Stealth in most RPGs suffers from a problem of attention and consequences. If the stealthy character wants to go off somewhere and sneak around, that’s great, but since the rest of the party isn’t there, those players wind up twiddling their thumbs while he does cool stuff. A certain amount of this is fine, but it can get old fast. On the other hand, if you don’t want to split the GM’s attention, the whole party can go sneaking around! Of course, once you ask everyone to roll stealth, the least sneaky PC fails her roll, the party gets discovered, and the one sneaky guy wonders why he bothered dropping all those points into stealth.
What follows a more robust stealth system than the usual ‘roll stealth against notice’. It lets your rogue have his big spotlight scene while still having the rest of the party right there in the action. It’s designed for FATE, but it’d be easy enough to modify it to fit most games.
If more than one person is sneaking around, the single person with the least Stealth rolls the skill. If she rolls below a 0, that will be relevant momentarily. If she rolls 0 or higher, there’s no effect. This roll is made publicly; everyone knows how much noise Clompy McStomp-Boots is making.
Then, the GM makes two rolls in secret. The first is a Stealth roll for the sneakiest PC. The other is what he’s rolling against: a single Notice check for the local security. If the least sneaky PC rolled below a zero a moment ago, the GM adds that result as a penalty to the sneakiest PC’s roll. Players and the GM can, of course, modify the roll using normal means: spending FATE points to invoke aspects, creating new advantages with free invokes, etc. Regardless of how much these two rolls get modified, their outcomes remain secret.
However much the sneaky guy beat the local security by is how many obstacles (see table below) the party can sneak past before they’re discovered. The tension comes from the fact that the party doesn’t know what that number is. Maybe the sneaky guy rolled super well, and the party can skulk around all day long. Or maybe the sneaky guy rolled equal to or lower than the security, and the party can’t sneak past any obstacles! They’ll be caught the first time they try! What matters is that the party doesn’t know. Every obstacle is a risk, even though the outcome is already decided.
Choose or roll 1d10. A good run has 1d4-ish obstacles.
1: At least one roving security-related NPC
2: Passive security (security camera, sentry, alarm, etc)
3: A non-security-related NPC with good reason to be here
4: An NPC who isn’t supposed to be here
5: A wandering monster or unintelligent NPC
6: An unrelated accident occurs nearby, which will attract people
7: The PCs have to interact with something noisy or bright
8: The way is blocked (door is locked, etc)! There’s a way around, but it takes you past results 1 or 2
9: A juicy opportunity presents itself, but briefly sidetracking to pursue it risks exposure
10: Something the PCs were counting on does not occur or goes wrong
When confronted with an obstacle, players can choose to overcome it in a way other than simply sneaking past. They may try to knock out a guard, hack the mainframe to redirect a robot, or start a distraction elsewhere. Resolve this with a simple skill check. If they succeed, they get past and don’t use up one of the obstacles they can successfully sneak past. If they fail, they get caught.
There are a lot of neat advantages to this system.
1. Everyone gets to participate. It matters that Clompy McStomp-Boots is bad at stealth, but it matters way more how many points in Stealth the sneaky guy has. There’s a reason to play the sneaky guy and you get to bring the whole party along.
2. Lots of decisions. Do we want to sneak past the guard? If we rolled badly in Stealth at the beginning, we might not get past. Do we want to try to lure him into a closet and lock him inside instead? If we succeed, we won’t use up one of our successes, but if we fail, we’re hosed.
3. Having only one actual stealth roll lets you have several obstacles without guaranteeing failure. If you take a character that succeeds at stealth 75% of the time, and ask him to roll once each to overcome four obstacles, he’s only going to be able to get past all four obstacles 32% of the time. The other 68%, he gets caught. By only rolling stealth once, you remove that from the equation. It lets you have the tension of repeated obstacles to overcome without dooming the rogue by telling him “Roll until you fail.”
Example of Play
In this scenario, the PCs are trying to steal the football playbook of their school’s crosstown rivals, the Carbondale High School Terriers. They know the book is kept in the office of the Terriers’ head coach, Coach Q, which is in the gym. Tuesday night, under the cover a thunderstorm, they let themselves into Carbondale High through a door the janitor left open. Malina, a gearhead and the least stealthy person in the party, rolls stealth at +0. She rolls a -1. Justin, an urban explorer and the sneakiest PC, has a +4 stealth modifier, now reduced to a +3 by Malina’s roll. The GM makes Justin’s stealth roll privately and gets a 3. Justin’s player spends a Fate point to invoke his aspect Always sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong, saying that this isn’t Justin’s first B&E. This boosts Justin’s roll to a 5, though only the GM knows the final amount. The only security at Carbondale High right now is the janitor, so the GM rolls privately for the school at a +1 and gets a 3. Justin beats the school by 2, so he can successfully lead the party past two obstacles, though he doesn’t know that exact number.
The party is creeping through the school when they see the janitor mopping the hallway in front of them. There’s no way around, so they decide to sneak past. They succeed. They can now only sneak past one more obstacle. The party is almost to the gym when a furious thunderclap sets off the car alarm of the only car in the parking lot, which is parked by the gym. They can hear the janitor approaching the gym, jingling his keys. The PCs choose to hide behind a row of lockers. They succeed, and have now used up all the obstacles they can successfully sneak past. The janitor opens the door between the gym and the parking lot, turns off the alarm on his car with his key fob, and returns the way he came. The party waits for him to pass, then makes it the rest of the way to Coach Q’s office in the gym. When they try the door, they find it unlocked, but the hinges are resisting. The storm is fading now, and if the hinges squeak as badly as they threaten to, the sound will echo through the empty halls, and the janitor may come to investigate. Instead of trying to open the door carefully and quietly (which would be an attempt to sneak past this obstacle), Malina whips a can of WD-40 off her belt, and lubricates the hinges. She rolls Crafts and gets a 6 – more than good enough to take care of this obstacle.
As the PCs are leaving the school, the GM decides her players have gotten off a little too easily, so she improvises a fourth obstacle – Coach Q is pulling up to the gym in his Buick, headlights slashing through the waning rain. The party tries to hide behind some bushes, but no such luck! They didn’t know it, but they’re all out of obstacles they can successfully sneak past! Coach Q sees them darting behind the bushes, spots the playbook under Justin’s arm, and shouts “Hey! Give me that book!”.
Variant: Push your luck
Instead of having a series of obstacles with a single big payoff at the end, it can be a lot of fun to have a series of payoffs, each associated with a single obstacle. Maybe you’re in a library. Every obstacle you overcome brings you to another book full of useful lore. If you keep sneaking past obstacles to get to the next book, you will eventually get caught. How far are you willing to push your luck?