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In my D&D game, I'm unsure whether to allow players to use their Passive Insight or Passive Perception instead of rolling when they are actively trying to inspect something. Do I make them roll when they're actively trying to inspect something or someone, or do I allow them to use their Passives?

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Let's start with the basics:

  • If your PCs are in the same room with something, have LOS to it, or can in any way perceive it, their passive perception is in play. You check the perception DC of the object against the passive scores of your PCs (you've got those on a sheet in front of you, right?). If they pass, they notice.

    In most situations, the DM uses passive Perception to determine if a creature notices things. A creature that has fallen asleep naturally (as opposed to being knocked unconscious by a power or other effect) is unconscious, but not totally deprived of awareness; it can use its passive Perception to hear things, but with a -5 penalty. (RC150)

  • If your PCs are actively trying to notice something (say like trying to find that guy who just hid, or figure out where in the room that guy who just disappeared is, or looking closely at a sign looking for clues), that's when they should be rolling their Perception/insight.

At it's most basic, passive perception/insight is the default state for PCs. This should inform you about how much information to give right off hand, and what to keep secret. If they want to know more than their passive scores tell them, they have to roll.

To add to this, the keyword is passive that means that this is something the DM just implements. This is a measure of how closely the PC is always watching and thus it's up to the DM to say, yeah you notice X because your passive skill told you. However, if a PC wants to actively do something, it's always rolled.

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