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Currently I am playing a lvl4 Ranger with the Observant Feat. Meaning my Passive Perception lies at 20 and my Passive Insight at 17.

So my DM recommended, which was awesome for me at first, to roll, and if it is lower use my passive score, as anything else would not make much sense. Seems legitimate to me.

BUT, to be honest, this takes every fun out of the game if you have two important and pretty often occuring skill checks, which basically never fail, and it takes away all the happiness and hype of a successful perception/insight check...

But on the other hand, it does not make any sense when I roll a 4 for perception or insight and fail, when my passive scores are THAT high as for an extremely observant character which for a change TRIES to look and its so much worse..

I dont know how to play this in a way that makes sense, but does not take all the fun out of these checks.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I’ve closed this question as a duplicate, both of the linked questions seem to address your issue here pretty directly. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 23, 2023 at 8:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm confused at what you're asking for. As I understand, your issue is that your character is performing too well at a task it's probably built specifically for (reaching a passive Perception of 20 isn't trivial, as far as I know). Either that, or the way your DM calculates passive Perception is wrong. This answer on one of the duplicate candidates actually treats really well about how to not "overuse" passive Perception, if that's the issue. \$\endgroup\$
    – Matthieu
    Feb 23, 2023 at 9:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, how is your passive Insight is at 17? This means +7 modifier, which is quite high for a 4th level. The Observant Feat does not affect passive Wisdom (Insight) score. \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Feb 23, 2023 at 13:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Reminder to everyone that answers, even partial answers, do not belong in comments. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Feb 23, 2023 at 18:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Matthieu: "reaching a passive Perception of 20 isn't trivial, as far as I know" At level 4 anyway, yeah. Without rolled stats (or tomes), it's impossible to hit passive Perception 20 by level 4 without Observant; the best you could do is Wisdom 18-19 + Perception Expertise, which would be 10 + 4 + (2×2)=18 passive Perception (a variant human could theoretically hit Wis 20, but they'd have no feats for off-class Expertise). And even that would be weirdly high; classes that have Wisdom as their primary stat don't get access to Expertise, so even 18 is essentially never seen below level 5. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 23, 2023 at 19:57

4 Answers 4

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There's a different way to use Passives.

Straight out of the Player's Handbook...

A passive check is a special kind of ability check that doesn’t involve any die rolls. Such a check can represent the average result for a task done repeatedly, such as searching for secret doors over and over again, or can be used when the DM wants to secretly determine whether the characters succeed at something without rolling dice, such as noticing a hidden monster.

https://www.dndbeyond.com/sources/basic-rules/using-ability-scores#PassiveChecks

A passive check is partly meant to represent your average results. It does not represent all of your results.

Yes, it is specifically used to defeat Stealth and notice some traps--but for other checks? It's not the floor of your results. If run with my interpretation, that's just how you perform if there's no time pressure.

So if you have plenty of time to search a room, you would use your Passive Perception. If you have plenty of time to keep talking to someone to get a sense for what they think and how they feel, you would use your Passive Insight.

This has generally been my approach to using passives, and my players are quite happy with it. Even ones with the Observant Feat. Because they still get that benefit against Stealth and Traps...and if the party is willing and able to take the time to carefully search an area, the player gets to benefit from using their boosted Passive.

But when there's time pressure, when you need an answer right now, the d20s still hit the table and decide what happens.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I really like the spin of that answer, and it easily seperated. Unlimited time = passive, Time pressure = rolling. Gonna talk with my dm about it :) \$\endgroup\$
    – MansNotHot
    Feb 23, 2023 at 13:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ I am going to point my DMs to this answer. Love it. + many. Concise explanation of how to make it work better. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 23, 2023 at 16:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just to clarify one minor bit in "How I do this." I also only use Passives in the 'take your time' sense when there's not an immediate consequence for making a mistake. Patiently searching a room because you're quite certain there's a secret door in here somewhere has no real penalty for not finding it on a given pass. Disarming a trap that can go off if you mess up, on the other hand? I'll often allow taking your time to give you Advantage, but I don't turn it into a passive Thieves Tools check. Because "Oops!" has consequences. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 23, 2023 at 16:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MansNotHot: This also makes the Rogue's 11th level Reliable Talent more meaningful for Perception; as is, Reliable Talent does nothing for passive checks, and passive checks are the most common use of Perception normally. If you make more checks active, then the Rogue ability means you're never worse than passive, and half the time you're better, even when under time pressure, where the non-Rogue (or lower level Rogue) under time pressure can wildly underperform their passive. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 23, 2023 at 18:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ The passive is the average over many rolls, not the value used to represent many rolls, this is a very big difference! If you have all the time to search and you can find it with your best roll, it's not worth rolling, just find it. It's really silly to say you can't possibly find it if you take a long time to search, but if you search just once you might roll high and find it, makes no sense at all. Also adjusting rules for min-maxers really ruins it for other players. How should someone acting alone with a low perception ever find anything if they can't roll? \$\endgroup\$
    – Bill K
    Feb 23, 2023 at 22:59
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The DMG suggests using higher DCs

It looks like your DM uses a rule similar to the "Automatic Success" variant:

a character automatically succeeds on any ability check with a DC less than or equal to the relevant ability score minus 5. So in the example above, the fighter would automatically kick in the door. This rule doesn’t apply to contests, saving throws, or attack rolls.

