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.


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