• CritCat

I have a problem with Perception. Let's change it.

Greetings! I rolled a 5 and didn't see the rabbit hole, so I fell down it. Recently, I was distracted thinking about #Quest, the #trpg, tripped into a rabbit hole, and somehow ended up having a bone to pick with Dungeons and Dragons 5e's (#dnd) implementation of Perception.


...let the players explore not with a dice roll, but by interacting with the space and putting information together.

There's always been something about Wisdom (Perception) ability checks that have bothered me, but it's historically been difficult to pinpoint. A mild irritant to be ignored and forgotten. Until now. What do Perception checks add to the game and the shared story? They come up often. Very often. But why? (If you're not interested in the why, skip ahead to "I suggest two changes to Perception" to get to the juicy bits.)


Here are a few reasons Perception checks might be called for:

  1. The party is checking for traps. I'm not sold on this one, as I discuss in the blog post "Make traps visible"

  2. A creature is hiding and a Perception check contests their Dexterity (Stealth) to detect them. However, if the party is not aware of the creature than the Stealth check is contested by the party members' Passive Perception. So, calling for a Perception check in this scenario is only useful if the party is actively searching for someone.

  3. There's an object in the environment the Dungeon Master (#DM) has set a difficulty class (DC) to detect. This object should serve a purpose: it's a hidden trapdoor to the floor below, it's an important clue tucked into a book, it's a magic rune barely visible on the stone wall, or it's simply a bonus source of information.

  4. A character wants to know where the jailer keeps their keys or where the noble stores their coin pouch. Alternatively, the character wants to pick up on more details.

If I missed any important reasons, leave a comment or let me know on Twitter @CritCatastrophe. I'd hate to overlook a viable Perception check.


Those are the biggest reasons to call for a Perception check. But here's where I have a problem. In the order of the above examples:


Checking for traps...

The party rogue checks for traps as they go. They suspect traps in this dungeon, but they rolled low on their active Perception check. The other three players may now want to try searching for traps. The Dungeon Master either lets them, makes it a group roll, or declines the request. There may not even be a trap to discover. But if there is a trap present, and they failed that check, the party now wanders into it. (psst, make traps visible) It forces incompetence onto the character, at least in the case where they aren't rushing through/distracted.


A creature is hiding from the party...

An enemy assassin waits in the shadows, hidden with a Stealth check of 18. The party comes stomping into the room. The highest Passive Perception is 16. So, the assassin either remains undetected or the party gets jumped by the assassin and they are surprised. Passive Perception did all the work here and the results were clear. I'm alright with this one.


Imagine a party member enters the shadowy room saying, "I'm alert and looking for threats." As a Dungeon Master, I would request an active Perception check. This can lead to one of two outcomes:

  1. They roll an 18 or higher and detect that the assassin is there. Often, in my experience, they detect exactly where the assassin is.

  2. They roll lower than 18 and do not detect any trace of the assassin. And they probably get stabbed.

There is an object hidden in the environment...

The party searches a room. The highest Perception check was 13. Naturally, everyone at the table independently made a Perception check. Once one person makes a check, everyone else wants to make one. We like to roll dice! Anyway. There's a trapdoor hidden under a rug with a DC of 15 to detect. Eventually, the party finishes up in the room and leaves without noticing it. The DM might even be a bit bummed. There was a cool encounter down there, clues about what's going on, and a piece of loot for the monk. Or maybe it was just a storage room with a health potion and rope. Ideally, don't hide cool things behind a DC. Just put 'em out there and let the party interact with it. The DM says, "you see a crooked throw rug on the floor with dirt tracks around it." Now it is the party's responsibility to follow up on the rug or ignore it.


Alternatively, someone in the party says "I spend ten minutes carefully searching the room" and they find the trapdoor. If the party isn't pressed for time or actively in danger then there's little point in hiding anything away behind a DC to perceive.


A character wants to learn a detail...

Per the listed examples, a character is observing a jailer in an attempt to discern where she keeps the keys to the prison door. The DM could call for a Perception check. On a failure, the character doesn't see the keys. On a success, the character notes the keys on the jailer's belt. But what if the player wants to stick around longer to check again for where the keys are kept? This could lead to discovering the keys, or to the jailer noticing she's being tailed, or the Dungeon Master could double down on the location of the keys remaining a mystery.


Or, the Dungeon Master could outright reveal that the keys are on the jailer's belt. No check required. (Take a shot every time I use the word 'or,' preferably of water.)

