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So going off of these parts of passive checks

"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." (PHB, 175)

"Passive Perception. When you hide, there's a chance someone will notice you even if they aren't searching." (PHB 177)

The section on passive perception versus stealth shows that the person just notices without even trying, which is different from "oh I'm gonna keep an eye out." You just innately and immediately see them. This infers that this innate form of passive check can sometimes activate without the player saying anything.

So the issue is, when does a player have to state they're attempting a skill before the passive check kicks in?

Like, I could see if a passive insight check beats a deception roll, the person realizes they're being told a lie, without first having to say they're trying to use insight on the person. While you lose the part of the game of player's having to carefully consider each part of the conversation to see which parts they want to call insight on, some player's could just state "I insight them every time they tell me something.

And then if it's like an intelligence check, should a player first have to state that they want to make the check? Is it they walk into a room with an obscure holy symbol on the wall, their passive religion checks beats the DC to recognize it and "as you walk in, you see a symbol on the wall and immediately recognize it as the holy symbol of 'so-and-so'," or do you wait until they state that they want to examine the symbol?

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Players Do Not Initiate Passive Checks

The operative word is passive. If a player is actively searching/examining/studying/watching, it's active, not passive. If a PC is actively using a skill, they roll for it instead of the DM using a secret passive check.

The only exception to that rule is the one you quoted: the DM can use a passive check to find the average result of doing the same thing over and over again, regardless of whether it's active or not.

In general, the point of the existence of the passive check is so that the DM can determine something when the players aren't expecting to notice anything. In those cases asking them to roll would give away that there is something, so instead D&D 5e provides DMs the passive check to avoid giving away the secret. When to use passive checks is much easier to grasp when you look at them from the perspective of the problem they were designed to solve.

Also as a consequence, PCs are rarely in situations where it makes sense for players to ask for passive checks — after all you can't know to check what you don't know is there to check! This puts the responsibility for ensuring passive checks are made when they should be on the DM's shoulders. As a useful aide for this, it helps for the DM to keep a note listing each PC's name and their most important passive checks. Just having the note can be a small spur to remind the DM that passive checks should be kept in mind during interactions with hidden things, NPCs, motives, and etc.

To answer the titular question, this means that a player never states that they're making a passive check. It's something the DM does as the situation requires.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Alright, this makes more sense. I guess my issue is I haven't had any DMs that ever seem to use passive checks. Like one DM had the everyone roll an investigation check to see through a hag's illusion, even though none of us had stated we were trying to see if she was under an illusion. \$\endgroup\$ – J Nason Jan 31 '17 at 0:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JNason That depends on the GM. Generous GMs tend to allow rolls if they know the passive checks can never beat the DC, others just forget there is such a thing as passive checks and allow players to roll either as a heads up that something is happening which he/she may have failed to communicate without a roll on the players part (lack of narration). Still others might allow rolls because they might feel a trap missed by a passive check sounds like a random screwjob. \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Jan 31 '17 at 1:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JNason And it's entirely possible they were using passive checks still. The DM isn't required to say “You passed a passive check, so you see…” and can just jump straight to “You see…” like normal DM narration. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 31 '17 at 2:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ Building on your point about keeping a note of the passive check scores for your players, here are the ones I keep handy: Insight and Perception, and the knowledge skills: Arcana, History, Medicine - strictly for a knowledge check, Nature, and Religion. Remember +/- 5 for advantage/ disadvantage \$\endgroup\$ – Clearly Toughpick Feb 1 '17 at 9:57
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Consider different approach

Should a player first have to state that they want to make the check?

This very question emerges only because your players have to announce checks. It happens when players use the CRPG-style "I use ___ skill" pattern:

— "Stop right now! Who are you?" the guard says.
— I use Deception skill. (rolls a die)

Aside from its general awkwardness, this approach has a number of issues. How the player is trying to convince the guard? What are possible consequences, what happens when the bluff will be revealed? What if the guard actually knows who the characters are, and will recognize any obvious lie? And what lie does the PC say, exactly?

In 5e, the rules were reworked in favor of storytelling. That includes major overhaul of the skill system - the number of skills was lowered, and their descriptions became very general.

Players aren't supposed to ask for checks

In 5e, a standard interaction between GM and players is:

  1. DM describes the situation
  2. Players describe what they do
  3. DM asks players to make ability checks (if any)
  4. DM resolves the situation, describing the outcome

Instead of players saying "I want to roll the __ check", it is the DM who asks the player to make a check:

DM: "Stop right now! Who are you?" the guard says.
P: "Let us pass! We have a message from your king!"
DM: Make a deception check.
P: rolls 2
DM: "Our king is in his chambers, you impostors! Lay down your weapons and surrender!"

Every time the DM wants a player to make a check, he might use a passive check instead. It can be useful in some cases:

  • DM doesn't want to "warn" the player asking him for a roll
  • There isn't much sense in rolling the die, since the task the PC is performing is trivial or repetitive:

P: I search for traps in the room.
DM: Make an Investigation check
P: (rolls a die)
DM: You've found nothing.
P: There must be something here! I search again.
DM: (uses passive check instead)

However, there is nothing wrong if the DM don't use passive checks at all, but every time asks for a roll instead (or rolls the dice secretly behind the screen).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Well I less meant them explicitly saying "I'm going to make a perception check" and more they have to state that their character is doing something that invokes the check. \$\endgroup\$ – J Nason Feb 1 '17 at 20:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JNason, well, I thought "player have to state they are making a passive check" means that player, well, have to explicitly state they are making a check.. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Feb 1 '17 at 21:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ I suggest you editing the question.. "I insight them every time they tell me something" doesn't seem like the player describes what their character is doing. It's a pure "I use Insight skill" declaration. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Feb 1 '17 at 21:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ It was more a case of, at the time, I couldn't think of an easy, compact way to say "when does a passive check require that a player has to say that their character is taking a specific action to trigger the check". As for the "I use insight" that was more because, after a while in a campaign, it just gets more efficient to say you're gonna insight the person than a repeated "My character thinks they might be lying to me" "okay roll an insight check" \$\endgroup\$ – J Nason Feb 1 '17 at 21:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ You don't need a special skill to think someone is lying. Could you give another example? Insight skill is a complicated one. There are a few good answers here about how it meant to be used rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/62166 \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Feb 1 '17 at 21:16
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Passive checks are exactly that. They need no player input. Passing a passive check to notice something implies you were keeping your eye out. An active check would be if you were searching for something.

Generally, players don't announce things like that.

You tell them if they notice. You roll their passive check. If players are announcing passive checks, somethings wrong.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer adds nothing to the more complete answers already here. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Jan 31 '17 at 23:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ But the section on passive checks specifically includes that it can be used as a result for them repeatedly doing the action. So you could use your passive perception check score for actively searching around repeatedly. \$\endgroup\$ – J Nason Feb 1 '17 at 20:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, this is frequently referred to as the take-10 rule. It is an additional use for passive checks, and in no way affects other uses of passive checks. Searching and noticing are two different things. Generally, players don't announce things like that. You tell them if they notice. You roll their passive check. If players are announcing passive checks, somethings wrong. \$\endgroup\$ – Bryant Jackson Feb 2 '17 at 14:43

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