Tag Archives: perception

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.