A short history of perception in Dungeons & Dragons

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.

Runequest second edition

Runequest second edition

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.

I think the Next designers erred by calling the combination of Listen and Spot “Perception.” The skill shares a name with 4E and Pathfinder’s Perception, but it covers fewer tasks. It should have been called Awareness or something. To further compound the confusion, the section of the playtest document covering Perception and Search is titled “Perception.” When the final rules appear, I will rate the editors’ performance on whether this stands.

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.

3 thoughts on “A short history of perception in Dungeons & Dragons

  1. Matt

    This is a very informative article thank you.

    I disagree with the conclusion that adding perception stats was a good move however. It is merely a statistical crutch for finding what otherwise should be deduced by players themselves. Whether or not they hear or see something should be determined by their actions and the DM’s prerogative.

    Surprise in Ad&d was a reaction which is why it is modified by dexterity instead of wisdom or intelligence. It only told what happened upon discovery, but itself does not determine whether one is discovered or not. An enemy who is unaware of his opponent cannot not be “surprised” by his opponent until he reveals himself. If the one sneaking by never revealed himself, his opponent was never “surprised” . Many people use it as a tool to determine stealth, but if you read carefully, it simply doesn’t corroborate that approach. Further more, the odds are blatantly terrible should you do so. Thieves would have, at best, a 50% chance to get by an enemy, and an invisible and silenced target would still have a 30% chance of being detected arbitrarily.

    Actual discovery of hidden objects and enemies was wisely handled on a case by case basis.It is up to the DM to determine what triggers an alerted state and the subsequent surprise roll, and it is up to the players to deduce those triggers from intelligent interaction with the environment. You’ll notice in older adventures notes indicate “x chance to be seen or heard” or “only an active listen check 2/6 for elves would hear this noise.” This case by case scenario preserved the intention of the DM’s desired mood for the scene and established clear benefits among the races and classes. It also awarded players who could identify the twigs as noisy or enemy as visible and alert with the opportunity to immediately counter such things.

    Making players do these things themselves, except in cases where specific classes or races get a free chance, ensures their direct involvement in the scene. It greatly aids immersion and removes possibility for absurd results. Imagine for a second why someone would roll a search check if they are already staring at the desk which contains the object in question, or why a player who couldn’t be more off is getting a free pass because he has enough points in perception that he barely needs to roll.

    A combination of misinterpretation of pre 3e D&D rules, and the onset of rolls as a solution for all things leads to what may entertainingly be called Roll Playing Games. Some things simply must be done by the players because they are the ones who bring the game to life. It isn’t enough to only involve characters. It used to be that players were the mind of the character and the statistics were the body. Testing the mind tested the players and testing the body or physical mental state tested the character. Now a days everything is aiming towards testing the character and leaving the player to merely roll dice to see what happens. The art cannot be found in the numbers.

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