as a small hole in a wall, and plenty of solid cover to keep the remaining characters fully out of sight until the attack is called, something which would mechanically be abstracted directly to an initial surprise attack round plus an additional surprise roll (which, if failed, would lead to a second unopposed round), heavily adjusted for circumstances. The catch would be that information on what the ambushers are about to face would be witheld until the fight is joined and each character would have to declare beforehand his course of action for the initial round, as they wouldn’t have any sensory input beyond the lookout’s shout for attack. If the ambushed party happens to boast something completely unexpected, such as a brace of vicious attack dogs or an enslaved troll, the surprise roll could turn mutual and things might very well backfire.
Regardless of the method of resolution employed, it should be considered when dealing with sentient beings that, sometimes, a perfect ambush spot can be too perfect, prompting cautious approaches. Cunning enemies will tend to scout ahead and altogether avoid "dark spots" as NPC behaviour cannot always be predicted. The occasional reaction roll, with the distribution covering cautious, neutral and carefree behaviours can be used to ensure that not all inviting ambush scenarios pan out as expected.
Closing Thoughts – Keeping it flexible
Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility.
A fully realized running, especially one that’s urban-driven and boasting certain character classes (and classes of player), will feature many a situation temptingly faced on the tip of one’s toes; these will sometimes be simple but more often present as a hideous tangle. Breathing down other people’s necks won’t always be the stated endgame of a stealth attempt, as overhearing conversations, peering into a room where you’re not supposed to be, subtraction of objects or just plain reaching the nearest piece of hard cover all qualify as possibilities. As such, be prepared for the unexpected and to make hard and fast rule calls. This is the kind of thing that just cannot be covered wholesale on a page and where I feel your preferences as adjudicator when dealing with it, from smothering most situations at birth like so many kittens to allowing players to bind themselves on that long rope you’ve given them with a smile, will ultimately shape and dictate a personal style.
In any event it will demand exceeding care from a referee. Clearly place down the goal posts for any stealth attempt, keep your thinking out loud, inquire players as to what they think their characters are seeing and emphatically pin down whatever elements are particularly relevant to the resolution. A good situation framing is essential long before any dice are picked up.