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I'm starting a new campaign with a few friends. They're all pretty new so we rolled level one characters and it's been going okay, with one minor problem: one character has a +9 to perception and it's ruining many of my traps/secret doors/surprise encounters.

She rolled a Firbolg Rogue with a wisdom of 20 (she rolled an 18 for one of her stats and firebolg gets +2 to wis), and chose to be proficient with perception. Plus, with the rogue's expertise feature, her proficiency bonus is doubled. Thus, we have a perception bonus of 5(wisdom)+4(proficiency)=+9.

First, I'd like to ask if I screwed something up, and, if so, what can I do to fix it? Having stats retroactively changed sucks for everyone.

Second, this poses a minor problem. She almost never fails to detect secret doors, ambushes, and the like. Even a DC20 check she'll get half the time, and these are supposed to be hard. I've planned some pretty interesting ambushes that have gotten foiled. I want my players to do well, but if they constantly notice everything, it seems like it'd be less fun than to occasionally miss things and deal with the consequences.

My questions are: Is this actually a problem or am I overreacting? If so, what can I do to fix this? The only thing that would be really effective would be to start making all the checks DC20, which would discourage other players and seems unrealistic (i.e. is the secret latch on the chest really that hard to find?)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ How often do you apply circumstantial advantage/disadvantage at your table? \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast May 24 '18 at 14:24
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Don't punish your players for doing well.

A player having a +9 to Perception at an early level really isn't a problem. Sure, starting at level 1 with a 20 in Wisdom and Expertise in Perception is a little minmax-y, but that isn't an issue. The player obviously geared the character towards it, and punishing them by reducing their stats would be incredibly unfair to them, and punishing the rest of the group by making perception checks that are impossible for them unless one player gets lucky is just as unfair.

So, what can you do?

Don't rely on failing Perception checks to make an interesting dungeon.

The secret door? Now it's a magical door. They don't need to roll to see it; instead, they need to determine how to open it.

A tripwire trap? Nope; now it's a giant purple crystal that explodes if the players make too much noise. Instead of rolling to see it, now they have to figure out a way to get the party around it without dying.

An ambush of enemies? Now it's a group of enemies so large or fierce that the party decides they need to avoid the group rather than spot them and kill them.

You can even keep your usual traps, and instead add things in to make them something that requires an approach other than Perception. Keep the tripwire trap, but now the room is covered in magical darkness so they have to dispel that first. Keep the ambush, but now it takes place in an area with heavy fog, so Perception is at disadvantage.

That said, you shouldn't take away success from this player. It would be very un-fun, for both this player and the party, if you took away all Perception checks. She should have situations in which there is an invisible item to spot, or a trap that can be seen. Players have fun when they get to feel cool, and if they've geared themselves towards a large bonus in a skill, let them use it and give them that cool feeling.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The comments have drifted away from practical edit suggestions and into a general discussion of personal philosophies and play styles of trap use; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 15 '18 at 18:32
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Just because a person has good perception doesn't mean they know everything about something. The character may be good at spotting things, but knowing what those things mean is entirely different. Further, since the DM decides the DC for skill checks, one could say that a Halfling would have an easier time noticing the envelope stuck under the table than the Elf.

Recommendations

  • Environmental effects; darkness, mist, dust clouds all obscure perception, making checks that rely on sight have disadvantage or sometimes automatically fail.

  • Uncertainty; just because you spot the hidden lever doesn't mean you know what it does.

  • Disguise; an animated armor is indistinguishable from a normal suit of armor until it moves. Ice Mephits are going to hide really well in the frozen caves, but your wizard with detect magic might see the magic that summons them.

  • Situational bonuses; ask where the characters are looking. how they search. a character who lifts up a rug and looks under it will have a much, much easier time finding the trap door than someone just looking around a room. someone who peaks under the door is more likely to spot the goblins waiting in patient ambush on the other side than someone staring at a closed door and listening.

  • Perception is not investigation; if you tell them to make an investigation check and they ask if they can make a perception check instead, the answer is usually no.

  • Time pressure; you don't have time to have the rogue search the whole manner by herself when the orc army is marching down the road. the party might even have to split up to check each room.

  • Illusions; illusions are defeated with an investigation check not perception. whether they be visual or audible, perception only tells you that they are, not if they are real.

In conclusion, there are many ways of bypassing high perception without punishing the players. Let the rogue feel good about finding that hidden lever, then feel bad about pulling the lever that activated the traps that poisoned the fighter. Her perception hears the sound of a certain type of bird, but without a successful nature check she won't know that those birds don't live around here and it is a signal to set up an ambush used by otherwise innocuous looking "travellers."

Perception is only overpowered if the DM lets it be.

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The other answers here are great. Players are supposed to be good at some things. If perception is where this player shines then that is where this player shines. Right now +9 might seem excessive but it isn't really. A DC 20 is listed as a "Hard" check and this is for an average player. She doesn't passively see a DC 20 "Hard" event. Which means she has to actively seek the door. Time constraint now kick in. There could be conditions that put her at disadvantage meaning well over half the time she wouldn't see it and she's is the top 0.01% in perceiving stuff.

Like the other say let her shine and feel good about it. Perhaps make some things a bit more challenging. Will others feel a bit useless making perception checks while grouped with her? Maybe, so what. Others might feel pretty useless when the rogue deals with a trap or lock.

