Stop Favoring Perception for Searches in D&D

When Dungeons & Dragons characters search, what check should players make? Based on my experience playing with a hundred or so fifth-edition dungeon masters, most answer Wisdom (Perception). Nonetheless, many DMs ask for Intelligence (Investigation) checks instead.

So what character should search a door for traps? Based on the Dungeon Master’s Guide, pick the wise cleric. Based on the skill descriptions, pick the clever wizard. Based on tradition, pick the thief and—if you play fifth edition—run for cover because they can’t spot anything. Besides initiative checks, search checks rate as the second most common in the game, so you would think everyone would agree. We don’t.

All this uncertainty means that as a DM making a call for your table, you decide. I’m here to help.

Some players like to call for their own checks. A character enters a room and the player announces something like, “I use perception and roll a 17. What do I find?” Rolling a check that the DM didn’t request counts as a small lapse of table decorum. Only the DM decides whether a situation merits a check, whether the character can succeed, what check suits the circumstances, and which characters deserve the roll. If a player just announces such a check, say “First, tell me what you’re examining. Do you touch it?” That question grabs attention.

To complement Perception, D&D’s fifth-edition playtest included a Search skill. So during exploration, PCs “make a Wisdom (Perception) check to detect hidden creatures and an Intelligence (Search) check to detect hidden objects (such as traps and secret doors)”. This makes the difference between Perception and Search seem like noticing creatures versus spotting objects—surely not the intended distinction, and perhaps one source of confusion that led the designers to drop Search in favor of Investigation. At least everyone could agree to use Search for searching.

The game rules for Investigation explain, “When you look around for clues and make deductions based on those clues, you make an Intelligence (Investigation) check.” The bit about looking around for clues makes Investigation seem like a more useful superset of Search. Aside from treasure, clues rank as the most common thing for a search to uncover. Even traps only prove fun when players find clues to their presence. Falling down a pit: no fun. Investigating a puddle and finding an edge where the liquid meets a seam in the floor: fun.

For searches, opt for Intelligence (Investigation) checks. Investigators notice clues and uncover things outside of plain sight. Investigators know where to look, so they check under a drawer to find the envelope tucked in the joint. Most characters ignore the scuffs on a stone floor, but an investigator notices them because the marks show where the statue slides to reveal a trap door. Someone skilled at Investigation spots the ordinary but significant details that the keen-sensed barbarian overlooks because such details seem insignificant. Sometimes players know where to look too, so if a player asks to peer under drawers, they spot that letter.

In contrast, perception enables characters to notice things that simply require keen senses, for example the sounds of an invisible creature, the master rogue Waldo in a crowd, or the cat obscured by shadows. “Your Wisdom (Perception) check lets you spot, hear, or otherwise detect the presence of something. It measures your general awareness of your surroundings and the keenness of your senses.” Perception can reveal the obscure, but it can’t expose something hidden from all the senses.

Many D&D fans, including me, tend to think of Investigation and searching as active in contrast to passive Perception. While this pattern frequently holds, don’t rely on it to distinguish the skills.

Such thinking leads players to make two checks to look around, one for percieving and one for investigating. Better to avoid such repetition. See How to Avoid Boring Rerolls of D&D’s Ability Checks. Players who make one check to find nothing in an empty room feel disappointed. Why invite a second, time-wasting check?

Freelance designer Teos “Alphasteam” Abadia explains how a distinction between active and inactive skills leads players to game the system. “Spycraft did that, with one skill for actively looking and another for possible noticing. It led to absurd behavior. You would enter an enemy camp, but state you were not looking around. That way, your better Notice skill would kick in.”

Sometimes the difference between Investigation and Perception blurs. Typically, when characters pause to examine and interact as they look, call for an Investigation check. This tends to reinforce the distinction of an investigator noticing the details in the mundane, plus it balances the value of the overvalued Wisdom (Perception) check with the undervalued Intelligence ability and Investigation skill.

D&D is a team game and when different character architypes skills and abilities contribute to a group’s success. By using the Intelligence ability and the Investigation skill, players who excel at those less pervasive knacks gain a chance to shine.

This approach amplifies the importance of not completely blocking a group’s progress with an Intelligence (Investigation) check. Fifth edition minimizes the value of the Intelligence ability so much that unless a party includes a Wizard, then no character may have a score higher than 10. In an essential investigation, give any required information, and then reward the sleuths with additional insights.

