Tag Archives: perception

In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?

As a dungeon master, I rarely ask everyone in the party to make perception, investigation, or knowledge checks, because someone almost always rolls high. With these checks, just one high roll yields the information the players want. Why bother rolling for a virtually certain outcome?

I asked this question of Dungeons & Dragons fans and gained hundreds of responses.

Many comments mentioned that passive checks—especially passive Wisdom (Perception) checks—fit most times everyone might roll.

So why roll instead?

Even though DMs realize that saying “everyone roll” almost guarantees success, they ask because players enjoy rolling. For many players, the game only begins when the dice fly.

Plus, “everyone roll” is D&D theater. You know the outcome but asking grabs attention and spurs the players into real-world action. Jamie LaFountain writes, “Everyone rolling is a nice smoke-and-mirrors trick when you want to get a piece of information out to the group and give the illusion of risk of failure.”

Sometimes everyone rolls without a request from the DM. One person makes a check, and all the other players snap to attention and try too. For example, the character at the dungeon door looks it over, muffs a perception check, and then everyone else starts rolling and calling numbers. What should a DM do?

First, you might gently remind your players that rolling a check that the DM didn’t request counts as a slight lapse of table decorum. “When I’m a player I loathe that everyone at the table feels the need to also roll a check,” Sam Witkowski writes. Such piling on robs the active player of their moment—their chance to be rewarded for their action. Checks should happen when a DM decides that a character’s action in the game world merits a check.

Ask the other players what their characters do. If nobody approaches to spot the door’s faded inscription, ignore their checks. If everyone takes a turn up close, consider any time pressure, but let everyone roll (and maybe a wandering monster opens the door from the other side).

Actions prompt checks, so making a perception check typically means taking a closer look. If the party just crosses a room and you want to see if someone notices a trap door, D&D’s rules suggest using passive Wisdom (Perception) rather than calling for a roll. You can limit passive checks to those closest to the trap door, so players benefit from letting the perceptive character lead. (And remember in dim light, the check is at disadvantage, a passive -5. Darkness counts as dim light for characters relying on darkvision.)

Players pile on lore checks too. These are checks against skills like History, Arcana, and Religion to discover if a character brings some knowledge to a situation. Everybody rolling for knowledge typically assures success. Such group rolls often show that the most unlikely character knows some bit of obscure lore.

Group knowledge rolls diminish the choices of players who invested proficiency in knowing things. If you always let everyone roll for an inevitable success, the value of knowledge skills drops to almost nothing. Success comes from making five rolls rather than from proficiency.

When everyone rolls, the one sage proficient in a skill will seldom roll a better success than the four know-nothings in the party. Still, some DMs enjoy the surprise of seeing the barbarian beat the wizard’s arcane knowledge. Such occasions can reveal character.

The next time every character wants to pile on a knowledge check, consider letting them, but ask players to roll only if they think their character might know something. Then if the barbarian lucks into a 20, say, “I’ll tell you about the enchantment on the door, but first can your tell me how someone fostered by wolves knows about wards forged on the plane of Mechanus?” Asking “how can this be so?” fuels creativity. “The barbarian may not know what that symbol means is or what civilization used it, but they remember seeing something similar 10 years ago on a crypt outside of Blahland,” writes Jonathan Hibberd. Either players add interesting bits of background to their characters, or they admit to knowing nothing.

Letting everyone roll a lore check works best when you have lots of information to offer. Every success yields a fun fact. By granting information for good rolls, you can make an information dump feel like a series of rewards.

For extra value, try to make the tidbits feel unique to each character’s background, nature, and outlook. D.W. Dagon writes, “A Religion check from a cloistered scholar is going to be resolved very differently to the same check from an outlander. It’s a great opportunity to bring forth each character’s unique backstory in a way which forwards story.”

DMs who want to see if a character discovers a secret may ask for everyone to roll. The player who succeeds gains confidential information. Don’t do this if you expect players to share the information. Players tend to guard secrets, even when they have no reason to.

