Why are RPGs Crap at Modelling Stealth?

It occurred to me, whilst dumping my sixth unconscious guard into a bin whilst playing Dishonoured (I’m British damn you, it includes a ‘u’) that stealth is something that isn’t handled especially well in tabletop games. There’s an issue with the interaction between stealth and perception and simply rolling one against the other doesn’t model the subtlety of it. In many ways it’s a similar problem to the dissatisfaction with having to resort to social mechanics rather than pure RP.

There is a difference though, I think. While some of us find it damn near impossible to play ‘smooth’ or ‘intimidating’ or to come out with a pick-up line for an NPC that has ‘game’, just about everyone can understand the principle of ‘How not to be seen’ (or heard or whatever).

What we need, then, is a way to represent a state of alertness and the fact that, really, it’s only when the sneaking person a) fucks up or b) gets caught unawares themselves that they’re likely to be detected.

Genuine stealth isn’t just ‘being quiet’, it’s staying in the shadows. Using distraction, opportunity, speed, acrobatics and athletics to move unseen.

I think a way to represent this is stealth being the knowledge of how best to go about it and how best to recover from ‘fucking up’. To get away with fucking up.

This would take a bit more preparation and you’d have to start with a guard ‘alertness’ level based on an average or less than average roll. As more incidents happened you would ramp up that alertness level and it would get more and more difficult to get away with screwing up.

Using 3.5/Pathfinder purely as an example (in 4th Ed this would be a skill challenge). Say you had a temple on a cliff, protected by an elite temple guard. A long avenue runs up to the temple with trees every ten yards or so.

How could you approach?

In disguise, climb the cliff, flit from tree to tree, engineer a distraction. Their alertness level would ‘take ten’ so, perhaps DC 15, at night you might drop that to 13 and they wouldn’t expect anyone to climb the cliff so that might be 13 as well.

It would take several rolls to climb the cliff, which would be steep and dangerous, screwing up doesn’t mean you fall (unless you mess up really bad), but for the dramatism of the stealth ‘minigame’ each failure would knock some rocks loose, make a noise, raise the alert level and require you to make a stealth roll against the DC (which would rise with each incident).

Running from tree to tree without being seen? That’s a matter of speed, stealth is really a matter of timing and if you screw up the speed (athletics roll probably) you’ll have to make a stealth roll to ‘get away with it’ and the alertness level will go up.

It makes stealth a bit more involved, adds a little bit more back and forth and, in a way, will make it a bit more like combat.

The other problem we have is that knock-out mechanics also suck. The problem with knock-out mechanics in a lot of games is that if you make the NPCs easy to knock out, that also makes the PCs easy to knock out, and that’s massively disempowering. It also leads to important NPCs being dropped and having their throats slit.

If you’re trying to simulate reality, drugs don’t knock people out that quickly or reliably and knock-out blows are also hard to gauge and its a lot harder to knock people out than it seems in the movies. You can’t expect to render a dame unconcious with a tap to the chin or  to press-gang someone with a single blow of a cosh. At best you’re probably going to stun and concuss them.

In cinematic games you can differentiate between cannon fodder and major baddies in a way that lets you be cinematic while also preserving the ‘hardcore’ nature of the bosses, but that’s not an easy option in every game.

What do you think? Any ideas? Any games that handle stealth really well?

3 responses to “Why are RPGs Crap at Modelling Stealth?

  1. Funny thing, I’m just analyzing how to build a stealth based RPG (i. e. an RPG that has as much focus on stealth as most systems have on combat) in my blog. If you understand German, you might want to take a look at it, if not, I might translate my conclusions (which I will publish in the next few days).

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