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.
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”.
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!