Things You Didn’t Know About D&D 5E: Hiding In Combat

The rogue stabs out with his dagger, wounding the dragon. Intent on avoiding the beast’s wrath, he declares that he’s hiding and rolls for Stealth. He can take the Hide action as a bonus action thanks to his Cunning Action feature. But… he’s just standing in the middle of the room.

Has this situation come up in your game? You’re not alone. A lot of people have been talking about hiding in combat lately, and we thought we’d help clarify the rules on it to help you to run the game more smoothly.

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What Is Hiding?

First of all, let’s establish what it’s not. Hiding is not a condition like charmed or incapacitated. It isn’t a universal truth; you don’t roll to become capital-H Hidden, you roll to small-H hide—specifically, from a particular creature or group of creatures. The mechanics of hiding are described on page 177 of the Player’s Handbook.

The DM decides when circumstances are appropriate for hiding. When you try to hide, make a Dexterity (Stealth) check. Until you are discovered or stop hiding, that check’s total is contested by the Wisdom (Perception) check of any creature that actively searches for signs of your presence.

You can’t hide from a creature that can see you clearly.

The first sentence is integral here. The DM has every right to tell you that you can’t hide from a creature if there is no way to obscure its view of you. So the rogue wanting to hide in the middle of a wide open room would take some incredible ingenuity.

For new DMs who require guidance on what the acceptable circumstances for hiding might be, the same page directs you to the Vision and Light section on page 183, which details certain classifications of illumination and visual obstruction: lightly obscured, heavily obscured, bright light, dim light, and darkness. These tools can help guide you in making a determination about who can hide from whom, and what it would require. For example, in darkness a creature could hide from a target that doesn’t have darkvision, and a wood elf could attempt to hide in light rain or patchy fog.

So what do you get for being hidden? From page 194 and 195 of the Player’s Handbook:

When you attack a target that you can’t see, you have disadvantage on the attack roll. […] When a creature can’t see you, you have advantage on attack rolls against it.

In addition to these benefits, while you are hidden from a spellcaster, you severely limit its options for attacking you, as most spells specify that they can only target a creature the spellcaster can see.

Cover

Because you can’t hide from a creature that can see you clearly, an individual attempting to hide from another creature in an area without environmental effects such as thick fog or darkness will almost certainly have to seek cover. Just how much cover is needed to hide depends on various factors, all left up to the DM’s discretion. To preserve the usefulness of the lightfoot halfling’s Naturally Stealthy feature, we recommend requiring regular creatures have at least three-quarters cover in order to hide.

Note that even if a target has total cover, it is not necessarily hidden. Hiding involves concealing all traces of your presence, including sound and light. You can’t hide behind a low wall if you’re carrying a torch, even if you go entirely prone to have total cover. Even an invisible creature does not automatically count as hidden, as it might give away its position by making noise or producing other “signs of its passage”.

Avoiding Detection

As mentioned above, a successful Wisdom (Perception) check will reveal the presence of hidden creatures if the check’s total exceeds the result of the creature’s Dexterity (Stealth) check. This also means that if the total of the Dexterity (Stealth) check doesn’t exceed a creature’s passive Wisdom (Perception) score, you aren’t hidden from it. As well, if you hid by retreating behind total cover and the creature from which you were hiding moves to regain line of sight, your position will be revealed.

Additionally, the Hiding sidebar from page 177 in the Player’s Handbook details the following:

In combat, most creatures stay alert for signs of danger all around, so if you come out of hiding and approach a creature, it usually sees you. However, under certain circumstances, the DM might allow you to stay hidden as you approach a creature that is distracted, allowing you to gain advantage on an attack roll before you are seen.

This section is the second reason why a rogue can’t simply pop out of hiding and stab someone, especially if the creature was aware of their presence (even if they couldn’t see them before they emerged to attack). If the rogue wishes to approach stealthily, it would require taking the Hide action (possibly as a bonus action using Cunning Action), again contested by the target’s passive Wisdom (Perception). If the circumstances are right, it is possible to make a ranged attack from hiding, though it will reveal your position (unless you miss and have the Skulker feat).

Putting It All Together

Looking at the rules, both how they are written and their design intent, it becomes clear that most characters are simply not meant to be able to hide in the midst of a melee. There are, of course, a few circumstances which mark the exceptions to this rule, such as when you face an enemy without darkvision in an area of total darkness, or when a lightfoot halfling has a Medium-sized creature between it and the creature from which they are hiding. But these are special situations that require planning or luck; as a rule, you can’t just hide wherever you please and then attack with advantage. This is why rogues can also benefit from Sneak Attack when they have an ally within 5 feet of their target and don’t have disadvantage on the attack roll; they don’t need to be hidden in order to deal their bonus damage.


