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I need some guidance about how to best use Stealth checks for a campaign.

When it comes to Stealth, say of a Rogue*, would it be better to allow players to roll for their own Stealth skill check, or, for the DM to roll for them?

The hook is whether allowing players to roll for Stealth takes away the potential drama and infuluences their decisions.

SCENARIO: The party comes into what looks like an abandoned castle atop a hill. They enter the great hall and notice that on the floor there is fresh blood. The wind whistles through the broken rooftop. The party had heard back at the local tavern, the "Ditches & Riches", that rumours have it that there is an undead creature lurking in the hills and the ruins of the old castle. The party decides to investigate. The Rogue decides to go ahead and use their Stealth to find out what they might be dealing with. They make a plan: an ambush! They agree on an ambush point; the Rogue will find the undead and report back; they will then purposely make some noise to attract the undead and set the speedy Monk as bait to lure the undead into the ambush point.

The Rogue sets off to look for the undead creature...

  • First Option: The Rogue rolls for Stealth and after bonuses had a confident score of 28.
  • Second Option: The Rogue rolls badly and ends up with a miserly score of 12.
  • Third Option: The DM rolls for the Rogue and does not tell the player.

The implications here are different and it affects game-play. If the Rogue rolls a very high score for Stealth they will be confident about exploring the chambers around the main hall looking for this undead, maybe going a bit further afield from where the party are hiding even. If the Rogue's roll is dire, then they are likely to overly cautious just peak as they know that if the undead is powerful, their passive perception will likely reveal the Rogue's position and possibly could end up in death. If the DM rolls and does not declare the result, the Rogue will investigate regardless, but be aware that there is a chance of being discovered, so it could create a sense of intrigue and actual peril in the players.

DM strategy: My question is specifically about whether allowing players to roll their own Stealth checks takes away some of the potential fun in the game? How can you add a sense of intrigue and peril into the campaign when players are investigating an unknown area when they already know what their Stealth check was?

Please put on your DM hats on for this question.
Thank you.

(*) I used a Rogue in my question because Rogues tend to be the PCs that most often use/require Stealth checks, but this could apply to any class using Stealth.

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Don't let them roll until they're committed.

Okay. So they're going to scout around the castle stealthily. Don't have them roll for Stealth yet: they're just roleplaying!

When they get into a room where someone might spot them -- now have them roll Stealth. If they roll too low, they're already seen. If they roll high enough, they got away with it.

That said, it's important to be careful about the converse: giving away when there might be something else to spot them. The general cure to this is to have them roll Stealth when they commit to entering a new area -- maybe not for every room, but rather, "As you search this floor, you are spotted."

But in general: if you're concerned about players metagaming in this way, the solution isn't necessarily to have the DM roll in secret, but simply to postpone the roll until the consequences of failure would start to happen.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Absolutely all of this. If you're making a check to see if you get caught, and you fail the check, you must get caught. The simplest way to prevent any weaseling about the consequences is to apply them immediately after the failed check. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Jan 25 at 23:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Relevant quote from the hiding rules: "When you try to hide, make a Dexterity (Stealth) check. Until you are discovered or you stop hiding, that check's total is contested by the Wisdom (Perception) check of any creature that actively searches for signs of your presence." So ostensibly you should have to keep whatever you roll until something spots you... Or until you stop hiding, but I suppose that just leads back to this same dilemma of potentially changing your behavior based on the roll results. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 28 at 9:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast I believe that's for hiding, not stealth. Hiding requires a stealth check, but not all stealth is hiding. Although the sentiment of not forcing players to make a ton of rolls unnecessarily is valid. \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae Mar 20 at 8:42
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You only roll to resolve an action

The rogue can plan as much as they like: it’s only when they do something that they roll an Ability Check. It doesn’t matter if that action is instantaneous (like kicking open a door) or of extended duration (like creeping through a haunted house): one action, one check, one result.

For your example, when they “look for the undead creature” they roll their Dexterity (Stealth) and that determines the outcome. Either the undead detected them or it didn’t and the game moves on from there.

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This is really about allowing or dis-allowing metagaming

One of the comments above lists a number of previous questions that are very similar in nature, and they all circle around the idea of whether the player or the character should know the results of a die roll-- the physical act of picking up the die, rolling it, and reading the result-- if the results of the die roll are not obvious from the in-game description. And, closely-related, whether the player should be able to use that information.

I find these questions to be highly dependent on the situation, enough so that I cannot formulate a general rule but instead end up with a patchwork of guidelines. What it boils down to for me is: If the character doesn't know if he or she successfully snuck somewhere, they don't see the roll. But again, this depends on the situation:

  • Character climbed through the second story window of a 200 year old wooden building and has to get to the other end of the building. They have no idea if anyone is on the lower level and may not even realize that old buildings like that can transmit really loud creaks below that don't sound like much above.

  • Similar situation but with a newer concrete building, with flashing lights and sirens as a burglar alarm, if it is triggered.

  • Similar situation but observers were posted on a neighboring rooftop and saw them go in.

These are all very different situations and have different implications for the player seeing the roll. They are all very obvious (to me) in their implications, it's just that the number of variations is very very large. My policy therefore is:

I reserve all potentially obscure rolls (including all stealth) to myself.