As for all those 8 and 10 Intelligence characters played by smart D&D players, they show the changing fashions of tabletop roleplaying. In the hobby’s early days of random ability scores, players who valued character immersion often felt obligated to play a low intelligence character as a knucklehead, complete with dangerously foolish decisions. Now, I rarely see such a commitment.

27 thoughts on “Stop Favoring Perception for Searches in D&D

  1. Tardigrade

    I hate search rolls.

    If there is a key in the drawer by the oven, and a player says “I search the drawer by the oven” does it really matter what they roll on their check? They’re going to find the flipping key eventually.

    I say, roll a d6. Or a d4. Whatever. That’s how many rounds it takes them to find the key. Or I roll it and ask them how long they search. If their answer meets or exceeds what I rolled, they find it.

    So many dumb check rolls…

    1. Karl R

      Imo, if they say they search that drawer, they find it. Most people just say “I search the room”, so they roll a check. Ymmv of course.

      1. Tardigrade

        My players aren’t “most people”. If they said “I search the room” I’d ask them to be more specific. “Most people” only say that because they have been told that is an option. If most DMs ran differently, most people would stop saying it.

        I think the game should be more about player choices than randomized rolls, when possible and appropriate.


  2. Ilbranteloth

    To me Perception an Investigation are the same type of skill, reached by different paths. Neither are based on your physical senses, although they rely on them.

    It’s Watson and Holmes.

    Perception is based on Wisdom. It’s intuition, a gut reaction, you notice something, get a feeling, etc, you may not even be able to explain why.

    Investigation is based on reason. You are able to piece together the clues around you. For some reason people think this is a slow process, and in game terms often think it requires some sort of action such as touching something.

    For example, you have two passages, and you are trying to figure out which passage a wizard went down. The person with a high Perception knows it’s the left, although they may not be able to explain why. Somebody with a high Investigation can tell you the dust on the floor on the right has been disturbed, but in a random way, like somebody tried to make you think they went that way. But the dust leading down the passage to the left is disturbed by somebody moving one direction.

    You don’t have to spend time or “touch things” to determine this. Your intelligence (Investigation) is high enough that it’s often done instantaneously and automatically, you just notice such things.

    I think it would be less of an issue if it had been called Observation.

    The second key to me? The liberal use of passive skills. Not only do we use passive skills, but we also consider the maximum, aka the “take 20” option from earlier editions. This lets the DM know what they are capable of with unlimited attempts. If the DC is between their passive and maximum, after applying any modifiers, then a check needs to be made.

    As a DM, a lot of the times my narration just provides the information because their passive score is sufficient. How I describe it depends on which (and how many) characters notice something and based on what skill most applies.

    I also continue to use the same process I’ve used for 40+ years…the players describe what they are looking for, and how. Most of the time they will find something eventually. Your skill is only part of what allows the DM to adjudicate, and a proper skill system provides the DM the info to adjudicate well. A skill floor (passive) that tells the DM what you are capable of, plus a ceiling, what you aren’t, and a way to provide bonuses and penalties provides a whole lot more information than the older systems to help the DM adjudicate.

    Based on what the players say, and taking into account the circumstances, prior experiences of the PCs, etc., I can assign advantage/disadvantage to their passive score and know whether they need to check at all.

    No, this isn’t exactly how the game is designed, and yet it also tells you that you can use a passive score for any ability check. So perhaps it IS designed this way. I find it’s the missing piece that should have been leveraged as the default for nearly everything. We do use higher DCs for many different things (+5 DC for nearly everything is a good start).

    PS – If it bothers you that Reliable Talent is similar, then change the ability to something else.

    1. MattL

      Your perception check will tell you there are footprints on the floor. Your investigation check will tell you which way they were walking Or perhaps if they were walking backwards to throw you off.

        1. TVC

          Um, respectfully, thats the DM’s call.
          OP’s logic is sound.
          Perception: there are foot prints.
          Investigation: which direction, any counter measures taken, what type of prints (basicstuff like boot, barefoot, dragging, etc. If the enviornment permits)
          Track: actually following the suckers, as well as picking up other clues about them, specific things.
          Thats just how I run it. Every DM, by the very first real rule of the game, has the prerogative to disregard, add on, or bend the game to the needs of their table, and or campaign. If you want to be more stringent, cool…good for you. But dont tell another DM what they should and shouldnt use, if you arent in their campaign.

