Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons revolves around ability checks and the proficiency bonus. When it comes to skill checks as ability checks, the check is written like this: Wisdom (Perception). The reason for this is Wisdom is the applicable ability score, and the Perception proficiency allows further modification of the ability check. Quick Disclaimer: a 5E D&D Dungeon Master can allow or require any ability check or skill proficiency, even outside this purview. This article is meant to act as a guide for new players and DMs to explain how skill checks work and what they look like narratively.
What is Perception?
One of the most common ability checks I see DMs call for is the Wisdom (Perception) check. This is so common, in fact, that I have often wondered why Perception is a skill proficiency at all. Many RPG systems use Perception as an ability score in itself, with things like insight falling under that ability. What’s more, Wisdom as defined in the Player’s Handbook represents your character’s awareness, and what is awareness if not perception? Maybe it’s a bit pedantic but I often wonder why Perception exists at all in its current iteration.
I get that saying a cleric or druid relies on awareness or perception just doesn’t flow, and this is probably a lot of the reason for the use of Wisdom as an ability score. Before we dive in, let’s take a quick look at how Perception is defined in the 5E D&D Basic Rules:
Your Wisdom (Perception) check lets you spot, hear, or otherwise detect the presence of something. It measures your general awareness of your surroundings and the keenness of your senses. For example, you might try to hear a conversation through a closed door, eavesdrop under an open window, or hear monsters moving stealthily in the forest. Or you might try to spot things that are obscured or easy to miss, whether they are orcs lying in ambush on the road, thugs hiding in the shadows of an alley, or candlelight under a closed secret door.
Why is this a skill?
Look, I’m going to try not to devolve into a rant but this description feels really padded to me, and unlike most skill proficiencies, this doesn’t feel so much like a skill as a talent, or an ability. A person can train to become stronger, true enough, hence a character’s ability to increase their Strength score. When you strip away the examples and linguistic padding, Perception sounds very different to me from other skills. Skills are something you can choose to do; they represent an action, but Perception is inherently passive.
You might say, “But, Steven, you can actively listen or look around,” and I’d concur this is true but I would argue this action could just as easily fall under Investigation, which we’ve already discussed. Investigation is sort of a natural result of paying attention. You pay attention to put things together, as shown in any of the examples given above.
Actually, the more I think this through the more I wonder if part of the problem isn’t that Investigation might just be better categorized under Wisdom, instead. This is starting to make my brain hurt.
So for the purposes of this article we’re going to operate under the presumption that Perception as it’s defined above just fits as a skill proficiency. Otherwise, this article will turn into a lengthy discourse on the fundamentals of 5E D&D and that’s not why we’re here.
Active vs. passive
There are many times I see DMs call for an unprompted Wisdom (Perception) check, and while I get why they do this I actually really like the mechanic of having a passive Perception score. Your passive Perception is 10 + your Perception skill modifier. This number can be modified by feats, magic items or other factors but generally it uses this equation.
I really wish DMs would utilize thr passive Perception score more often than they do. The way I view it is this: if your character is actively on guard, keeping an eye out or otherwise and you state this as a player, that would warrant a Wisdom (Perception) check.
However, if you’re just going about doing whatever I would measure your passive Perception against the DC. If something is actively attempting to avoid notice, I would have said creature make a Dexterity (Stealth) skill check against the passive Perception scores of everyone who did not keep an eye out, and I would pit that same Stealth skill check against any active rolls that were made. This essentially treats the passive Perception score like a sort of Armor Class of awareness and gives those who might not be quite as perceptive the ability to still have a shot at noticing whatever it is to notice.
Obviously if there’s a hidden item or a subtle smell or whatever I wouldn’t have the thing being noticed make a skill check, because whatever it is cannot actively avoid detection. It simply exists and either is or is not noticed.
I think utilizing passive Perception accomplishes a few things really well.
Firstly it can set your players on-edge because they won’t know when they should attempt to perceive something. You’re not automatically cluing them into the fact they should be aware. Too often I see a DM call for a Wisdom (Perception) check, and when everyone fails all of the players are suddenly alerted to the presence of… something. They begin having their characters draw weapons and be on alert but narratively, there’s no reason for these actions. The call for the check sort of ruined any potential surprises, nasty or otherwise. Utilizing the passive Perception more often avoids cutting the narrative tension and circumvents metagaming response to whatever was missed.
Secondly, utilizing passive Perception keeps things moving. When a DM calls for a skill check and everyone fails, the DM often gets players asking to make other skill checks. They get paranoid and begin taking actions out of character for the story. If allowed these multiple rolls bog down the pacing and cut any established. Not to mention the shattering of suspension of disbelief.
While I have a lot of thoughts on Perception as it relates to the game on the whole, I think the core takeaways for this article are the PHB already does an excellent job of outlining exactly what Perception is meant to be in 5E D&D and the real mechanical and thematic strength of Perception as a skill proficiency is its passive score.
What do you think?
What do you think about Perception as a skill proficiency? Do you agree or disagree that Perception would make sense as an ability score instead? How do you use passive Perception in your games? Let us know your thoughts in the comments, and make sure to keep an out for future D&D Skills 101 articles!