Dealing With Stealthy PCs

A reader’s comment on team cooperation reminded me of a
constant obstacle to team play in my games: stealth.

In my first D&D group, we had two characters (a rogue and a
monk) who were excellent at stealth, while everyone else
wasn’t. Rogue & Monk would always go spying or looting by
themselves, refusing to take the rest of us because we
“would just screw up their chances”. The worst recon mission
separated them from us for two sessions; they got to do all
the fun stuff while we were stuck beating up random monsters
and waiting for them to return.

After that, I joined a Hackmaster group. Although stealth
hasn’t split up our party, it’s still dangerous. Our 5th-
level rogue died at the hands of the enemy because he went
scouting without backup. If someone was watching his back,
he wouldn’t be maggot food.

I need suggestions on how unstealthy characters can
accompany, escort, or watch stealthy characters on their
runs, keeping us non-stealthy types involved with the game
and giving the sneaky types the advantage of backup if
(when) things go bad.


1. From: Redwing
In RPGs, stealth is a talent awarded to a class at the cost
of another ability. In D&D, the rogue gains stealth but
loses fighter type combat skills. The key is that granting
stealth must be moderated for game balance. Otherwise, why
would anyone take the rogue class if all the other classes
had stealth. Of course there are ways to grant stealth to
adventurers who are not inherently stealthy.

As a player, you can use magic, technology, or even
innovative ideas (like inserting padding between armor
plates and suffering a movement penalty or purchasing
specially designed clothing) to gain stealth. Here is where
it is important for the party members to assist each other.
Most campaigns I see, the players place all their
enhancements on a single character and that party member is
solely responsible for success. I suspect that is
what is happening based on what you described about how when
rogue goes solo and encounters problems, they are trapped
far from the party. You can try to have the party work
together with stealth, but there are usually costs
associated, like the fighter and cleric stripping off their
armor or the rogue surrendering those items that boosts
his/her own stealth skills.

As a game master, many more options become available. Magic
or technology that allows the members to remain in constant
communication or even allow instantaneous movement to the
combat site would be of great aid to the solo scout in
trouble. Additionally, devices or items that provide a
fixed stealth bonus can be introduced. The rogue character
will already be more skilled than the item, so they will
pass it to another party member. Or, you may just provide
environments where stealth can be more easily achieved, like
in a noisy location that has numerous shadows available.


2. From: Noah
I can think of three distinct ways about this.

If the group can take things slowly (and most characters
have Move Silently or a similar skill of at least one point
because untrained rolls suck) then the whole party should
move at 1/4 or 1/8 or whatever speed is lowest so they can
maximize the stealth of the whole group. The rogue would
lead by about 30′ or more depending on circumstances, and
any opponent that may hear the group may underestimate it’s
forces by only hearing those who aren’t so stealthy.

The second option is to give every non-stealth character
some item, magic or otherwise, that will improve their
stealthiness. This way the entire group can follow at a
reasonable distance. A variation would be to give the most
effective backup person, a fighter or magic user depending
on the party, all of the stealth items. Another variation
would depend on non-stealth members of the party having
varying levels of stealth items so that each member follows
at a certain distance behind the rogue depending on their
modified ability.

The third option would be a complete turn around. Why send
the rogue ahead to be killed alone? Why not keep the whole
group together but trick any potential enemies into
believing it’s just a bunch of brutes. To do this just get
the stealth characters rings of invisibility (or even
better, a ring of greater invisibility, just 52,000 gp) and
allow him to do his thing around the party while the party
as a whole moves at a reasonable/cautious pace. This has a
nice side effect, especially if the ability is Greater
Invisibility, of allowing any invisible character with sneak
attack to deal extra damage again and again. This is
enhanced if the character also has the Combat Reflexes feat.
This is somewhat of a reversal since it focuses more on the
stealth characters becoming killers along with the fighter
characters, but it allows the whole party to be able to back
up the rogues and monks when they are searching. Although
it does detract from all out scouting.


3. From: Joachim de Ravenbel
I usually GM stealth as a group skill, the proficient
characters supplying their knowledge to the other.

