How Well Do You Understand Invisibility in Dungeons & Dragons?

Lately, I’ve played in some high-level Dungeons & Dragons games with enough invisibility to make me study how the feature works in the game. Despite all my years playing D&D—or perhaps because of them, invisibility in fifth edition often defies my expectations. I can’t be alone, so I wrote a quick guide to invisibility. At the end, I pose a brain teaser where invisibility and Mind Blank meets True Seeing.

D&D presumes that creatures can perceive the location of invisible creatures

The Player’s Handbook explains that when a creature becomes invisible, “The creature’s location can be detected by any noise it makes or any tracks it leaves.” This seems obvious, but the game design presumes more. In a Sage Advice segment, D&D lead designer Jeremy Crawford suggests assuming that creatures can usually locate invisible creatures based on sound and other clues. Signs like footprints on damp stone, the squeak of floorboards, the stir of tapestries, the twang of a bow, or the snicker-snack of a sword could all expose an invisible creature. The specific clues seldom matter, but unless invisible creatures attempt to sneak, something reveals their general location.

When we dream of becoming invisible, we tend to imagine roaming undetected, but the game’s assumption better matches reality. Even with your eyes closed, you can usually track someone moving nearby.

To avoid revealing your presence while invisible, you need to be sneaky. Outside of combat, that means Dexterity (Stealth) checks. Inside combat, that means taking the Hide action.

The need for stealth to go undetected benefits game play in two ways:

  • Invisibility helps characters, but they still need talent and skill to evade detection. Otherwise, invisibility would just make a better replacement for stealth.

  • Invisible foes become a bit easier to locate, making battles against them less frustrating.

Ultimately, the dungeon master decides when or whether to adopt the premise that creatures generally know the location of invisible foes.

A DM can rule that noises or distractions allow invisible characters to go undetected without stealth. Jeremy Crawford gives the example of an invisible wizard who doesn’t bother to hide from orcs. “The DM might decide that because the barbarian is screaming in their face and the rogue lit the gunpowder barrels nearby on fire and they just exploded, the orcs are not even paying attention and they don’t know where she is.”

To escape detection, creatures must hide

If creatures notice the location of invisible creatures, how does invisibility help? Normally, to hide, you need to be out of plain sight. Invisibility enables hiding anywhere.

Hiding prevents people from hearing you or otherwise discerning your location. “If you’re dashing around, swinging your sword in combat, or yelling to your friends, you’re not hiding,” Jeremy says. “People can’t see you, but they can certainly hear you.”

When you take the Hide action, you make a Dexterity (Stealth) check in an attempt to hide. If your check exceeds the passive perception scores of those who might notice you, you become hidden from them. If something imposes disadvantage on a passive perception score, the score is at a -5 penalty.

Someone whose passive perception fails to notice a hidden creature can spend an action to actively perceive them. Then, the action allows a Wisdom (Perception) check to beat the Dexterity (Stealth) check and locate the hidden creature.

Once you have made your check, you can move without making another check or spending another action to hide. That stealth roll from your Hide action continues to apply. The design aims to avoid slowing the game with rerolls.

Obviously, talking and other activities can ruin hiding. Attacks reveal your location. “If you are hidden—both unseen and unheard—when you make an attack, you give away your location when the attack hits or misses.” This rule’s wording makes clear that even though the attack exposes you after it hits or misses, you get the advantage of attacking while hidden. The Invisibility spell uses less careful wording, but its effect still lasts until you hit or miss. Jeremy says that the spell “doesn’t predict what you’re about to do.”

Invisibility benefits attacking and defending

You can attack a hidden and invisible foe by trying to guess its location. “If the target isn’t in the location you targeted, you automatically miss, but the DM typically just says that the attack missed, not whether you guessed the target’s location correctly.”

Even though creatures typically discern the location of invisible creatures nearby, invisibility grants powerful advantages. “Attack rolls against the creature have disadvantage, and the creature’s attack rolls have advantage.”

Because advantage and disadvantage cancel, if two invisible creatures swing at each other, they attack as normal with neither advantage nor disadvantage. Invisible creatures rarely trade blows, but blinded creatures in, say, Darkness or a Fog Cloud often do, and the offsetting advantage and disadvantage leads to normal attack rolls.

Invisibility blocks many spells from targeting you

Invisibility’s strongest advantage stems out of all the spells from Acid Splash to True Polymorph that only target someone the caster can see. An invisible creature gains protection from all these spells. Plus an invisible spellcaster can’t be countered. Counterspell is cast as a reaction, “which you take when you see a creature within 60 feet of you casting a spell.”

This makes Greater Invisibility the strongest defense spell for casters.

