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.
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.