As a DM I'd probably script some things in to the adventure to work off her high perception. Roll a die behind the screen, and completely ignore the result, and say something like "While walking down the hall your eye is suddenly drawn to [x]" or "While you are having a drink at the bar and joking with [x] you suddenly realize that someone a few tables over is in a discussion about 'riding to camp' that is 'about a half a day's ride to the north east' and '[y] will be mad if they don't get back before night fall' 'with information about an incoming merchant' and you know [y] is a bandit leader.

Your mission as a DM isn't to win against the players. It is to tell a story and provide the environment for that story to unfold. Lots of things can be random but it's OK if players are successful most of the time. They are supposed to be. It isn't about them constantly failing as some "character building" exercises. It is about them using their skills and succeeding most of the time. At level 1 you might not think of them as heroic characters but the reality is they are heroic even at that level. They do what most people can't even imagine doing. Sometimes that is without even trying.

I'm a level 3 rogue and I've got a 0 in perception so I'm a bit jealous but hey I shine in other ways.

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Don't nullify your player's builds.

The character has +9 perception. Imagine they had perfect perception. You should still be able to create great stories, and even use that perfect perception to tell great stories.

As an example, imagine they fight some goblins. Have a 3rd party watching (not even a goblin) and run away. Now, if they spot the run away, they now know others are in the area and that they are aware that the players fight goblins. They can choose to give chase, or not.

All options (a) see nothing, (b) see watcher, (c) spot watcher's clan, (d) chase watcher, (e) see evidence of watcher afterwards should be interesting possibilities. In fact, the least interesting is "see nothing".

The players are being ambushed? Well, now the characters spot the ambush before it happens. They now have to set up a counter-ambush. This has a lot more player engagement and story making than "pop, enemies attack out of nowhere, defend yourselves".

The capabilities of player's characters should be highlighted and used to generate story. Only very rarely should you 'nullify' a player character's abilities, like magical darkness to make perception "useless". And that should be done after the ability is repeatedly highlighted as an exception. The story where the magical darkness makes the perception more useful is a more interesting story in any case; navigate by sound and touch.

Your player's high perception is a fountain of plot hooks you have been handed. Find similar plot hooks on your other player's sheets, and fish away.

Yes, this means you won't be able to play "gotcha" all the time. But go and watch some high-perception fiction -- there is a pile of it in crime fiction -- and blatantly steal tricks to make your game more interesting.

You don't write every story with Sherlock Holmes where the first thing that happens is you render his perception unusuable. This player wants to play a ridiculously perceptive character. Give that character things to see.

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For our games a lot of times the rogue is busy scouting or sneaking out ahead of everyone else. They disarm the traps, they notice the coming ambush, etc. So let them do this.

But when they split from the party everyone else may still need to make checks (without the "auto success" rogue being there to tell everyone about it) when someone comes up from behind.

Let's the player feel cool and be like "You guys really wish I was there to warn you about that encounter don't you?" while you still manage to get a surprise in place. Rogue may even be able to hear the coming encounter (hence why they make it back in time to still be involved in the fight, maybe on round 2) but they weren't close enough to warn the others about it in time — at least not without giving away their position while they were isolated.

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Simply don't include secret doors or ambushes. By the way, you should be glad she is not using the "observant" feat to instead give her a +14 in perception.

Also, some of my dms, when homebrewing, make perception checks take an action.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That last part isn't (totally) a house-rule; the Search action, when done in combat, is an action. If you're just looking at something but not actively searching, it might not take your action, but actively searching for or investigating something does take an action. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast May 24 '18 at 2:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast its not nesessarily a search action. If we are walking in the middle of some town, for example, and I for some reason want to make a perception check, the DM might make it take an action. Its annoying, but sometimes you might need to do this. \$\endgroup\$ – bob May 25 '18 at 21:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ By the way another thing some DMs do is evade numbers. So unless your rogue rolls a nat20 you can just say that it is impossible for him to notice something. \$\endgroup\$ – bob May 25 '18 at 21:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ "If we are walking in the middle of some town, for example, and I for some reason want to make a perception check, the DM might make it take an action." ...That sounds like a Search action, though it's out of combat; in general, though, when not in combat there's usually no need to track turns (or, correspondingly, actions/bonus actions) since there's no pressure to act quickly. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast May 25 '18 at 23:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, note that players aren't generally supposed to call for checks; they narrate their actions, and then the DM may choose to ask them to make an ability check (or have it succeed automatically if they can take their time in doing it). \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast May 25 '18 at 23:02
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If their perception is so high, let them see it and regret seeing it. Examples:

  • Magical symbol, once you see it, you are turn into stone or permanently confused or forgetful.
  • Seeing a ghost, while no one else can. Everyone will either think you are crazy or go paranoid if they believe.
  • Horrifying images that require a will save and give mental scarring.
  • Sudden bright light in a dungeon can cause temporary blindness and eventually sensitivity to light (welcome to drow world) if constantly exposed.

Those are a few ideas to make them think twice about wanting to see more than they need to.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you seen this used? Can you cite personal or second-hand experience as to how this works out in actual play? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Aug 22 '18 at 22:20

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