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?

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

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

  2. Robert Adducci

    Great post David! In my games all skill checks except for things that are readily apparent like Athletics checks are hidden rolls. I mostly use Fantasy Grounds which has a dice tower feature so players don’t see the result only the DM does. This is especially great for Stealth, Insight, and Perception checks, but also works well for knowledge checks too. It allows me, the DM to still allow the players to roll, but I get to narrate their results better without the players having the cognitive dissonance between what they rolled and what was told to them.

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  3. Michael Brown

    Mirroring what Robert says, and wondering: Is the fun in the actual rolling or is the fun in rolling and knowing the results of the roll? My thought* is to let the player drop their die down my DM dice tower so they actually get the engagement of rolling even though they don’t know the result. As a player, I’d totally be up for that 🙂

    *(I haven’t played FG so I had no idea they had that feature, which is REALLY cool)

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  4. simontmn

    One technique that worked well for me is rolling the secret door’s DC, then comparing it to the PCs’ passive perception. Eg instead of it being DC 20, I make it DC d20+10. Basically treat the inaminate object like a monster.

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    1. Atilla

      Brilliant! This could actually be the best way to handle it. I only use passive scores as DCs that monsters need to beat (I don’t compare a passive score to a fixed DC, that’s just wrong), but treating the inanimate object as a monster would do the trick across the board. Cheers!

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  5. majorgs15

    I’m in agreement with Robert and Michael – let them do the “rolling”, but not see the die result. Does this lessen the enjoyment for the players? I don’t know. Not for ME as a player, but then I’d likely just end up saying to the DM “You just roll it” vice leaning across the table or tossing a die likely to skitter away and require retrieving. Bottom line – the roll is secret for me.

    But I most definitely loved your gem of guidance in: “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.”

    This not only works tremendously for avoiding “meta issues”, but is a reminder to us as DM’s to “keep” adding to the “living world” aspects and descriptions, instead of only the first time the party enters an area.

    Great Post!

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  6. ThrorII

    Another option I’ve used that I’ve not seen in the blog or comments is ‘pre-rolling’. I’ve had my players roll 3 perception checks at the start of the game and notated them down. I’ll let them add anything they want from their character sheet. Then I pull those rolls during the game as needed.

    That way the player has rolled, but they don’t know WHEN those rolls will be needed.

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  7. Frederick Coen

    (WordPress ate my original answer, so here’s the summarized version:)

    I like the suggestion to give information on all Knowledge/Perception rolls. I use this sometimes to inject World Lore, which can disguise whether the roll was successful or a failure.

    I like the “1 on a d6, use the DM’s hidden roll”. I suggest that you roll the d6 in full view, so there’s no perception of railroading. And sometimes the player will be thrilled to have a low roll overruled!

    My GM in a game back in college used the “gimme 10 rolls” method (like Thorll mentions), at the start of each session. You’ll know roughly what kind of session you’re gonna have – all high, all low, all middle, spread – but not the order the dice would be used. It was a more narrative/story way of playing… the GM might ask you to confirm a skill bonus, but would basically narrate the results of skill checks without pause as we moved along, being told if we found something, or successfully jumped the gap, or broke the door, or whatever. It felt innovative at the time, but I think would contrast with most players’ desire for “control” nowadays.

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  8. Duncan

    hi David

    Great post as always.

    My favourite technique is one you mentioned in passing… the scaling check with different levels of success (can create a bit more work but for key checks I really like this technique). The PC rolls anything between 10 and 19 and they get some information…. but was there something much more important they missed? They can’t be sure, and if you do it well and give them something vaguely useful they probably won’t realise they’ve failed at something bigger.

    This technique doesn’t do too much to rolls over 20 which PCs expect to be successes… enabling them to metagame that they’ve achieved the max. possible on the check.

    For this problem, I think contesting rolls is also a good technique over flat DCs… because it allows for NPCs to go higher than 20, for example on a Stealth check. You can always use the NPC’s Passive Stealth as a baseline, if they roll badly, or give them advantage. (We often forget to give NPCs advantage in situations where PCs would be clamouring for it!).

    Another technique I’ve seen DMs use is non-fixed or flexible DCs. Let’s say there’s a secret passage in a published adventure that has a DC 20 to spot. When the PCs roll their Perception check (I agree passive checks are zero fun!) the DM rolls a d10… if they roll a 1 its now a DC 16, if they roll a 10 it’s now DC 25 (you could make this better by rolling a d4 and a d6…. d4 to determine whether hte DC is going up or down and the d6 by how much it changes).

    Cheers!

    Duncan

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  9. ericscheid

    The d20 is very swingy, so instead I use 2d10 .. but the player only rolls one of ’em. I roll the other one in secret.

    The player feels agency, experiences haptic fun, and gets almost enough information to meta-game (“I rolled a 10, did the DM roll better than a 6?”)

    The DM gets to keep secrets and raise tension.

    Win/win/win.

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  10. Abelhawk

    I’ve come to accept Perception checks, but Insight checks are much more delicate since it’s so hard to roleplay thinking a way about someone based on a description when you know you rolled a 2. So instead, I put the roll-requesting reins in the hands of the players. I know their passive Insight scores, and if they’re not sure they believe an NPC, they say “Make a Charisma check.” If it’s a lie, I roll Deception. If it’s the truth, I roll Persuasion, either way with their passive Insight as the DC. I love this technique SO much better, because all I have to do is tell them what they think of the person, and they don’t need to see whether they rolled high, low, or medium, giving away the relative Charisma score of the NPC in the process.

    Insight is the single easiest thing to metagame with in D&D, and this rule stops it without taking away the unpredictability of the dice.

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  11. Helpful NPC Thom

    David,

    My preference is not to roll at all and simply tell the players what they observe. For things like gathering information or recalling information, I almost always allow the players to do so without chancing a dice roll. It simply feels unnecessary to me, and I am relatively averse to “secret rolls” or “red herring” rolls as a matter of principle. The GM hoodwinking the players with unneeded dice rolls strikes me as a cheap GMing technique to increase tension.

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