My reasoning is thus:

  1. I don't want to make the player need to ignore any more information than necessary. Can good players firewall and not meta-game? Yes, but that doesn't mean it's easy or fun in all situations. Ignoring the fact that I rolled a 1 on stealth check is not fun for me, and I won't do that to a player if I don't have to.

  2. Once the information is out there, I can't take it back. Rather than misjudge, make a mistake, or dither about it, I just make those rolls myself if there's a hint of obscurity about it. I can always make it very clear in my description what the roll was if it is warranted.

  3. That said, I do reserve the right to include in my description a level of perceived confidence about the effort at my sole discretion as GM. But this is usually less about the quality of the roll, than it is about my intent for the challenge or the scene. Sometimes I as the GM don't want to deal with a player taking 20 minutes of game time to creep through a cemetery when I know there is nothing there, or that they made their roll.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @recognizer that's a fair point, and I thought about expanding on that, but it made a long answer even longer. It's also worth pointing out that while the question mentions a rogue, it is mechanically about stealth and there's nothing that prevents a hapless barbarian (say) from being in those situations. \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Jan 26 at 18:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Though I gave the example with about a Rogue (as they tend to use Stealth most), it's absolutely true other PCs use it too. I've now included that now. Thank you. \$\endgroup\$ – Orc's Plunder Jan 27 at 8:39
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Use a passive check

Ability checks are made when attempting a discrete task:

An ability check tests a character's or monster's innate talent and training in an effort to overcome a challenge. The DM calls for an ability check when a character or monster attempts an action (other than an attack) that has a chance of failure

Passive checks represent the result of doing the same check over and over again:

A passive check is a special kind of ability check that doesn't involve any die rolls. Such a check can represent the average result for a task done repeatedly, such as searching for secret doors over and over again, ...

The rogue is sneaking through a castle. Clearly this is too broad a scope to call it "an action". I would say this is actually a string of many "stealth actions", so it would be more appropriate to use a passive check.

When you arrive at a situation where things are different, or more important, call for a stealth check.

For example your rogue scales the wall (climb check), and enters the castle. From there on you are checking the rogue's passive stealth score. The rogue approaches a wide hall, some soldiers sit at the opposite end of the hall, chatting and drinking. The rogue declares they will move stealthily across the hall, roll stealth.

Players should make, and know the value of, their own dice rolls

A core part of D&D is players rolling dice. This means they physically pick up the dice, and make a roll. If you don't want to roll, use passive checks. Otherwise, let players know how well their PC did at a task.

Turns do not exist for PCs, ability scores do not exist for PCs, hp does not exist for PCs. However, all these things abstract the game world: turns abstract the passing of time, ability scores are physical and mental characteristic, hp is how much a creature can take before passing out. Yes, they are kind of rough, but we all know that someone with strength 20 will be real buff.

Dice rolls are exactly the same, if you roll a 28 something different happens to if you roll a 12. The dice rolls are abstracting the game world. The 28 means things went well, the 12 means things did not go well. Your PCs don't know about the 28 or 12, but they know if things went well or not.

If the rogue rolls 28, that doesn't mean they have been seen. That means they didn't scuff their feet or brushed past a curtain. They did good, they can be cavalier. But ultimately it's up to the observer to see if they can see the rogue.

Likewise, if the rogue rolls 12 that doesn't mean they failed. They messed up, they slipped as they went to dart behind a corner or stubbed their toe and wimpered. They are 100% justified in being more cautious. Again, ultimately it's up to the observers to see if they notice.

Keep in mind that a player rolling a low stealth score doesn't mean that searchers did a good job searching. Those are two separate issues.

If you roll the dice, you should tell the player what their character knows

If you roll the dice for your player you should tell the player how they did. If you roll a 28 you should make it clear to that player that they were really stealthy and they didn't make any mistakes. Likewise if you roll a 12, you should tell your players they messed up and were not that stealthy.

In the end, you are adding a second layer of obfuscation, rob your players of the fun of rolling their own dice, and not adding anything to the game. I highly recommend you do not do this. Even if you are exceptional at describing the game world, and your players are exceptional at interpreting your descriptions, the fact that players don't get to roll their beloved dice is reason enough not to do this.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I thought about adding that no matter your stealth score you will always leave some clues that can be noticed with high enough perception. A stealth score of 12 may mean you know you bumped a vase, perhaps you can fix that. But if the searcher rolls 30, then maybe they noticed your muddy footprints which you had no clue about. \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae Mar 19 at 6:26
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For most scenarios which involve short-term stealth checks I have employed delaying the roll until committed to an action. It is a great idea. Implemented - it works a treat!

For scenarios where they player wants to stay in Stealth for longer periods of time (e.g. staying in stealth and scouting ahead for the main party), I have implemented the following:

The Rogue (or PC) rolls their Stealth check with their eyes closed. They declare their bonuses. I then note down the final number, and off they go exploring/scouting.

This way the player has a more realistic balance between a sense of cautiousness and confidence as they know how good their stealth abilities are in general, e.g. if their average roll is 18, they can be relatively confident that a lot of creatures won't spot them, most of the time. This has allowed for less meta-gaming and re-introduced suspense.

Relevant quote from the hiding rules:

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

So ostensibly you should have to keep whatever you roll until something spots you... Or until you stop hiding.

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