On sneaking

Once upon a time, I used to play a lot of plate-mailed dwarf clerics, but now I usually play a quick-maneuvering, lightly-armored hero. I think I’ve been influenced a lot by video games where you can sneak around and take out enemies before they know you are there.  And being stealthy helps when pulling a heist, as I described last week.

Having a sneaky party is great, but sometimes you just don’t have a stealthy PC. What should you heavily armored Goliath warlord do? Should he stay home? No, not if he wants XP.

Back in November, Mike Mearls posted a great sneaking skill challenge in Dungeon magazine. While he gave some skills for non-Rogues such as Nature, Athletics, or Arcana, using those well bolsters further Sneak checks but do not negate the need for stealth.

There’s not much that can be done if the situation does call for stealth and you have none. However I made four Don’ts and Dos for a party with one or members sneaking around in plate mail.

  1. Don’t split the party. It may be tempting to send the two sneaks up ahead at least 40 to 60 squares. In theory they can go up ahead and take out the guards silently, disable an alarm system, or otherwise neutralize the others’ chance of detection. In my experience this never works out well. The DM should know this plan with enough time to plan to put low-level minions on guard duty, where the players have a reasonable chance of taking them out in a single surprise round. I have yet to see this happen: either there isn’t enough time in surprise to get rid of everybody and the alarm is sounded anyway, or the monsters have enough defenses and hit points to withstand a sneak assault. This means that that the lightly-armored dudes are taking some serious hits in the 3-5 rounds it takes for the rest of the party to run to their rescue.
  2. Don’t move. Success at stealth relies on movement. Move more than a certain number of squares in a round and you start taking penalties. If you stand still, you get a bonus. Hopefully in this case you have someone with a high perception leading the party from shadow-to-shadow or wall-to-wall. If you think you might have attracted notice (rolled poorly) or detect some movement from the guards (the higher perception person hears “did you hear something Frank?” from guard to another), you can just duck behind something and not move for a few rounds until the guards go back to their dice game. This will probably only work a few times before even thickest guards get suspicious, but its better than just storming on through.
  3. Do Distract. Con artists and real life magicians use misdirection to fool their marks. You can’t see what the right hand is doing if you’re focused on the left. You can abandon sneaking altogether if the guards are otherwise occupied. As I mentioned in my heist post, a good old riot out on the streets will set some guards running and block the sounds of battle when you take out the token defense left behind. You can pray on the guards’ sympathies by having someone conveniently get violently ill in front of them. While the guards are helping out the sick guy, everyone can just run behind them, no matter how noisy.
  4. Do Go for it. No matter how not sneaky you are, there’s a 50% chance you’ll roll higher than a 10, and a 25% chance of beating 15. If you can stack on a few magical items or situational bonuses it may just be enough to take the risk. After all, you can only advance the plot by doing something.

Even if everything fails, it doesn’t mean immediate death. If you alert the guards then you’ll probably have to fight your way through them instead (aren’t you glad you didn’t split the party?). Should the guards be too powerful, then you’ll get caught. This has two advantages. (1)  the “escape from jail” skill challenge is fun and gets to test skills in unique ways. And (2), once you escape you should be closer to your goal and the guard’s won’t be on the lookout for you.

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