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Every time my players are exploring a dungeon, they want their characters to do perception checks for monsters, perception checks for traps and/or secret passages while being on stealth mode, all at the same time. If a monster comes or if they activate a trap, they get mad because "my character is always looking for traps". If I say they need to declare their actions, the game goes like this:

[me describing a area, like a corridor they're walking in]

player: I check for traps and secret doors in the wall, the floor and the ceiling. I also want to hear anything unusual and walk silently.

They want to be on "automatic mode", expecting me to roll for their PCs every time they enter a new area. Otherwise they always have this phrase "I check for traps and secret doors in the wall, the floor..." that they say EVERYTIME I introduce a new area. I can't put them in "automatic" for this kind of roll. We're playing D&D 5e, but this happen in other campaigns, and it has always been a problem to me.

How do I deal with it?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Well, it turns to be a problem when the player says the same thing every damm time he faces a new area. I got this player who said to me to be prepared for the ammount of time he would say this when I denied this "automatic active search mode". And, for god sake, every damm time I introduced a new area the first thing I heard was "I check in the floor, the wall, etc.". When one player does this and the other three don't, it's clear that it is a player problem. \$\endgroup\$ – lucasprust May 17 '16 at 21:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Wait, is it one player, or all of them? The question says its all your players, but that last comment says it's only one. Which is it? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 24 '16 at 23:40
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DM Calls for Ability Checks, Not Players

The DM calls for an ability check when a character…attempts an action (other than an attack) that has a chance of failure.

PH, page 174

Meaning that you, the DM, ask the players to roll when you think it is necessary. If they ask to roll you have the power to say "there's nothing to find, no need to roll the dice."

Automatic Mode Is Already a Thing

As adventurers travel through a dungeon…[u]se the passive Wisdom (Perception) scores of the characters to determine whether anyone in the group notices a hidden threat.

PH page 182, right-hand column.

The rules for passive checks can be found on PH page 175, left-hand column. A character's passive score is 10 + all modifiers that normally apply. ±5 if you have advantage/disadvantage.

This, combined with only asking for an ability check when you think one is needed, covers the bases of what it sounds like your players want to do.

Improving Passive Checks

Of course, I'm sure your players want a way to be "extra vigilant" and buff their passive scores. Feats to the rescue!

  • The Alert feat means they can't be surprised
  • Dungeon Delver grants advantage when looking for secret doors and making saving throws vs. traps
  • Observant grants a flat +5 to passive Wisdom (Perception) and passive Intelligence (Investigation) scores—among other benefits

These three core feats should cover what your players are looking for:

  • Discovering Traps & hearing anything unusual are covered by observant
  • Locating secret doors are covered by observant and dungeon delver
  • When observant isn't enough to spot the hidden threat, dungeon delver helps mitigate traps, while alert helps to mitigate hidden foes.
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Use their Passive Perception score.

In D&D 5th Edition, there is a concept of a Passive Perception score, which is their normal Perception +10. Whenever there is something in their environment that they could possibly see with a Perception check, you compare their passive score against the DC of the perception check. If their Passive Perception is higher than the DC of the check, then they see that thing.

For example, lets say that your party is walking down a forest path, and there's a group of monsters that have set up an ambush ahead. The best Perception score in the party is that of Xylitol the Wizard, who has a +5 Perception. His Passive Perception is 15 (his +5 bonus plus another 10). If the Stealth check by the monsters is 15 or less, then Xylitol sees the ambush. If the stealth check is 16 or more, then he doesn't. The player doesn't make a roll, they just passively see or don't see the enemy based on their passive score.

Basically, the "automatic mode" that you describe is the standard way to play D&D 5th. All characters are assumed to be automatically checking their surroundings for hidden things, and they automatically find anything with a DC equal to or less than their Passive Perception score. If that's not high enough to see the thing, then they don't see it.

