12 reasons to stop worrying about pass without trace

How broken is pass without trace?

Sometimes in 5e, you come across a spell that isn’t necessarily broken but runs the risk of causing a few problems. Pass without trace is a prime example of this, and for a long time I’ve agonized about how to handle it.

As with my article on counterspell from three years ago, I’m going to start by sharing the spell verbatim:

The main source of contention with this spell is the +10 bonus to Dexterity (Stealth) checks. In 5e, a +10 bonus is huge. Statistically it’s considerably better than rolling with advantage.

Let’s say you’re an adventurer with average Dexterity and no special training in Stealth. Your Dexterity (Stealth) check is +0. On average, you have a 50/50 chance of sneaking past a creature with a passive Perception of 10 (eg, bandits, zombies, golems, ogres). Most of the creatures in the Monster Manual have a better Perception than that. But with pass without trace, you’re suddenly rolling with +10. You have a 75% chance of sneaking past three-quarters of the Monster Manual, and only a hyperaware creatures like dragons, angels, aboleths, and beholders are likely to spot you. And that’s with average Stealth. If you’re a mid-level rogue with expertise and good Dexterity, you can comfortably roll scores in the 20s without breaking a sweat.

So, is pass without trace too good? Let’s break it down.

1. It’s pretty hard to come by.

There really aren’t many characters who can cast pass without trace: druids, rangers, trickery domain clerics, and way of shadow monks. I wouldn’t say any of these character options are hugely popular, so there might not even be anyone in your group who can cast it. Beyond the core rulebooks, earth genasi can cast it from 5th level, and wood elves can cast it with a feat. Both can only do so once per day.

2. It’s a still a 2nd-level spell slot.

In other words, it’s not free! Even a high-level spellcaster will only ever have three 2nd-level spell slots, and after that you’ll have to start burning slots that you could have used for more powerful spells.

3. It only lasts one hour.

This might sound like a reasonably long duration, but it’s not indefinite. For example, you would need to cast it again after a short rest. Outside combat, tracking time is a bit wishy-washy in D&D, so it’s largely up to the DM how long the spell lasts. But it strikes me that exploring rooms should take at least a few minutes, as should other activities like checking for traps and debating where to go next. I would also argue (and this may be controversial) that if you want to travel stealthily then you need to be moving at half speed because, at this point, you’re essentially using the rules for travel pace (PH 181).

Bottom line: how much distance can you cover in one hour? If I’m DMing: maybe four or five dungeon locations with travel in between. But talk it through with your players and see what feels right—and try to stay consistent.

4. You can’t concentrate on anything else.

There are so many druid spells that you won’t be able to cast if you’re concentrating on pass without trace, especially utility spells. Guidance! Detect magic! Locate object! In fact, nearly half of the druid’s spell list requires concentration. (Besides, casting a spell with a verbal component is pretty noisy, so I’m not sure you could realistically stay stealthy anyway.)

5. You must stay near your companions.

This has been clarified by Sage Advice:


In fairness, a 30-feet radius is not particularly limiting, but it means your spellcasters might end up closer to the front line than they would like.

6. It isn’t invisibility.

This is the big one. Nowhere in the spell description do the rules say that pass without trace makes you invisible.

This matters because the rules for hiding in 5e are intentionally open to interpretation. The Player’s Handbook states that ‘The DM decides when circumstances are appropriate for hiding’ and ‘You can’t hide from a creature that can see you clearly’. (p 177) Let’s say two goblins are on guard duty, watching a well-lit, wide-open corridor with no hiding places: does pass without trace stop the adventuring party from being seen? I would say: no!

Some players will hate this sort of thing, but that’s how it goes. A good DM will be fair and consistent and make a call based on what is most fun for the group, but trying to codify every possible stealth scenario is impossible. There’s a really good interview with Jeremy Crawford on this, and it’s well worth listening to in its entirety.

7. The party doesn’t pass or fail as a group.

This is maybe a niche point, but bear with me.

When my players first started using pass without trace, I tended to use the rules for group skill checks on page 175 of the Player’s Handbook, mainly for speed. But group skill checks aren’t perfect. Characters who are bad at something (like Stealth) will never feel it, because someone in the group will always cover for them, and characters who have specialized in something might feel jaded because they never get their chance to shine. In hindsight, I should probably have asked each player to roll individually.

Anyway, note the wording: ‘the DM might ask for a group ability check.’ Might. It’s up to you as the DM whether you let players make a Dexterity (Stealth) check as a group, but bear in mind this gives the characters an even bigger advantage. I would focus on what makes most sense in the fiction. If you can’t think of a reason why the halfling rogue would be able to help the dwarven paladin walk more quietly, then you should be rolling individual checks, not a group check.