Everyone roll almost guarantees success, but sometimes no one rolls better than a 6—including the character starting with a +5. If you call for everyone to roll, expect success, but be ready for a fail. If the adventurers must know something, then just tell them.

Some DMs keep track of characters’ proficiencies for this purpose. “If I can prepare,” Thomas Christy writes, “I love to find out who is trained in pertinent skills, and then feed their players information ahead of the session.” During the game, the players can reveal their knowledge in-character. When players remember their knowledge, Tom rewards inspiration.

You can treat knowledge skills as passive. Without a roll, tell players what their character knows based on, say, their Intelligence (Religion) bonus. I often reveal lore based on characters’ proficiencies and background. For instance, the druid knows of the cursed trees surrounding the grove, while the dwarf knows about the flooded mine. This technique works especially well for the information players must learn to continue. Essential backstory feels like a reward for a character’s choices. Players won’t know what knowledge comes from their characters’ aptitude and what you had to reveal to advance the plot.

If you want to make checking for a bit of obscure lore into a real test, allow fewer characters to roll.

  • Limit the check to characters with proficiency. This rewards the cleric proficient in religion even if their knowledge is hampered by low Intelligence.

  • Limit the check to the active character, possibly just the person who asked, and then grant advantage based on the party’s advice and assistance. This encourages action.

  • Limit the check to the most knowledgeable character, and then grant advantage based on the party’s help. I love when this enables a quiet player to gain the spotlight based on their character’s aptitude.

You can impose similar limits on investigation. Limit Intelligence (Investigation) rolls to the best detective or to the active character, and then grant advantage based on the help from other characters.

Wisdom (Insight) checks commonly lead to pile-on checks. If you want any intrigue and deception in your game, then more than one person should never roll a Wisdom (Insight) check. Next week, I’ll explain how to cope with Insight.

Is it found? How to handle a search

Speed through the obvious by summarizing simple search efforts

Game masters often speed past the uninteresting parts of the game—the parts with few decisions or obvious decisions—with a simple summary of activity. Most game masters will use a summary to skip past a search of a place containing nothing of interest, but the technique also works during the players’ first examination of a cluttered laboratory or dusty crypt.

When you conduct the routine parts of a search, summarize the obvious actions the party might take to perform a quick, initial search. This summary from the game master brings two advantages:

  • You, as the game master, and the characters in the game world have a clearer picture of the location than the players.
  • You can summarize the results of the most simple, obvious search efforts without slowing play with back-and-forth discussion as the players describe their actions.

In your summary, mention the obvious items in the location and any simple steps required to search around and inside them. You might also mention things the characters don’t do, either because the actions could be risky or time consuming. For example, “As you look, you leave the books on the shelves and the furniture in place.”

Parable of the Hidden Treasure by Rembrandt

Hidden Treasure

Avoid giving the results of this summary, in case the players wish to change some the actions that you outline. For example, “No, none of us go near the dark altar.”

This description will give the players a more vivid picture of the contents of the room, and will suggest things that deserve further checking.

Once you finish a summary of an initial search, the players can agree to proceed, you can share the outcome, and then the players can describe anything they want to do to take a closer look.

This method only works if you limit your description of the party’s search to obvious efforts. Do not make the players feel usurped by the game master. If the players enter the Garden of a Thousand Stings, where any misstep brings painful death, have them spell out every action. If the players enter Acererak’s throne room, and they prefer to describe every nuance of their search, they can—they should.

