The Alphastream Game Design Blog
This is the last of a blog series inspired by the Winter Fantasy convention. At that convention, as well as at other games going back at least to D&D’s third edition, I’ve seen players that embrace a ranged or stealthy character, but who seemingly are unaware of the impact such play can have on their team. This article is primarily for players, but I’ll note how DMs can help mitigate the issues.
I’m focusing on 5E D&D, but the advice applies to most D&D editions and RPGs. Other RPGs may have different character options, but the basic concerns remain relevant.
I’ve played a ranger through 19th level in organized play – a supremely powerful character. To understand why ranged characters can be so attractive in 5E, take a look at DM David’s excellent articles:
David lists the benefits, including: “When you attack from a distance, melee attackers can’t hit you. You can fire past obstacles that hamper movement. You can switch targets without having to move.” He points out that the obvious drawbacks, such as cover, are completely mitigated by class features or popular feats.
Ranged characters also tend to be accurate (they are snipers, after all), and in 5E they can use the Sharpshooter feat to trade a relatively small amount of accuracy for +10 damage on every attack! Classes such as Rangers can often unleash many attacks that benefit from this, for truly incredible devastation.
Tactically, being ranged provides targeting options. You can sit back and attack anything that doesn’t have full cover. In most combats, you can move to a position of safety and fire away.
With 5E’s fewer ways to optimize (relative to other editions), stealth offers strong benefits. You get advantage. You gain sneak attack as a rogue. And, you might not be visible when the monsters get to go. It can feel a lot like invulnerability, especially when you are also fighting at range.
Very few monsters want to chase after a character that is far away, and even less so if the character is hidden. This leads us to the first of our problems.
Monsters don’t go after your ranged character, and that’s a problem. RPGs are a team game. When one character doesn’t take damage, it means the monsters focus on the rest of the party. The damage is essentially redirected, with the other characters taking much more damage than they would have otherwise.
If we think about the characters in the party as having a shared pool of hit points, the ranged character is removing a large chunk of that pool from play, leaving the party with fewer resources relative to the number of monsters.
In 5E D&D, characters can take a fair bit of punishment, but when they hit 0 hit points, they go unconscious and can’t act. Worse, they must make death saves. If they are in bad situations (monsters that will try to eat them, damaging terrain), they can very quickly become permanently dead.
Healing in 5E is relatively weak. A spell typically lets an unconscious character stand back up, but that character can seldom take more than a single blow before going down again. When monsters are focusing on a few characters, the chance of a just-healed character going down again increases.
If more than a couple of characters go down, the lone ranged character can’t get them all back up quickly enough, because stabilizing or healing a character will usually take an action. Due to these mechanics, a TPK can be more likely with a ranged character if that character is consistently avoiding taking damage.
A ranged character is often used to being far from the action. As they gain levels, character options, and treasure, they tend to choose offensive options. They may end up more fragile than typical characters. “Hey, I’m invulnerable. I mean, unless I get into the thick of the action. So… I better not do that. Ever.”
I’ve seen ranged characters refuse to move in to heal a downed ally. Or refuse to even enter a room to interact with an object. Or refuse to come out from cover if a foe can see through invisibility. Playing a conditionally invulnerable character can actually be very limiting tactically. Often, this can get into the player’s head. They can’t see through their typical approach to properly assess the encounter and take the actions that could help or even save their party.
Even if we don’t have character deaths or a TPK, a ranged character can create a frustrating situation for the other characters, who find themselves relentlessly beaten up, constantly targeted by saving throws, and harried by environmental and terrain damage.
Over the course of a campaign, this can be tough for the party. Players may not even realize the cause. They simply find play frustrating and feel picked on. If the ranged player keeps saying, “hey, I didn’t even take any damage… again!” they might start to realize why.
Great scenes have interesting things happening. The villain has a hostage. The ritual is about to complete when blood reaches the altar. An orb of power must be interacted with to stop a magical effect. The golden idol is on a pillar that will sink into the ground if no one grabs it in time. The NPC ally is in a far building, which is on fire and will soon burn down.
All of these situations generally come with foes that stymie efforts by the party to get there. The ranged character is usually the furthest away from these elements and may not be able to get there in time. Even when they have magical gear that could get them there (winged boots, etc), the player is often used to staying out of sight and letting the slower melee warriors handle the problem. This can be a major tactical mistake, and I see it happen often.
Different RPGs handle stealth differently. 4E was very clear. 5E uses practically the same rules, but doesn’t lay them out clearly and adds a few phrases that causes stealth to play wildly differently at each table.
A character that expects stealth every turn can be a deity of destruction at one table, gaining advantage and sneak attack and sharpshooter bonuses constantly. At the next table, they never gain advantage.
4E strove for unambiguous clarity. The PHB and DMG even provided diagrams to hammer in the concepts, along with rules referring to squares. Take “line of sight.” If from one corner of a mini you can draw a line that doesn’t touch or go through cover, you have line of sight, meaning you can see the target. Because in the example below all the lines between the attacker’s square and the goblin’s square must touch or go through the wall, the goblin is out of sight.
Line of sight is important, because in 4E, if you had it, then hiding was not possible without magic. Something seen can’t ever make a hide check in 4E.
In 5E, this is generally true but ultimately up to the DM. A character that is visible can’t hide, but the DM can decide if a creature is distracted enough that, in this instance, it doesn’t notice the character and the character can try to hide. 5E also doesn’t use miniatures as the default, so there are no lines to draw (though some DMs still do this). The DM makes the call if someone can be seen clearly, and therefore can’t hide.
Even if you do hide in 5E, a creature may then get to use their passive Perception to notice the hiding character. On their turn, a monster might make an active check.