Do you have experience with hiding in combat? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

15 thoughts on “Things You Didn’t Know About D&D 5E: Hiding In Combat”

  1. I’d like to take a more realistic example of a rogue hiding and see how you resolve it.

    A rogue is being followed down a street with dim light. He turns down an ally and slips into a deep doorway to hide. The enemy comes around the corner tries to locate the rogue.

    Is this a valid attempt to hide?
    Thanks

    1. Thanks for the question!

      If this is happening outside of initiative order, I would resolve this with a Dexterity (Stealth) check opposed by a Wisdom (Perception) check to determine if the pursuer was able to get to see the rogue dip into the doorway. Due to the dim light, the pursuer would have disadvantage on their Wisdom (Perception) check unless they had darkvision or some other means to see in darkness. If the Dexterity (Stealth) check is higher, the rogue would have managed to get into the deep doorway and would be hidden. If it is not obvious that this would be where they have hidden (for example, if the alley is short enough that the rogue could possibly have exited the other end, or if there are other doorways or sources of cover the rogue might have ducked into), then I would allow the rogue to benefit from being an unseen attacker if they attack before their position is discovered. If this is the only doorway in an empty, dead-end alley, then there’s no reason the pursuer would not recognize where they went and would be ready for them to reappear.

      If this is in initiative order, it would be easier to resolve. Either the pursuer ends their turn positioned to watch the rogue slip into the doorway, or they don’t. If it’s a deep doorway and the rogue can enter it unseen (that is, one that would allow the rogue to have total cover), I wouldn’t ask for a Dexterity (Stealth) check unless they specifically said they wanted to duck into it but keep an eye on the mouth of the alley, which would require that they hover at the threshold. If the pursuer is able to watch the rogue enter the doorway, the rogue might be hidden, but their position is known and they will not gain the benefits of being an unseen attacker if they lean out to loose a crossbow bolt or something.

      So in short, it is a valid attempt to hide if the rogue isn’t being observed. How that action translates into benefits in a confrontation is dependent on too many factors to give a yes/no answer.

      Hope this helps!
      – the Archmage

      1. I’d also consider the pursuer – if the rogue was seen entering the alley, it’s not rocket science that the pursuer would be cautious. They might shoot a crossbow bolt of their own into the square containing the deep doorway, guessing that the rogue might be hiding there. So they’d attack with disadvantage into at least half cover depending on the angle.

  2. A good combat related example is when a rogue is attacking an enemy from a doorway. Dispatching the foe and taking a hide action back in the doorway. Leaving the guy in front none the wiser, but very well aware of danger.

  3. The struggle for me is deep in combat. Initiative has been rolled, the rogue has made his first sneak attack. This same halfling rogue now uses a bonus action to hide, succeeds, shoots with advantage again. And repeats the same process round after round using the medium-sized creature in front of them to hide. I struggle seeing this as “realistic”. Maybe I’m too old school, but once the opponent knows you’re there, I don’t think you should be able to hide anymore, unless circumstances and combat changed.

    1. Hi Steve,

      You’re the DM, per the rules of hiding, you decide if conditions are right for hiding. Just because the rogue can do it as a bonus action doesn’t mean they can do it in an open room while the enemy is watching them.

      Hiding isn’t just a die roll, it’s an activity, and if there’s nothing to hide behind, no plausible way to obstruct the enemy’s view of you, or some other way to realistically (it’s fine to say it!) hide, then you can let the player try, but it won’t work. Feel free to look down at the battle map with all its open space and ask, “What are you hiding behind?”

      Remember that this can also work in favour of the player, though. They may not be experts in stealth, but their characters are, and they may have abilities that allow this. For example, lightfoot halflings are able to use larger creatures as cover. A halfling rogue, being someone who practices using misdirection to their advantage in combat, would possibly flit about a 5-foot square (a pretty big area for a 3’ character) and let their larger ally occupy the person’s attention. Likewise, a wood elf can become hidden in mist or other natural phenomenon. They recede into it like a ghost and strike out at helpless foes.

      In short, players sometimes deserve the benefit of the doubt, but you’re well within your rights to declare that an attempt to hide has failed when there was no possible way it ever could have succeeded. Shouting out, “I’m hiding!” doesn’t make it so.

      Best,
      the Archmage

  4. So let’s say you have an elf rogue with the Skulker feat. Assuming that rogue is hidden, could they take a sneak attack shot with an arrow, then use their Cunning Action bonus action to hide again, and move while hidden to another location (where they could presumably take another sneak attack shot on the next round)?

      1. Hi Larry,

        Thank you for your question.

