On Reader Mail, A Hidden Thief

Ryan Latta writes in and says:

"I have a hard time imagining certain circumstances in a game where skills like Perception are [not used]."

He then asks some more specific questions, one of which we will be looking at today.

"1) A thief hides (With a successful secret roll). How can he be discovered? "

Anyone can hide.

Seriously. Anywhere.

"I hide in the barrel." or "I hide in the closet." or "I hide underneath the bed." There isn't a roll involved in these circumstances. Characters are just hidden.

Mechanically, two things are of note:
  1. The older editions of the game gave the ability of the thief to hide in shadows, effectively being able to hide in a darkened area where there was no place to hide.
  2. In the modern game hiding has more to do with the style of play and the assumptions of imminent combat. The contested hide roll is more about a mechanic for surprise rather than hiding. This is handled in older games with the strangely named "surprise roll".
How do we discover this thief?

If an NPC thief is hiding from a player: Then the thief is discovered when the player takes some action that reveals the thief. Depending on the specifics of the situation, the hiding thief may or may not receive a surprise action.
"I look in the room."
"You just see the bed and the dresser."
"I search the room starting over by the bed."
"You feel a stabbing pain, in your back, where the hidden thief put the knife."
versus
"I look in the room, shining my lantern around in all the corners"
"As you do, there in the corner, you see a cowled form, cowering in the darkness."
Why is this not pixel bitching? Because it sounds like pixel bitching.

It is because the game mechanics give a certain class a specific semi-supernatural ability to remain unseen. I am assuming that the players are doing due diligence when they enter a room, but unless they take specific action to counter a known special ability, then by virtue of having that special ability the creature overcomes that specific normal level of safe exploration.

Let's look at the same example using the normal and standard output of your traditional mill; a goblin. Once with him hiding under the bed, once with him hiding 'in the shadows'

Goblin hiding in the shadows
"I look in the room."
"You just see the bed and the dresser, and a short goblin pressing against the wall, hoping to remain unseen."
Goblin hiding under the bed
"I look in the room."
"You just see the bed and the dresser."
"I search the room starting over by the bed."
"Roll a d6" {calling for a standard surprise roll}
 If a PC thief is hiding from an NPC: The NPC should not discover the player, unless there are
exceptional circumstances.

  • If the NPC is not searching for the player, and the player hides in a specific place, then unless the NPC is there to go into that specific place then they will not be discovered. i.e. if a player hides in the closet, then unless the NPC is there to go into the closet, then the player will not be discovered. Any player. No chance.
  • If the NPC is not searching for the player, and the player is a thief who makes a successful hide in shadows roll, then unless the NPC is there to make the room as bright as the day, then the thief will not be discovered.
  • If the NPC is searching for the player, and they are not brain damaged, then they will check all obvious places (closets, beds, and the like). People of above-average intelligence will check non-obvious places, (dusting for invisibility, checking for reduced or duo-dimensional casters, eliminating all shadows). I would suggest restricting above-average to things like officers, vampires, mages, and the like, not simple guard captains. If they check somewhere the players are hiding, then the players will be discovered.
  • If the NPC is searching for the player, and the player is a thief who makes a successful hide in shadows roll, then unless the NPC is brilliant or tasked with the specific purpose of making the room as bright as the day, then the thief will not be discovered.


A good metric to use to is to ask the player if he agrees that the NPC searching that location is reasonable.

There are several mechanical concerns that make it fairly obvious that this should be the way things are handled.

First: It is difficult enough to make the roll in the first place. Why would you be looking for ways to negate a rarely used ability that is fun for the players to use?

Second: It creates one of two situations. Either they are successful at hiding and feel empowered and enjoy making the decision on when to get the drop on nearby opponents, or they will realize that they are going to be discovered and have to make a choice about what to do before they are discovered. It is extra fun for the players because they don't know which result they achieved.

I hope the discussion has been of some use, and let's look forward to answering more of Ryan's questions next week.

As always, feel free to submit questions to reader mail at "campbellNOSPAM AT oook DOTGOESHERE cz"



10 comments:

  1. My players primarily come from a background in 3-3.5/pathfinder background in D&D, and the way they use Hide in Shadows is a bit different from the way being described above. Generally, their intent is not to lie in wait for someone to approach them (NPC as actor), but instead to sneak through shadows TOWARD a foe, catching them unawares for a backstab (PC as actor).

    This has caused some problems for me as a DM, since there are a lot of factors involved here that are changing from moment to moment. Which direction is the NPC looking? Is torchlight dark enough? Does one need to be behind an object? If I say "No, you can't hide", the PCs feel cheated, if I tell them they can roll, the ability becomes a sort of constant-use automatic critical-hit ability. My current thief uses the Stealth skill at least 2 or 3 times a session to try to gain sneak attacks, so much so that it's starting to feel gimmicky.

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  2. Sorry, that last sentence should read "One of my player's current thief..."

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  3. I am having a similar problem as Giordanisti. I want them to be able to use their backstab and stealth - my players chose to play thieves so they could use those abilities. But it does end up becoming vague when trying to determine if they are ables to approach an enemy without being seen. I feel bad about not having a technique that is more consistent instead of handling things differently during each circumstance.

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  4. I should point out that I am running a 1e style game, not 3.5.

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  5. I am having a similar problem as Giordanisti. I want them to be able to use their backstab and stealth - my players chose to play thieves so they could use those abilities. But it does end up becoming vague when trying to determine if they are ables to approach an enemy without being seen. I feel bad about not having a technique that is more consistent instead of handling things differently during each circumstance.

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  6. This is a bit different from how I handle stealth, but I've pretty much got the same elements at work in my OD&D game.

    I do standard hiding as you do, but I combine move silently and hide-in-shadows into a single roll with three levels of success.

    Failure occurs when you are a non-thief and you fail the check by rolling a 17 or lower on a d20 (does not improve for non-thieves). This level of failure means to do something which alerts those you're trying to avoid.

    If a non-thief succeeds (by rolling an 18, 19, or 20) or a thief fails (by rolling under their current "thief check" number on a d20) then they are hiding in shadows and/or moving silently to an adequate degree. However, any foes who come close are entitled to a 1-in-3 perception check to spot them.

    If a thief succeeds in moving silently or hiding in shadows, then they are un-seeable until they reveal themselves (either intentionally, or through foolish action).

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  7. Stealth shouldn't be an invisibility cloak. If you're hiding behind the bookcase, and the detective checks behind the bookcase - I'm sorry but you've been found.

    I wonder though how you handle this -C? You seem to be championing a fiction-follows narrative in some more recent posts to this one, so if someone passes that hide check, are they hidden, period? And if I look behind that bookcase, since you PASSED your check, and we're doing fiction second, do I fail to find you because you never had to say HOW you were hiding, so maybe instead you were somewhere else after all?

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    Replies
    1. I think I made how I handle attempting to hide very clear in the above post? I think all of your questions are answered in the text of the post.

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  8. Maybe so, I just had some trouble parsing it out.

    It sounds like you let the thief use a fiction-follows mechanic, because the thief has the hide-in-shadows skill. Everyone else is stuck with a fiction first mechanic, because they don't have a skill they can pass that lets them use a fiction-follows result.

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    Replies
    1. It's a supernatural power. The thief is unseeable in shadows. They can't hide in plain sight, but if successful, they have the ability to remain unseen in a shadow - the only defense being an NPC taking pains to eliminate the shadow.

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