Search procedure

When the players ask to search a location, and they have limited time to search, use the following method:

  1. Ask if the characters will touch, move or open things as they search. If traps seem plausible, ask how the characters divide the responsibilities of opening and moving. If the room appears on a battlemap, you can ask the players to place their figures in the region they intend to search. During this step, you establish which characters could possibly trigger any traps or hazards that may exist.
  2. Summarize the obvious actions the party might take to perform a quick, initial search. This description will give the players a more vivid picture of the contents of the room, and will suggest things that deserve further checking.
  3. If the players have no objections, then tell the result of their initial search. The characters might find the keys on the bodies, coins in the sofa, and the monsters under the bed. They will find anything in plain view. If they open and move objects, they will also find anything not carefully hidden.If you feel uncertain whether something hidden would be noticed in this first, quick search, call for a search check from the entire group, but only consider the result from the character searching the area with the hidden object. Many things in the location may still need a closer look or more actions to find.
  4. If the players think some features deserve more thorough investigation, let them describe closer checks. For example, “I want to check that empty chest for hidden catches or compartments.”“I wonder what’s behind the bookcase. Is it built into the wall?”
“In most cases, you need to tell the DM where you are looking in order for him or her to determine your chance of success. For example, a key is hidden beneath a set of folded clothes in the top drawer of a bureau. If you tell the DM that you pace around the room, looking at the walls and furniture for clues, you have no chance of finding the key, regardless of your Intelligence (Search) check result. You would have to specify that you were opening the drawers or searching the bureau in order to have any chance of success.” – Dungeons &Dragons Next playtest

In step 4, the characters’ specific search actions may call for search checks, or they may yield discoveries without a roll. As the characters’ search actions grow more specific, they may make some or all search rolls irrelevant. If the ceiling contains a hidden trap door and someone starts rapping the ceiling with a 10′ pole, just tell about the hollow-sounding spot that reveals the door.

Searching and tedium

This search procedure typically applies when the characters face some time constraints, when they must decide whether to keep searching, or whether to press on before, say, a patrol comes or the dark ritual begins.

When characters can search without time pressure or risk, but you, as the game master, make the players either roll or narrate their search process, you can introduce frustration. The players know if they waste enough real-world time rolling checks or describing how their characters probe, sift, and break down every object, they will eventually find everything that can be found. The search’s success hinges on the players’ patience for drudgery.

In the classic dungeon expedition, the threat of wandering monsters discouraged this sort of grind. In original Dungeons & Dragons, searching a 10 foot section of wall for a secret door required a 10-minute turn. Each turn, the referee checked for wandering monsters, and the players faced a 1 in 6 chance of attack. Players focused their searches on the most promising features, and then moved ahead. See “Three unexpected ways wandering monsters improve D&D play” for more.

Third edition acknowledged the tension between tedious play and exhaustive searches by introducing the option to take 20. Taking 20 allows players to find everything the characters could possibly find, without testing anyone’s patience.

Searching without game-world time limits

Fourth edition and D&D Next both dropped the rule for taking 20, while old-school games include no rules for checks at all. However, the players don’t need to say, “We take 20,” for you to cut past tedium.

Anytime players can search without time pressure, they will find everything that can be found.

If players search without time constraints, and they’re determined to finding whatever can be found, let them find it. Skip the rolls and skip the rote recitals of how and where they look. Just tell the players everything they’re capable of finding.

Although this guideline lets you provide a search’s outcome in seconds, the guideline applies when the players wish to invest what could be hours of game-world time in an exhaustive search. If the players show no particular interest in a thorough investigation, then just summarize the outcome of a simple search and let them follow up as they choose.

In unusual cases, the characters may not be capable of finding everything. For example, a perfectly concealed door may require a search DC higher than 20 plus the search skill of the party’s best searcher.

Time and search

Most versions of Dungeons & Dragons tend to leave the time demanded by a search to the discretion of the dungeon master. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons offers the best guidelines: “mapping, and casually examining a 20’×20’ area” requires a 10-minute turn, and then thoroughly searching the 20’×20’ area after the initial examination requires another 10 minutes. Actual time varies depending on the amount of stuff in the area. Characters must spend much more time to finish an exhaustive search that finds everything that can be found, and rules out any possibility of missing something.