        This would work if you were a wood elf in the fog, foliage, or other natural source of camouflage. Non-wood elves can’t hide just by taking the Hide action while being lightly obscured in this way, they have to find some feasible method to actually hide themselves, like ducking behind an impenetrable hedge, leaping behind the lee of a hill, or some other meaningful effort.

        There are a few additional considerations to keep in mind when it comes to this:
        (1) Rangers have a 10th-level ability to spend 1 minute (10 rounds) making camouflage to let them hide whilst standing still admist a natural setting. Unless you want to further rob that class of usefulness by taking away one of the few things that make it special, you’ll want to ensure your players are a little more rigorous when it comes to hiding “in plain sight” (that is, not wholly concealed behind a wall or other obstacle).
        (2) The character’s Stealth check covers not just whether they’re seen, but also rather they’re heard, smelled, or whatever other sense may be employed by the creature(s) the character is hiding from.

        Best,
        the Archmage

  5. A rogue is at the bottom of a 100′ deep, 10’x10′ solid stone pit, and he triggers a fireball trap by stepping on a pressure plate. He beats the Dex save DC and has Evasion, taking zero damage as blazing flames fill every inch of space in which the rogue could possibly exist.

    I was a fellow party member with a rogue who really didn’t like how the DM tended to treat variations on hypothetical scenarios like the above, as well as hiding in combat, pretty realistically. The DM would use sound judgment and say, “Nah, sorry, there’s nothing to hide behind.” He was also hesitant to allow nat 20’s to auto-succeed impossible things. It led to some heated interactions at some critical points of the game, which I’m sure could’ve gone better, but we were young and weren’t very good at all that back then, and I wasn’t much help to the DM even though I agreed with him.

    I for one appreciate some logical realism in my games, but now in my own campaigns, I’ve leaned more on the side of stacking DC’s appropriately, and letting the players know why before they roll. Rogue says, “I want to hide,” and I say, “Aight, so it’s a DC 15, plus 5 for each time you’ve already sneak attacked this encounter because they’re watching out for you, plus this monster has advantage on his perception roll because he can smell you, plus you have disadvantage because there’s nothing to hide behind.

    Also, it’s not RAW, but you can do what I like to do and try playing with readied Reactions a bit. An attack of opportunity is essentially an always-readied Attack Reaction, yes? Well you could easily bend the Leadership ability of a Hobgoblin captain to allow him to order his troops to ready a Reaction for when one of them sees the Rogue, to shout out and expose his position. Every time the rogue attempts to hide, each hobgoblin gets to roll Perception, and if one spots him, he can’t sneak attack any of them. I’m just pulling this out of my butt here, but it’s a line of thinking that, if established with your players, should give them some interesting hurdles and strategy options in combat.

  6. You said, “As mentioned above, a successful Wisdom (Perception) check will reveal the presence of hidden creatures if the check’s total exceeds the result of the creature’s Dexterity (Stealth) check.”

    The PHB says, “When you try to hide, make a Dexterity (Stealth) check…that check’s total is contested by the Wisdom (Perception) check of any creature that actively searches for signs of your presence.”

    A contest is not the same as an ability check made against a DC. A contest would require that the perception check BEAT the Stealth check. If the Perception check equals the Stealth check, then the status quo is maintained. And the status quo is that the player is hidden/undiscovered.

    Am I wrong?

  7. How would you handle actively looking for hidden characters/enemies? Example: I have an ambush flanking players on both sides of a road. Goblins using classic shoot, scoot, and hide tactics. Assuming their stealth roles beat the players passive perception, do the players need to burn their actions making a perception check to try and spot them? Do only the players who succeed spot the goblins, or are they able to call out their locations to the rest of the party?

    1. Hi Jamie,

      Passive Perception is designed to measure general awareness. A party travelling down a road where encountering goblins is not uncommon is understood to be keeping a general lookout. This is why they have penalties on passive Perception checks when travelling at a face pace which requires more of their attention.

      If the party is aware of the presence of the goblins before combat begins, then they aren’t surprised. If the goblins are hidden and take the party unawares, the party should be considered surprised at the start of combat.

      Not all members of the party have to be surprised. It’s up to the DM to determine how this plays out. For instance, if the goblins are concealed in thick foliage and the DM determines that they can only be spotted by a character within 30 feet, but the goblins are poised to strike as soon as the party comes within 30 feet, then the DM may choose to have both of those things happen at once. Characters with a high enough passive Perception spot the goblins as they rise up to loose their arrows. Initiative is rolled, the characters who didn’t see the goblins are considered surprised, and the unsurprised characters can hopefully shout out a warning. The warning won’t negate the surprise effect on characters who haven’t taken a turn, but it will help those who didn’t spot the goblins to ready their weapons to fight rather than blithely continue on.

      Best,
      the Archmage

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