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If a player makes an active perception check and it is lower than their passive perception, should we use the passive perception instead?

Background:
During our weekly game yesterday the party scout was actively searching for hidden monsters. He rolled poorly and ended up with a 7 on his perception check, seeing nothing. The claim was then made that since his Passive Perception was a 15, he would intuitively notice anything that he didn't actively spot.

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Yes, but in reverse. You should check passive perception first and note that the DCs for passive and active perception may be different.

Passive Perception often sets the floor. Basically, a lot of the time you're rolling (i.e., active perception) to see if you can roll higher than a 10 and do better than with your passive perception.

Clarification: If your passive perception meets the DC, you shouldn't be rolling. When you roll for active perception, you do so because you didn't already passively perceive something. Thus, only roll for active perception if you need to roll a 10 or better.

However, there is at least one officially-released adventure that suggests that actively looking is sometimes easier than passive perception. In the Lost Mine of Phandelver, the passive perception DC is 15 but drops to 10 for active perception (i.e., PCs start actively looking for something rather than relying on their passive skills):

Secret doors are made of stone and blend in with the surrounding walls. Spotting a secret door from a distance of no more than 10 feet without actively searching for it requires a passive Wisdom (Perception) score of 15 or higher, whereas a character who takes the time to search the wall can find the secret door with a successful DC 10 Wisdom (Perception) check. Secret doors swing open on hidden iron hinges and are not locked.

Part 2. Phandalin, pg. 20 of Lost Mine of Phandelver

Hopefully, the DMG will elaborate on this mechanic. A quick thumb-through the HOTDQ and the rest of the starter adventure don't reveal any other instances of this (there's only one secret door in HOTDQ and no more in the starter set).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Sure, check out the instructions for the Redbrand hideout in the starter adventure. Under Secret doors it lists two different DCs, one for passive and one for active (15/10). \$\endgroup\$ – wax eagle Sep 22 '14 at 22:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MooingDuck its an "effective" floor, rather than an explicit one. Passive perception should be checked first and perception rolled only if you feel something additional can be learned after your passive score is taken into account (thus trying to roll >10). It's not a practical floor, but you should have already been told what you see with your passive, so if you don't roll higher than 10 you don't learn anything new. If it it's something you have to be actively searching to find, passive isn't a floor (hence "often") \$\endgroup\$ – wax eagle Sep 23 '14 at 16:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ The 5-point difference between active and passive DCs reminds me a lot of modifier to passive checks when you have advantage or disadvantage. It seems that actively searching for something that is hidden is mechanically similar to advantage. \$\endgroup\$ – Bradd Szonye Sep 24 '14 at 0:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that Jeremy Crawford backs up this reading in this April 2014 podcast (at about 23:20): Passive perception makes a floor and if your passive perception beats the DC, you're already aware and shouldn't be rolling. \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Oct 9 '17 at 21:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Rubiksmoose I ended up adding a whole new answer focused on that, with a (painstakingly manual) transcript of the relevant part of the podcast. \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Dec 14 '17 at 12:43
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Yes. Passive perception "supersedes" active perception by acting as a floor.

The party scout was correct. Passive perception does not "turn off" when you are actively searching. It only stops if you are unconscious. When actively searching — or not! — you notice anything that hasn't beat your passive perception score. You can also take actions to actively search, giving you an opportunity to sense things you haven't already noticed.

For example, if your passive Wisdom (Perception) score is 15, and a monster is lurking with a Dexterity (Stealth) roll of 14, you notice them without rolling. If the monster got a 15 or higher, though, they've beaten your passive senses. Let's say that the monster has a modifier of +3 and rolled 16 on the die, for a result of 19. In this case, on your turn, you can take actions to actively search, for which the DM can call for Wisdom (Perception) rolls. If you exceed the monster's total, you've noticed it. If you get the same total or less (19, here) the situation remains the same and the monster is undetected. For that first monster — the one with a 14 total Dexterity (Stealth) check — the situation also remains the same, which is that you've already noticed them. They aren't somehow "de-noticed".

Jeremy Crawford explains in the Sage Advice section of this podcast, starting at about 15:09.

JC (at 22:16): Now, going back to passive perception... this is, as its name implies, passive. And, it's considered to be "always on", unless you're under the effect of a condition, like the unconcious condition that says you're not aware of your surroundings. That really... the practical effect of that is that basically your passive perception is shut off. Passive perception is on basically whenever you are conscious and aware. [...]

JC (at 23:09): Because it's passive, the player does not get to say they use it. This is a... this is something that people...

Interviewer: (Laughs) I'm using my passive perception right now!