Newer versions of the game calculate search times with an interest in making searching feasible during combat. Third edition lets you search a 5’×5’ area as a full-round action. Pathfinder lets you search it as a move action. I can’t even find my keys in a 5×5 inch basket that fast. These times only seem applicable to a relatively empty battlefield square, and not a wizard’s junk drawer.

“Time spent searching for anything (secret passages, hidden treasure, etc.), loading treasure, listening, ESPing, hiding, will be adjudged by the referee as to what portion of a turn will be used by the activity.” –Dungeons & Dragons Underworld and Wilderness Adventures p.8

In play, when time matters, keep a rough accounting of the time characters invest in a search, and share the totals with the players. You may need to keep them appraised of the risks of spending more time.

How to run listen.

This one is easy. Everyone forms a line and takes turns putting an ear to the door, and then rolling. Meanwhile, the dungeon master rolls to see who is listening when something awful comes through the door. For instance, Beholders can drift soundlessly and open doors with telekinesis.

How to run an ambush

Group checks and the ambush

In “How D&D Next almost made knowledge count” and in “Is it noticed? How to run alertness,” I discussed the inevitable success that comes when a group rolls to gain one success. The reverse of this phenomenon appears when a group makes a check and just one failure can drag down the effort. The designers of d20 role-playing games mostly ignore these issues.

Credit the fourth edition Dungeon & Dragons designers for introducing a group-check rule for some tasks. From a game-play perspective, I like 4E’s group-check rule because it makes some group tasks possible. From a realism perspective, I fail to understand how three stealthy party members cover the racket from the clanking dwarf and paladin. In this post, I ignore the 4E rule, which I’ve never seen applied to perception anyway.

No situation highlights the problems of group checks more than the ambush. Using the simplest interpretation of the rules, everyone in a group setting an ambush must roll to hide, giving all a chance to doom the effort with a single bad roll. When the targets of the ambush arrive, every target gets a chance to spot that worst hider.

Based on real life, you might suppose that ambushes typically work. The group setting the ambush has the advantage of planning, preparation, and surprise. They just sit out of sight until their targets arrive. Unless someone sneezes or the targets have x-ray vision, the ambush works.

Based on the game, the word “ambush” describes a imaginary event that can never happen.

In “Is it noticed?” I suggested a fix. I advised assuming that the targets of an ambush take-10 to spot it. In effect, you set the DC for the ambushers’ hide check based on the targets’ lowest take-10 to spot. While this enables one creature to set an ambush, it still fails when a group prepares an ambush and everyone must roll to hide. My method only gives a group a chance of setting an ambush if the GM either (a) requires just a single hide check from the worst hider or (b) relies on 4E’s group check rules for the attempt to hide.

In a comment, Sr. Rojo suggested a method for handling ambushes that I like better.

How to run an ambush

To run an ambush, follow these two steps:

  1. Allow the group setting the ambush to take-20 in their effort to hide.This reflects their time advantage, which lets them pick a good site and then arrange themselves for maximum concealment. When you set an ambush, you have time to work out the best hiding place you can muster.
  2. When the targets reach the ambush site, ask them to roll to spot. The DC to spot the enemy equals 20 plus the ambushers’ worst hide bonus.Unless the ambushers stink at hiding, the DC to spot the ambush may be unattainable for some targets, and will present a challenge to the rest. Unlike most group spot checks, this check presents a reasonable chance of failure. Rather than assuming the targets of the ambush take 10 on their spot check, you can let them roll, and still give the ambushers a fair chance.

As with any spot check, you can limit the check to those characters keeping watch and in position to notice. If the party wants to an ambush a company, only the few soldiers on watch get a spot check, not all 100 enemies.

Take 20 and the rules

“When you have plenty of time, you are faced with no threats or distractions, and the skill being attempted carries no penalties for failure, you can take 20.” – Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook, p.86

Some rules lawyers might argue that the hide attempt does not qualify for a take-20, because it carries a penalty for failure. I disagree. Unlike climbing or disabling a trap, the act of perfecting a hiding spot carries no penalty for failure. Your best hiding place may not be good enough, but that comes later.

