There has been some talk about the role of Passive Perception in D&D 5e recently. As with all things D&D, there are lots of opinions and preferences based on personal style and interpretation. In addition to chiming in with my thoughts, I wanted to collect some of the different ways I’ve seen Passive Perception handled, and talk about the effects of using these methods.
Before we start, let’s talk about what Passive Perception is.
Passive checks in D&D 5e are a special type of ability check that doesn’t require a roll. It can represent the average result of taking your time on a task (taking 10/20 from earlier editions), or when the GM wants to determine success/failure without having someone roll dice.
Passive Perception is specifically mentioned in regards to hiding, which is an action you can take. It determines if you notice a creature attempting to hide.
Aside from the general rules for passive checks and the specific Passive Perception rules with hiding, there’s not a lot of guidance on how to use it, which can be both a good and bad thing. Passive Perception can speed up certain elements of play, but can also make knowing what information to share with a player difficult.
Here are 4 ways to use Passive Perception, and how they affect your game.
1. Stealth Only
Passive Perception only happens specifically with noticing hidden creatures, it has no effect or use on hidden objects. In order to find a trap, you need to make active checks and rolls. If you don’t actively look for a trap, you won’t find it.
The benefits of this method are tied to the benefits of Passive Perception in general. You don’t need to make extra dice rolls for stealth, and you don’t have to unintentionally put a player on edge by asking them to make a Perception check out of the blue.
This can initially make detecting traps harder, as a player has to be on guard and actively look for something. However, this can slow down the game if the players become worried about the presence of traps. If they need to take action to look for traps, you might run into a situation where they declare they’re looking for traps in every room and encounter.
Clue based Passive Perception turns finding traps and hidden objects into a bit of a skill challenge. Your Passive Perception will tell you a simple fact, or give a simple clue to the true nature of whatever is nearby. For example, a long hallway is filled with flame traps. Your passive perception might tell you that there are scorch marks on the floor. From that point on, you are now active, and are trying to solve it with active rolls and role playing.
This method can get rid of the ‘surprise’ factor of traps, as many Passive Perception scores are high enough to notice something. However, disabling or overcoming traps feels better to players than being surprised by one.
A good way to handle clues from Passive Perception is to roll them into the description of a room or hallway. Mention the long hallway’s stonework, the moss growing on it, and the scorch marks all at the same time. This can help conceal the fact that they were specifically given a clue due to their Passive Perception, and relies on natural response and problem-solving to proceed.
3. Sherlock Sense
This is the most powerful way to handle Passive Perception for a player. Your Passive Perception gives you the most amount of information possible, usually specifying where the trap trigger/pressure plate is. In essence, you are telling your players WHAT the problem is and WHERE the solution is.
With Sherlock sense, most traps are handled quickly and easily. It might still require an ability check to disable or bypass the trap, but the process is streamlined.
Traps are rarely a threat with this mode, unless the DC to spot it is higher than a player’s Passive Perception. Players do not have to worry about searching for traps as much, and might see them as a minor hindrance. This can speed up the exploration phase of the game, giving more time to other elements.
4. Minimum Roll
This isn’t part of the Rules As Written (RAW), but I’ve seen some discussion about using Passive Perception as a minimum for your Perception. If you would roll lower than your Passive Perception, you use it instead.
Keep in mind, this isn’t how Passive Perception was meant to be used. It also steps on the toes of a high level rogue ability, Reliable Talent.
I wouldn’t recommend using this option. I’ve seen it come up when trying to explain how you can achieve a worse result than if you weren’t actively trying.
It’s important to remember that D&D and its mechanics aren’t trying to mirror or mimic reality. Your Passive Perception isn’t the worst that you can do at the task. It’s a useful mechanic for abstracting and getting rid of extra dice rolls at the table.
There are certainly many other ways that you can handle Passive Perception. Remember, rule 0 is having fun, and whatever your table likes best is the right answer. Even if it’s #4.
Do you have another method for handling Passive Perception that doesn’t fall into one of these categories? Let me know!