5E makes it a bit hard because there isn’t a single obvious place to look for the rules. Under the section in the Player’s Handbook on using Ability Scores, we get only very basic rules:
We then have a sidebar that provides guidelines for how hiding works. Take a look:
There is a lot there, and (probably deliberately) it isn’t written to be ironclad. 5E wants to encourage DMs to make calls. Unfortunately, players building characters want to optimize and they value reliability. When can a creature see me clearly? When am I making noise? Most creatures are alert… but sometimes a DM might let me stay hidden… what does that really mean?
Various other sections offer additional guidelines. “Unseen Attackers and Targets” clarifies that if you attack, you give away your location, even if you miss. The section on Combat talks about cover and only total cover lets you be completely unseen. The section on Vision and Light in Chapter 8 talks about being obscured, and only a heavily obscured area such as opaque fog or dense foliage blocks vision entirely. Of course, if you leave those areas, you no longer have the benefit, and such areas may blind you as well if you stay in them. You can’t get sneak attack when you are blind, and many spells and features require line of sight. If you can’t see someone that can’t see you, all advantage and disadvantage cancels out, resulting in a normal roll.
4E is far clearer once you grasp the rules. In 4E, you are hidden only if there is no line of sight, or if you have cover and concealment while hidden. If you move, stealth checks take a penalty. If you do something that ends being hidden, any further actions don’t benefit (and moving is an action in 4E).
Here are the rules for remaining hidden in 4E:
In 4E, if you started your round behind a wall, and on your turn you moved to where you could see the enemy, you typically would lose cover, would no longer be hidden, and your attack action would not include the benefits of stealth. (There were corner cases, literally, that could allow attacks while hidden, and there were attack powers such as Deft Strike that allowed moving out of cover as part of the action, but in general it was clear. If you could see the enemy, they could see you, no stealth, done.)
Of course, this is all true in 5E as well, but in 5E they become loose guidelines and the DM can decide what to do.
What this means at your 5E table is that one DM might be totally fine when you “peek around a pillar to shoot the bugbear” and let you attack while hidden with combat advantage and any other benefits, then hide again. Another DM might point out that there is no such thing as “peeking around an object” and that the monsters are aware of you, expect your attack, and thus you normally won’t be able to hide behind a pillar and attack from behind it. You have to lean forward to see the bugbear, and when you do, you no longer have cover and the alert monster sees you and you aren’t hiding.
Many DMs (and players too) will object to the idea of any character constantly getting advantage. There are very few ways to consistently gain advantage in 5E. Commonly, getting advantage requires giving up an action (see the Help action or a spell such as true strike). It isn’t intended to happen round after round.
I’ve seen players have an entire convention adventure where they make every attack hidden, then go to the next adventure with the same character and none of their attacks are made while hidden. It’s that unpredictable!
You can mitigate the issues of range by being aware of how you impact your party. If you never take damage, the rest of the party will disproportionately suffer. Therefore, consider taking some hits from time to time. Take enough damage that your party won’t be low on resources or see multiple characters drop. Add watching the health levels of the party to your tactics.
When positioning your character, don’t just go for the furthest point from the enemies. Find a middle range that lets you take some hits, interact with encounter elements, and have some flashes of courage. Be close enough for the clutch saves to heal a downed companion, save the NPC, and flip the lever that stops the deadly trap.
If you have spells, consider some defensive and healing options. When choosing magic items, make a few picks that give you flexibility to move about, survive in close combat, and help allies.
In tough fights, don’t just count on the courage of others. Some fights will require you to play out of your safe zone so the party can survive.
If you rely on stealth, know the rules and understand that different DMs will rule very differently. Some DMs will always rule a particular way. Some DMs will vary their approach based on factors they make up – one set of monsters may be alert and another not. One set of pillars too thin to hide behind and others thick enough. Don’t be beholden to one interpretation of stealth.
As a DM, review the rules on stealth and make your peace with them. It’s up to you! You can let players know how you rule up front, or as events unfold. Though it is your call, it’s worth noting how players react. It can be very frustrating for them to have their magic source of perma-advantage taken away, so they may need some gentle explaining and a few “that monster looks distracted” moments to cheer them up.
When you design encounters, think about where ranged characters may end up. Avoid triggering encounters when half the party is still in a hallway… get them fully into the room before the excitement starts so they are more likely to interact with the elements.
Find ways to entice the ranged characters into action. If the sniper is a ranger, you might have pillars carved like trees and a vine-covered altar that reminds them of their deity. If the sniper is a rogue, traps that can be turned off can be exciting and draw them forth for moments of courage.
Design encounters where the enemies come from more than one direction or their approach isn’t predictable. Some statues animate… you choose which ones. The bugbears come from the hallway, closest to the rear of the party. Shake things up so there isn’t always a clear “rear” to the combats.
Consider powers that pull characters. You can use spells like telekinesis to draw characters in. Feel free to make up spells, magical room effects, and monster abilities that bring far away characters up close. Froghemoth style monsters with huge long limbs can be fun. Frogs with extra-long tongues. Flying monsters. Establish early on that all characters can be in play and there is no predictable safe rear rank.
At the same time, don’t overdo it. Winning is awesome. Character building and optimizing can be awesome. If the player really wants that stealth, think about how to find the right balance for it. If they really want to play a character that stays in the back, find ways to reward that from time to time. Don’t cancel what they do each and every time or the player will feel denied and punished. The goal in dealing with stealth and range is to keep the party fun and equitable overall, not to frustrate a clever player.
Have you seen these impacts at the table? What do you do as player or DM to lessen these issues?