In this case the DM shouldn't even ask for a dice roll, if the DC is low enough. It flows very natural with Perception, when the DM just describes what player's character see without any dice rolls.

The +5 bonus from the Observant feat is not a big deal. It is a rough equivalent for Advantage:

Here's how to determine a character's total for a passive check:

10 + all modifiers that normally apply to the check

If the character has advantage on the check, add 5.

Keep in mind that the automatic success doesn't work in a contest — an NPC still get their Ability Check. However, empowered by the Observant feat, your Perception raises to the dangerous limit (more below).

"Can I hear his heartbeat?"

The DMG's advice is to use higher DCs if the game becomes boring:

The downside of this whole approach is its predictability. For example, once a character’s ability score reaches 20, checks of DC 15 and lower using that ability become automatic successes. Smart players will then always match the character with the highest ability score against any given check. If you want some risk of failure, you need to set higher DCs.

As a player, you can facilitate this approach by trying difficult actions. Unfortunately, since you have a +5 Wisdom (Perception) modifier, your maximum possible DC is still 25, while your minimum is 20. This breaks the 5e bounded accuracy, so I suggest to revisit the automatic success rule.

Situations can be very different

Talk with your DM and make a decision. Probably the DM shouldn't even ask for a roll when using the passive score is appropriate. Along with that, the check should be made when the situation is tense and unpredictable — when time is the essence, or when the danger is imminent.

Alternatively, you can use the "Automatic Success" from the DMG as is. It leaves larger DC range for dice rolls and is not affected by the Observant feat.

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Option 1: Maybe Observant isn't for you

You built your character around seeing everything (Observant doesn't even help Perception rolls, just passive Perception, so it's explicitly there for noticing everything without even trying), and now you're annoyed that you're seeing everything? If you really hate it, maybe ask to respec away from the feat?

A couple options to use instead of Observant:

  • Skill Expert (Tasha's) - If you don't already have Expertise in Perception, this is the most drop-in replacement for Observant. You'll lose the ability to read lips (though frankly I think that feature can, and should, be accessible via downtime training, roughly equivalent to learning a new language, costing time and money, not feats), and you'll have no benefit to passive Investigation (a thing never referenced anywhere but Observant, and something that doesn't make a whole lot of sense with how Investigation is described in PHB and DMG), but:

    1. You'll still get your half-ASI (and it can go to any stat, not just Int/Wis)
    2. You'll get a benefit that applies to both passive and active Perception checks, so rolling will still beat passive Perception 50% of the time.
    3. While it's not as good on passive Perception at your level (being only worth a +2, not +5, though it'll bump to +3 at next level up), as you level up, it improves (matching Observant at level 13, beating it at level 17)
    4. As a kicker, you get an extra skill proficiency
  • Skulker (PHB) - Provides no improvement to Perception, but by eliminating disadvantage on Perception due to dim light, it makes both passive and active Perception more reliable (especially if you have Darkvision, so lighting conditions never affect your Perception checks). This definitely not the way to go for arbitrary characters who want to see better, but given the other benefits are extremely useful to Stealth-oriented characters (e.g. Rangers & Rogues), it might be a better choice. It's also the only meaningful choice if you already have Perception Expertise (knowing you have passive Perception 20 at level 4 could mean Wis 12-13 + Perception Expertise, or Wis 16-17 + Perception proficiency).

Option 2: Enforce the obscured vision rules more strictly

If you don't want that, I will note that if you apply the obscured vision rules properly, adventuring underground, at night, or otherwise in dark areas, and aren't announcing your presence to any/everyone nearby by carrying light sources, you'll be at disadvantage on Perception checks, which will drop you from passive Perception 20 to passive Perception 15, low enough to miss some stuff. Without Darkvision, you're blinded in darkness (can't notice anything that relies on sight), and at disadvantage in dim light; even with Darkvision, you'd be at disadvantage in darkness (because it counts as dim light to you). So even with Darkvision, you've got a choice:

  1. Carry a light source and see "everything" within the radius of dim light it casts (still limited relative to what you'd see in daylight), but ruin your stealth (carrying around a torch/lantern in a dark dungeon is announcing your presence to any enemies with line of sight to where the light falls; I'd consider any attempt to achieve surprise an automatic failure if you're carrying anything brighter than a hooded lantern in hooded mode)
  2. Don't carry light sources, take disadvantage on Perception in fully dark areas, miss stuff, but benefit from stealthiness

Just make sure you don't pick up the Skulker feat (which undoes the effect of dim light on Perception) if you want darkness to continue to penalize you.

