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Here's my situation: I have a couple of players that have invested a lot into their passive perception. Currently, when they go into a dungeon, they just passively perceive many of the traps, secrets, and hidden monsters unless they decide to roll for perception to actively look around an area.

However, they aren't very motivated to do this since on average they get much better results with their passive perception. Additionally, I narrate actively making a perception check as taking longer so they have a risk of wandering monsters finding them or some story-related time constraint expiring. I also sometimes require the party to specify where they're looking if they use active perception (e.g. floor and walls, or floor, ceiling, and walls?).

This presents a problem, though. Since I know the party's highest passive perception roll, why not just rig some of the traps (say, every fifth trap) to be above that value just so that I can properly challenge the party? I fear that if I do this, though, the party may decide to start using active perception instead of passive perception so that they can find the harder (and deadlier) traps much more often and the players that invested in passive perception will feel that I planted the very difficult traps just to defeat their high passive check.

So here's the heart of my question: how can I strike a fair balance here? I don't want my party to always find things using their passive perception (which is pretty high) and render active perception irrelevant, but I also don't want to punish the players that invested in passive perception by just deciding arbitrarily when I want to defeat it by setting a DC outside of the reach of their passive score, rendering passive perception, at least in their eyes, not as relevant.

Please supply personal experience of how you have solved this problem (or if this isn't a problem for you, how you use perception to avoid this problem in the first place) and let me know how it has worked out for you.

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    \$\begingroup\$ A player that used to play with us took the Observant feat, but I have a current player that has a magic item that grants advantage to perception checks related to sight which translates to +5 passive perception. I also have another player that maxxed out Wisdom as quick as possible and enjoys passive perception. For the sake of this question, assume that I have both feat-takers and magic item-users in the party (a current player is thinking about taking the feat now). \$\endgroup\$ – Tophandour Dec 6 '15 at 22:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ related: rpg.stackexchange.com/q/71340/23970; answers deal a bit with the issue of passive perception being "too high" \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Dec 6 '15 at 22:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm creating all of my dungeons myself as I go. I have a homebrew setting but stick pretty close to what's in the source books. \$\endgroup\$ – Tophandour Dec 6 '15 at 23:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ About half the time I have time enough to plan a dungeon in advance of a session when I know the party will go there. \$\endgroup\$ – Tophandour Dec 6 '15 at 23:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JoshuaAslanSmith I think I recall somewhere that disadvantage gives a -5 to passives and advantage gives a +5 (one of the few times that a + bonus is given in 5e). It may be in variant rules, but it is written in the PHB somewhere, I believe. Anyway, the group I DM and two others that I play with run it that way. I'm away from my copy of the PHB now, but I'm certain that I read that somewhere. \$\endgroup\$ – Tophandour Dec 7 '15 at 15:44
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The Rules

Let's head back to the rules for what Perception actually does:

Perception. Your Wisdom (Perception) check lets you spot, hear, or otherwise detect the presence of something. It measures your general awareness of your surroundings and the keenness of your senses. For example, you might try to hear a conversation through a closed door, eavesdrop under an open window, or hear monsters moving stealthily in the forest. Or you might try to spot things that are obscured or easy to miss, whether they are orcs lying in ambush on a road, thugs hiding in the shadows of an alley, or candlelight under a closed secret door. (PHB p.178)

Finding a Hidden Object

When your character searches for a hidden object such as a secret door or a trap, the DM typically asks you to make a Wisdom (Perception) check. Such a check can be used to find hidden details or other information and clues that you might otherwise overlook.

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 p.178)

Passive perception is only mentioned in the context of:

  • finding a hidden creature (PHB p.177 and, in the context of Surprise p.189)
  • ether cyclones (DMG p.49 - how often will that come up?)
  • detection secret and concealed doors (DMG pp.103-104)
  • detecting pickpockets (DMG p.116)
  • detecting traps (DMG p.121)
  • chases (DMG p.253 - this is a simple extension/clarification of the hiding rules)

You would be quite within bounds to rule that these are the only things it works for; from your list, it would not help them find "secrets" (except secret doors) among other things.

Perception is for things that are hard to see

You don't need a skill check to see the sun or the floor or the clock tower; you just see them. Similarly, you don't need a perception check to see the orc unless he is hiding, however, see how not to be seen. Or to see the statue but maybe you do to notice the eyes are emeralds.

