Shifting Perspectives: How not to be seen

Every week, Shifting Perspectives explores issues affecting druids and those who group with them. This week, we go to pet our kitties and discover that they are not there.

I am going to take a short break from stomping Moore's music selections flatter than a Kansas prairie in order to include a Monty Python video, which I think we can all agree is a necessary sacrifice this week given both our subject material and the title that was guaranteed to result.

I had the pleasure of meeting a completely new player on my server not all that long ago. He'd rolled a rogue and was slowly making his way through both levels and the avalanche of bewilderment common to new players. I haven't forgotten what it was like to be tossed into a world of frequent acronyms and gamer parlance, and I spent some time giving him tips. Between making helpful suggestions like, "Wow, I guess you can't jump off the Thunder Bluff elevator at that point" and "Did you ever consider rolling a druid?", I discovered that he was in the habit of dying a lot.

For new players, that's not unusual, but it was how he was dying that really got my attention. Starting most fights from Stealth, he'd sneak up to a mob, most typically from the front, and then attempt to circle to the side or rear for a Backstab opener. A good 90% of the time, the mob would attack him midway through the process, which -- as you can imagine -- is a disconsolate state of affairs for someone who aspires to be an invisible ninja.

As soon as I saw this, I said, "Well, that's your problem right there."

"What is?"

"You are not an invisible ninja."

Outside of brief discussions on our leveling guides, we've never really talked about either the mechanics or proper use of stealth, and I don't frequently bring up topics related to leveling. But the more I think about it, stealth isn't really a leveling concern. All druids have it. It's significantly better for ferals with the Feral Instinct talent (and better still for Night Elves with a racial bonus), but it's the odd druid indeed who hasn't found themselves in the position of using and abusing the Cat's version of Stealth, Prowl. Even if you've played a druid for a while and have long since figured out that approaching a raid mob from the front while stealthed = instagib, I hope this article sheds some light on how the stealth mechanic works, why it sometimes fails, and some of its oddities in-game.

As a disclaimer, it needs to be said that this article is about what players know about the stealth mechanic based on experimentation, bugs, and the sum total of information we've gotten in the years that the game's been around. Blizzard doesn't spend a lot of time shouting the exact details from the rooftops, and for all we know, actual in-game stealth is the result of programmers sprinkling magical pixie dust on the servers on their way in from the parking lot in the morning.

Phasing is widely thought to be some of Blizzard's coolest new technology, but the truth of the matter is that stealth is one of its earliest and least complicated forms. Which is to say, what you see in the game is dependent on what the game server tells you is there. You'll see this at work in both intended and unintended ways. Every player has had the unpleasant experience of losing one's connection to the server and suddenly discovering that they, like the guy in the Twilight Zone episode, are the last living person in the world (of Warcraft). When your computer loses its ability to talk to the server, it stops receiving information about NPCs and your fellow players. In the case of phasing -- or, more appropriately, the type of phasing that players find in Wrath of the Lich King content -- what Blizzard does is send (or not send) information on the different versions, locations, and forms of NPCs and props, subject to where you are in a questline.

In the case of the death knight starting area, which is one of the most elaborate examples of phasing you'll find in the game, your Fed-Ex quests between the Scourge staging area and Acherus are a clever means of obscuring exactly when these switches are made. If you were actually on the ground while handing in VIctory At Death's Breach! rather than being in front of Mograine in Acherus, for example, you'd see the landscape be replaced by one in which the Scourge has advanced to the border of New Avalon. As you might expect, this gets more and more complicated with more NPCs, quests, and territory involved, to the point where Blizzard spent an awful lot of time in the Wrath beta trying to de-bug Icecrown phasing. Even today, if you're parked in front of Icecrown Citadel idly waiting for the night's raid to start while not on the Battle Before the Citadel daily, you can observe a hilarious series of battles occurring between Scourge geists and giant abominations locked in mortal combat with...nothing. The game does, in fact, have invisible ninjas, but they are all employed by the Argent Crusade.

Of course, when you find yourself being Cheap Shot in a battleground, it's not because phasing's borked or because you need to call your ISP for the fifth time that month and dance around in incandescent rage at being put on hold again. It's because the game server omits key information about the whereabouts of an enemy in the event that said enemy is stealthing, prowling, or genuinely Invisible. If you've heard the telltale whoosh of a stealthed player, you know they're there. Your computer also knows they're there. But your client does not have the information necessary to target the player in question, and the server will have ceased displaying the enemy's character in visual form.

For you, that is. They can still see themselves, as can their teammates. By the time you see them, your fate is pretty much sealed (and yes, we can all enjoy the irony of that phrase being a talent in the Assassination tree).

However, that's the case of an enemy player knowing exactly what Stealth/Prowl does, and using it correctly. A player who's not that well-versed in the skill (like my unfortunate rogue buddy) is generally an easy kill, because they don't know about (or are ignoring) at least one of the following rules:

You are not an invisible ninja

No, seriously.

