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When we run skill contests, especially Stealth contested by Perception, we sometimes struggle to work out whether to apply advantage to one skill or disadvantage to the other. It matters for two reasons:

  • multiple advantages and disadvantages don't stack for any single skill check
  • advantage and disadvantage cancel each other out

An example may serve to illustrate:


Example

The dwarven fighter became separated from the rest of the party and was stuck in a long dark tunnel with three human cultists bearing down on her; they were carrying lights but she was still in darkness. She made a Stealth check to hide from them because she wanted to shoot at them with advantage. Here's how I ruled advantage and disadvantage would stack up on the respective Stealth and Perception checks:

  • The fighter's Stealth check had advantage owing to being heavily obscured in the darkness
  • The fighter's Stealth check had advantage due to her boots of elvenkind
  • The fighter's Stealth check had disadvantage due to her armour
  • The fighter made a standard Stealth check because the advantage and disadvantage cancelled out; the second advantage did not come into play
  • The cultists' Perception check had advantage because they had already been attacked by the fighter, they knew she was hiding in the darkness up ahead of them, and they expected further attacks to come from that direction.
  • The net result was that a standard Stealth check was contested by an advantaged Perception check.

Reviewing the PHB rules on Light and Vision afterwards, I realised I should have made the heavy obscurement into a disadvantage for the cultists. That would have changed the skill contest as follows:

  • The advantage to the fighter's Stealth check granted by being heavily obscured would have become a disadvantage to the cultists' Perception check.
  • The fighter would still have made a standard Stealth check because she would still have had advantage and disadvantage, which would cancel out
  • The cultists' Perception check would have had disadvantage because the fighter was heavily obscured from them
  • The cultists would now have made a standard Perception check because their existing advantage would have been cancelled out by the new source of disadvantage
  • The net result would then have been: a standard Stealth check was contested by a standard Perception check.

I'd given the cultists an unwarranted leg-up.


So the question is, for the factors that affect the Stealth vs Perception skill contest, which do you apply to the Stealth check, and which do you apply to the Perception check?

Your reply should address some or all of the following factors, saying which check each applies to, and why:

  • movement of the stealthing or perceiving creature
  • obscurement
  • cover
  • camouflage
  • attention or distraction of perceiving creature
  • ambient light, noise or smell
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    \$\begingroup\$ OK, so I realise that my question conflates two things: • An observation that there are consequences to applying advantage and disadvantage to contested skill checks that may not be immediately apparent, to the extent that advantage and disadvantage can stack depending on which skill check they're applied to. • An exploration of how to apply factors that grant advantage or disadvantage to the two skill checks in a Stealth vs Perception contest: specifically determining which skill a particular factor applies to. I'm sorry to respondents for not being clearer about this. I'll clarify. \$\endgroup\$ – Clearly Toughpick Jan 18 '17 at 8:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ I upvoted this question for two reasons: (1) that you took the trouble to examine in detail what had gone on mechanically during that encounter, and (2) because your problem statement gave me enough to understand the question thoroughly. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Aug 10 '17 at 13:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ You actually gave the cultists a double leg up since you do not get advantage just because you can guess someone's general area. I'm not really sure what this question is asking. If you want to know if you should apply advantage/disadvantage to stealth/perception then just read the rules. The rules say "dim light imposes disadvantage on sight-based perception checks", isn't that cut and dry? Are you asking for all possible advantage/disadvantage on stealth/perception to be enumerated? \$\endgroup\$ – user-024673 Jan 13 '20 at 5:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @gszavae 'Are you asking for all possible advantage/disadvantage on stealth/perception to be enumerated?' - I guess the answer to this is 'yes'. In particular, which check - Stealth or Perception - does a particular circumstance apply to? \$\endgroup\$ – Clearly Toughpick Jun 4 '20 at 6:03
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This is not something that has a definitively right or wrong answer, however, the choice does have mechanical effects. Because disadvantage cancels any number of advantages (and vice-versa) piling them all on one roll or the other gives a different outcome than if you split them between the rolls.

For your example, the second is more right than the first but only because dim light specifically imposes disadvantage to Perception checks as it is a "lightly obscured" area (PHB p.183).

In general, when considering advantage/disadvantage situations consider who is advantaged or disadvantaged - the effect should apply to their roll or passive check.

