Tag Archives: passive checks

The One Best Way to Make Perception Checks Doesn’t Exist. Here’s Your Toolkit

When players make Wisdom (Perception), Spot, Search, Insight, and other rolls to gain information, the number on the die reveals things: A low roll with no discovery suggests the character missed something; a high roll without a discovery confirms nothing to find. Unlike the players, their characters never see the die roll, so they lack the same insight.

In the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, dungeon masters avoided revealing such metagame clues by rolling secretly. To see if someone spotted a secret door, Gary Gygax rolled a 6-sided die behind a screen. Elves locate hidden passages on a roll of 1-4.

But when a die roll affects the characters’ fate, players like throwing their own dice. We all feel like if we want a certain roll strongly enough, we might sway the outcome. Sure, those of us who play D&D rather than Las Vegas recognize that sense of control for a lie, but we feel it all the same. Plus, dungeon masters see player rolls bring other benefits: Die rolls grab the players’ attention and keeps them physically engaged. (See How to Wring Maximum Drama from a Roll of the Dice.)

Fifth edition D&D skips the roll with the innovation of passive checks. Just compare the DC against a passive score. In theory, passive checks speed play, avoiding all those secret die rolls to spot hidden doors. The DM simply decides in advance what hidden doors the party will find, and then sets the DCs accordingly. Phrased like that, the procedure seems like no fun at all. Die rolls add surprise, uncertainty, and even a sense of fairness to our games. (See D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter.)

Aside from secret rolls (less fun) and passive checks (no fun), gamers account for the metagame insights that come from seeing the die roll in different ways:

  • The players roll, and then roleplay as if they didn’t see the die.
  • The players roll, but the DM sometimes asks for red-herring checks.

Over the years, I’ve gone through periods where I’ve favored each of those approaches. When I asked folks on twitter for their favorite techniques, I even learned a new one thanks to Alyssa Visscher.

  • The players roll, but the DM doesn’t tell what the roll is for.

For this technique, the DM has to know the characters’ perception bonuses. Just ask for a d20 roll, add the bonus, and go with the outcome. This lets players roll and grabs attention. For advantage or disadvantage, ask for two rolls.

I used to hope for a perfect method that brought player engagement without revealing metagame clues, but I’ve given up that search. Now I see a toolkit of methods, each with advantages.

How should you choose the right fit for a situation?

One situation always leads to a best approach. If a roll for initiative or damage would immediately follow a perception check, just let the player roll. Even players with imperceptive PCs immediately learn what t hey missed, so DMs gain nothing from a passive check or from metagame-thwarting tricks. (See How to Run an Ambush So Sneaky Monsters Bring More Than Claw/Claw/Bite.)

Other situations offer nearly as much clarity. If the players have to find something like a clue or a secret door for the adventure to continue, just let them find it without a roll. Or play the odds and let everyone roll. Someone will nearly always succeed. I’ve used both tricks to guarantee success, but I’m never proud of it. Checks that require success hint at fragile adventures that require a dash of railroading. (See In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?.)

Also, specific actions can eliminate any need for die rolls. The characters leading the party might need to make a perception check to notice a hidden pit, but if they probe the floor with their 10-foot pole, the discovery becomes automatic.

Choosing from the other methods calls for more judgment.

DM rolls secretly. Aside from depriving players of the fun of rolling, secret rolls suffer from a second disadvantage: In today’s roleplaying games, characters bring extra abilities likely to affect their chance of making a particular check. DMs can never expect to learn them all.

Still, for high-stakes insight checks that steer the course of an adventure, I ask players for their insight modifier and roll in secret. (See Insight Played Wrong Can Become the Most Unrealistic Thing In D&D, a Game With Djinns In Bottles Who Grant Wishes.)

Instead of rolling, use passive checks.  Despite my distaste for how passive checks rob players of rolls in favor of a mechanic uncomfortably close to DM fiat, I sometimes account for passive scores during low-stakes descriptions. Characters with high perceptions may notice clues or interesting details that deserve extra attention. When using this technique, mention that the character’s keen perception led to the discovery. Players deserve to know that their character choices paid off.

Players roll and roleplay as if they didn’t see the die. This method works best for low-stakes situations where the players have little fear of overlooking something dangerous or valuable. In perilous situations, the technique forces players into an uncomfortable conflict between risking their characters and playing their role. Also, by eliminating some natural uncertainty, instead of truly feeling unease and a sense of mystery, players just pretend to feel.

Players roll but the DM sometimes asks for red-herring checks. Every DM intuits one bluff: If characters search a door for traps, then someone rolls even if the door has no traps. But characters can notice hidden doors even when no player asked to look, which means asking players to roll checks. To add extra uncertainty, ask for checks at times when nothing important can be found. This camouflages the important checks and heightens the tension that comes from knowing peril might hide nearby.

For extra misdirection, respond to every knowledge check with some information, even something familiar. So if the players fail a check to spot the spy following them through the market, tell them about the smell from the fishmonger, the buskers playing at the fountain, or the urchin looking for pockets to pick.