Of these four scenarios, there is only one that I personally feel warrants the use of Perception. Whether that is passive or active. That is scenario two, a creature is hiding from the party (or the party is hiding from a creature). Stealth vs Perception. In that particular case, Passive Perception is suitable anyway and often what gets used.


I suggest two changes to Perception.

  1. Use only Passive Perception. No active Perception checks.

  2. Replace active Perception with Wisdom (Intuition). We'll get back to this later.

Relying solely on Passive Perception would streamline aspects of play, especially if coupled with principles of making meaningful things visible. Such as traps, clues, and points of interest in the environment.


Passive Perception Only

This change means that Passive Perception is the entire extent of a character's perception. That's it. It encompasses vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste (I guess?). Their Passive Perception is always on, so long as they are conscious, and even to some degree when they are asleep. When they move about the worldlooking in rooms and searching for hidden enemiesthey either notice something or they don't, based on their Passive Perception value. The situation and environment may call for a +/- modifier to their Passive Perception (or the DC itself) to reflect being chased, being in total darkness, and so on.


Here's how it works:

  • Stealth checks will always be resolved against Passive Perception.

  • If objects in the environment do have a DC to spot, it is compared against Passive Perception. Ideally, characters will collectively perceive everything meaningful in their environment. Characters with higher Passive Perception may pick up on additional details.

  • If traps are hidden, DC to detect them is resolved against the relevant party member's Passive Perception. Use +/- modifiers as needed for particularly astute party members that search carefully and brandish light, if applicable. Or, make traps visible.

  • Pickpocketing attempts against the party or NPCs are contested by Passive Perception. Intuition may be used here, as well.

  • Use Investigation if a character is trying to discern a specific detail, such as where a noble might keep their coin purse. Or just outright tell the character what they see. Even better, the character may not see where the purse is kept, but they may be able to gather that information by interacting with the noble. Chatting them up and asking for a spare copper, using Charisma (Persuasion). Bumping into them and performing a Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) to pat the noble down. We use active Perception for too many checks!


These changes should streamline play. No more having everyone roll for Perception and then the DM splits what each person sees into tiers, based on the results. No more rolling natural 1s (even if nat 1s have no magical negative impact) or 2s and having the character gaze blankly into space as if their eyeballs stopped functioning.


Now, if the DM does apply a DC to perceive an object or detail, it's quickly apparent who sees it and who doesn't with a quick comparison to Passive Perception. But let's ask ourselves why we hide objects from the party? What is the point of putting a hidden object in the environment and gating it behind a Perception check DC? What benefit is there of placing something in a room that the party may miss seeing because of a low roll? Note the use of the word "seeing" instead of "finding."


If we're going to hide something, hide it intuitively and let the players explore not with a dice roll, but by interacting with the space and putting information together. The Dungeon Master ought to describe the meaningful clues in the scene. Likewise, the players ought to ask for more information and investigate (or capital I Investigate) what's there. Establish that cadence between party and DM!


It's important to note that there's still value in boosting Perception. Either with points in Wisdom or with proficiency and expertise in the Perception skill. My party's bard has +1 Wisdom and took expertise in Perception. Their Passive Perception is 23. Imagine that paired with a Sentinel Shield or Knave's Eye Patch for an extra +5 (from advantage) to Passive Perception. Even against Jarlaxle, a CR 15 NPC with an incredible +16 in Stealth, this bard would detect him 30% of the time exclusively with Passive Perception. Most creatures proficient in Stealth will only get a +4, +7, or +9 bonus. This means there is huge value in specializing in Perception, even with my proposed changes, as the character with high Passive Perception will be able to detect all sorts of hidden things and assailants.


Note: In some cases, the DM may want to apply an "advantage" bonus to Passive Perception. If a character or NPC is diligently keeping watch over their camp and wholly consumed by that task it may warrant boosting the Passive Perception with an advantage bonus of +5, or anywhere between +1 and +5. This is the +/- bonus I mentioned earlier, it replaces advantage and disadvantage found on an active check.


Still, I wouldn't want to waste the points spent on Wisdom and Perception by entirely removing its active skill check. That wouldn't be fair to the player and undermines the resources invested in Perception. Instead, I'd like to conceptually revamp how active Perception is used. Personally, I would rename it to Intuition, but that may cause confusion by having Passive Perception derive from a skill named Intuition. "A rose by any other name..." I digress. What is Intuition and why is it better than plain ol' active Perception?


Intuition Replaces Active Perception

The dictionary definition of intuition is:

  • "the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning."

  • "a thing that one knows or considers likely from instinctive feeling rather than conscious reasoning."