Things that can't be perceived

Notwithstanding, passive Wisdom (Perception) is of no use whatsoever if the object is totally obscured: treasure in a refuse pile, a trinket in a desk, a wand in a pocket etc. you have to actually go through the refuse pile, open the desk, feel in the pocket etc.; these all require active engagement; either active Wisdom (Perception) or Intelligence (Investigation) as you deem appropriate.

In addition, things that are lightly obscured give disadvantage on both passive and active checks; this includes darkvision or dim lighting. If something is outside the range of your bright light source then you are going to have to go in for a closer look.

Passive trumps Active

If you are allowing passive Wisdom (Perception) to be used universally, your comment that "... on average they get much better results with their passive perception" is irrelevant. If their passive perception is high enough to see the "thing" then they have seen it and active perception does not enter into the matter. If it isn't, then active perception will only help if they roll better than their passive perception.

Advantage

Helping someone look gives advantage on their active Wisdom (Perception) check; you can't do this with passive perception. Teaming the best Wisdom (Perception) people in the party with the worst more than doubles their effective perception.

Surprise

High passive Wisdom (Perception) only helps the individual character in a surprise situation. See How does surprise work in D&D 5e?; the relevant part being:

Surprise is something that happens to creatures; it does not happen to "sides".

Surprise is a quality of a creature; it does not describe a relationship between two or more creatures.

Essentially, your high passive Wisdom (Perception) PCs will rarely be surprised; everyone else in the party will still be surprised

Finding isn't knowing

DM: "You see a secret door; there are markings on the floor indicating that part of the left wall pivots into the corridor on the right hand side."

Player: "Great! I open it!"

DM: "How?"

Need I say more?

Player skill beats character skill

Let's say you have a valuable locket that you decide is hidden in a book in the third drawer of the desk. This is totally obscured unless the character opens the drawer; it cannot be perceived. Lets say you assign a DC20 Wisdom (Perception) check to find it if the drawer is opened. Lets also assume there is a trap door under the rug; this is not totally obscured because there are signs that the rug has been moved; say DC25.

Player: "I look around the room"

DM: "There is a chair, a rug, a desk with 4 drawers and a statue." If the player has a passive Wisdom (Perception) of 25+ you would add "It looks like the rug has been lifted and repositioned several times."

Player: "I search the room"

DM: Active check - if they get 25+ tell them about the rug. Depending on how you play the game "search the room" may encompass "open the drawers" - it doesn't have to but if it doesn't your players need to be aware of how specific they have to be. If they open the drawers then check against their passive Wisdom (Perception) to find the locket. If they search the drawers then they get an active Wisdom (Perception).

However, if they say "I lift the rug" then they find the trap door. If they say "I take out every item in the drawers and shake it" then they find the locket - no checks are necessary because these have just become obvious.

D*$king with the PCs

As you rightly observe in your 3rd paragraph, looking at the character sheets and penalising the players for the choices they made is unfair. D&D is a game of limited resources: maximising one skill means that something else suffers (lots of things, usually). The "world" is already getting this advantage; don't Nerf the things they are good at.

However, these traps and secrets were hidden by somebody, you can roll for how well they did with each one. Intelligence (Deception) is probably most appropriate, advantage can probably be assumed unless they were in a hurry. This gives you variation with the DCs without penalising the players. Note that this is exactly how Dexterity (Stealth) works.

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    \$\begingroup\$ -1 for the irrelevant link to an off-topic question. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Dec 7 '15 at 0:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ Note: This is otherwise a very good answer which I would prefer to upvote. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Dec 7 '15 at 0:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Minimam Edited to show the relevance. The OP is specifically talking about hidden creatures => surprise. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Dec 7 '15 at 1:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ The section on surprise in this answer covers it quite well - I'm not seeing the value added by the link. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Dec 7 '15 at 1:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ That last paragraph isn't mucking the players around - it is how secrets are supposed to work. When something is deliberately hidden, the GM assigns a difficulty number, based on how good the trap-setter or door-builder is at hiding things. \$\endgroup\$ – Greenstone Walker Dec 7 '15 at 3:01

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