You can see it that way : as long as a non-stealthy
character is in range (say 10 feet), he can benefit from the
proficient character (50% to 100% skill ranks or whatever),
duplicating the other movements and stances. Once he is out
of range, he doesn’t benefit anymore from it, i.e. he
doesn’t learn from imitating in a tense situation (which
should be the case in stealth).


4. From: Tyler
In Issue 230 someone asked how to incorporate stealthy
characters into the party without separating them.

The answer is to use modern recce techniques. Namely, have
the brawn of the party trailing a safe distance from the
stealth characters. That way, if there is trouble, the brawn
can move up to support the stealth, while the stealth
characters made sure there are no ambushes or enemies
lurking (the whole point of recce)

So, you could have your Rogue sneaking through the woods,
with the Paladin, Barbarian and Cleric stumbling along a
distance behind.

The Rogue discovers a group of Trolls laughing and talking
around a campfire. He doubles back, brings the rest of the
party and they wait in hiding in the trees near the
campfire. The rogue says, give me 3 minutes, sneaks around
to the other end of the campfire. The party charges in at
the end of the 3 minutes and attacks the trolls (getting the
jump on them and catching them flat-footed). Once combat is
joined, the Rogue is free to dart in for back stabs.

Just because you are doing recce doesn’t mean you have to be
miles away and operating as separate parties.


5. From: KX
“Mission Control, we have a problem here”

Yeah, Jeff, tell me all about it. You are the best trained
Shadow here, skilled with all the aspects being a good spy.
You can move as silent as a wraith in the night, cloak
yourself with the very darkness it is, and if worse come to
the worst, you are a crackshot with the magnum.

“No, I’m confident about my abilities to infiltrate this
maximum security, highly guarded, and top-secret complex…”

I never have doubts about you Jeff.

“But this muscleman WHOM you have sent, with WHOM I am
stuck, and WHOSE purpose is to help me in this mission,
breathes so loud that even a Storm Trooper can shoot him in
the dark!”

Now we have a problem. And here are some suggestions. Some
work better for some genres. Fantasy games tend to pose more
problems, but with some creativity (and some magical
artifacts that replicate high-tech equipment), it can be
done. Some are for GMs, while some are techniques for the
PCs to consider.

1) Have Others Create A Diversion
The oldest trick in the book. Sun Tzu summarised it as, “If
you want to attack from the East, pretend as if you are
attacking from the West”. JRR Tolkien used it too – Aragorn
and Co. basically ran halfway round Middle-Earth to draw
Sauron’s gaze away from Frodo. Hence, have the non-stealth
members make themselves useful at doing what they are best
at – wielding big swords, unloading tonnes of rounds, or
setting off heat-guiding missiles, while the nimbler stealth
expert(s) sneak in.

2) Give The Non-Stealth Member The Expertise
Sure, the rogue can sneak undetected into the Alchemist’s
Guild, but how would he know which potion to take? You can
send the world’s most renowned Spy into secret lab but would
him know how to bypass the security system for the computer
which hold the vital information? Sometimes bringing the
other cumbersome and careless members is a necessary evil –
make it so at least those bumbling idiots have a purpose to

3) Make Stealth A Non-Issue For Non-Stealth Members
Sneaking is not the only way to infiltrate a compound.
Disguises and stealth generators (aka invisibility cloaks)
are some other ideas. But then what do we need the rogue or
espionage agent for? Well, they are not only good at
sneaking in. They are also needed to pick locks, bypass
security doors, disable traps, and so on. The others just
need to stay quiet and lend whatever aid that may be needed.

For disguised PCs, they cannot walk freely about either. The
GM can easily think of another purpose for the disguised PCs
as the rogue goes merrily wreaking havoc within the innards
of the bad guy’s base.

4) Use Time-Limited Invisibility
For the other non-stealth members, grant them the use of
some limited invisibility that will wear off after some
time. So now the party has two challenges – sneak past the
guards undetected and get there within a limited period of
time. If invisibility sounds extreme, it is not actually
that powerful. Invisible PCs still make noises and emit
scent. Invisibility might also fail in areas of powerful
magic or in the presence of powerful magic-users.

5) Use The Non-Stealth Members For Remote Aid
The rogue or spy is stuck within the enemy’s compound and
the other PCs are responsible for keeping him alive. Maybe
they have hacked into the computer and have a map of all the
levels, including where the guards are, and can warn the spy
off approaching dangers. Or they may be based within the
complex’s command centre, with access to all the security
measures, though they cannot switch everything off for that
will alert the guards.

