Nothing To See Here: The Problem With Stealth

Wednesday , 22, April 2015 5 Comments

This is an expansion of the topic I covered last week, about how skill systems generally suck. Skill systems particularly suck at modeling stealth and perception skills, and it’s not a tractable problem easily handled with binary resolutions.

Ad Astra LogoWhat follows is a somewhat rambling discussion of the problem, but, sadly, I’m a bit short on solutions.  Stealth isn’t as bad as the Car Chase/Naval Action problem in RPGs, but it’s still pretty bad.

Stealth In The Real World:

Stealth and moving under stealth, are different (and more interesting) in the real world than they are in most Hollywood movies or fictional realities.  Special Forces and the military teach that you can be stealthy (under adequate circumstances) out to roughly 3 meters.  At 3 meters, you need to be moving towards the objective at full speed and aiming for a fast take down.

In the real world, stealth is a function of facing – most humans see a field of vision that’s about 100 degrees wide; some of us with only one eye see a field about 60 degrees wide.  If your RPG doesn’t have facing and field of vision, stealth gets tricky.

Stealth is a game that’s played in the brain of the person doing the observation. You have to look like what the observer expects to see; this makes it hard to be stealthy in a ghillie suit in a bank, and hard to be stealthy in a jungle wearing a three piece suit.  Sometimes, that means breaking line of sight. Sometimes, that means holding still and letting the observer’s brain paint the picture the observer expects.

What it doesn’t do is let you play Batman in a parking garage, vanishing into the exhaust laden air between cement pillars.

Stealth In Games

Stealth in games is generally a contest of skills – the sneaker’s stealth versus the observer’s perception stat (or stats).  Some game systems break this down to sight, hearing and scent, others just use perception.

Over the course of a typical game, the person who wants to make stealth a focus for their character has a strong incentive to double (or quadruple, or octuple…) down onto the skill.  Perception skills always seem to escalate over time, and so do stealth skills.  In some ways, this resembles the genre tropes, but in most cases, it’s deeply unsatisfying; it feels like an ability tax.

Stealth in roleplaying games also runs into another problem: The sneaky guy sneaks off ahead to scout…and while they do so, the rest of the players are supposed to remain ignorant of what they see.  This, like the car chase scene, results in a situation where not only are other players not engaged, but the player who is engaged isn’t even interacting with an NPC or two; it’s all “room description box text” and “ok, I roll versus X.”

Which leads us back to the core of the problem in some ways:

What makes games interesting is decision points, and they have to be decision points that matter.  How do we insert interesting decisions into the stealth versus perception paradigm?  Or we just stuck with the idea that if you’re successful at stealth, there’s never anything fun going on?

I await your comments below…

  • Astrosorceror says:

    When I run a game the problem that often comes is the stealthy character wants to sneak ahead and do sneaky stuff, while the others want to smash stuff. Naturally, the stealthy character wants to use the stealthy abilities, and the non-stealth characters want to do something rather than cool their heels.

    Possible fixes:

    One, have an all-stealthy team, who cannot achieve their objectives via brute force. The campaign is entirely about life in the shadows.

    Two, have an adventure that does not require, or penalize the lack of a stealthy character. It has multiple ways it can be solved: stealthy sneakiness, intellectual challenges, raw violence, social, etc.

    While the sneaky character is sneaking ahead, have something for the others to do.

    Happy players are players that keep coming back.

  • tweell says:

    I try to limit the sneaking with house rules – stealth has to be re-rolled every so often (depending on the circumstances and how the ninja want-to-be is moving), and the observer’s rolls get progressive bonuses. Knowing this, most of my players tend to play it safe, do a quick scout and report back, keeping the group interruption at a minimum. If they don’t, they eventually get caught, and the noise brings the rest of the group in to save them.

  • Daniel says:

    I have looked at using the Aces and Eights hit wheel for facing and field of vision. I have not tested it, though. I love that hit wheel for shoot outs, but it also works as an overlay on a simple slice of pie, with the miniature in the center.

    Scale for accuracy is unlikely close at all, but I think a modified transparency would indeed work fairly seamlessly.

    In other words, where the Aces and Eights transparency overlay is for “first person shooter” view, you could instead use it as 3rd person, with black pie chart blocking out the field out of view.

  • David says:

    In one long term D&D campaign we had the stealth character moved around exploring the dungeon while the rest of the party listened to my descriptions and mapped out the sections. This worked out reasonably well as the players would discuss tactical approaches and speculate on unopened doors. It wasn’t perfect though as there still was a bit of thumb twiddling for the rest of the party.

    What I found far more problematic is when a stealthy character gets trumped by superior stealth that comes from magic because a spellcaster in the party has picked up the right spells. Suddenly the niche a player built his character around is now made redundant and inferior. This is something you really have to watch out for and plan ahead.

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