That Cloak & Dagger Stuff

It’s fair to say that D&D 5th edition is not my personal dream game. But it’s a system that I feel confident I can work with and that has a lot of things going for it, and there are several reasons why I want to pick it up again after the fantastic campaign I ran a year ago. But one of the main areas where my feelings about it are the most ambivalent are the skills, particularly the skills typical for thieves. I already wrote a bit about opening locks and disarming traps in my last post, before I was so suddenly and rudely interrupted by getting a job offer, starting immediately.

Another skill that didn’t sit quite right with me the first time I worked myself through the rules was Stealth. Not because the rules seemed outright nonsensical, but because they contain some implications I found odd, and don’t elaborate any further on it. The main oddity is that using Stealth to hide is specifically given as one of the actions you can do on your turn in combat. Not taking an action to use a skill. Specifically hiding, and only hiding. What does that even mean to hide in combat, as your action for the round?

Even though I would personally make the rules of D&D quite different than they are in many places, I try to at least stick to the letters of the Player’s Handbook, to accomodate players coming to the campaign familiar with the rules. Especially when running open table campaigns where strangers are invited to join in without much required preparation. But even then, the “No Stupid” Rule takes precedent in my campaigns. Any application of the rules that would result in a clearly nonsensical outcome for the situation and context is invalid and gets overriden by common sense. And as GM, I’m gonna be the judge on what is reasonably fantastical or straight up nonsensical.

Using your Stealth skill do disappear from an enemy’s perception in the place where you stand would of course be nonsensical. Hiding behind the curtain while an enemy sees you getting behind the curtain would also be nonsensical. So would be running behind a stack of crates and enemies losing track of where you are. The rules spell out that you can’t hide from an enemy that can see you. This rules out the first example. But the other two examples both break line of sight, and so you’re no longer “seen” specifically. But if an enemy sees you move into your hiding place, and you’re stuck in the place where you were seen disappearing, getting the status of being hidden still seems nonsensical. And what are you actually doing with your action if moving to a position that breaks line of sight is already covered by your movement, which is separete from your action in each round?

Now after a long preamble, here’s my approach to how hiding in combat shpuld work: To hide from enemy combatants, you first need to break line of sight. All it takes for that is to move to a space where you can not be seen by the enemies. This can be running into another room, around a corner, or a large stack of crates, for example. At this point, you’re not being seen, but you’re not hidden. As soon as an enemy moves around the obstacle that breaks line of sight, you’re being seen again. But for the duration while you are not being seen, you can move into a specific hiding place and conceal yourself as an action. Pulling away a curtain and draping it over you could be an action. Crawling under a bad could be an action. Jumping into a pile of leaves and covering up your parts that stick out could be an action. That’s where you make your hiding check. Or your Dexterity (Stealth) check. If now an enemy comes into the room after seeing you run through the door, you are now hidden and the enemy has to start searching the room. And while the enemy is leaning down to check under the bed first, you can jump out from behind the curtain to strike.

Now what does that mean for combat? With this ruling, the tactic of disappearing every round by hiding and rejoining the fight with advantage and sneak attack damage simply does not work. Some players might expect it to, but that’s where I’d put my foot down as the GM and enforce No Stupid! Which in 5th edition isn’t even a big deal, as all you need to sneak attack is to target an enemy that is in combat with one of your allies. And how often is a PC fighting alone anyway. (Though admittedly, rogues are the most likely to end up in that situation.)

Which also brings up the question of how you can make a Sneak Attack from hiding if you can’t be hidden while you’re visible? As soon as you step out of your hiding place, you’re no longer hidden and don’t gain the advantage you need to Sneak Attack. Strictly speaking that limits the options to making ranged attacks while remaining concealed, but that seems to be quite unlikely to be the writers’ intention. My ruling on this would be that you gain the benefits from attacking from hiding for any attacks you make on the same turn as you come out of hiding. If you can close the distance between your hoding spot and your target and make an attack as part of the same turn, I count this as attacking from hiding. The target may see you as you make the attack, but it comes so suddenly that there’s no time to properly react to it before the target’s turn. (Unless the target has a special ability that grants it a reaction, like Parry.)

Does this make rogues weaker than many players would expect? Probably. But it’s also not overriding any actual spelled out rule. It only fills in the gaps left by the rules with interpreatatons that prioritize common sense over tactical skirmish gaming.

Thieves’ Tools and Fast Hands

Fast Hands

Starting at 3rd level, you can use the bonus action granted by your Cunning Action to make a Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check, use your thieves’ tools to disarm a trap or open a lock, or take the Use an Object action.

This main feature of the rogue class’ Thief specialization is frankly ridiculous. I’ve seen some good lockpickers open locks incredibly fast. Yes, it is possible to open a lock in one second. If it’s a modern lock with standardized parts and fixed tolerances, that has a certain design flaw, you already identified the lock as having that design flaw, and you are in position to start, with your tool in hand. Then it might work in a second on first try. Might also take a couple of tries. But in the middle of a chase or a fight? When you first have to get out your tools from your pack and take a moment to examine the lock that is custom made, one in a kind, prone to rusting and getting dirt in? Yeah, no. Not gonna happen.

However, Fast Hands is the main ability of the Thief, and simply scrapping half of its effects seems overly drastic. I think the idea to make a Slight of Hand skill check or the Use an Object action without stopping in what you’re currently doing is actually really cool. But not that lockpicking and trap disarming thing. That is just silly.

Here is my proposed fix for the campaign I am currently planning:

By default, using Thieves’ Tools to pick a lock or disarm a trap takes 1 minute. (Or one exploration turn, if you’re using the old B/X 10-minute turns to track time in dungeons, as I plan to.) The Fast Hand ability allows a thief to attempt the skill check as a regular action in one round, but that check is made at a disadvantage.

This should result in events that are much more sane. But it also makes this aspect of Fast Hand continue to be very useful and a big boost to thieves over other characters who are proficient with Thieves’ Tools. It makes retreating from a fight through a locked door, or getting a door open before an approaching patrol comes around the corner an option that the party otherwise would not have. (Other than just trying to smash the door.) And it also means that it can be preferable for the thief to make the attempt properly and not rushed if there are consequences for failure.