Wisdom, as a stat, lends itself really well to something like intuition. It's instinctive and becomes increasingly reliable with experience. A perfect fit!


Let's go back to the scenario where the party enters a room with the assassin in hiding. The assassin's Stealth check exceeds the Passive Perception of everyone in the party, but the party is alert and generally on the lookout for threats. Intuition can come into play here, and shake things up. Here are a few ways I imagine it happening.


The Dungeon Master loosely describes the room as the party enters. The assassin is well hidden from everyone's Passive Perception with the Stealth of 18.


"You enter a shadowy dungeon room. Thick pillars dot the space, supporting the stone roof. Rubble collects in heaps. Dust chokes the air. There's a door on the far side of the large chamber."


Version 1

Player A: Do I see anything moving? Any monsters?

DM: You don't see anything. But... roll an Intuition check.

Player A: It's a... 19.

DM: You have an uneasy feeling in your gut. Did those shadows in the corner just shift? Something doesn't seem right in this room, but you're not sure what.

Player A: "Something doesn't feel right, be on guard."

Player B: I cast Detect Magic/Divine Sense/Faerie Fire/Light/Fireball.

Version 2

Player A: Do I see anything moving? Any monsters?

DM: You don't see anything. But... roll an Intuition check.

Player A: I got 15.

DM: An uneasy feeling settles over you.

Version 3

Player A: Do I see anything moving? Any monsters?

DM: You don't see anything. But... roll an Intuition check.

Player A: Ouch. 6.

DM: Nothing seems amiss.


Furthermore, the DM could make the Intuition roll behind the screen if they really don't want to alert the players, and then describe the result if it is applicable.


Intuition doesn't just flip a switch that toggles the assassin from hidden to found. It simply indicates to the characters that there is something here beyond their senses. It gives them a new way to interact while maintaining the threat of a hidden enemy. What about a 20+ on the Intuition check? Or a natural 20, even? It's up to the Dungeon Master how to interpret that, but I would be increasingly specific with heightened Intuition. "You feel you're being watched. There's someone, or something, else in here with you." It reveals the threat of a concealed enemy, builds tension, but doesn't pinpoint where they are hidden or who they are.


This can be applied to other scenarios with as much creativity as the DM can muster. For example, the party is looking for a key to the locked door. It's not perceivable, because it is tucked away out of view somewhere. The party may roll an Intuition check for clues as to where the key is stored. Failing this check doesn't mean they can't find the key. In fact, they should already see the possible hiding places in the scene per the Dungeon Master's description of the room. Succeeding the check only means they'll get a gut feeling about that jewelry box that just so happens to have a fake bottom. Whereas, gating whether or not someone sees that jewelry box to an active Perception check is jarring and unnatural. Why does the rogue see it, but the fighter actively looking for clues didn't? Instead, everyone with vision sees the jewelry box. But they also see a desk with drawers, a trunk of clothing, a plush bed, and racks of magical components. The Intuition check merely gives the party a nudge in the right direction, especially if they are stuck and not compelled to interact with the environment. It's worth noting that an Investigation check could also be used in this scenario.


A general rule for Intuition. If multiple characters could use their Intuition in a given scenario, either pick only one at random or make it a group check. The Dungeon Master should call for the check where it is applicable. Players may ask "does anything feel amiss?" and the DM can decide if an Intuition check is appropriate, or even use the character's expertise in Perception/Intuition to say "yes, definitely something is amiss."

In my experience, in its current form, the way Perception is utilized is clunky. It's often misused to the point where obvious things in the environment get overlooked by a character because they wanted to roll Perception and got a low roll. Part of this comes down to the Dungeon Master needing to command the dice, but also not hide from the players what they are looking for. To put it succinctly: seeing something in a tabletop roleplaying game is the baseline requirement for interacting with it. The players and their characters have to know something exists in the scene to interact with it. The interaction is what makes the scene interesting and where skills matter. They see the tracks, but do they have the skill to follow them accurately? They see the trap, but can they disarm it safely? They see the keys on the jailer's belt, but will they be able to steal the keys without being noticed?


I typically don't mess with core rules and established skills too much, as I haven't practiced tabletop game design (yet?). But I believe there is value in this change and that it would be a change for the better. I may give it a try at my own table if the players are on board with it. If so, I'll report back how it went!


How would you alter Perception at your table? Do you like the skill as it functions now or do you think it needs an overhaul? How could I improve the changes I have suggested and have I made a glaring oversight? Share your ideas in the comments or send a message on Twitter!

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Player agency is everything in a TTRPG. Avoid forcing the party into a situation and instead learn to give them choices within the scene!

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