Choosing which type of perception check fits a situation

Both fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder apply a single Perception skill to all observation tasks. This cuts any confusion about which skill applies. Both D&D Next and third edition split the single skill into two or three.

3E D&D check 4E & Pathfinder check D&D Next check
Search Perception Intelligence (Search)
Spot Perception Wisdom (Perception)
Listen Perception Wisdom (Perception)

Magnification specs

For more on the advantages of multiple observation skills, see “A short history of perception in Dungeons & Dragons.”

In this guide, I sometimes refer to the perception tasks as Search, Spot, and Listen. In your game, apply the skill or check that fits the task.

Choosing which type of check fits a situation

D&D Next offers two types of observation checks, Intelligence (Search) and Wisdom (Perception), raising questions about which applies to a situation.

Spot and alertness checks

Wisdom (Perception) could have almost been called Alertness as these checks cover general awareness. When choosing whether to make these checks, consider the following observations:

  • Characters usually make Wisdom (Perception) or Spot checks to notice something while they’re busy doing something else: traveling, fighting, and so on.
  • Characters usually make Wisdom (Perception) or Spot checks because the game master calls for the check. The characters are busy, but the game master wants to determine if they notice something unusual. Characters make Wisdom (Perception) rolls when they look but don’t touch.
  • Wisdom (Perception) and Spot match with Tarzan’s alertness.
  • Wisdom (Perception) checks show keen senses too, but this typically only applies in one situation: Characters listening at a door make Wisdom (Perception) checks.

Search checks

Intelligence (Search) checks apply when characters spend time to examine and investigate.

Characters make Intelligence (Search) checks when players call for the check by asking to search.

Intelligence (Search) matches with Sherlock Holmes’ use of intellect of observe.

If you spend a moment to scan the surrounding trees, or press your ear to a door to hear what might lurk beyond, you’re relying on Wisdom (Perception) rather than Intelligence (Search). As a rule, if you’re not positive that Intelligence is the right choice, then Wisdom is the ability to use.” – D&D Next playtest rules

Listen checks

Third edition included a Listen skill as a nod D&D’s long tradition of characters putting their ears to doors. Aside for listening at doors, Listen skill frequently overlaps with Spot. When characters might both see and hear something like the monsters sneaking close to ambush, just roll to spot. Allowing characters to use both Listen and Spot to notice one thing makes stealth too difficult and adds excessive die rolling. Reserve Listen for cases where nothing can possibly be seen.

Next: Secrecy, metagaming, and perception checks

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One Response to Choosing which type of perception check fits a situation

  1. bruce says:

    Rolling both listen and spot isn’t really a far step from the two rolls you get with advantage/disadvantage. And in 3.5e it was part of balance because a character has to spend double the ranks if they want both separate skills listen and spot maxed out. It lets you buy tactically if you intend to use lots of concealment, or want to be good at moving silently, but not hiding because you’ll be invisible. I also like being able to tell a player that they hear something in a general direction rather than tell them they spot it in situations where the enemy can spot them but could have been seen himself.

    In 5e its possible to get the same effect in troublesome situations, but a bit obnoxious. Imagine a sneaking rogue in a bush. Well lets see, the bush makes noise when he moves through it so disadvantage but then he has advantage because he gets bush cover, but I have to have a separate dc for heard and spotted for when they roll perception to notice him because its easier to hear him than it is to see him? How much so? Oh I dunno maybe +1 to +5 depending on the thickness of the brush unless you’re giving players advantage/disadvantage rolls too… Meanwhile the players are also sneaking in the fog while they’re making the perception checks. It gets obnoxious to juggle all the advantage/disadvantage AND additional buffs really fast. Its not really better, its just simplified at the cost of lost options.

    For it to actually be better it would need to be simplified AND allow the same options, OR offer more options without becoming more complex.

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