For the situations in your example, this is how I think about it (which does not mean it is right or the way you or anyone else should think about it):

  • Being heavily obscured - being unable to be seen (or seen clearly) is a prerequisite to hiding and provides neither advantage nor disadvantage to Stealth. It does, however, provide disadvantage on Perception (both lightly and heavily obscured do this)

  • Boots of Elvenkind - gives advantage to Stealth because they say they do

  • Heavy armor - gives disadvantage to Stealth because they say they do

  • Knowledge of the Fighter's presence - to me, this doesn't suggest advantage: I've played hide and seek and knowing that there are people out there to find doesn't really make it easier to find them. Knowing that she is there allows the pursuers to spend an action to make an active Perception check rather than relying on their passive Perception - you get passive Perception for free but active Perception costs you. Remember, succeeding on a Perception check means you know exactly where the person is: it doesn't necessarily mean you can see them - you may have located them be smell, or hearing, or touch, or (in truly exception circumstances) taste - Invisible creatures can be Perceived!

    As an aside, if they are using their action to Dash rather than Search, this may warrant disadvantage on their passive Perception (and they can't make an active check) as they are hurrying by too swiftly to take proper stock of their surroundings. This gives pursuers a nice dilemma - if their quarry is hiding they want to go slower and look for them but if their quarry is running then they want to run too - you pay your money and you take your chances.

For me this gives a Stealth check with advantage cancelling disadvantage and a Perception check with disadvantage: either -5 on a passive check or roll twice take lowest on an active check and they only get their active check if they spend an action to Search.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "It does, however, provide disadvantage on Perception (both lightly and heavily obscured do this)" - technically, being heavily obscured means "A creature effectively suffers from the blinded condition when trying to see something in that area." And the blinded condition says: "A blinded creature can't see and automatically fails any ability check that requires sight." So rather than disadvantage, you fail any Perception check related to sight automatically if you try to see into a heavily obscured area. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Dec 1 '18 at 0:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast detecting a creature in the dark doesn’t “require sight” - it requires hearing, scent and touch. Particularly touch, I’m really good at finding the corner of my bed with my toes, after which anyone who can hear can find me. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Dec 1 '18 at 4:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ By that logic, though, visual obscuration then has no effect on Perception checks made to find creatures via non-visual means. "Lightly obscured" only imposes disadvantage on Perception checks that rely on sight. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Dec 1 '18 at 5:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ Being lightly or heavily obscured does not impose disadvantage on perception to locate a hiding creature because this perception check is not "sight based". It requires hearing, and any other senses. Being lightly or heavily obscured does however allow you to hide in the first place. \$\endgroup\$ – user-024673 Dec 16 '19 at 8:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JonAristotle disadvantage on a passive check is -5 \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Feb 10 at 7:47
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Having given this some thought, and after reviewing the other answers, here's my take.

When advantage and disadvantage might apply to Stealth checks

  • movement by a hiding creature - keeping still might grant advantage on its Stealth check, moving slowly might have no effect, moving at normal speed or faster might impose disadvantage.
  • camouflage - normally grants advantage if it matches the environment.
  • being inherently conspicuous - giving off or bearing light, or being or wearing something noisy will impose disadvantage or preclude you from being stealthy. Consider a cat wearing a bell, a cleric in full plate, or a commoner lighting her way with a candle.

When advantage and disadvantage might apply to Perception checks

  • obscurement and cover from the perceiving creature - separately or in combination these may impose disadvantage, possibly with extra penalties. They apply to Perception checks because they are always relative to the perceiving creature, for example a hobgoblin in an area of dim light is lightly obscured from a human but not from a dwarf, owing to the dwarf's darkvision.
  • movement of the perceiving creature - consider whether being still or moving fast affect Perception checks with advantage and disadvantage respectively.
  • physical impediments to perception can affect senses such as hearing and smell. Consider the difference between a PC hiding behind a large wardrobe, or behind a closed door in the neighbouring room: one will be easier for a wolf to sniff out than the other. Watching or listening to a conversation is easier when you are in the same room rather than having to press your eye or ear to the keyhole of a door. Some sorts of obscurement might also acts as physical impediments: dense fog, thick vegetation and heavily falling snow can all mute sound and smell.
  • attention and distraction might grant advantage or impose disadvantage respectively. An example of attention is seeing a goblin hide behind a tree, such that you are pretty certain you know where the goblin is. You are attending to the goblin's position, which makes it easier to find it again. This usage has been set out by both Jeremy Crawford and Mike Mearls (but they impose disadvantage on the Stealth check rather than advantage on the Perception check).