This is discussed specifically in the Passive Checks section of the PHB, on page 175.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I think that this may not solve the problem with his players, since they want to look for traps/secrets actively. Passive Perception is used when you note something by chance. If their Passive Perception is not enough to detect an ambush, they may argue that a roll was needed \$\endgroup\$ – firion May 3 '16 at 8:44
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It's D&D, not archaeology. The classical D&D solution would be to apply time pressure. Passive Perception handles the default case that the PCs are being watchful. 5e doesn't explicitly include rules for time, but if they actively want to spend time searching, options are available.

  • Advance time for anything happening in the dungeon.

  • If they're making noise, have them attract attention, curiosity, etc.

  • If the above aren't applicable, let them waste the day away and deal with the consequences.

“Ok, you spent three hours searching the room and two hours searching the 100' corridor. You're feeling a bit peckish.” … “You've been up twelve hours and are feeling kind of sleepy. What are you doing for camp?”

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  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ On the subject of making time matter, wandering monsters ("random encounters") in older systems were generally based on time. In AD&D, for instance, every day on the surface or every 3-6 turns (30-60 minutes) in the dungeon you'd roll to see if the party meets a wandering monster. \$\endgroup\$ – Passage May 5 '16 at 16:28
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Make time matter

A Master sometimes needs to adapt to players. If you players want to be sure of every step they make, enforce it comes with a price: half an hour searching, walking slower (and taking twice the time I'd would if you'd walk at normal speed), and so on. And make time matter.

For making time matter you need to ensure players know that taking more time to do a task leads to bad consequences. Examples on how to do that (in D&D): An evil wizard is making a ritual (they may know due to a servant of him) for summoning a Demon; if they let him do so, the encounter will be way more difficult. The deep gnomes are preparing more traps while the players are addvancing their lair; the more time they take, the more traps there will be further in the dungeon. An army is marching towards the city where players need to speak with its Mayor; if they take more than a day, they'll find themselves in a battle; if they take more than two days, Mayor will be dead.

Just find ways to make time an important matter. And, of course, make sure players can be aware of that.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The Travel Pace rules (Player's Basic Rules 0.3, page 64) include considerations for travel pace and perception. In addition, if the player wanted to "I check for traps and secret doors" and "hear anything unusual" and "walk silently", I'd be hitting them with an extremely slow move speed. Or perhaps throwing something at them telling them not to be cheesy. \$\endgroup\$ – Greenstone Walker May 18 '16 at 3:57
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Use Passive Perception AND Active Perception.

Your players seem to want to make sure you aren't being unfair, which means they don't trust you. If you're not going to solve this problem, you can remove the need to trust you.

As many have noted, passive perception is designed for this type of thing. Your players don't seem to think so. What you should do is use the passive perception to let the players know there is something they might find. "You enter the room, and due Gork's passive perception, he notices the ground has been disturbed here". And at that point, your players can request an active roll, and let that roll decide their fate. Bad roll? That means they figure nothing is wrong, and the trap hits them. Good roll? You've found the trap, now try to disarm it.

Use what passive perception is designed for, which is to specifically stop this type of behavior where your players feel the need to declare that they are looking around in every room. As you've found out, it gets tiring. So again, they have a system in place for this, and it is passive perception.

Using this, you're going to need to explain to your players that they aren't going to be able to actively search for traps and the like whenever they want. You control that now, and you'll let them know when their passive perception discovers that something is amiss. This also means that traps and secrets need both a passive and an active "DC" to hit, the passive being for discovering that something might be here, and active to discover what it is.

One final caveat, if your players all have low passive perceptions (below 11), they're going to have to deal with being not-that-perceptive. Each class is good at certain things, especially outside of combat. Rangers are very good at noticing things, whereas a barbarian might not be. That's just the way it is. Their group might not be equipped to handle the types of traps you're throwing at them.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I really like this as a rule, it completely puts the onus on the players to create a more rounded team and neatly uses 2 rules to find a fair solution to a problem. +1 \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Nov 14 '17 at 13:09
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I've been in that situation many times, most of them on the players' side, the situation where in each corner the players would claim again they're scanning ground, walls and ceiling for danger and secrets. I've come to learn that usually comes from the DM's style, not the players'. If this happens so often that it irritates you, you should ask yourself two things:

  1. Do you WANT characters to miss dangers and secrets? (Why else would you want them not to scan all places? Perhaps you want them to have it rough from time to time, I'm not judging, it's part of any game.)
  2. Or are you just frustrated that they want to skip the actual work and session time it takes to mention this every time and solve everything with simple dice rolls? (Perhaps you want them to "roleplay" their search if they're going to take advantage of it.)