          1. James Coxhead

            Totally agree, the track skill would be finding that the person walking has a bad leg the wizard you wounded; but there is also a second set of tracks hidden in the wizards foot prints his diminutive gaurd perhaps. Or that the tracks are hours days weeks old or that the wizard changed shoes and went down the hidden door on the right because the prints are now closer together and the wounded leg print is no longer scuffing so check the walls for the slight breeze disturbing the cobwebs on the ceiling… track is just that that tracking. But like op said nothing the footprints and if someone tried to throw you off in an obvious fashion.

    2. Habitual Joker

      I’ve always thought of it like this: Perception which is Wisdom-bound is used regarding people/monsters; Investigation which is Intelligence-bound is used regarding objects.

      I don’t think it needs to be more complicated than that.

  3. Matthias

    I’m with Tardigrade here. In the modal case, don’t roll to search a room! Just give the players any loot or clues or whatever that they’re looking for. If they insist on doing this for every room they come across, then gate this by forcing them to describe it in terms more specific than “I search the room.”

    Now, if they’re trying to search a room in a hurry, or without leaving evidence of their having been there, you can make up a roll for that. But in general I would not roll to have a PC find something any more than I would have them make a Constitution save to digest their meal.

  4. Dave Dalrymple

    I’m surprised that “Perception vs. Investigation” didn’t merit a blurb in the “rules to remember” in Xanathar’s or Tasha’s, since it seems like a distinction that most DMs struggle with. I don’t find the passive vs. active distinction to be especially helpful (the Dungeoneer feat implies that passive Investigation checks should exist).

    What I find to be a helpful distinction between perception and investigation is to ask: “Would an animal notice anything remarkable about this?” An animal is going to be wary of movement, sounds, smells, and any indication of prey/predator. An animal is not going to notice that a sconce is askew, or that a bookshelf has two copies of the same book. An animal is probably going to notice a tripwire, but it’s not going to recognize it as the trigger to a trap.

    1. Robin A Blair

      Yep, that’s my general way to distinguish a perception check vs investigation check. Could/would a dog make the check? In quite a few cases either method works of course, so I nudge players to roleplay/describe the way their character tries to solve the problem (just a one line description to highlight character features, nothing major).

  5. Dave Dalrymple

    On another topic, once you’ve decided that rolling skill checks to find traps and secret doors is no fun anymore, and you adopt a more direct micro-roleplay approach to searches (i.e. the players tell you specifically where and how they are searching) you inevitably engineer a “Mysterious Trigger Dilemma”. That’s when the players find some sort of switch or trigger, but there’s no way of knowing if pressing that trigger will open a secret door or trigger a trap (or both simultaneously). TOMB OF HORRORS is full of such elements, but they need not be limited to a death-trap dungeon. Sometimes, they’re just a complication or a setback (e.g. the room starts to fill with water, or a silent alarm awakens the Beholder in the treasury).

  6. Harold B.

    “Based on tradition, pick the thief and—if you play fifth edition—run for cover because they can’t spot anything.”

    Someone suggested to me that’s what skill expertise is for. A low wisdom rogue can have a Perception score about as high as a cleric with expertise. But it’s not very satisfying as a player.

  7. Arnaud Gomes

    I guess part of the solution here is to use either the class or proficiency in the skill itself as a prerequisite for a particular check. As in, finding this trap is a DC 15 Wisdom (Perception) check for a Thief / for a character with the Investigation skill, impossible for anyone else.

    The first solution is more in line with the thief skills in older editions (I like it better), the second better supported by 5e hardcover adventures (ToA, at least, has a number of “give this piece of information to PCs with the relevant skill”).

  8. DK

    Easiest way to reduce the number of search rolls is to simply just check to see if the player’s passive score exceeds the difficulty. If it does, and they announce they’re checking, just assume it succeeds. If you want, narrate it a bit, but by all means get rid of the die roll when a player’s passive perception is 21 and the DC is 15, active searching or not…

  9. Dick S.

    perception is passive investigation is active.

    with perception you notice that there is a forest ahead and something seems off about it. perception is your blatant sense.

    upon further investigation you find that it’s littered with human corpses. you didn’t naturally stumble upon the bodies, you went looking for them. using perception you can see obviously that they’ve been drained of blood but using investigation you notice it’s all through gigantic holes in their feet.

