Everyone has some! House rules. Still, some are good, some are bad, some are so overly complex it’s like they’re trying to confuse you so you won’t use them.
Nonetheless, this is my attempt.
Stealth Takedowns, the Myths
Ever play any of the Assassin’s Creeds? Yeah, it’s like that but for D&D, or even Pathfinder (I’ll have a rules for both).
Other than it’s cool? Why not? Again, these are house rules and you don’t have to use them. Still, there are times when a pesky guard is in the way and in real life a stab to the kidney or a slit throat would kill them, but a dagger only does 1d4 an that guard has 35hp. Not going to kill him in one shot.
Party pooper. Anyway, it makes for a more realistic world and provides the opportunity for a completely stealth mission. Again, like in Assassin’s Creed when you’re sneaking around and you kill a few guards, but then you didn’t see that one as you were stabbing another in the throat and then it goes COMPLETELY off rails and you end up just wiping out everyone…yeah stealth mission.
But Rogues have Sneak Attack
That they do, but again, roll too many 1’s (or you don’t have enough sneak attack die) and that guard with 35hp is still standing. And what if you’re a Ranger? You’re telling me that Ranger’s can’t stealth kill. Ever play Shadow of Mordor?
So, no point in being a Rogue if everyone can do it now, then, eh?
Not at all, in fact, with these rules Rogues will still be the kings and queens of stealth kills. But it allows for others to get in on the fun or support the Rogue as your sneaking through wherever.
First and foremost, this can only be done when both YOU AND the TARGET are out of combat. You cannot, in the midst of combat, disappear and sneak up behind an enemy someone else is attacking. Yes, a handful of class options allow you to disappear in combat, BUT (and this is a big BUT) just because you’re out of combat doesn’t mean you can do a Stealth Takedown. BOTH YOU AND THE TARGET MUST BE OUT OF COMBAT!!!!
Okay, now that that’s out of the way. Here’s the rest of the rules. (Did I mention that both you and the target have to be out of combat?)
There is really only one prerequisite: You have to have Stealth. I mean, it’s in the name.
In game terms, this means for Pathfinder, you need at least 1 rank in Stealth to perform a Stealth Takedown. It doesn’t need to be a class skill, but you do need at least 1 rank in it. In D&D 5e, you have to be proficient in Stealth. This can be granted by your class, your subclass, or any background you take.
Essentially this means that you know more than just to tread lightly (both in Pathfinder and 5e you can attempt to Stealth untrained/without proficiency). You know how hit them where it hurts.
Once you have Stealth, it’s time for the Approach. Provided you and your target are out of combat (yeah saying it once more!), you can use Stealth normally as you would in Pathfinder or 5e. If you’re target does not detect you, nor any other NPC/potential target, you have successfully completed the approach.
As it implies, roll to hit. If you succeed, then comes the good part. There are other variant rules for other types of “strikes”, but roll to hit.
Time to DIEEE!
Or actually, on a successful hit the target makes a Fortitude save (Pathfinder) or a Constitution save (5e) vs your Stealth Takedown DC. Here’s how to calculate them:
Pathfinder: 10 + BAB + ranks in Stealth (ranks only no attribute or class skill bonus)
D&D 5e: 10 + Stealth Bonus (attribute bonus and all since this includes your Proficiency bonus)
If the target fails the save, they die. Done, boom goes the dynamite!
This attack can be done with any 1-handed weapon the character is proficient in. No you cannot stealth kill with your giant, anime 2-handed sword. But any other 1-handed weapon, sure.
This type of attack is certainly deadly, but it is also loud and messy. When a target is dispatched in this manner, they make a ruckus. Any passing NPC has to only make a Perception check (Pathfinder DC 10, 5e DC 8) to hear the ruckus. How they react afterwards is up to the DM, but it’s likely not to be in the player’s favor. Guards will be called, and then it’ll be time to kill everyone. EVERYONE!!!