Other PCs may need to venture outside the complex to
sabotage some security systems or to waylay an incoming
nemesis who knows that the spy is within the complex.
Frequent inter-cutting between the stealth action and the
other PCs’ actions, especially when you leave a cliffhanger,
can be very suspenseful and memorable.

The problem would be that of communication. In modern games,
that wouldn’t be a problem, with the advent of mobile
phones, communicators, and such. In fantasy games, the DM
may have to dream up psionic communication devices or the
players may need to resort to using smoke signals, whistles,

6) Make Stealth Sequences Short But Challenging
Unless you are designing for an all thief-party, there’s no
need to design a stealth sequence that spans an entire
session. Explore other methods of infiltration (the PCs will
generally come up with their own) besides stealth, for that
excludes everyone and is a risky venture.

Another idea is to make stealth sequences short and straight
to the point. Maybe a gatehouse is blocking the way. Fine,
the resident thief just climbs up a tree, leaps over to the
guard tower, pulls up the gate long enough so that the rest
of the party can sneak through, then drops quietly back
down. The sequence is over in less than 15 minutes, the
thief got his 15 minutes of fame and glory, and the rest of
the party are excluded only for a short period of time.

7) Stealth Is No Stranger
For many professions, being stealthy is no strange thing.
Modern soldiers are schooled in field craft and tactical
usage of weaponry at night. Policemen and investigators
likewise have need of such training. Along a fantasy vein,
wizards and spellcasters have access to spells that could
render them incognito.

If you are planning long, extended stealth sequences for
your campaign, consider making the Stealth skill a core
skill, or award some ad hoc bonus based on the character’s

8) Scouting Tactics
The PCs could pre-arrange a couple of things before sending
the scout ahead to find out more about the area ahead. Pre-
arranged hand signals can eliminate the need for talking.
For example, a gesture could tell the other PCs to take
cover or to come forward. Another one could be meant to say
that the coast is clear. This way, the PCs can linger
back while the scout ascertains the area is safe (this is
practised for modern combat).

For more dangerous missions, have the scout leave trails or
markings to indicate what is the best direction to go and
what dangers to look out for. Hence, the scout could set out
an hour earlier and the others can follow the scout’s
directions to find the safe routes. Sure, it sounds kind of
stupid if the scout meets some Big Bad Hairy Monster
somewhere and is killed with the rest of the PCs are being
led to their doom. But if the PCs are any cleverer, they
should have stayed home and remained farmers, clerks, and
what-have-you. At any rate, if the scout is imprisoned, he
should have time enough to leave a distress signal so at
least the PCs are but an hour behind him (assuming that the
scout goes at the same rate as the PC). With real-time
communication, the gap between the scout and the PCs can be
even smaller.

9) Consider Other Alternatives To Stealth
Leave stealth to the master of shadows. In some situations,
there are other ways of infiltrating an area. Disguises have
been mentioned and are one great tool, especially if you get
your hands on some uniforms or identification. There are
potions of invisibility, alternative routes, spells, and
magic. The druid could shapeshift himself into an
insignificant animal (say, a mouse, but then beware of the
cat!), the fighter can disguise himself as just a ‘passing
mercenary’, and so on.

10) “Conquer” In Phases
Do not send your scout on an overwrought and overlong
scouting mission. Instead, think of checkpoints which you
want to be scouted and the scout communicated to you that
the area is clear (see point 8), the party will move forward
and hide themselves, while the scout (or another one) once
more set out to next checkpoint.

The benefit is that if the scout is discovered or face a
problem, the PCs are not too far behind. The problem could
be that the entire party could be trapped but you risk
losing your scout. Hobson’s choice, they put it.

For GMs, one of the greatest sins is to leave out some
players from the game. Hence, when the party thief goes
snooping, give the others non-stealth based players
something else to do, like a diversion, or another
mission of equal importance.

For players, spend some discussing tactics and “what-if”
scenarios with the scout before you send him out. Scouts
need to know when to fall back and when to call for back-up
(and how to call for back-up).

Just my two copper worth.