This discussion has crept beyond the original scope of the contest between Stealth and Perception - what with watching conversations through doors, and all - but I think the factors set out here still apply to these skills in isolation, as well as in contest.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ There are no rules that say that moving/not moving affect Stealth checks. Hide is an /action/, you are never moving while you attempt to hide. It is practically impossible. \$\endgroup\$ – user-024673 Dec 16 '19 at 8:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ " a rogue in an area of dim light is lightly obscured from a human but not from a dwarf, owing to the dwarf's darkvision." This is NOT true. Darkvision behaves as if darkness is dim light: "Within a specified range, a creature with darkvision can see in darkness as if the darkness were dim light, so areas of darkness are only lightly obscured as far as that creature is concerned." Both have disadvantage. \$\endgroup\$ – user-024673 Dec 16 '19 at 8:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @user-024673 Outside of combat, Travel Pace affects whether or not you can make a Stealth check, but does not affect the roll. \$\endgroup\$ – Wyrmwood Feb 10 at 4:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user-024673 as you correctly quoted, the rogue is in dim light not in darkness. In dim light a creature with darkvision can see as if in bright light, so the dwarf does not have disadvantage \$\endgroup\$ – findusl Feb 10 at 14:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user-024673 why do you think it is impossible to hide while moving? I don't see that in the rules and I can totally see creatures hiding while moving. They just have to stay obscured the whole time, if you become clearly visible you can no longer hide. \$\endgroup\$ – findusl Feb 10 at 14:56
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It seems like you answered your own question. I could see resolving this in one of two ways.

Be more familiar with the rules

I'm not trying to sound rude, but all it came down to was that there were rules that you didn't remember. If it's important to you, possibly make a cheat sheet especially for Perception/Stealth to keep with you.

Roll all Perception/Stealth contests without Advantage/Disadvantage

(unless either side has a clear, uninhibited advantage/disadvantage.)

Each side of a contested roll is likely to have its own advantage(s) and disadvantage(s). However, there is a rule

If circumstances cause a roll to have both advantage and disadvantage, you are considered to have neither of them, and you roll one d20. This is true even if multiple circumstances impose disadvantage and only one grants advantage or vice versa. In such a situation, you have neither advantage nor disadvantage.

Therefore, if you are ever in a situation where you are going through multiples, you could summarize it as saying both sides of both and therefore roll a single d20.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm downvoting this answer because it's too simplistic. In contested skill checks, advantage and disadvantage actually can stack depending on whether you decide a given factor should give advantage to one side or disadvantage to another. In my example, switching heavy obscurement from advantage on one side to disadvantage on the other changed the way they stack. \$\endgroup\$ – Clearly Toughpick Jan 18 '17 at 7:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ I was referring to "If circumstances cause a roll to have both advantage and disadvantage, you are considered to have neither of them, and you roll one d20. This is true even if multiple circumstances impose disadvantage and only one grants advantage or vice versa. In such a situation, you have neither advantage nor disadvantage. " dandwiki.com/wiki/5e_SRD:Advantage_and_Disadvantage (3rd paragraph) \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Jan 18 '17 at 12:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ My argument is that in a complex perception situation, there are SO MANY ways to cause advantage and disadvantage that you it would not be unfounded to assume that there is at least one of each. That being said, that was my backup answer. There's still the idea that a cheat sheet could help in the future because all the 'normal' modifiers are going to be by the rules that you've already found. \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Jan 18 '17 at 12:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's true that I gave the example of how obscurement applies to Perception (and not Stealth) from the book, but I was keen to consider how other factors might affect the Perception vs Stealth contest. And it's legitimate to answer my own question: if I've wondered about it, then others may have too. \$\endgroup\$ – Clearly Toughpick Jan 21 '17 at 16:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's still not stacking, that's 2 different rolls which is a different case than described. In your example, unless the enemy had a disadvantage, or you also had an advantage, then you're right about how you would roll. But if you're humming the pink panther theme while wearing camoflage, and the guard saw you run down the hall a moment ago, but doesn't have darkvision and the hallway isn't lit, then you would both roll 1d20. \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Apr 12 '19 at 21:40
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There are very few rules with respect to hiding in 5e.

From Surprise:

The DM determines who might be surprised. If neither side tries to be stealthy, they automatically notice each other. Otherwise, the DM compares the Dexterity (Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of each creature on the opposing side. Any character or monster that doesn't notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter.

From Unseen Attackers and Targets:

...you're targeting a creature you can hear but not see... If you are hidden--both unseen and unheard...

You can be unnoticed, both unseen and unheard. Not noticing a threat is required to be surprised.

You can be unseen and and the enemy does not know your location, but the enemy can be aware of your presence. This can happen if your enemy has the Alert feat, or a Weapon of Warning or DM ruling. Not knowing an enemy’s location means you have to guess the location if you want to make an attack.