Prowl does not do quite the same thing between NPCs and player characters

Versus enemy NPCs, Prowl or Stealth reduces your aggro radius -- the distance at which a hostile mob will realize you're there and attack you. It does not make you "invisible" in the way it does to a hostile player's client. There's an interesting quirk with the array of friendly NPCs programmed to interact with player characters (e.g. the Expedition Wardens at the Cenarion Refuge in Zangarmarsh, or the Crusaders of Virtue at the Crusaders' Pinnacle in Icecrown). When you're in range of them and stealthed, they will still turn to you and perform a salutatory emote, so I'm not sure there's a means of becoming genuinely invisible to an NPC outside of the true invisibility effects granted by the mage's Invisibility or the Invisibility Potion.

However, stealth is not the only means of reducing your aggro radius versus a mob; the priest's Mind Soothe and our Soothe Animal will accomplish the same trick. The difference is that stealth does this on a global level, whereas the two Soothe spells can only be applied to individual mobs and have a set duration (although you can apply them to multiple mobs at once). Soothing a hostile NPC and then walking right past it is often faster than stealth, while providing the same effect.

Never approach a mob or enemy player from the front.

Which, when you think about it, makes sense ("I'm an invisible ninja! Directly in front of you! In broad daylight!"). The odds of being seen are extremely high unless you outlevel the mob or player in question. Even then, you're not really safe approaching from the front unless you've got 3 or more levels on them. Approaching from the side is a crapshoot, and still fairly likely to tip an enemy player off to your presence with the unmistakable whoosh. What you're ideally trying to avoid is any advance notice that a stealthed player is even in the vicinity.

Regardless of level or stealth skill, you cannot be seen while stealthed behind an enemy

Even if you just dinged 20 and trained Cat Form and Prowl, you'd be able to surprise Arthas himself if you were approaching from behind (please do not construe this statement as endorsement of doing so). If you've ever wondered how the rogue's Distract skill works, this is really the meat of it -- the rogue can force hostiles to turn in a specific direction, and thus stealth by mobs that he/she might not otherwise have the skill to get past safely. A poor-man's version of this can sometimes be effected by druids casting Soothe Animal on a hostile (when applicable) and then stealthing past, but it is not foolproof. You've still got the underlying problem of a mob facing in an inconvenient direction.

If you do not outlevel the mob or player and your positioning isn't ideal, expect to be either "noticed" or seen outright

In PvP, a player will see you if get sufficiently close and aren't behind them, and will often be tipped off anyway by the stealth sound immediately before you become visible. This is an either/or proposition -- there's no middle ground between visible/targetable and not. The only thing that will reduce the advance warning they get is better stealth skill (on your end) or being too occupied attempting to get the last Pringle out of the can to watch the monitor (on theirs).

In PvE, a mob will let you know that you're in danger of being seen by turning suddenly in your direction with a suspicious noise, which is absolutely unmistakable.

Moving after being "noticed" is not what gets you attacked
out of stealth.

For years, the conventional wisdom concerning mobs "noticing" you was that you could eventually stealth past them if you froze immediately and only moved after the mob went back to normal. I experimented with this for a while before arriving at the conclusion that it's not movement per se after being "noticed" that allows a mob to attack you out of stealth -- it's the fact that, in the cramped situations that often cause you to be "noticed" in the first place, the odds of your having to move closer to the mob in order to pass them are pretty high. If a mob turns toward you, moving any closer to it will almost always get you attacked, but moving away from (or parallel to) the mob will not.

Some NPCs can see you no matter what

you do.

If you see an odd blue-and-black circle above a hostile NPC while you're stealthed, run in the opposite direction. It's a sign that the mob has something called Truesight, which allows them to see stealthed players. Interestingly, a Truesight mob can and will aggro you from a distance even if you massively outlevel them, but this only seems to happen while stealthed. If you outlevel them, it's almost always easier to pass them uninterrupted while unstealthed. Weird, no?

Is there any rite of passage concerning stealth?

Why, yes! Stealthing Kibler's Exotic Pets and/or En-Ay-Es-Tee-Why are both good for practicing stealth techniques, but be prepared to die a lot while you get it right. There's a now-classic account of this by Dianius of Terenas-EU.

In the future I'd like to cover a bit more about stealth's more nitty-gritty particulars, but I'm still occupied trying to get decent video of exactly how much better the Night Elf bonus and +stealth effects are, so we'll address that in the future.

Every week, Shifting Perspectives treks across Azeroth in pursuit of truth, beauty, and insight concerning the druid class. Sometimes it finds the latter, or something good enough for government work. Whether you're a Bear, Cat, Moonkin, Tree, or stuck in caster form, we've got the skinny on druid changes in patch 3.3, a close look at the disappearance of the bear tank, and thoughts on why you should be playing the class (or why not).