One of the things I noted when looking over materials from the shiny new edition of Dungeons and Dragons is the return of the Passive Perception box on the character sheet. I’ve always thought this was a strange character sheet inclusion for a game known for basic math skills and character information overflowing onto 2, 3, 4+ sheets of paper. It seems adding 10 to the skill bonus shouldn’t be THAT difficult to remember, freeing the space for more important information.
What struck me as interesting about D&D’s newest incarnation is the return of passive perception, but the omission of passive insight.
But really are passive checks necessary? I’ll save you some time by plainly stating no. The reverse of course being you can easily argue perception is always a passive check. Given the perception skill as we know it is an extension of the old spot check. You might argue as soon as you start looking for something you are no longer noticing a difference but actively searching for one, which could easily fall under the investigation skill.
But let’s assume we play with passive perception. Passive perception is a tool, and tools are useful so long as they have a use. So what is passive perception’s use? First let’s look at how it’s commonly applied:
The party walks down a hallway, there are traps in the hallway, no one actively checks for traps. The DM calls for/secretly checks passive perception versus the traps’ spot DC. On a success the DM informs the players of the trap in one of those stopped just before walking into the tripwire moments. On a failure the DM stops the party once someone triggers the trap and informs them of the traps’ effects.
The use of passive perception is to protect players from their own ignorance. Is that Roll Play vs. Role Play, a situation of your character being more knowledgeable than you, the player? Maybe, but I assume the design choice was to obviate player stupidity from getting the PC killed. It’s insurance, a safety net.
But it’s more than a simple safety net in the above example. It’s go beyond insurance and into advocacy. The passive check does what the player wouldn’t do for himself. It’s the same when Google auto searches for something it believes (rightly so in my case) you misspelled.
So let’s roll it back to its original intent, the safety net. A successful passive perception is not equal to a successful active check, instead it offers the helpful hint: you should make a perception check now.
Passive perception is spidey sense. It’s the gut feeling something isn’t right: “it’s TOO quiet,” “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” “there’s something but I just can’t put my finger on it.”
The nice thing about doing this is the party can still screw the pooch. Let’s return to the original example this this idea in mind.
The party walks down a hallway, there are traps in the hallway, no one actively checks for traps. The DM calls for/secretly checks passive perception versus the traps’ spot DC. On a success the DM informs the players they feel a sense of trepidation about the hallway. On a failure the DM stops the party once someone triggers the trap and informs them of the traps’ effects.
As any DM/GM knows, the moment you state a PC is getting a feeling or sense people will ask to make checks. Congratulations, they party will now make active perception checks against the trapped hallway! Now they can screw it up of their own accord. On a success they find the traps, on a failure you get a brand new situation rife with role playing opportunity as the party stares down a hallway no one feels comfortable walking down.
Just remember to make players tell you what they are looking for. No general use ‘can I make a perception check.‘ If they want to check the floor for pressure plates make them say so.
This idea of a safety net can transfer easily to passive insight. Passive insight is getting bad vibes from someone, active insight will be checks such as ‘do I believe he is lying about X?‘ or ‘do I feel like I can negotiate more money out of him?‘
Follow this simple principle and you’ll never have passive skill checks getting in the way of your game.
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