Occasionally, going unseen hinders allies. For example, Spirit Guardians says, “When you cast this spell, you can designate any number of creatures you can see to be unaffected by it.” When clerics cast Spirit Guardians, they can’t exclude the party’s invisible members from the guardians’ harmful effects. Likewise, the evoker’s Sculpt Spell ability requires the caster to see allies to exclude them from a spell’s area, so the invisible rogue gets more chances to show off Evasion.

Invisibility versus True Seeing and Mind Blank

True Seeing is a divination spell that grants Truesight and its ability to see invisible. Mind Blank makes its target immune to divination spells. Can someone affected by True Seeing see an invisible creature affected by Mind Blank? You might argue that the divination spell only affects the person gaining Truesight, and that their new perception isn’t blinded by a creature’s immunity to divination. Or does Mind Blank somehow cloud anyone attempting a divination spell? Do you have your answer?

Jeremy Crawford says True Seeing fails to reveal an invisible creature affected by Mind Blank. But in your game, you are the dungeon master. Your answer remains correct.

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13 Responses to How Well Do You Understand Invisibility in Dungeons & Dragons?

  1. Ilbranteloth says:

    If a creature is invisible, I use Passive Stealth against Passive Perception or Investigation (whichever is higher, but with disadvantage since they can’t see you), unless the invisible creature uses the Hide action, or the other creatures use their action to make a Perception or Investigation check.

    I think people use Passive checks far too little, and it makes sense to me that a creature that has a low Perception and Investigation won’t be as good at locating an invisible creature as one that is higher. The beauty of Passive skills is that I, as a DM, have everything I need to adjudicate and describe the base situation with their Passive skills.

    I also think the game (and designers) don’t promote Passive skills enough either. It’s a nearly perfect system because you know what you can do, what you can’t (the DC is higher than 20 + your modifier), and when you might be able to do, requiring a check (or time – when there are no consequences for failure, I subtract the roll from the DC and assign an amount of time. It’s basically “taking 20, but the time element is variable. It’s the missing piece in the 5e skill system in my opinion).

    Since I’m sure there may be comments, I view Investigation and Perception in a similar light, but each is based on a different ability. Perception is Wisdom (intuition, gut reaction, 6th sense, etc), where you might “feel that somebody is watching you,” or just “sense” that something is there.

    Investigation, being Intelligence-based, is centered on reason, observation, deduction, and an attention to detail a la Sherlock Holmes.

    Both serve a similar purpose, it is their underlying ability that differs, and makes far more sense to me than “your Perception detects something, and you go over and manipulate it, you can make an Investigation check.”

    I also believe these are fully within the RAW, since it states any skill can be used Passively. My interpretation may be different, but a lot of DM’s interpretation on Perception and/or Investigation seem to be biased against the Passive scores: “They’ll find everything!”

    Of course, that’s not a problem with Passive skills, it’s a problem with the DC you’ve set. And isn’t the point for them to find it?

    “But they didn’t have to do anything!”

    Well, they had to invest in the skills. But the bigger issue is that they SHOULD be doing something. They should be telling you what they are doing, and as the DM you assess whether that warrants advantage or disadvantage, and then you tell them what they find. It’s kind of how the game started, except now you have actual numbers to work with when you make your adjudication.

    Players object to it because it, “invalidates” the rogue’s reliable talent.” Except it doesn’t. Because that only comes into play when you roll a die (make a check). I don’t know any DM calling for players to make a check when the DC is 10 or lower.

    • Foghammer says:

      I love passives and have a similar opinion. Underutilized mechanic.

      I do take issue with some of the hair splitting between Intelligence and Wisdom (not yours specifically, but in general) because I feel like Intelligence can be utilized in a lot of ways that would probably make many DM clutch their pearls and/or faint — initiative, perception (as well as investigation), social interactions like persuasion and deception. Logic being that the ability to process and make use of the information you are perceiving is as important or more so than just noticing it. [Kind of a tangential rant there…]

      I like passive skills particularly for things that are used frequently, and stealth is an excellent use for that. Certain things like Arcana/Nature/etc I probably wouldn’t allow passive scores for, but I have started making sure to use carrying capacity as a metric before resorting to Strength/Athletics checks. For Strength checks, I add proficiency and/or advantage/disadvantage to the score. If the check falls within that new range, you get to make the check, otherwise, it’s impossible. If it is within your ability to lift just with your Strength score, no roll required.