When players gain such information, they feel unsure of whether they missed their check or successfully learned something unremarkable.

Players roll, but a table rule adds uncertainty. Years ago, I proposed letting players make their own information checks, but occasionally overriding their due based on a secret roll. Whenever a player makes a check for information, secretly roll a d6 and a d20. If the d6 comes up 1, substitute your d20 result for the player’s.

In life, people tend to get a sense of how well they accomplish a task. Likewise, using this method, players gain a sense of whether their character succeeded, but as in life, that intuition may sometimes prove false.

Players must know about this uncertainty in advance, or they will suspect their DM of overriding rolls to hurt the characters. So this technique requires a rule of the table that everyone accepts.

What‘s your favorite method?

10 Things in Pathfinder Second Edition I Like (and 1 I Don’t)

In 2008, Paizo sent designer Jason Buhlman to the Winter Fantasy convention to sample the upcoming fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons and report on the game. Paizo founder Lisa Stevens recalls the outcome. “From the moment that 4th Edition had been announced, we had trepidations about many of the changes we were hearing about. Jason’s report confirmed our fears—4th Edition didn’t look like the system we wanted to make products for. Whether a license for 4E was forthcoming or not, we were going to create our own game system based on the 3.5 System Reference Document: The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.” See The Unintended Consequence That Ruined Fourth Edition D&D’s Chance of Success, But Proved Great for Gamers.

While fourth edition featured a bold new design aimed at saving D&D, Pathfinder became an alternative that refined D&D’s 3.5 edition. For a time, sales of Pathfinder rivaled D&D. But after nearly 10 years, Pathfinder needed an update. So in August 2019, Paizo released a second edition. In a post, lead designer Jason Buhlman named the update’s number one goal: “Create a new edition of Pathfinder that’s much simpler to learn and play—a core system that’s easy to grasp but expandable—while remaining true to the spirit of what makes Pathfinder great: customization, flexibility of story, and rules that reward those who take the time to master them.” Even new, Pathfinder 2 offers more character options than fifth edition.

On reading the new rules and playing a short introduction, I can share 10 things I like in the new game, and 1 thing I don’t’.

1. “Ancestry” instead of “race.” In the The Hobbit, Tolkien calls hobbits a race, and started the custom of referring to elves, dwarves, and other fantastic kin to humans as races. But the term “race” has a common meaning different from the game meaning, which leads to confusion. Referring to even imaginary “races” as intrinsically talented, virtuous, or corrupt feels unsavory at best. “Species” makes a more accurate term, but its scientific flavor makes it jarring in fantasy. Pathfinder replaces “race” with the more agreeable term of “ancestry.” Unless Wizards of the Coast resists an innovation “not invented here,” expect to see “ancestry” in some future sixth edition.

2. Fewer action types. The Pathfinder team saw new players stumble over the original game’s zoo of swift, immediate, move, and standard actions. In a bid to simplify, this second edition consolidates the action types into a system that gives characters 3 actions and 1 reaction per turn. This means even new characters can attempt 3 attacks per turn, although the second strike suffers a -5 penalty and the third a -10 penalty. In practice, only more proficient attackers will land extra attacks. Most spells require 2 actions to cast. When I played a Pathfinder 2 demo, its simpler actions proved very playable, even elegant.

In a related refinement, Pathfinder adds clarity by calling a single attack a strike. This avoids the confusion that the D&D rules sometimes cause by using the same word for an attack and for an attack action that can include multiple attacks.

3. Animal companions level up. To many D&D players, animal companions offer a special appeal, but the game’s support for pets remains shaky. Pathfinder devotes an entire section to animal companions and familiars, showing pets the attention they deserve. Rather than keeping animal companions close to their natural abilities, pets improve in lockstep as characters level, making them capable of staying alive and relevant.

4. A manageable encumbrance system. D&D measures encumbrance by pound. While this system seems to add complicated bookkeeping, it proves simple in play because everyone ignores it. Pathfinder measures encumbrance by Bulk, a value representing an item’s size, weight, and general awkwardness. You can carry Bulk equal to 5 plus your strength bonus. Bulk streamlines encumbrance enough to make tracking playable. (Plus, the system charms the grognard in me by recalling a similar rule in Runequest (1978) that tracked encumbrance by “Things.”)

5. User-friendly books. Paizo devoted extra attention to making the core rulebook into an easy reference. For instance, the book includes bleed tabs, and I love them. These bleed tabs don’t show how to play a metal song on guitar; they make finding chapters easy. Unlike typical tabs that jut from the page, bleed tabs show as printed labels on the page that go to the edge and appear as bands of color. The book combines an index and glossary into a section that defines game terms, and also leads readers to pages containing more information. Every game rulebook should include these features.