Dungeons & Dragons fourth edition and fifth edition both lack a take-20 rule, so this method requires some latitude with the rules as written. In practice, if the players set an ambush and you tell them they automatically roll a 20 on their hide check, no one will gripe.

If the players walk into an ambush, you, as the game master, set the DC they must reach to spot the ambush. Even in a game without a take 20 rule, a DC equal to the ambushers’ worst hide bonus plus 20 makes a good target.

Next: Is it found? How to handle a search

Is it noticed? How to run alertness

Introducing the spot check

In this post, I cite “spot checks” to refer to third edition’s Spot checks, Next’s Wisdom (Perception) checks, and tests of awareness made with 4E and Pathfinder’s Perception skill.

The Spot skill and its descendents rate a character’s ability to notice something while doing other things like traveling, fighting, or resting. Before Spot entered the game, unless you searched, you noticed the things the game master decided you noticed. A thief might hide from you, but their success depended on their roll to hide, not on your ability to spot.

Spot the spider

Can you see me?

When the game master simply decides what the characters perceive, the game plays fine. After all, the game master adds things to an adventure to enrich the adventure. If you let the dice say that the PCs fail to catch a scent of brimstone, or fail to spot the cloud of bats erupting from the cliffside, then the game suffers.

Nonetheless, when Spot skill entered the game, game masters and designers dutifully worked spot checks into every situation. Whenever the party opened a door or topped a hill, everyone made a new round of spot checks. At some game tables, every bit of information had to be earned with a spot check.

I will explain why you should skip many spot rolls, reserving the spot check for a small number of specific circumstances.

Passive perception and taking 10

Fourth edition attempted to rein in spot rolls by introducing passive perception. In principle, a dungeon master could skip perception rolls and use the characters’ passive perception to determine just what they notice as they explore.

“Passive perception checks help you set the scene. They tell you right away how much of the details of a room or encounter area the characters notice.” – Fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide p.26

Passive perception extends the mechanic of taking-10. Instead of players stating that they take 10, the game master assumes it.

Passive perception avoids putting the players on alert by asking for a roll when they see nothing. And it avoids interrupting the narrative for all those rolls.

What’s not to like?

The problem with passive perception

Passive perception forces the dungeon master to do the extra work of tracking all the passive perception scores and of setting perception DCs. Typically, this extra effort only yields a process that amounts to the DM deciding in advance what the PCs will notice. Seem familiar?

Most DMs running for regular groups know the approximate perception bonuses of the PCs. If you bother to create something interesting or something that advances the adventure, would you hide it behind a DC that prevents the group from ever seeing it? Never. Not even authors of published adventures will hide things that enrich the adventure beyond the perception of a typical party.

Secrets add fun to the game, but only when uncovered. If the players overlook the secret door, it’s just another wall. – Monte Cook, “Dungeoncraft” in Dungeon 137

But suppose a virtuous DM devises an adventure that gives keen-eyed parties a significantly different experience than unwary parties. The players still never know that their keen-senses paid off. The work of managing perception stays in the DM’s head, its effects unnoticed by the players, extra work, arguably for nothing.

If you would set the DC required to spot something within the reach of the PCs’ passive perception or take-10 value, then skip the DC. They spot it. The players will not ask you to show your work.

As a diceless method of resolving spot checks, passive perception falls short, but it still works as a way to set a difficulty class. More on that later.

The play value of rolling to spot

None of this means that you must always decide in advance what the players see. Random rolls can add an element to the game.

  • Unpredictability makes role-playing games interesting, mainly for the game master. The printed adventure cannot surprise the GM. Only the players actions and the random luck of the die add surprises to the game.
  • Randomness helps the game master keep some distance from the characters’ fates. The players should see the course of the game determined by their choices and by the luck of the die, not by the GM’s whims and mood.

Ask for spot checks (a) when success is uncertain, and (b) success hinges on keen senses in the game world.