If the answer to any of the questions is yes, I have two solutions for you:

  1. You should check if you're over-punishing players Doom-style where they can't be off-guard for a second or they'll fatally miss most dangers and secrets in a dungeon. It's unfair with the players and leads to behaviour like what you described. There's should be a balance to that in dungeons you know.
  2. Start making more complex traps and secrets in dungeons, Indiana Jones-style. For example, a room that includes a dangerous puzzle can't be disarmed just by rolling d20. You'll describe what they see and they'll have to work with what they know, using logic or trial and error. It leads to engaging (and generally fair) challenges.
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As others have pointed out there is a direct automatic option with the passive values.

Aside from real automatics some players WANT to roll the dices as they can get higher than the passive values. If that is also the case in this case there is a second option out there: Let them make their stealth rolls and then their perception rolls as normal.

But ALWAYS keep in mind, that they are actively moving slow and stealthy AND actively watching out. This are two actions that cost time and in combination a lot of time, as you need to watch very carefully in order to not make any noise while looking around every corner of a long hallway, thus sneaking up to each corner one by one and leaning against the wall, maybe even sliding down and taking first a quick glance and then a longer if there is something there while not being seen.

Thus if that is the case make sure they feel how much longer this ACTIVE doing of things is. Thus let the ingame time pass more quickly accordingly. And also keep in mind, if they made ANY noise like a combat in between and are then going around in that "mode", all enemies who could have heard the sounds of the combat have WAY more time to prepare for the group and thus make this time count. Let the enemies gather their compatriots in the meantime, let them lay traps, ... and point out when the players arrive how this seems to be recently made by them. And if the players themselves ask point it out that those could have heard the sounds of battle and going THIS slow just could have given them the time needed to prepare.

Additionally if there is any need to be fast like the players needing a cure or needing to be somewhere specific you can point it out once that it costs a lot of time and ask if they are sure, if they still do this then let them feel the consequences there. Thus more people dying because the cure is not found on time or even the whole mission failing because they took too much time sneaking around when speed was of essence.

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After a careful analysis of the PHB and DMG, I have found the following bits of information, which I believe can be considered together to arrive at a reasonable conclusion.

PHB 181, "Travel Pace":

While traveling, a group of adventurers can move at a normal, fast, or slow pace[...] A fast pace makes characters less perceptive, while a slow pace makes it possible to[...] search an area more carefully (see the "Activity While Traveling" section later in this chapter for more information).

(Emphasis added)

PHB 182, "Activity While Traveling | Noticing Threats":

Use the passive Wisdom (Perception) scores of the characters to determine whether anyone in the group notices a hidden threat[...]
While traveling at a fast pace, characters take a -5 penalty to their passive Wisdom (Perception) scores to notice hidden threats.

Notably, there is no mention of the impact of a slow pace vs. a normal pace here. This may be an omission, or it could be that "search an area more carefully" was simply intended to refer to the Track and Forage activities, rather than to searching more carefully for traps and secrets. But let's read on...

DMG 237, "Using Ability Scores | Ability Checks | Multiple Ability Checks":

In some cases, a character is free to [retry a failed ability check]; the only real cost is the time it takes[...] To speed things up, assume that a character spending ten times the normal amount of time needed to complete a task automatically succeeds at that task.

(Emphasis added)

The surrounding context of this excerpt indicates that it should only be applied when the following conditions are true:

  • It makes sense to use the same check to repeat the same actions for subsequent attempts.
  • There is no penalty for failing the check (lack of the successful outcome is not a "penalty" in this regard).