JC: Yeah, no. It's always on. That's the baseline. Now, this brings up questions, because then people are saying that, well, how is it that when I make an active perception check, I might get a roll that's lower? Well, you aren't... yes, that roll is lower, but remember your passive perception is aways on. So it really represents the floor of your perception.

Interviewer: Right. That's an important distinction, though.

JC: Yes. So if you make an active perception check and you get a number that's lower than your passive perception, all that means is that you did a lousy job of this particular active search, but your passive perception is still active. You're still going to notice something that "blips" onto your passive perception radar. Really, when you make that roll, you're really rolling to see "can I get a higher number?" If you fail to, well, again, your passive perception score is still active. It is effectively creating that minimum.

Interviewer: The minimum. Yeah, I don't know if that's necessarily clear to a lot of dungeon masters out there, because they will be like, well, the opposed nature of this roll means that you were just really bad at looking, and even though the person who is sneaking up on you only got like a five, they're able to do so.

JC: Now, many of these sorts of situations would be erased if DMs just simply remembered to use the passive perception in the first place. Because honestly, if something's noticable by a person's passive perception score, they should already have noticed it. So really, the active search is trying to find something that you haven't already noticed, and your passive perception score represents what you have already noticed.

(Bold added to highlight the key points; italics intended to represent emphasis in the speech.)

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No, it doesn't.

In the example, the scout should have seen a potential ambush, with no need to roll, if his passive score was sufficient. The fact that he asked to make an active roll doesn't change that. He certainly shouldn't be punished for taking extra care.

Barring exceptional circumstances (the PC is blindfolded, or the PC is hugely distracted...say, falling off a cliff), Passive Perception is the absolute worst-case level of awareness for a given PC. The DM should constantly be applying passive scores to the environment.

Even in the stress of combat, participants are considered aware enough to bring their passive scores to bear against hidden enemies. Walking into a potential ambush situation (say, there's a dead horse and a suspicious leather purse on the road) is cake by comparison.

Having a low active roll supercede a higher passive score at best requires narrative contortions to explain away, and at worst creates disgruntled players who will struggle to find consistency in the rulings.

Passive Perception can be hard on the DM. It can wreck carefully planned encounters, and it makes ambushes very hard to pull off, especially in the era of bounded accuracy. It is, however, there for a good reason.

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    \$\begingroup\$ On the other hand, passive perception can streamline the process of encounter planning. If you know your most perceptive character has a passive perception of 19, you can make assumptions about what they'll see, and avoid planning for a successful ambush that you're not going to be able to use anyway. \$\endgroup\$ – Theo Brinkman Sep 26 '14 at 2:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ If someone is actively searching they can be focused on the wrong spot and what they would have seen with less focused awareness of the scene, they miss because they are actively looking in the wrong place. The player takes their chances when they try and roll better than a ten by actively searching. \$\endgroup\$ – Protonflux Oct 6 '17 at 10:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer says "no" but means "yes", right? \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Dec 13 '17 at 23:03
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In the absence of any discussion or ruling in the DMG for 5E, it's going to be a judgement call on the part of the DM.

However there's no point in rolling if you have no chance of failure, so I'd argue that an active roll always supersedes a passive check.

That said, there are a number of ways to explain away a poor result.

  1. One is that the signs were noticed, but dismissed as something else (the old "oh, it's just a cat" trick).

  2. Another is to have an active deception divert attention (the old "throw a rock into the bushes over there to distract the guard" trick).

  3. You don't want to overuse it, but having another player accidentally interfere works too (the old "I think there might have been another set of prints here, but I can't tell because the damn dwarf walked all over them" trick).
  4. You can even have them succeed, but just a moment too late to warn everyone (the old "quiet, I heard something over - ARGH!" trick).

    Really the important thing is to couch a failure in terms of 'success at the wrong thing' or 'something interferes' rather than 'you see nothing'.

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    \$\begingroup\$ now that there is a DMG, would you like to revise this answer? \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 6 '17 at 1:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Not really - there's no discussion of the subject that I can find in official sources. \$\endgroup\$ – jbowtie Oct 11 '17 at 1:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that Jeremy Crawford backs up this reading in this April 2014 podcast (at about 23:20): Passive perception makes a floor and if your passive perception beats the DC, you're already aware and shouldn't be rolling... As @mattdm noted in a comment above. I have edited your answer mostly for organization, and your first sentence's opening clause is, for my money, badly out of date. :) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 11 '17 at 1:47
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Does passive perception supersede active perception?

It can look like it does because of how some cases work out, but as a rule, no, it doesn't.

Passive perception covers two different things:

  1. the creature's awareness of an entire scene when not actively looking for something. This does not require a actual roll, instead it assumes a roll of 10.
  2. the creature's ability when making a large scale search that would otherwise require lots and lots of rolls, i.e. an average ability to notice things when actively searching over a large area or time period.

