Please forgive me, it's been over 40+ years since I've played D&D and just now trying to reboot the changes. Can someone briefly explain Perception check math?

Assume I'm a 5 year old or an idiot, whichever comes first in your mind.

If a character has a Wisdom of 10 and the DM says "roll a Perception check"... The character then rolls a 1d20 with the hopes of what number? Higher than or lower than 10? Or is it a number only the DM knows about the area/monster/etc.?

Follow-up question:
If a character has a high Wisdom, wouldn't the P.C. be easier to achieve? Assuming a lower roll is easier than a higher roll (yes?).

  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome! When you get a chance you can edit the edition either into the body of the post or as a tag, by writing something like adnd-2e or dnd-5e into the list of tags. If you can't find anywhere on the books where it says that (like I couldn't when I came back to D&D after a 20+ year hiatus) feel free to pop into Role-playing Games Chat and people there should be able to give you a hand. Or this visual guide to the editions' corebooks might help. \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    Mar 22, 2019 at 22:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome back. I started with 3 little brown books in 1975. Here's a link to the free basic rules if that helps. I also "get" your chosen site name. :) Please ping me in chat whenever, I'll be happy to help. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 23, 2019 at 0:26

3 Answers 3


You may wish to refer to the introductory sections of the PHB, also contained in the freely available Basic Rules, which describe the core gameplay mechanics - which are rather different to the D&D you're used to if you last played forty years ago. Tempting as it may be to dive in at the deep end, you might be better off setting aside everything you remember from the games you played before and starting at the very beginning with fresh eyes.

As the How To Play section of the Basic Rules describes making ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws (the three main kinds of d20 roll, of which making a "Perception check" would be a wisdom-based ability check):

1. Roll the die and add a modifier.

Roll a d20 and add the relevant modifier. This is typically the modifier derived from one of the six ability scores, and it sometimes includes a proficiency bonus to reflect a character’s particular skill. (See "Step-By-Step Characters" for details on each ability and how to determine an ability’s modifier.)

2. Apply circumstantial bonuses and penalties.

A class feature, a spell, a particular circumstance, or some other effect might give a bonus or penalty to the check.

3. Compare the total to a target number.

If the total equals or exceeds the target number, the ability check, attack roll, or saving throw is a success. Otherwise, it’s a failure. The DM is usually the one who determines target numbers and tells players whether their ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws succeed or fail.

The target number for an ability check or a saving throw is called a Difficulty Class (DC). The target number for an attack roll is called an Armor Class (AC).

This simple rule governs the resolution of most tasks in D&D play. "Using Ability Scores" provides more detailed rules for using the d20 in the game.


The DM determines the DC, the PC adds their Wisdom bonus and sometimes Proficiency bonus

Step by step:

  • DM calls for a Wisdom (Perception) check (this is an ability check).

    • The Difficulty Class (DC) is the minimum number that the PC needs to get in order to pass the check.
    • An example medium DC = 10, a hard DC = 15, a very hard DC = 20, etc.
    • The DM should already know what the DC of the check is. They may tell the PC or keep it secret, at their discretion.
  • Player Character (PC) rolls 1d20.

  • PC adds their ability modifier (Wisdom for Perception), in this case 0 due to their Wisdom score of 10.

  • If the PC is proficient in Perception, they add their Proficiency bonus (+2 at level 1, it increases as the PC gains levels).

  • The total result is told to the DM, who tells the PC if they pass or fail, and what happens next.

The calculation is: 1d20 + Ability Score Modifier (Wisdom) + Proficiency bonus (if proficient)

Since a higher Wisdom score will give you a higher modifier it makes the check easier. Likewise, if the DC is lower the odds of passing it are higher.


Short Answer:

For any skill based ability check the player tells the DM what he wants to try to do, the DM then decides on the appropriate skill or ability and she sets a (usually secret) number, the DC. The player then rolls a 20-sided die to meet or exceed that number, adding his character’s ability based modifier and (if you are proficient in the skill) proficiency based modifier for that skill to the number he rolls.

So you add d20 roll + ability modifier + proficiency modifier (if you are proficient in the skill)

You will usually have the complete modifier for a skill written on your character sheet so that you don't have to think about it too much while playing and just need to adjust it when you reach certain character levels or increase ability scores. So it should really just be a matter of rolling the die, adding a number to it, and telling the DM what you got.


The Number (DC)

Based on how the DM evaluates the difficulty, she sets a number called the DC. Because this is a game where you can do anything and the DM has to adjust things on the fly, this is usually a fairly arbitrary number based on “what feels reasonable” to them, so you just have to trust that your DM is picking a reasonable one as fairly and carefully as they can. The most typical numbers set by most DMs are probably 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25.

Some DMs have more elaborate systems for determining the number. If you are playing a published campaign it is also possible that the authors of that have specified DCs for some situations. There are also times when it will be a “contested roll” against another creature’s skill based ability roll. For perception this is often the case when there is a creature using stealth that you might perceive; your roll would have to beat theirs.

After you succeed or fail on the roll the DM may or may not tell you what the DC was (or whether you succeeded or failed) at her discretion.

Roll and Modifier

The DM calls for a roll and specifies what skill you should be using. Each skill has an associated ability (for perception it is Wisdom) and you will get a modifier from this based on whether your ability score is lower, equal to, or higher than ten. For every 2 below ten you get a -1 modifier and for each 2 above you get a +1 modifier. If you have a 10 there is no modifier. So if you have a Wisdom score of 14, for example you would have a +2 modifier.

Each character also has proficiencies in certain skills based on character creation decisions (background, class, and race). If you are proficient in a skill you get to add your proficiency modifier as well. The proficiency modifier is based on your character level. At level 1 your proficiency is 2, and it increases by 1 every few levels.

So if a level 1 character with a Wisdom of 12 and proficiency in the perception skill made a perception roll they would add 1 to the roll for ability and 2 for skill proficiency to their total score. So if they rolled an 11 it would count as 14. If the DC was 14 or lower they succeed. If it was 15 or higher they fail.

Occasionally the DM will have you make a “straight ability check” when no skill quite fits for what you are doing, in which case you just roll and add the ability modifier without worrying about skills.

This is all much easier once you have your character sheet set up correctly as it will tell you the total to add for each skill.

Various classes have special rules about skill rolls (particularly Rogues and Bards), but you’ll learn those as you go if they apply.

20s and 1s

A very common house rule (possibly the most common of any kind) is that a natural (before adding modifiers) roll of 20 on the die is an automatic success, and a roll of 1 is an automatic failure. At many tables 20 often means a particularly spectacular success and 1 a particularly spectacular failure. But, technically, according to official rules 1s and 20s only have effects like this for attacks and death saving throws.

Passive Perception

In some situations the DM will use your “passive perception” for whether you notice something without actively looking for things. This number will equal 10 + the ability and proficiency modifiers. As long as your DM knows what your passive perception is you shouldn’t have to worry about it.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Youve got a lot of excellent and accurate information, but you need to cite your references for each point. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Mar 23, 2019 at 0:02
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch In this case that seems roughly on the level of needing to cite page 1 of the PHB for the proposition that "Dungeons and Dragons is a roleplaying game", but I'll see what I can do. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 23, 2019 at 0:08

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