  10. Eric E

    The way the game rules were structured and how I DM it was always:
    Perception is to find things with your sight.
    Investigation is to give answers using your mind to the things you already see.

    This can lead to gated Investigation checks. However this is rarely needed. Remember most importantly to only gate things that /need/ it. Is it a treasure you want to give the party? They’ll find it. Is it a clue needed to continue the plot? They will find it.

    Only gate traps, side plots, optional rewards, and in some cases better answers to the main quest.

  11. EisenSpider

    Short answer “No. I don’t think I will”.

    Long answer: For games I gm, it depends on what’s being asked. Perception, Investigation, Survival, Intuition, etc, all have different parts to play, but in my experience usually all the module/ap is asking for is to spot something barely hidden or something more obvious to a pro league adventurer. So perception is usually the catch-all. In the case of something more nuanced, yeah, any skill could be argued depending on your scenario and system (PF, D&D, etc).

    As a player, big time DUH, that it’s the gm’s call. I can understand some frustration that it’s always the same skill and maybe your character doesn’t do it well, but that’s sort of your consideration when making the character that you may be lacking in a certain skill.

    1. Grand Archmagi Babbelo

      Perceived decorum aside, I allow my players and encourage them to use their own minds when to ask for a roll. I believe its better for the players to take initiative and engage with the gameplay beyond murder O’clock. Such as when entering a room, let them ask to roll perception or whatnot. to see if snything of interest catches their eyes. I may give them s basic layout and whats in the room, so their check is simply to help them quickly find what they need.

      I dont believe asking for rolls to be a detriment to gameplay though, so perhaps I’m biased. Honestly though, everyone is different. everyone plays differently and may not enjoy the game if they had different ways of playing forced upon them. The difference is having players who want to engage, and interact. and “murderhobos” who swing from combat to combat ignoring any diplomacy or speech check in favor of fighting, and the first step to that is telling players they can’t use their skills unless you want them to use them,

      So Fuck the decorum, and have fun.

  12. Edwin G. Castro

    In my opinion, Perception should never have been a skill. Perception is intended to be used when the character is not actively trying to notice, search, or otherwise identify something. Perception is more like the first half of a Reflex saving throw. Before a character can attempt to take any action to avoid damage, they must first perceive the attack. Both the Reflex Perception and the Reflex action which constitute a full Reflex saving throw are unconcious fight or flight responses and should be handled as a single roll. I think of the Perception skill as the equivalent to Reflex Perception without the precense of immediate danger. In my opinion it should never have been a skill. And I personally do not like Wisdom being associated with it. It just doesn’t have a traditional D&D ability that applies well. Hell, out of all of them I am more likely to associate Perception with Dexterity because of Dexterity’s obvious connection to the full Reflex saving throw.

  13. Jayzippo

    I would never bog a gameplay down with intricate search’s. If they go into a room, tell me they search I am assuming everywhere. Anything hidden would be part of that. I was part of a campaign that did that search everything and it took an hour a room, worthless.

    1. Kaique

      It can became worthless If you don’t couple a careful search mechanic with a time constraint. People won’t search every room for an hour if there are monsters wandering around. I’ve been running my campaigns that way for some years, and the decision to keep searching the place is usually only took if they have a hint that something must be there to be found.

  14. DanW

    My rule of thumb for Perception vs Investigation:

    If you are relying on your eyes/ears/nose and feet, it is Perception (walking around though a scene, looking at things from different angles, etc).

    If you are mostly using your brain and hands, it is Investigation (picking things up, searching through things, understanding what the things you see/hear/smell mean in this context).

  15. pondrthis

    If you squint your eyes or put your finger to your lips to strain and detect something, it’s Perception. For everything else, it’s Investigation. The reason we often think of Perception being for creatures is that creatures have vital signs that give them away, and animals (including humans) instinctively use those vital signs, such as breathing and heartbeats, to pinpoint hidden prey or predators. That said, Investigation is better for spotting constructs masquerading as statues, because you aren’t going to hear a heartbeat from them–you might just see that they have no signs of chiseling, though.

    Straining to, well, *perceive* something at the limits of your special senses is the ONLY thing you should be rolling Perception for.


Leave a Reply