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The relevant text for the class feature (as errata'd; I think the old version, which simply increased the range at which the sniper could sneak attack, is better if for no other reason than it doesn't invoke this question):

when the sniper makes an attack against a target who is within [range] and completely unaware of his presence

There are some obvious cases: if the target is asleep (and there are no extenuating factors), they're clearly "completely unaware" of the sniper's presence. Similarly, if the target is talking to the sniper, they are clearly aware of the sniper's presence.

As the GM, I will need to figure out how to handle the in-between cases; off the top of my head:

  • the target is aware of the party generally but not the sniper in particular - they heard the party fighting in the next room and are buffing or something
  • the target can see some of the party members but the sniper was able to hide from the target
  • the target is a shifter of some sort and has talked to the sniper in their persona as captain of the guard, but is now encountering the party in their persona as the head of the Evil Cult of Evil(tm); the shifter is invisible, magically silenced, incorporeal, flying, and hiding in shadows. The target is clearly aware of the sniper (they've talked in the past), but has no reason to think that the sniper is currently 15 feet behind them, Ghost Touch bow drawn.

The only other place in the SRD I've found with similar wording (and intentionality) is the Divine Fighting Technique Way of the Silent Shiv, which says

Whenever you attack an opponent that is completely unaware of your presence (such as when you are using the Stealth skill or invisible)

which makes me think I'm overthinking the sniper ability.

So, is it that simple: stealth vs. perception (with, eg., tremorsense trumping stealth), or are there other factors that need to be taken into account?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Answers may want to consider also the limitations of the assassin's death attack: "The death attack fails if the target detects the assassin or recognizes the assassin as an enemy…." \$\endgroup\$ Feb 12, 2021 at 16:02

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First, what is "completely unaware of his presence"?

This is pretty basic. As long as the target doesn't know that the sniper specifically is there, they are unaware of his presence. If the sniper can be seen, then obviously they know of his presence. If they saw the sniper recently, but he has since hidden, they still know he's there somewhere, but have lost track of his exact location. If the target hears the sniper make a noise of some sort (scuffing a boot on the floor, knocking over a box, whatever) without seeing him, they would be aware of his presence, thought they may not know it's his presence specifically.

The next thing to note is that the ability relies only on the targets knowledge of the snipers presence. It doesn't say "he and his parties presence", it says "his presence". So an enemy being aware that the party is there but not the sniper specifically still allows this to be used.

HeyICanChan made a comment noting that it may have a similarity to the Assassin's Death Attack ability, but Death Attack includes the clause 'or recognize as an enemy", which this feature lacks.


In regards to your examples:

the target is aware of the party generally but not the sniper in particular - they heard the party fighting in the next room and are buffing or something

This one could go either way. If the fighting stops, and the party bursts into the other room, if the sniper has taken the time to hide himself, whether by magic or by simply using stealth to hide, an argument could be made that the remaining members of the party could be assumed to be entirety of the cause of the commotion, while the sniper goes back to being undetected, which brings me to my answer on the second scenario.

the target can see some of the party members but the sniper was able to hide from the target

If the sniper is undetected, then they are still able to use their feature. Other members of the party being detected have no bearing in this case.

the target is a shifter of some sort and has talked to the sniper in their persona as captain of the guard, but is now encountering the party in their persona as the head of the Evil Cult of Evil(tm); the shifter is invisible, magically silenced, incorporeal, flying, and hiding in shadows. The target is clearly aware of the sniper (they've talked in the past), but has no reason to think that the sniper is currently 15 feet behind them, Ghost Touch bow drawn.

In your incredibly convoluted scenario, you've failed to realize that you've mixed up "aware of his presence" with "aware of his existence". "Presence" refers to the immediate vicinity, so the same clearing, on the same stretch of road, in one of the nearby rooms in the same building, and so on. So "aware of his presence" would mean "aware of the fact that the sniper is close by", not "aware that the sniper is on the same plane of existence".

The target (a shifter guard captain) is currently flying around with a plethora of buffs to make him harder to detect, and has met the sniper in the past, so the captain knows the sniper exists. But since the captain is unaware that the snipers presence 15' behind him, the sniper gains the benefits of his feature. The fact that the captain is a shifter, has met the sniper before, is invisible, incorporeal, or any other status, is irrelevant.


So in summary:

The only thing that matters is does the target know the sniper is there right now?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ (Actually, I was hoping if the target detects the assassin be used to establish what is meant by a target who is… completely unaware of [the attacker's] presence — that is, undetected by the potential target. The second part of the death attack ability, I agree, doesn't apply here; I included it in my comment for context.) \$\endgroup\$ Feb 12, 2021 at 21:13

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