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|
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.
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.
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.