      • Sapphire Crook says:

        Thing is, 5e already allows you to have people do Initiative[Int] and Investigation[Wisdom] checks, i.e. using different abilities for skills.
        It’s just that nobody ever does it because, you know.
        “It invalidates my poor Charisma character’s natural advantage, weh”
        (that, and it’s a rule most people don’t even know is a thing XD)

        • Foghammer says:

          I am aware of it, but it’s as you say, people get tetchy about things like swapping ability score usage around, or changing spell damage type for thematics. “Mah game blalance!” I have friends like that: it’s nerf or nothing.

  2. Pewels says:

    How would you handle light sources on a PC going invisible? There has been many a debate at our table regarding the torches that were being carried or the glowing halo above the Aasimar’s head.

    • Sapphire Crook says:

      This crosses into that dangerous territory of ‘invisible eyeballs’, which is where invisible people cannot see because their eyes cannot receive light since it passes through them. :v
      In 3.5, light sources continue to exist, but their origin becomes invisible, implying that the target simply reflects no visible light (or all light hitting or reflecting off them is magically duplicated and filtered)

  3. ifryt says:

    Remember also “Pass without Trace” spell form 5th edition. It gives +10 Stealth designated creatures within 30 feet of the caster. It can be even better than “Invisibility” in this edition.

  4. Timofey Lomonosov says:

    Invisibility is useless in combat in 5e now unless you somehow can take Hide action as a bonus action, and remember that being invisible doesn’t grant you advantage on Stealth checks, though it does give disadvantage to Perception checks made to detect you.

    With my homebrew game that I run, I converted a spell for high-game from Warcraft RPG to make invisibility somewhat more useful:

    Pass Unknown[Sorcerer, Wizard]
    5th level illusion
    Casting Time: 1 action
    Range: Touch
    Components: V, S, M (an eyelash encased in a piece of gum arabic)
    Duration: Concentration, up to 1 hour
    A creature you touch and everything it wears or carries becomes invisible and perfectly silent. The creature makes no noise when it moves or manipulates objects, though objects can make noise through indirect activities. The target cannot be noticed unless actively searched for, and it has advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks. The target can make noise if it wishes – for example, to cast a spell with verbal component.
    If the target drops an item or removes it, the item is no longer invisible.
    If the target tries to attack or cast a spell, he becomes visible and makes noise normally. However, the target can use its action to regain its invisibility and soundlesness.

    • Derryl says:

      Timofey. I have to admit that i did not know this myself before looking it up just now but, invisibility does not grant creatures disadvantage on perception checks made to detect them.

      The invisible condition states that the creature is “heavily obscured. The creature’s location can be detected by any noise it makes or any tracks it leaves”. pg.291

      Concerning Vision and Light (pg. 183)

      “A given area might be lightly or heavily obscured. In a lightly obscured area, such as dim light, patchy fog, or moderate foliage, creatures have disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight.”

      That last sentence is mostly what I’m pointing towards as the perception check made would only rely on sight. This is the only instance i could see you confusing why a creature trying to percieve an invisible creature would have disadvantage on perception checks. Since the creature is effectively “heavily obscured”, lightly obscured is a moot point and does not come in to the equation.

      “A heavily obscured area-such as darkness, opaque fog, or dense foliage-blocks vision entirely. A creature effectively suffers from the blinded condition when trying to see something in that area.”

      Since the creature is only effected by the blinded condition when perceiving the invisible creature, lets take a look a blinded

      Blinded (pg. 290)
      “A blinded creature can’t see and automatically fails any ability check that requires sight.”

      This is important because you can’t even attept to use a perception check relying on sight to detect a creature.

      So there you have it. Perception checks don’t have disadvantage when detecting a creature that is invisible because the only disadvantage you would have would rely on sight. Since creatures automatically fail perception checks using sight, a creature only needs to make a perception check using noise which does not grant disadvantage on perception checks.

  5. Syd Andrews says:

    So, this is pretty much how Invisibility worked in 4E. Basically it required a combined Stealth check to become Hidden. And “Hidden” was the specific status that you wanted. So, well done to 5e for this. I remember the horrible arguments that would erupt at tables in 3.x and before when it came to Invisibility. Just a nightmare.

  6. Dave Barton says:

    “Because advantage and disadvantage cancel, if two invisible creatures swing at each other, they attack as normal with neither advantage nor disadvantage. Invisible creatures rarely trade blows, but blinded creatures in, say, Darkness or a Fog Cloud often do, and the offsetting advantage and disadvantage leads to normal attack rolls.”

    So in essence, two foes who can’t see each other have an equal chance of hitting as if they could see each other. Think about that for a minute.

  7. Jeff says:

    Everyone seems to forget that in combat, there are a lot of noise, the stench of the dying, the smell of blood, … so your senses are already overcharged with stimuli.

    Out of combat, leaving track, making noise, … thats way easier to get discovered.

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