6. Degrees of success. Roleplaying games often include core mechanics that determine degrees of success or failure, but D&D only offers one extra degree: a 5% chance of a critical on attack rolls. The Pathfinder 2 system delivers a critical success on a 20 and a critical failure on a 1. Also, a check that exceeds the DC by 10 or more brings a critical success and a check 10 or more less than the DC brings critical failure. Pathfinder avoids the punishing effects that make some fumble systems too swingy. For instance, a critical failure on a strike just counts as a miss. Sorry, no fumble tables that lead characters to put their eye out. Where natural, fumbles and criticals affect spell saves. For example, a successful save against Gust of Wind lets you stand your ground, and a critical save leaves you unaffected.

7. The Incapacitation trait of spells. Save-or-die spells have proved troublesome in high-level D&D play. Campaigns that build to an epic clash with a fearsome dragon instead end with the beast helpless in a force cage and stabbed to death in a dreary series of damage rolls. Pathfinder gives spells like Force Cage and Banishment the Incapacitation trait. Creatures twice or more the level of the spell typically need to fumble their save to fall under its effect. To me, this beats D&D’s solution to the same problem, legendary resistance.

8. Character customization without decision paralysis. Fourth edition D&D focused on offering players vast numbers of character options. Players uninterested in the solitary hobby of character tinkering soon found the options overwhelming. For my characters, I turned to the Internet to find character optimizers who sifted through countless options and helped me choose. Pathfinder aims to give players room for character customization without forcing a bewildering number of choices. The system works by presenting character options as feats. At each level, players make selections from small menus of feats. Even first level characters of the same class can play differently, and they grow more distinct as they advance.

9. Skill DCs replace passive checks. Pathfinder dispenses with passive perception and passive insight in favor of Skill DCs, “When someone or something tests your skill, they attempt a check against your skill DC, which is equal to 10 plus your skill modifiers.” Often skill DCs work just like passive abilities, like when a stealthy character attempts to beat someone’s perception score. In the most common use of skill DCs, a sneaking creature would roll against a character’s perception skill DC.

Without passive perception, a game master must roll secret perception checks to learn if exploring characters spot traps. Passive perception aims to eliminate such die rolls, but I consider rolls to find hidden traps useful. Without a roll, DMs just compare set DCs verses passive scores. DMs who know their players’ scores decide in advance what traps get found, with no luck of the roll to make the game surprising. Skill DCs also replace opposed ability checks—a second core mechanic with skewed odds that clutters the D&D rules.

10. Limited opportunity attacks. To encourage more movement in combat, Pathfinder 2 limits the characters and creatures capable of making opportunity attacks. At first level, only fighters start with the capability. Opportunity attacks mainly existed to help front-line characters protect the unarmored magic users in the back, but D&D and Pathfinder make once-fragile character types more robust now. Opportunity attacks make sense as a fighter specialty, especially if that encourages more dynamic battles.

That makes 10 things I like. What do I dislike?

Pathfinder 2 features a proficiency system that leads to the sort of double-digit bonuses that D&D players last saw in fourth edition.

In trained skills, every Pathfinder 2 character gets a bonus equal to at least 2 plus their level. This steady advance makes characters feel more capable as they level and rewards players with a sense of accomplishment as their characters improve. “The best part about proficiencies is the way they push the boundaries for non-magical characters, particularly those with a legendary rank,” writes designer Mark Seifter. “Masters and especially legends break all those rules. Want your fighter to leap 20 feet straight up and smash a chimera down to the ground? You can do that (eventually)!”

As in fourth edition, Pathfinder game masters can justify the sky-high DCs needed to challenge high-level characters by describing obstacles of legendary proportions. At first level, the rogue must climb a rough dungeon wall; by 20th level, she must climb a glass-smooth wall covered in wet slime—in an earthquake. At first level, you must negotiate with the mayor; by twentieth level, he’s king. And you killed his dog.

At least as often as fourth-edition dungeon masters flavored higher DCs as bigger challenges, they just paired routine challenges with higher numbers. That tendency leads to the downside of such steep increases in proficiency. In practice, characters usually just advance to face higher and higher numbers for the same challenges. In fourth edition, a steady rise in attack bonuses and armor classes meant that monsters only made suitable challenges for a narrow band of levels. This may also apply to Pathfinder 2.

I favor fifth edition’s bounded accuracy over the steep increases in proficiency bonuses featured in Pathfinder 2. For more, see Two Problems that Provoked Bounded Accuracy.

Aside from these 11 things, how does Pathfinder differ from its sibling Dungeons & Dragons?

Gamers often describe Pathfinder as more crunchy—more rules heavy—than fifth edition. After all, the core rulebook spans 638 pages! But that book includes content that D&D splits between the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, and those books include almost exactly the same number of pages. In some ways, Pathfinder proves simpler. For instance, its system actions and reactions simplifies D&D’s action types. Still, Pathfinder devotes more crunch to describing outcomes and conditions. For example, in D&D, characters make a Strength (Athletics) check to climb, but the DM gets no help determining the outcome of a failure. Pathfinder describes outcomes: A climb failure stops movement; a critical failure leads to a fall. D&D describes 14 conditions; Pathfinder describes 42.

Without playing more Pathfinder 2, I feel unready to label this post as a review. Nonetheless, I like most of what I see and I’m eager to play the game more.