Group perception checks almost always succeed

The outcome of group perception checks is rarely uncertain enough to merit a check.

Anytime every player can attempt a spot check, someone will succeed. Suppose a party of five adventurers, all with +0 to their check, passes something that requires a spot DC of 15, what D&D Next considers a moderate DC. If one person rolls, the chance of success is 30%. If everyone rolls, each has a 30% chance of success, which means the odds of someone succeeding grows to 83%. This supposes that no one is particularly good at spotting—everyone has a +0. One alert character pushes the chance of success closer to 90%.

When the odds of everyone missing something amounts to a rare fumble, does stopping the action to roll make sense? With some groups, absolutely. In particular, younger players love to roll, so group rolls create excitement despite the minimal chance of failure. Let them roll.

“Listen or Spot checks can get repetitive and dull if players have to make them over and over, especially when it usually only takes one success out of the whole group to succeed, making their success typically a foregone conclusion. Think twice before asking for such checks. They’re interesting when the PCs are trying to find a hiding or invisible foe, but get dull fast when they’re walking through the woods and you ask for them for every hour of travel.” – Monte Cook, “Dungeoncraft” in Dungeon 137

For most groups, you can consider any ordinary group perception check an automatic success. Skip the pointless activity, tell them what they see, and move on.

When you devise adventures, never mistake a group perception task difficulty for a challenge. On the rare occasions a group fails to spot something, they fumbled. This certainty is not a bad thing. In most cases you want the players to spot the “hidden” things in your adventure, either because these interesting things enrich the adventure, or because they advance the plot.

Hard checks change the equation. These checks impose DCs so high that only one or two members of the party can even hope to succeed. That’s the water elemental stirring the reeds under the bridge, or the key glimmering below the school of silvery fish. In these cases, allow a roll. You must be comfortable with the likelihood that no one will spot the ambush or the key.

If your players have become accustomed to calling for group perception checks, you can tell them not to waste their time, or you can let them have their fun, knowing that their success is virtually certain.

Individual perception checks may merit a roll

Of course, many spot checks can only be attempted by a character or two. This gives you a chance to add an element of uncertainty, and gives your players a potential reward for investing in perception.

Sometimes a spot task may be limited to the characters…

  • leading the party in marching order.
  • with darkvision or another requisite ability
  • spending an action the heat of battle to look
  • with applicable talents such as the ability to spot traps or arcane phenomena
  • taking the role of lookout

The D&D Next exploration system turns some of these limitations into specific rules: “When a character chooses to keep watch as an exploration task, the character makes a Wisdom (Perception) check to detect hidden creatures and an Intelligence (Search) check to detect hidden objects (such as traps and secret doors) as the group travels during the current exploration turn.”

D&D Next writes this as a rule, but it applies to other games too. In many situations, only a few members of the party can make perception checks. Their skills pay here. Keeping watch is a task akin to mapping or tracking.

“Don’t be afraid, in some cases, to only allow one or two characters to make the check. It’s with in your prerogative to rule that most of the party is preoccupied in other activities while one character is more or less ‘keeping watch.’ This isn’t covered in the rules, but in a case-by-case basis, you can decide that only a character who’s trying to listen or keep an eye out has a chance of making a check.” – Monte Cook, “Dungeoncraft” in Dungeon 137

Group perception checks guarantee success, so individual checks like these represent a chance for players who invested in perception skills to reap benefits.

Even if only one or two characters can possibly notice something, you might ask all the players to make the roll, and then only consider the checks from those able to notice. This avoids giving clues about, say, the location of the breeze coming from the unseen exit.

Favor search over spot

Before you ask for a spot check, consider whether a search makes more sense. In most cases, this comes down to the circumstances, see “Choosing which type of perception check fits a situation.” Sometimes, you may be tempted to give someone a chance to spot something hidden, but hypothetically visible to spot. Favor making the players search. Searching plays better than spotting for a couple of reasons:

  • Searching engages the characters in action, forcing them closer for a look.
  • Searching invites the players to make decisions about when, where, and how to search, and how much time to risk.