PHB p.175:

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.

Perception checks, i.e. actively looking (I ma not going to use the term active perception checks as they are just normal perception checks), cover the case where a creature is actively and discretely (i.e. not over a large number of rolls) looking for something. It differs from the passive perception case in that the creature has been given reason to search for something hidden right here, right now, even though it has not seen it yet just by being in the scene, i.e. with its passive perception.

This reason for actively looking may be that they "just have a feeling", it might be that it looks like a good spot for an ambush/trap etc. or it may be that they somehow know the thing they are looking for is here but they haven't noticed it yet. It can be anything, but there has to be a reason they think actively searching its required to make a perception roll. Effectively the player must ask the DM for a perception roll, even if it is done indirectly through a player describing the actions of a character and the DM deciding that requires it.

Passive perception is therefore not simply the minimum value a creature can "roll", due to the fact that there is no reason that the hidden thing has the same DC for passive and active perception checks, or that it is available for passive perception checks at all,. In addition a creature actively looking gives up a measure of their general awareness by focusing on the search and thus their passive perception is replaced by the results of the roll, at least for the thing being looked for. A bad roll represents looking in the "wrong" place or similar.

Examples:

  1. always requires an active perception roll: just standing near a closed door may not be judged enough to hear or even notice a conversation going on beyond it using passive perception (to use an example case given for perception in the PHB p178). It may require the creature to press it's ear against the door and really have a good listen to even have a chance.
  2. passive perception not enough, has a reason to actively look: an ambush laid by some orcs (to use another example given in the PHB. 178) might be too well laid for a passive perception to succeed in noticing it, but this is where the party got ambushed before so they have a good look to make sure it does not happen again.
  3. different DCs: a trap is hidden in such a manner that if you are not right up against it it is hard to see (DC20 passive perception), but if you look closely it is obvious (DC10 active perception)
  4. would have been noticed with passive perception, but didn't get the chance: a rogue opens a door and enters a room actively looking for traps as they go. They roll badly. Their passive perception would actually have beaten the DC to notice the trap (they of course don't know this, only the DM does) but they don't get their passive perception as the roll represents them giving up their general awareness for a specific search, the bad roll representing them looking in the wrong place/way.

Why would case 4 ever happen? It represents a trade off made by the rogue's player, balancing the chance to notice traps too well hidden for their passive perception (cases 1 and 2) against the chance to miss traps they would have noticed just by standing at the doorway, i.e. its a bet by the player that they will roll well enough to see something hidden that the character can't see with their passive perception.

As a last note, without wanting to go into the differences between investigation and perception, passive investigation vs active investigation would follow the same general principles.

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No, passive doesn't supersede active perception. They work mostly in parallel to each other.

What happens in passive perception is the object or event that is going to roll if they pass your perception and is actively hiding from you. The burden of rolling is on the object or event not on your PC. But when you start actively searching, the burden of rolling is on you and your PC.

However, you are correct in saying that the PC should have intuitively detected something for having a high perception. This now falls on the DM. Rolling a low roll doesn't automatically mean you see nothing, that's impossible in real life (unless you are blind/deaf). You sure see or hear something, but not explicitly the thing you are looking for. It may be a clue or a minor thing that should herald the discovery of the thing you want to detect. At this rate it's no longer a perception check but a Wisdom check, basically the DM should determine if your instincts would tell you "Hey! I think something is wrong!". This usually means a second die roll though some DMs like to determine it by looking at the PC's Wisdom score.

In your situation it can go like this: The scout rolls low so he doesn't see the hidden animals. But he did see that some of the foliage seemed disturbed, or there is a suspicious absence of sounds around him or even tracks. He has a high Wisdom score and proficiency in Perception so he was able to determine that a certain area seem to be a good place to hide... and ambush people passing by.

So basically you failed your active perception check for detecting the monsters but succeeded in your passive perception check in detecting clues that there are monsters around.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "...basically the DM should determine if your instincts would tell you.... determine it by looking at the PC's Wisdom score." How is this different than just looking at the character's passive perception score and using that? \$\endgroup\$ – GamerJosh Sep 22 '14 at 21:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ basically to what degree he will describe your detection. this could also mean you get it wrong which i assume won't happen with passive detection. obviously that won't happen to a scout. but, let's say, your wizard tries to actively detect, rolling low can still mean he discovers something, but it may be wrong and misleading. \$\endgroup\$ – othniel2005 Sep 22 '14 at 21:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ edited my answer to further clarify \$\endgroup\$ – othniel2005 Sep 22 '14 at 21:41

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