This appears to be the 5e equivalent to the 3.5e "Taking 20" rule.

D20SRD, "Using Skills | Taking 20":

When you have plenty of time[...], you are faced with no threats or distractions, and the skill being attempted carries no penalties for failure, you can take 20. In other words, eventually you will get a 20 on 1d20 if you roll enough times. Instead of rolling 1d20 for the skill check, just calculate your result as if you had rolled a 20.

Taking 20 means you are trying until you get it right, and it assumes that you fail many times before succeeding. Taking 20 takes twenty times as long as making a single check would take.

Since taking 20 assumes that the character will fail many times before succeeding, if you did attempt to take 20 on a skill that carries penalties for failure, your character would automatically incur those penalties before he or she could complete the task.

The 5e version is a little more forgiving; it only requires 10x the normal time investment rather than 20x, and grants automatic success[1] rather than "the result as if you had rolled a 20".

If the passive Perception rule of "automatically noticing things where DC <= 10 + Perception modifier whenever the party is not in a hurry" is insufficient (e.g. if you frequently have traps, hidden monsters, etc. with higher DCs), then the "Multiple Ability Checks" rule seems to be the best fit for what your players are trying to do.

Conclusion

Offer your players the following options:

  • When moving at a normal pace (30 feet per round), I'll use your passive Wisdom (Perception) scores to see if you notice any hidden monsters or traps. Monsters that aren't hiding will notice you at the same time that you notice them.
  • When moving at a slow pace (20 feet per round), your characters are being stealthy. I'll use your Dexterity (Stealth) checks against the Wisdom (Perception) checks of any monsters that are actively searching for you, and against the passive Wisdom (Perception) scores of any monsters that aren't searching. I'll also use your passive Wisdom (Perception) scores to see if you notice any hidden monsters or traps.
  • If you want to actively search for hidden monsters/traps as you travel, you have these choices:
    • I secretly roll a Wisdom (Perception) check for you every round. This will slow down gameplay as I make all these rolls - after all, if I only rolled when there was something to find, it would be too obvious a clue. And of course, you run the risk that I roll less than 10, and you miss something that your passive Perception would have allowed you to notice.
    • You can move at 1/2 your speed (10 feet per round if also being stealthy, otherwise 15 feet per round) to have me roll twice for each Perception check, or 1/3 your speed to roll 3 times, etc.
    • You can move at 1/10 your normal speed (2 feet per round if also being stealthy, otherwise 3 feet per round) to represent that you are being extremely cautious and diligent in your searching. At this pace, I'll grant you an automatic success on your Perception checks. This solves the problem of slowing down gameplay, as I'm no longer making rolls, but since your characters will be moving so slowly, you run the risk of experiencing [hunger/thirst/fatigue] before you get to a suitable location to address it, or that [you are discovered by a wandering patrol/the bad guy completes his plans while you're examining floor tiles/the mayor gets tired of waiting and hires someone else to find his MacGuffin].
  • And, of course, when moving at a fast pace (40 feet per round), I'll use your passive Wisdom (Perception) scores, with a -5 penalty, to see if you notice any hidden monsters or traps.

[1] "The result as if you had rolled a 20" is only relevant when there are negative modifiers, and/or very high DCs. Of course, DM discretion should still be used - if you set a check's DC to 30, you probably had a good reason for doing so, and could certainly be justified in rejecting the possibility of automatic success on such a check.

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Another option is to make bad rolls trigger traps (even traps you hadn't necessarily planned for those spots). If currently there's only upside to constant checking why wouldn't your players do it? After a few times their <10 rolls trigger spikes or poison gas or whatever they might be a bit more judicious with their checking and only do it when the upside is likely to outweigh the downside.

Of course in the wrong table environment it can escalate the adversarial nature of the game so use with caution.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "If currently there's only upside to constant checking..." I believe that rolling a check means you're forgoing your passive score on the task; active checks risk doing worse than passive. If they didn't, you may as well just be rolling 1d10-1 instead of 1d20! \$\endgroup\$ – Passage May 5 '16 at 16:25

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