If someone steps into a room, aces a die roll, and sees the key at the bottom of the fountain and the odd scratches on the floor behind the chest, you have replaced the interaction and decision making demanded by a search with an abstract roll.

Hiding and sneaking

When one creature attempts to hide from others, do not ask for spot or listen checks. Instead, use passive perception or take-10 scores to set the DC to sneak or hide. Pit the active creature’s stealth check versus the highest applicable take-10 score. In the case when a group could roll to spot, this method makes hiding possible, because group perception checks virtually always succeed.

In combat, if someone chooses to look for a hiding creature, they can spend an action and roll versus the hiding creature’s check. In Pathfinder and 3E, active looking takes a move action. In 4E, active looking takes a standard action.

The same system works for ambushes. If someone hides to ambush, they roll to hide. Later, when the ambush springs, compare the hide check against the highest passive perception or take-10 score of the targets.

While this procedure may not follow your game’s written rules, it makes sense because the targets of the ambush are busy traveling and, by default, taking 10 on perception.

Five questions to ask before calling for a Spot check

The game master almost always asks players to make spot checks, except when players take an action in combat to look for something.

As a game master, before you ask for a check, consider these five questions:

  1. Is something sneaking or hiding? Skip the spot check. Instead, use the party’s best take-10 (passive perception) scores to set the DC for the hide or sneak attempt.
  2. Can the thing to spot be noticed from the character’s vantage? If not, wait for the players to search.
  3. Does noticing something fall within the take-10 value of the most perceptive PC? Do not roll. Something is noticed.
  4. Does everyone in the party have a chance to notice something? Do not roll. Something is noticed.
  5. Are only one or two characters in position to notice something? Ask for a perception check.

Next: How to run an ambush

Secrecy, metagaming, and perception checks

When players roll their own perception checks, they learn something from the number on the die roll. Players with bad rolls know that their search may have missed something; players with great rolls may trust the game master’s report that they found nothing.

As a game master, you can make perception checks in secret, but players hate this. Some of the fun of the game comes from rolling dice. If the GM rolls for your character, you start to feel a loss of ownership. You feel like a bysander watching the game rather than participating.

Who should roll perceptions checks?

Clear box for dice rolling

Clear box for dice rolling

Many players take pride in running their character without relying on any metagame information. These players can roll, obviously blow their check, and press ahead knowing that if a trap awaits, they missed it. If you have such players at your table, let them roll their own checks. Still, even for these players, knowing the rolls can rob the adventure of some sense of peril and mystery.

Some players take the unearned information that comes from the number on the die and they use it to make choices. For them, remind them that their characters don’t know they blew a search check, so the characters lack any reason to repeat the search. If they keep searching anyway, roll the second check for them, out of their view. And if you simply ignore the second roll, no one will know.

Roll substitution

If you want a game that emphasizes a sense of challenge and risk—or you have a table of unrepentant metagamers, I suggest an occasional roll substitution.

Tell the players, “Whenever you make a perception check, I will secretly roll a d6 and a d20. If I roll a 1 on the d6, the information I tell you will be based on my d20 roll rather than on yours.”

With this approach, most of the players’ rolls still apply, so players remain connected with the game. The visible roll gives the players a fair sense of how their characters performed, just as you might have a sense of your performance on a real-world test. But players can never feel certain that a 19 on the die means they found everything to find. And when someone rolls a 1, but sees a glimmer on the horizon, it may be more than a mirage.

Misdirection

If you only ask for perception checks when something can be noticed, the checks will put players on alert. Once or twice a session, when nothing can be found, you should call on players to make a Spot or Perception check. No matter what the roll, frown, shake your head, and tell them nothing. Not only will this unnerve the players, but it trains them to avoid assuming that they must have missed something.