The Quiet Kill (Variant)
As mentioned, the normal takedown is loud and messy. The player has the option to remedy this and do it quietly. They can do so with penalties, but still can make it happen.
In Pathfinder, they take a -4 penalty to their roll to hit. Provided they still hit, the target makes their Fortitude save normally. And if they fail, they die.
In 5e, the player incurs a disadvantage on their roll. Provided they still hit, the target makes their constitution save normally. And if they fail, they die.
Now, though they killed their target quietly, there’s still the mess. The player may or may not be concerned about it, but if another NPC happens by the body (or the blood puddle it left behind), guards will be alerted. If the player hides the body sufficiently (a Stealth check for either game), there’s still the puddle to clean up and/or hide. This can be done with another Stealth check, DC 25 (Pathfinder) or DC 20 (5e).
To avoid the mess completely, you can…
The Unarmed Kill (Variant)
There are a handful of ways to do it, but the most common is headlock, then snap the neck. This is possible provided that the character has Improved Unarmed Combat (Pathfinder) or something that grants you skill in unarmed fighting (Monks in Pathfinder or 5e, or a feat like Tavern Brawler in 5e).
The approach and kill are done in the same way, but there is no mess. By default, there will be lots of noise, not necessarily from the target crying in pain, though that’s a possibility, but more from the struggle.
You can attempt a quiet version of this (-4 in Pathfinder or Disadvantage in 5e). Same rules apply.
No Kill (Variant)
This can only be done with a 1-handed weapon that does bludgeoning damage or unarmed. Same rules, same penalties or disadvantages incurred for attempting to do it quietly. But it takes a bit longer and becomes contested if you do the quiet version.
If you do the quiet-no-kill, then you must sustain a grapple for 2 rounds. All grapple rules apply (in either system). If you successfully maintain a grapple for 2 rounds, then the target attempts to save as normal.
If Any of this Fails
Well, you’ll be in combat. If you miss the initial strike, your target notices and you’ll be in combat. If they make their save, they take normal weapon damage and you’ll be in combat. If they break the grapple in the 2nd round in the quiet-no-kill variant, they escape and you’ll be in combat.
And once you’re in combat…yep you guessed it! YOU CAN’T DO A STEALTH TAKEDOWN!
You Mentioned Rogues Being Kings and Queens?
Indeed I did. If you are a Rogue, you have some perks.
First, in Pathfinder, you do not incur a penalty when attempting to do a quiet kill. You do not need to have Improved Unarmed Combat to do an unarmed kill or a quiet-no-kill. And you gain a bonus to your Stealth Takedown DC equal to the number of d6’s you have for sneak attack. For example, you’re a level 5 Rogue and you have 3d6 for your sneak attack. You also have an additional +3 to your Stealth Takedown DC.
In 5e, basically the same. You do not incur disadvantage for quiet kills. You don’t need any feat or class option that gives you unarmed fighting to do an unarmed kill or quiet-no-kill. And you gain a bonus to your Stealth Takedown DC equal to the number of d6’s you have for sneak attack. And finally, if you chose the Assassin subclass, you gain advantage when attempting any of these, just like you would with the Assassinate subclass feature. They still have to be out of combat though.
To sum up into a few simple steps.
- You and your target must be out of combat.
- The Approach: you must successfully sneak up on your target. Meaning you must beat them in a contested Stealth check.
- The Kill: roll an attack
- (a) if attempting to keep it quiet, -4 to the attack roll in Pathfinder and disadvantage in 5e.
- (b) if attempting not to kill, must be a bludgeoning weapon or unarmed.
- (c) if attempting not to kill and keep it quiet, must sustain a grapple for 2 rounds (all grapple rules apply)
- The Resolution: the target saves versus the character’s Stealth Takedown DC (calculations above, seriously read it. I took the time to write it)
If at any point you fail or the target saves, you immediately go into combat. If your intent was to kill, quietly or not, you do at least get to do weapon damage provided you got to the point where you attack and the attack was successful.