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Doesn't the Observant feat make you see more, when you're not actually looking? Or if you'd like me to rephrase that: doesn't it make you notice more, where you're not actively trying to notice anything?

I've browsed through every possible answer to questions about the Observant feat and how the passive checks work on this site and others, but it still boils down to me to this simple question.

Unless there's a rule somewhere (and I haven't seen such in the PHB) that requires a DM to consistently apply lower DCs for active checks, it really seems to work like stated above and thus doesn't make much sense.

I wonder why they didn't make it an automatic advantage for the selected checks (be them passive or active) rather than giving a bonus (incidently equal to an advantage) to the passive ones only. Wouldn't then such a change make for a good house rule concerning the Observant feat?

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Short answer

Yes, the Observant feat helps a character only when they are not actively looking. It is possible to make sense of this in terms of how active Perception is framed by the rules, and with reference to real-world ideas about the conscious and unconscious mind. The +5 bonus only applies to Perception/Investigation skills when used passively, but it is still possible to exceed this score ("notice more") with active Perception/Investigation by rolling 16 or more.

Long answer

As the introduction to feats in the PHB says (my emphasis):

A feat represents a talent or an area of expertise that gives a character special capabilities. (PHB 165)

The talent/special capability which the Observant feat gives is that you are:

Quick to notice details of your environment (PHB 168)

This is different to an active Perception check, where you mostly have to specify exactly where you are looking to have any chance to find anything.

In most cases, you need to describe where you are looking in order for the DM to determine your chance of success. For example, a key is hidden beneath a set of folded clothes in the top drawer of a bureau. If you tell the DM that you pace around the room, looking at the walls and furniture for clues, you have no chance of finding the key, regardless of your Wisdom (Perception) check result. You would have to specify that you were opening the drawers or searching the bureau in order to have any chance of success. (PHB 178)

I can think of two reasons why it makes sense that the Observant feat only benefits passive Perception. The first is based on the wording of the rules, and the second on my basic understanding of psychology.

  • Observant will only work with things which are potentially noticeable in the immediate 'environment', ie not more narrowly specified locations (this is the purview of active Perception)
  • You could understand passive Perception as being what the unconscious mind sees, and active Perception as being what can be uncovered by the conscious mind.

You can take or leave the last point, as not everyone subscribes to this psychological model.

I've argued here from the point of view of Perception, but the same ideas can be applied to active and passive Investigation, which the Observant feat also covers.

In any case, this does not mean that your character's passive Perception/Investigation scores are always "better than the active ones", as the die roll could be 16-20, which would take you above your passive score, but the bonus only applies to passive checks for the reasons given. Of course, you could also roll lower, but even without the Observant feat, it is possible to roll better, worse or the same as your passive Perception/Investigation, and the feat just raises the bar of your passive scores.

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Short Answer

Passive perception just means that you don't roll, not that you are being passive. Once you understand how it is intended to work, there's no conflict to make sense of. You're already aware of anything that your passive perception total beats, and an active check is simply an opportunity to go beyond that.

Long Answer

Jeremy Crawford explains stealth and perception in detail in the Sage Advice section of this podcast, starting at about 15:09. He says that passive perception effectively acts as a floor for active perception checks.

Specifically, anything for which you might make an active Wisdom (Perception) check is something that you have already noticed with your Passive Perception, if that total is already high enough.

That means that the main part of your question is based on a misunderstanding. The answer to this:

Doesn't the Observant feat make you see more, when you're not actually looking? Or if you'd like me to rephrase that: doesn't it make you notice more, where you're not actively trying to notice anything?

... is no, the Observant feat doesn't only apply when you are not actually looking. It makes you notice more whenever you are conscious and aware of your surroundings.

So, there's no need to "make sense of" the opposite interpretation, the one that gives a weird conundrum. It's simply not a problem.

This means the feat is relatively powerful, because it can work in situations where you do have advantage, which adds another 5. That means that a character with +5 to Wisdom, the Observant feat, and advantage in a particular situation has a Passive Perception of 25. That's pretty crazy, but, hey, the player spent a feat for it. It's likely to be a significant part of that character's identity. Changing the feat to always give advantage would be a significant nerfing, and seems really unnecessary — after all, we're just talking about noticing things here.

From the podcast linked above:

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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Being able to unconsciously notice things that are out of place or significant is different from the ability to consciously seek out details or clues with active analytical attention, both in genre terms and in biopsychological terms. Having differing and unrelated degrees of ability in each domain is entirely plausible, since they are entirely different mental processes.

In genre terms, the unconscious mind revealing something to the protagonist is a common trope. "Wait… something… there's something I'm not seeing here, and it's right in front of my nose." To pull off this trope, the character can't be made better at both passive and active awareness, since being mechanically more perceptive in all ways means they're not especially sensitive to these overlooked details anymore. Regardless of whether the designers had that in mind or not, this trope is a suitable in-universe explanation for the effect of the Observant feat.

In biopsychological terms, the unconscious mind and the conscious mind operate differently, actually using different parts of our brain to do their processing. (Dividing the mind into 'conscious' and 'unconscious' parts is an over-abstraction that nonetheless is conceptually helpful right here.) Biopsychology has no real part in the average D&D narrative, but the point of this note is that being less perceptive when actively trying is not impossible even in real-world terms.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 1 '17 at 13:58
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Passive perception is never ever "not paying attention." If you weren't paying attention, your perception check is 0, you get no stat bonus, and you have no proficiency. You straight up miss everything that is going on around you.

Passive perception is the old "taking 10" for perception. Indeed, there are rules for a passive check for EVERY skill, perception is just the most used (since you never walk around all day with a blindfold and ear plugs in) and one of the most important (detecting traps, spotting ambushes for surprise combat, etc) hence why it has its own spot on the character sheet. The point of "passive" anything is to alleviate both players and GMs from the constant rolling of dice, especially for lookout type characters (rangers constantly rolling to spot ambushes, rogues rolling every 5 feet looking for traps). It also does double duty of preventing metagaming - any and every player knows something is up when the GM says "everyone make a perception check" and getting players to not suddenly have weapons ready and in combat party position is all but impossible. Now GMs can truly surprise parties without simply making everyone auto-fail perception checks that they never got to make in order to have a surprise round (though the alert feat also destroys that...)

In the case of "am I better passive than focused?" The answer is obviously no, with exceptions. You shouldn't ever be worse than your passive outside of combat. Combat is inherently different since you're notably distracted by enemies swinging sharpened or heavy bits of matter at your head. If you're outside of combat, and the DM has you make a roll; your GM should be taking the higher of the two, your passive, or your combined d20 rolls + mods. If your passive isn't up to par... meh, better luck next time.

Lastly, to the players; if your GM chooses to ignore the above, and you're reduced to being worse when actively making check because you're "paying attention"... just always elect to not pay attention.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 to this in general, but I'd like to see some support to the idea that combat is an exception. From Jeremy Crawford's explanation, I don't think it is. \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Dec 14 '17 at 12:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ So it would depend on whether you consider utilitizing passive skills as an action in combat. Page 193 PHB states that "When you take the Search action, you devote your attention to finding something... make a Wisdom (Perception) check or an Intelligence (Investigation) check. Also on that page at the top under Improvising an Action it lists Intimidate, also a skill, as taking an action. I would rule passive skill use in combat is free at DM discretion, active skill use in combat is an action, based on page 193. If this is the case, would not in combat be different than out? \$\endgroup\$ – Kyaaadaa Jun 4 '19 at 12:25

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