Game masters guides fail to give perception enough attention

In the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, perception worked by a simple system: To find hidden objects, players said where they wanted to look, and the dungeon master said if something was there. This method has advantages: It rewards player skill and ingenuity and allows the players to engage with the game world. The features of a location become more than fluff to be glossed over in favor of a search check.

The Hack & Slash blog makes a case that the say-where-you-look method should be the only method.

For all these advantages, the say-where-you-look method suffers a few limitations:

  • It leads to tedium as players spell out how their characters probe, sift, and break down every object the game master mentions.
  • The characters in the game world (and the game master) have a better image of the location than the players, which can lead to oversights and confusion.
  • Some secrets require keen senses in the game world to spot, such as the secret door that, even in original D&D, required a roll to notice.

Game masters guides: long on mood music, short on observation

In “A short history of perception in Dungeons & Dragons,” I recapped how D&D added various perception checks to fix these limitations. But the added checks introduced new issues.

I checked.

I checked.

As perception checks invaded the process of spotting and finding, questions arose. Does the DM decide to make a check or the players? Who gets to roll? If everyone rolls, how do I deal with the almost inevitable success, and should I even bother calling for a check? How can I prevent all the rolls from slowing the game? How can I prevent checks from nullifying player skill and ingenuity, and from making the details of the game world irrelevant?

When I scoured the web for advice on running search and perception tasks, I found no shortage of game masters with such questions. But when I referenced a pile of published advice on running a game, I found scant advice. My fat gamemastery tomes include more advice about mood music and snacks at the game table than about perception. Clearly, the writers of dungeon master’s guides operate on intuition and experience and they never consider these questions—or they cannot answer them.

In my next series of posts, I aim to to better. I suggest ways to avoid long recitals of places to look, and to avoid pointless die rolling. My advice for handling player observation and perception favors player ingenuity and choice over rote and chance, while accepting that sometimes observation depends on a character’s skill.

Next: Choosing which type of perception check fits a situation

3 thoughts on “Game masters guides fail to give perception enough attention

  1. Stelios V. Perdios

    Is there a good middle ground?

    Near the tail end of 3.5e I remember using “active” and “passive” spot and listen checks. I can’t remember where I read that option (Unearthed Arcana? The D&D Rules Compendium?). But for my group having a “passive” option (base 10 + modifiers) always in play removed a lot of die-rolling everytime the players entered a new encounter.

    If they wanted to see if they could get a higher result, they could make an “active” check and roll d20. It worked, for a while, but then the PCs with higher-than-normal passive modifiers would roll anyway, to see if they could find out what they had missed perceiving (if anything).

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Stelios,
      Thanks for the food for thought.

      I think passive perception and insight entered D&D with fourth edition. I respect the goal of reducing die rolls, but I have mixed feelings about how they function in play. I’ll discuss passive perception and its close kin, taking 10, in my next post.


  2. Don Holt

    Well my players rarely have the party in a single clump. The character(s) at the location of interest are the ones I ask to make a check. When players start having objectives other than beating up the next group of bad guys, stories start to develop. If real people stayed together as much as D&D characters do, they’d be fighting (with each other) all the time. Perhaps that explains some of the hostility in D&D.

    Split the party, and GM’s, make encounters where that tactic works.


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