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Is it fair to only consider the result of "passive" Perception checks (same as Taking 10) for PCs to detect things, unless the player actively expresses attention to something (in which case a roll is made)?

I've started distinguishing "active" perception from "passive" perception recently after reading about the concept in Mutants & Masterminds 3e (I think it also exists in D&D 4e). It's mostly a way, as a GM, to avoid rolling constantly. You can even come up with a simple formula to pre-emptively define the distance at which some things are detected.

I also tend to think it's more believable as no one is constantly 100% aware (which getting a 20 on a roll may represent). Well, since this is fantasy, at least no one without a special power/feat is :) Thus, when a player has suspicions about a character or expressively pays attention to something, that's when I make rolls and the character has a chance to go beyond the average 10. I also consider a minimum die roll of 10 (why would you do worse than routine when you're actually paying attention?).

Of note: I only do this during quiet times (when Taking 10 is appropriate). During combat, noticing something requires a full check and die results from 1 to 20 are taken into account. Also, I currently use this for Perception and Sense Motive, but may apply it to other things like Spellcraft (routinely identifying low level spells thrown at you).

So, to repeat the question and elaborate:

Is it fair to do things this way? Am I unbalancing some aspect of the game I'm unaware of by doing this? Could this lead to other problems down the way? For example, I have no idea if the system expects characters to be able, more often than not, to get 10-20 on the die for such checks. Maybe my passive PCs will miss way more than they should with this method?

I'm not interested in the specific topic of players saying they're inspecting everything all the time as I believe this to be a whole topic of its own and it has been treated in various other questions on this website and elsewhere already. Anything else than this issue?

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One of the GMs I play with has everyone write their Perception and Sense Motive modifiers on a piece of paper, and check off if they would like to take 10 on those checks. If they don't check that box, they roll 6 d20s, and write them down on the same piece of paper. He then selects them in order from first to last whenever a Perception or Sense Motive comes up. As a player, I actually prefer this: no one at the table entering every room screaming "I SEARCH THE ROOM FOR TRAPS AND ENEMIES!". –  GnoveltyGnome Jul 31 '13 at 19:28
@GnoveltyGnome Interesting! I've done something similar by pre-rolling some checks when prepping scenarios and it puts my mind at ease :) –  leokhorn Jul 31 '13 at 20:02
This isn't a complete answer, but your proposed change effectively means players can never get worse than 10 + modifiers on their perception rolls, meaning that they're more likely to succeed at perception checks than otherwise. Assuming you use the same rules for NPCs, this means that stealth is a substantially less useful option for player characters, especially those who are not trained in the skill. –  GMJoe Aug 1 '13 at 4:55
By the way, you might be interested to know that there's a -8 penalty for being distracted listed in the perception skill's rules; A 'routine' check is therefore substantially worse than a check when you're actually paying attention, whether or not your houserule is applied. –  GMJoe Aug 1 '13 at 5:06
@GMJoe paizo.com/pathfinderRPG/prd/skills/perception.html#_perception lists a +5 DC when distracted. That said, I'd consider distracted something worse than "not paying attention", such as when someone else is actively distracting you away from something else (talking, making a ruckus) –  leokhorn Aug 1 '13 at 8:57

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

It is fair and you are not throwing imbalance in the game.

Well... maybe a 2,5% imbalance on the long run (the expected value for multiple d20 rolls is 10.5).

In my experience, Perception is one of the most used skills. Also, it is - more often than not - a passive skill (the GM asks for a Perception check). However, the mere asking for a check puts the players on their toes, and metagaming arises even unintentionally on a failure.

Adopting the rule M&M and 4th edition use by default is, in my opinion, an improvement in gameplay: it saves time and avoids metagame.
By letting players make Perception checks when they ask for, and using passive Perception for things that they may not be aware of you can speed up the game and preparation time (for example, you can decide beforehand if the party is surprised or not, according to the Stealth check of their foes).

As a GM, I'll usually go further and use passive Knowledge (whatever) for give them instant information on the stranger phenomena or monsters that they may happen to encounter and a passive Sense Motive against bluffing NPC. In both cases I keep the opportunity to let them roll if the player explicitly ask for.

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Definitely applying this to Sense Motive too. Passive Knowledge is an interesting idea! –  leokhorn Jul 31 '13 at 20:04

Lots of questions, let's break these out.

Is it fair to do things this way?

Absolutely. Players with better Perception will do better. On the one hand they don't get "lucky" on the other you don't "lucky".

I have no idea if the system expects characters to be able, more often than not, to get 10-20 on the die for such checks...

The average roll on a d20 is 10.5, so you're very close here.

Maybe my passive PCs will miss way more than they should with this method?

This may actually be a challenge. Because bigger parties get more rolls and Perception checks often only require a single success as that player with then tell everyone else what they saw.

If I have a party with 6 PCs they are going to roll a natural 20 every 3 checks or so. A party with 4 PCs only get a 20 every 5 checks. Your method actually balances this out because the party of 6 is no longer more likely to make that roll.

In this case, this is probably a fair trade-off.

Anything else than this issue?

I personally feel like the hidden die roll method is good for a few different things. For example:

  • Sense Motive roll should probably be hidden as the answer is absolute. The player may still call for it, but you don't want them to know the actual die roll.
  • Disable Device rolls may be hidden as a PC probably always assumes they were successful and some traps may not trigger on the disable attempt. In fact, that's the best trap of all, one that looks disabled but isn't :)
  • Knowledge rolls may be hidden because the DC of a Knowledge check tells you something about the information you're missing.
  • Spellcraft checks in combat may be worth a secret roll as failing a roll does tell you something about the level of the spell.
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