Other things that create lightly obscured regions (patchy fog, moderate foliage, etc.) also impose disadvantage and can't be countered by carrying lights, so if the DM makes sure that (sometimes, you don't want to overdo it) you've got mood fog around, you'll miss stuff as well.

It even makes rolling a little more valuable. Disadvantage is only equivalent to -5 on passive checks and active checks when you need exactly an 11 to succeed. Without advantage or disadvantage, rolling only improves on your passive Perception 25% of the time; with disadvantage, the roll is likely to improve on your passive up to 35% of the time. The roll will still typically be worse, but at least it will help a little more when you've got disadvantage.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ To be honest the thing that bugs me is that this passive makes rolling completely useless, and i find it sad that this core part of the game looses any significance just because of being good at another thing (passives). \$\endgroup\$
    – MansNotHot
    Feb 23, 2023 at 13:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MansNotHot: Slightly overstated (rolling still improves on your passive Perception 25% of the time, more when disadvantaged), but I get you. I updated the answer with more specific suggestions for "be better at Perception, but without narrowing the scope for rolls improving your results" so much. If you didn't already use Tasha's variant Ranger Canny feature to gain Perception Expertise, I think replacing Observant with Skill Expert is definitely the best option; it's about half as good on passive now, but it improves as you level, and benefits active checks, so rolling is still meaningful. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 23, 2023 at 16:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MansNotHot: With Skulker being a backup if you already have Perception Expertise; it grants no bonuses, but it eliminates penalties that would cancel out Observant's passive benefit in many circumstances (and make rolling even less likely to succeed), so that, in dim light/darkness (depending on whether you have Darkvision), you're just as passively perceptive as someone with Observant, and you're much better at active Perception. And of course, for anyone who relies on Stealth, especially if they use ranged weapons (like many Rangers), Skulker has major kicker benefits. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 23, 2023 at 16:30
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I'll focus on Perception, but most of this answer works for both Perception and Insight... And most any skill.

You're going to have to work with your DM

If the DM sets up the rules that since your passive is so high that it always succeeds, then you'll need to have a conversation explaining that it's not enjoyable for you. Then work together to create a system that lets you see everything, but still get the thrill of a high roll.

Perception (active and passive) is a just a skill like any other

Perception is just a skill, like Animal Handling and Survival. It just happens to be used more frequently than most.

When a character takes the Observant feat, that means they ignored all other feats in order to focus their character on, well, being observant. They wanted to notice all the little details in the world around them. So it's hard to then say that they also want to experience highs and lows when rolling a die. It's hard to ask for bionic legs and still want to run a fair race.

High skill scores don't mean high Return On Investment

Perception is a skill, and like I answered for this other question, skill checks are simply pass/fail. RAW, they are not on a sliding scale.

In other words, just because the player's passive score automatically passes the skill check, doesn't mean they see more/farther/better. They just see something that other's would not. It is only through convention and example that people think that, "because you rolled so high" is part of the rulings for skill checks.

If someone is concerned that the bonus for a skill is too high, just remember that auto-succeeding does not mean that character becomes Sherlock Holmes. Yes, they notice a trap exists, but they don't suddenly understand its mechanics, how to disarm it, what the "payload" will be, and so forth. That will take investigation.

You can succeed on passive and fail on active

I cannot find the tweet/story from Jeremy Crawford, but he describes passive as an always on skill, whereas active is only when called for. So even if a character is looking for one thing, it doesn't mean they can't see something else; or see that thing out of the corner of their eye. Even if you're actively looking for other cars while driving, your passive senses tell you that there is a pedestrian about to cross the street.

Passive and active skills can give different results

Building off the last two points, a tool I use as a DM is that you can get more details from an active skill than a passive skill.

By this, I mean that if the character senses something passively, they know of its existence. But if they sense it via an active skill check, they can decern more.

As an example; say you lost your keys and are searching the house for them. If you succeed with an active Perception check, you find them on the table where you left them. But if you fail the active check, but still beat the DC with a passive Perception check, then, while tearing apart the couch you threw a cushion that bumped the table and you think you heard the jingle of keys. The active score found them directly, whereas the passive score guided you to their probable location. It is important to note that the DM is not changing the DC, but changing how much information is given.

In a dungeon setting this would be like spotting the trap you're actively watching out for versus passively noticing something odd about the stonework.

In terms of Insight, this would equate to passively knowing someone is acting shifty versus actively spotting a tell that someone is lying. Or knowing someone is holding back information versus spotting that they keep looking at a certain picture on the wall when discussing where something is hidden.

In the end

You chose to create a character with high passive skills. You need to work with the DM and hopefully create a system that rewards you for high rolls without minimizing the abilities of the character.

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