Next: Is it noticed? How to run alertness

Choosing which type of perception check fits a situation

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
Search Perception Intelligence (Search)
Spot Perception Wisdom (Perception)
Listen Perception Wisdom (Perception)

Magnification specs

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.

Search 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.

If you spend a moment to scan the surrounding trees, or press your ear to a door to hear what might lurk beyond, you’re relying on Wisdom (Perception) rather than Intelligence (Search). As a rule, if you’re not positive that Intelligence is the right choice, then Wisdom is the ability to use.” – D&D Next playtest rules

Listen checks

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.

Next: Secrecy, metagaming, and perception checks

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

A short history of perception in Dungeons & Dragons

Through second edition, Dungeons & Dragons handled perception with a mix of mechanics: To find hidden objects, players said where they wanted to look, and the dungeon master said if something was there. To find secret doors, the DM rolled a d6, and then considered the character’s elven parentage. Listening also hinges on a d6, with everyone but humans gaining an advantage. To spot an ambush, the DM resorted to the surprise system, which by AD&D, no one understood.

Runequest second edition

Runequest second edition

Third edition D&D would replace this mess with a system taken from Runequest (1978). Except from prior editions of D&D, Runequest serves as the dominant influence on third edition. RQ based perception on three skills: Listen, Spot Hidden Item, and Spot Trap, which became Listen, Scan, and Search in the game’s 1985 edition. A character’s intelligence boosted these skills.

When the 3E designers adopted Runequest’s perception skills as Listen, Spot, and Search, they had to decide which ability scores would match the skills. Runequest used Intelligence, and for Search, that fit. But how did intelligence help you listen? Does intelligence make you more alert?

Wisdom makes you alert

Unlike Runequest, D&D possessed a Wisdom score. Although Wisdom improved some saves, virtually no skills relied on it. The 3E designers saw a chance of broaden Wisdom’s portfolio of traits to include an awareness of more than the spiritual, but also of the hushed voices in the next room and the flash of steel through a window. While this interpretation strained the dictionary definition of Wisdom, it improved the game by making the value of Wisdom match the other ability scores.

Like RQ, third edition continued to base Search on Intelligence, but Listen and Spot stemmed from Wisdom.

Both D&D’s fourth edition and Pathfinder’s designers dispensed with the distinction. In both games, Search, Spot, and Listen all become a single Perception skill based on Wisdom. While I understand the urge to simply, Spot and Search get used frequently enough to merit separate skills. Search isn’t Use Rope.

The advantages of Search and Spot

D&D Next undoes some of the simplification by splitting Perception into two skills: Search, based on Intelligence, and Perception, based on Wisdom. The D&D Next Perception combines Listen and Spot. The rules make the analogy of comparing Search to Sherlock Holmes’ use of intellect to observe clues, and comparing Next’s Perception to Tarzan’s alertness.

I think the Next designers erred by calling the combination of Listen and Spot “Perception.” The skill shares a name with 4E and Pathfinder’s Perception, but it covers fewer tasks. It should have been called Awareness or something. To further compound the confusion, the section of the playtest document covering Perception and Search is titled “Perception.” When the final rules appear, I will rate the editors’ performance on whether this stands.

Having separate Perception (Awareness) and Search skills offers two advantages:

  • Both Wisdom and Intelligence gain value as they boost the most frequent, non-combat checks in the game. Without a Search skill, Intelligence only contributes to knowledge checks, which someone in the party will probably make anyway.

  • The two skills more closely simulate the real world of brilliant but inattentive professors and of alert creatures with animal intelligence. Some dogs notice the smallest disturbance, but can’t find the kibble making a lump under the rug, even though they smell it somewhere.

On the other hand, Listen remains part of Perception (Awareness), an improvement on 3E. When Listen and Spot exist as separate skills, they can apply to the same situation, leading to confusion. For example, when you might both see someone creeping in the shadows and hear them, do you make a Listen check, a Spot check, or both?

By settling on Search and Perception, D&D Next finds the optimal set of perception skills, if not optimal names.