Don’t Roll Perception

I’m really enjoying the One Shot podcast, which, if you don’t know, is an actual play RPG podcast that records one-off scenarios with a wide variety of games. If nothing else, it’s really helpful to have entertaining people play through a game session using a system I’m curious about. Their one-shot of Tenra Bansho Zero was so good it convinced me to buy the PDF, actually.

I’m listening to their backlog, and recently was listening to their Rogue Trader one-shot, as I’m curious about the setting and the system. I was also kind of interested in how this group would approach a setting like Warhammer 40k, since I hadn’t seen any other grim-dark games on their feed and thought it would be out of character for them, so to speak.

It wasn’t very far into the game until, for the first of many times, the players started getting frustrated with perception checks they were called upon to roll. The frustration got to be enough that some of the responses were even a little passive-aggressive, and it’s the kind of thing I’ve seen before in games: players frustrated that they have to roll to see things their characters are looking at. At one point, the GM sort of told them that because it is a tabletop RPG, they just have to make perception rolls. That’s how games are, after all. And most of the time, that’s true.

This is easy to avoid, though, even in games that are designed to call for ongoing perception rolls. Now, to be clear, I’m not talking about times when you are rolling to find a hidden trap, or rolling to target an invisible enemy in combat. Rather, these are just the knee-jerk perception checks that GMs and DMs so often call for. Roll to see whether you see anything.

Don’t do that. Instead, what I’d recommend, and what I try to do in my own games, is to just tell the players the interesting things they see. If they take time looking, they automatically find the clue, or the stowaway, or whatever, because that is the interesting result. These are, presumably, highly competent and skilled adventurers. Even a level 1 D&D character is tougher and more competent than a level 1 NPC.

Rather, call for a perception-style check when there is something secret but non-necessary to the story – some extra treasure, or a clue that would let the PCs skip the next dangerous trap, etc. In brief, passing the perception check should give the PC an advantage or a bonus, and not just let them continue in the story or notice something that’s readily apparent. And when you do call for a perception check, I’d make it clear what’s going on. “There’s a secret here – roll to see if your character finds it.”

(I know I am far from the first person to propose this, but it’s a house rule that I think makes sense in every game, including ones that are not written to include it.)

I think that the passive perception/insight score in D&D 4E and 5E is a great thing for this reason. Instead of calling for constant perception rolls, your perception is like a passive defense that protects you from being ambushed or lied to.

Same With Knowledge Rolls

Yeah, don’t do these either. Tell the player the interesting thing about your setting, or the snippet of ancient lore that adds color to the world. Only call for knowledge rolls when a success would give the PC a distinct advantage: reveal a weakness in a foe, for example, or recommend a solution to a puzzle. If a character is trained, or the equivalent, in a given knowledge skill, just tell them things pertinent to that knowledge when they come up. It’s never interesting not to know something. Then, whenever you do call for a knowledge roll, the player knows that this is a chance for their knowledgeable character to shine, granting themselves and possibly the party some real advantage that might save their lives.


3 thoughts on “Don’t Roll Perception

  1. I use a similar approach, but I think that a roll still makes sense under the right circumstances. I differentiate between passive checks (which set the floor) and active checks (which actually take game time – they count as an action in combat), to work a little harder at it.

    It’s the difference between feeling like something is watching you, and spending some time to scan the area. The skill itself has both a floor (passive score) and a ceiling (20+modifiers), and the space between the DC and the die roll is the amount of time it takes to reach the maximum use of the skill.

    So you have a passive Perception of 12, and the DC is 18 to see the orc hiding in the shadows. So the passive Perception doesn’t notice it at all, but they can take time to look more carefully around the room, and roll the die. They get a 14 – which in my campaign means that, assuming the orc doesn’t move, they’ll notice them in 4 rounds.

    Knowledge skills are the same. There’s stuff you know off of the top of your head, and other things that you need to spend some time remembering. Sometimes you do something to help you remember. Whatever it is, there’s a difference between everything you ACTUALLY know, and the stuff that comes back quickly.

    Now you could just subtract the passive score from the DC, but I like the randomness that a roll adds. You could also roll the die as a DM to remove the need for asking for a die roll. But I find that players enjoy rolling dice, and they know that there might be something more at stake there that way.

    However, if there’s no imminent danger, then I just go with the 20+modifiers as the score, and describe an amount of time/effort spent achieving the result.


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