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The description of Elves' Trance racial trait says (emphasis mine):

Elves don’t need to sleep. Instead, they meditate deeply, remaining semiconscious, for 4 hours a day. (The Common word for such meditation is “trance.”) While meditating, you can dream after a fashion; such dreams are actually mental exercises that have become reflexive through years of practice. After resting in this way, you gain the same benefit that a human does from 8 hours of sleep.

The bold words seem to imply that even when an elf is in a trance he can make perception checks (possibly at a disadvantage), because they are semiconscious instead of unconscious.

Is that true and is that different than the way other races are when they sleep?

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Sleeping is treated as being unconscious. Thus if an elf maintains consciousness throughout their trance, they are fully aware.

The big difference here is that the elf maintains consciousness. We do not at this time, have rules for what perception is like when a PC is sleeping (considering the use of unconscious, I'd guess it's automatic failure), so we can't necessarily determine what effect the semi-conscious meditation has on perception checks.

I'd say it's safe to assume that an elf can make perception checks (though generally for this kind of thing, passive is used), as normal with no penalty while meditating.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Since we don't have an actual definition of sleep yet I'm waiting for the DMG to come out before I accept an answer. \$\endgroup\$ – HESH Nov 21 '14 at 16:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HESH According to the DMG (p. 248), "[I]f a character is in a state, such as sleep, that lacks consciousness, you can say the character is unconscious." \$\endgroup\$ – sadaqah Dec 31 '14 at 19:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ In addition, Xanathar's Guide to Everything (p. 77) has this rules clarification on sleep: "While a creature sleeps, it is subjected to the unconscious condition. Here are a few rules that expand on that basic fact." \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Nov 13 '19 at 5:08
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I've been allowing tranced elves to "come awake" instantly but have not been allowing them to consider a trance state the same as a PC (fully awake) on watch. Disadvantage on perception checks (or a minus 5 on passive perc) is a good way to account for a diminished, but not absent awareness of the surroundings. Thus an all elf party couldn't all go into trance together and expect the same level of vigilance as if one was on watch, but a spell like Alarm (or a loud noise like kicking down a door) would immediately let them come awake and into action.

Since there aren't (to my knowledge) any rules for someone to wake up, I usually require a sleeping character to take a "wake up" action (after a surprise round if that happens) before they can take normal actions. A tranced elf would not need to take such an action.

Considering a sleeping character to be unconscious is a pretty stiff penalty (attacks against it have adv, and a hit is a crit). Maybe consider them incapacitated (can't take actions or reactions) instead?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree with everything you're saying here, excepting your argument that being asleep isn't being unconscious. That's absurd. \$\endgroup\$ – Bacon Bits Nov 12 '19 at 17:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BaconBits: Indeed. The DMG says under "Using and Tracking Conditions" (p. 248): "For example, if a character is in a state, such as sleep, that lacks consciousness, you can say the character is unconscious.". Also, Xanathar's Guide to Everything (p. 77) has this rules clarification on sleep: "While a creature sleeps, it is subjected to the unconscious condition. Here are a few rules that expand on that basic fact." \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Nov 13 '19 at 5:08
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Jeremy Crawford answered this in 2017 via Twitter:

Trance doesn't suspend an elf's passive Perception. A DM could treat the elf as distracted and impose disadvantage.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that Crawford's tweets are no longer considered official rulings. You may want to expand on this answer and explain why Crawford's tweet is correct/should be obeyed. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Nov 13 '19 at 4:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast Except, at the time that tweet was made, Crawford's tweets were considered official. I don't see anything in there about the change being retroactive. Not that it really matters. This specific tweet clearly contains a suggestion. In any event nothing Crawford has stated anywhere would be described as "should be obeyed" or "must be obeyed". Crawford and WotC have always been clear that they're not at your table and you don't have to do what they say. Not even D&D AL requires official interpretations; you're only explicitly prevented from implementing new rules. \$\endgroup\$ – Bacon Bits Nov 13 '19 at 16:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ The change is retroactive, because the only thing that made them "official rulings" was the SAC, and that no longer treats them as "official" (merely previews of rulings that may appear in the SAC). Crawford himself says "I decided I don't want people feeling they need to dig through my tweets for official answers." That said, my point is: you should support your answer. Given that it's not an official ruling (and frankly, even if it were), you should support it as a recommendation of how to resolve the issue; why does it make sense, and/or why should people resolve it this way? \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Nov 13 '19 at 19:15
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The fact that it is different than real sleep isn't really contested much. There have been comments that they are supposed to be great for mid-shift guards at the very least because of trance. The hard part is how to adjudicate it.

I would use the Sleep spell as a baseline for sleeping characters and make them unconscious. Consider their passive perception as -5 (for disadvantage) when it comes to noticing what's going on and waking up. This means a very low wisdom character has a chance to sleep through a fight outside their tent. (Likely a DC 5 as a very simple task).

Trance, on the other hand, flat out states that it is different from sleep in the description. It is a meditation state, not a true sleep, and only has to be maintained for four hours. I would say that this also gives disadvantage as their focus is shifted internally, but this would be easily negated by the generally high perception that elves have. They would hear combat and normal noise regardless, but wouldn't likely hear an assassin.

All this said, the duration is the real prize. Elves don't need a full night's sleep to get their rest, so they can be alert for half of a long rest. During this time frame, they are not suffering from any penalties to their perception. Two elves can cover an entire watch with no worries at all about being asleep. This combined with their natural alertness makes it hard to ambush a group with at least 2 elves in it. (And fairly difficult to ambush them even if it's only 1.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ When I was running Out of the Abyss, a within-party fight broke out while Sarith was trancing. I RPed him similar to how I act when I'm trying to meditate and people are being disruptive. He was aware of what was going on, but knew he'd lose out on his Trance if he got too engaged. So he snarked at them briefly and otherwise ignored them. Then again, drow are supposed to experience trance differently according to lore, though the mechanics are the same. \$\endgroup\$ – Ettina Kitten Sep 26 '19 at 12:52
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It's up to the DM, but less perceptive than usually

The DM is to set difficulty score and appropriate modifiers for making ability checks.

It would be safe to assume that a character who is "semiconscious" or "in a trance" has a harder time perceiving anything.

It should also be noted that usually when people meditate they close their eyes. An Elf who is meditating probably can't see anything so they can't benefit from any kind of sight (eg normal sight, Darkvision) or make checks that rely on sight (eg detecting Hidden foes).

For example what would be appropriate DCs for a meditating Elf to detect various things:

  • Someone shaking them: DC 0, it wakes them up.
  • A pinch: DC 10, even a sleeping can feel a pinch, but it isn't certain.
  • Someone calling out to them by name: DC 15, most people respond to their name, it could well break them out of their trance.
  • A noise nearby: DC 20, without sight normal noises may be tricky to detect.
  • Someone waving their hand in front of the Elf's face: DC 25, not normally perceptible.
  • A foe sneaking up: advantage to Stealth check, disadvantage to passive perception. Definitely a lot easier than sneaking up on an alert and conscious creature!
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  • \$\begingroup\$ I wonder if it would be helpful to reference XGE in this answer as pointed out in this comment. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Nov 13 '19 at 15:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Rubiksmoose I'm not sure about that. Meditation isn't sleep. It's explicitly semiconscious. Confusing the two states just because they both happen during a long rest will not lead to anything good. \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae Nov 14 '19 at 1:48

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