An important corollary of this: if a creature detects any potential threat, it is not surprised. Or at least, that’s what Sage Advice says (the rules aren’t clear):

You can be surprised even if your companions aren’t, and you aren’t surprised if even one of your foes fails to catch you unawares.  

One other thing to note:

If you are hidden—both unseen and unheard—when you make an attack, you give away your location when the attack hits or misses.

So, if you have multiple attacks, you only have advantage on your first attack roll.

Incidentally, if one character attacks from hidden, what does that mean for the rest of the party? Are they still able to make an attack with advantage? I would generally say yes, but there might be specific circumstances where this is not the case.

8. It is incompatible with light sources.

A follow on from point number five, and more of a ‘ruling’ than a rule, but I really don’t see how one can be stealthy while holding a flaming torch, a bright lantern, a glowing magic sword, and so on. If a party wants to be stealthy and benefit from pass without trace, they need to rely on their natural vision—and in most dungeon settings, that means darkvision. And darkvision isn’t as good as you think.

9. It isn’t silence.

Yes, pass without trace creates ‘a veil of shadows and silence’ which ‘radiates from you’. But: it affects creatures you choose, not an area. So if anything else makes a noise, this spell will not mask it. And combat, I would argue, is very noisy. According to the official DM screen (and this advice should really be in the core rules somewhere) a ‘very loud’ noise is audible from 2d6 × 50 feet away, ie, at least 100 feet away, and maybe as far as 600 feet away. Anywhere closer than that is audible range.

10. It doesn’t bypass magic.

I’m mainly thinking of abjuration spells here like alarm or glyph of warding, but divination also applies. If Count Strahd wants to watch you with scrying, you’re not going to stop him with pass without trace—and with a +14 to Stealth, he’s probably going to find you before you find him.  

11. It doesn’t bypass traps, either.

A simple kobold tripwire with a bell attached could be enough to alert enemies to your presence.

12. Or blindsight.

This is from the Sage himself:

And there are more creatures with blindsight than you might think: not just bats and grimlocks, but slaadi, oozes, most beasts, and all true dragons.

Note: you can hide from a creature with blindsight, but if you’re behind cover:

But what about truesight, tremorsense, and sense of smell?

Let’s take each one in turn.

Check what the PH (page 183) says about truesight:

A creature with truesight can, out to a specific range, see in normal and magical darkness, see invisible creatures and objects, automatically detect visual illusions and succeed on saving throws against them, and perceives the original form of a shapechanger or a creature that is transformed by magic. Furthermore, the creature can see into the Ethereal Plane.

Pass without trace is not invisibility, nor is it a ‘visual illusion’ (it’s actually an abjuration spell), so it is unaffected by truesight.

For tremorsense, I had to consult the Sage again:

Note the last sentence: ‘a person can still move stealthily enough to escape the notice of a creature with tremorsense.’ I must admit, I’ve probably been playing this wrong for years. If you’re one of my players: sorry.

Note, also, the description of tremorsense:

A monster with tremorsense can detect and pinpoint the origin of vibrations within a specific radius, provided that the monster and the source of the vibrations are in contact with the same ground or substance.

Sounds are vibrations! So if pass without trace creates a veil of silence, it stands to reason that this helps reduce tremors, too.

And sense of smell? Pass without trace refers to ‘shadows and silence,’ so, rules as written, it seems like smell should work as normal. Jeremy Crawford disagrees, however, saying that ‘the bonus to Stealth does make you harder to smell’:

I suppose the clue is in the name: pass without trace. The description also specifically rules out tracking, and tracking for many animals means scent. But if you make a different ruling here, I wouldn’t blame you.

The verdict

Overall, then, is pass without trace too good?

It can be.

I’ve had players use it very, very effectively. If a monster is surprised and everyone on the party gets to make their first attack against it with advantage, the fight can be over in a single round—especially if you have a paladin scoring a crit on a divine smite or a rogue doing the same with a sneak attack.

But you know what? This ‘spikiness’ is a feature, not a bug. If players use a good tactic and the dice go in their favour, let them enjoy it.

It won’t work every time. At some point they will wander into a goblin’s field of view (see point 6) or lose concentration (point 4) or trigger a trap (points 10 and 11). Maybe the sound of combat brings other enemies running, or someone in the group fails their Stealth check (point 7), or the party stumbles upon a creature with blindsight (point 12). And even if it keeps working for several sessions: in my experience, if something gets too good, players will eventually grow tired of it. Let them make their own fun until they’ve had their fill.

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2 thoughts on “12 reasons to stop worrying about pass without trace

  1. Would you clarify which podcast episode has the interview with Jeremy Crawford? When I click on the link, it takes me to the main episode list.

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