You can be unseen, but the enemy knows your location. Unseen means the target suffers the penalties of being blinded, but only with respect to attacks or checks against or from the unseen attacker.

Some creatures have other senses (tremorsense, blindsight, truevision or even a wolf's advantage on Perception checks that rely on smell), so "seen" may not always be visual.

Outside of combat, whether you can attempt to hide depends on your Travel Pace.

In your example, the dwarf is in absence of light, and the cultists have normal vision.

A heavily obscured area--such as darkness, opaque fog, or dense foliage--blocks vision entirely. A creature effectively suffers from the blinded condition when trying to see something in that area.

Assuming combat has not started yet, you need to determine surprise and establish positions.

  • The fighter's Stealth check had advantage owing to being heavily obscured in the darkness

Heavy obscurity means the cultists are effectively blinded when trying to see something in that area, so you still need to make a check for surprise (to see if they notice the dwarf), but otherwise there is no advantage, except by DM discretion/fiat.

  • The fighter's Stealth check had advantage due to her boots of elvenkind
  • The fighter's Stealth check had disadvantage due to her armour

Since

If circumstances cause a roll to have both advantage and disadvantage, you are considered to have neither of them

The fighter's Stealth check is normal.

  • The cultists' Perception check had advantage because they had already been attacked by the fighter, they knew she was hiding in the darkness up ahead of them, and they expected further attacks to come from that direction.

The fighter is not in dim light, so the cultists do not have disadvantage, however, they are effectively blinded and will not be able to "see" the dwarf, but may notice the dwarf, allowing them not to be surprised. Allowing them advantage because they had been attacked by him before is DM discretion/fiat, otherwise, nothing grants that.

  • The advantage to the fighter's Stealth check granted by being heavily obscured would have become a disadvantage to the cultists' Perception check.

No. On opposed checks, a source of advantage or disadvantage is only with respect to the one making the check. If a PC has Advantage and the NPC has Disadvantage, they do not cancel out or affect each others checks.

Both participants in a contest make ability checks appropriate to their efforts. They apply all appropriate bonuses and penalties, but instead of comparing the total to a DC, they compare the totals of their two checks.

  • The fighter would still have made a standard Stealth check because she would still have had advantage and disadvantage, which would cancel out

Yes, but because of Disadvantage from armor and Advantage from the boots, and whatever other circumstances the DM warrants. The cultist's circumstance on their Perception check has no effect on the fighter's Stealth check.

  • The cultists' Perception check would have had disadvantage because the fighter was heavily obscured from them

No. But they cannot see him in any case. At this point, we're just determining surprise.

You did not say what kind of light the cultists were carrying, but if they were torches, they would be able to see 40' in dim light and the dwarf's darkvision allows him to see 60' as if it was dim light. But since they are in bright light, he can see them without a Perception check within Line of Sight. (He can see them clearly).

After rolling initiative, the question would be are they aware of the dwarf? If not they would not be able to act in the first round. In either case, the dwarf's first attack would most likely be at advantage, as they are effectively blinded, and if they guess correctly the dwarf's location, attacks against him would be at disadvantage. If they do not close with the dwarf, that may remain to be the case, but it all depends on how the combat plays out, whether the dwarf keeps moving, etc.

However, since,

when you make an attack, you give away your location when the attack hits or misses.

They would no longer have to guess which square.

If they get within 40' of the dwarf, they can attempt a Perception check, at disadvantage. If they come within 20', he'll be in bright light and obviate hiding.

All the Perception checks are passive, unless you use an action.

There are two errata that may impact how this is understood, especially if using an older Player's Handbook.

Hiding (p. 177). The following sentence has been added to the beginning of this section: “The DM decides when circumstances are appropriate for hiding.” The first sentence of the second paragraph now begins, “You can’t hide from a creature that can see you clearly ...”

Vision and Light (p. 183). The second sentence of the third paragraph has been changed to “A creature effectively suffers from the blinded condition (see appendix A) when trying to see something in that area.”

It wasn't clear from the post, but if on his turn, after engaging with the cultists, the dwarf fled down the hall, and the cultists followed on their turn(s), then surprise may not be warranted as combat has already started. In any case, they would not have a chance to "see" the dwarf until they approached within 40'. Given a long enough hallway, the dwarf may be able to keep them in line of sight and continue moving, making successive attacks at advantage. A cultist might throw their torch, dash, or even cast a light spell on a coin and throw it.

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In this specific case (perception against stealth) I would employ a very simple distinction: Anything advantage/disadvantage that would also apply to someone spotting a hidden object (stashed loot, secret door etc.) should go to perception. Anything that I would instead use to determine DC under those circumstances goes to stealth.

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