Through second edition, Dungeons & Dragons handled perception with a mix of mechanics: To find hidden objects, players said where they wanted to look, and the dungeon master said if something was there. To find secret doors, the DM rolled a d6, and then considered the character’s elven parentage. Listening also hinges on a d6, with everyone but humans gaining an advantage. To spot an ambush, the DM resorted to the surprise system, which by AD&D, no one understood.
Third edition D&D would replace this mess with a system taken from Runequest (1978). Except from prior editions of D&D, Runequest serves as the dominant influence on third edition. RQ based perception on three skills: Listen, Spot Hidden Item, and Spot Trap, which became Listen, Scan, and Search in the game’s 1985 edition. A character’s intelligence boosted these skills.
When the 3E designers adopted Runequest’s perception skills as Listen, Spot, and Search, they had to decide which ability scores would match the skills. Runequest used Intelligence, and for Search, that fit. But how did intelligence help you listen? Does intelligence make you more alert?
Wisdom makes you alert
Unlike Runequest, D&D possessed a Wisdom score. Although Wisdom improved some saves, virtually no skills relied on it. The 3E designers saw a chance of broaden Wisdom’s portfolio of traits to include an awareness of more than the spiritual, but also of the hushed voices in the next room and the flash of steel through a window. While this interpretation strained the dictionary definition of Wisdom, it improved the game by making the value of Wisdom match the other ability scores.
Like RQ, third edition continued to base Search on Intelligence, but Listen and Spot stemmed from Wisdom.
Both D&D’s fourth edition and Pathfinder’s designers dispensed with the distinction. In both games, Search, Spot, and Listen all become a single Perception skill based on Wisdom. While I understand the urge to simply, Spot and Search get used frequently enough to merit separate skills. Search isn’t Use Rope.
The advantages of Search and Spot
D&D Next undoes some of the simplification by splitting Perception into two skills: Search, based on Intelligence, and Perception, based on Wisdom. The D&D Next Perception combines Listen and Spot. The rules make the analogy of comparing Search to Sherlock Holmes’ use of intellect to observe clues, and comparing Next’s Perception to Tarzan’s alertness.
Having separate Perception (Awareness) and Search skills offers two advantages:
Both Wisdom and Intelligence gain value as they boost the most frequent, non-combat checks in the game. Without a Search skill, Intelligence only contributes to knowledge checks, which someone in the party will probably make anyway.
The two skills more closely simulate the real world of brilliant but inattentive professors and of alert creatures with animal intelligence. Some dogs notice the smallest disturbance, but can’t find the kibble making a lump under the rug, even though they smell it somewhere.
On the other hand, Listen remains part of Perception (Awareness), an improvement on 3E. When Listen and Spot exist as separate skills, they can apply to the same situation, leading to confusion. For example, when you might both see someone creeping in the shadows and hear them, do you make a Listen check, a Spot check, or both?
By settling on Search and Perception, D&D Next finds the optimal set of perception skills, if not optimal names.