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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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4 Answers 4

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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, 2017 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, 2017 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\$ Jan 31, 2017 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\$ Feb 1, 2017 at 9:57
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Consider a 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, 2017 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, 2017 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, 2017 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, 2017 at 21:11
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    \$\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, 2017 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\$ Jan 31, 2017 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, 2017 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\$ Feb 2, 2017 at 14:43
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Passive checks are for active PC's...but at the DM's discretion

This is a strange post for me, in that I don't think I have before now read anything by SevenSidedDie that I considered wrong. A different interpretation than I would make, perhaps, but valuable to consider and certainly not flat-out wrong. And yet here we are, with their accepted and highly-upvoted answer containing a mix of what is RAW absolutely true - players should never call for checks - and absolutely false - 'passive' checks have nothing to do with PC's being passive.

The claim (emphases in the original):

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.

While "repeated tasks" are indeed a time when a DM would use a passive check, they are most certainly not 'the only exception to the rule that active PC's make rolls'. To see this, we merely have to read the section of the PHB that defines passive checks:

A passive check is a special kind of ability check that doesn't involve any die rolls. Such a check...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.

An active check is appropriate when the PC's can immediately see whether or not they are successful - if they leap over a particularly wide chasm, they will know they are successful on a high roll and will know they fail and fall on a low roll. But when what they are trying to do is based around knowledge, so that when they fail they don't know that they failed, a passive check is often more appropriate. Passive Perception is used for searching since often the PC's will have no idea whether they failed to find a monster because one was not there, or because the one that was there was so well hidden. If you allow players to roll, you are giving them meta-information that their characters don't have.

Active Perception is not when a character 'actively looks' for hidden monsters, it is when the player actively makes a Perception roll (because the DM told them to).

Passive Perception is not an intuitive sense the characters have even when they don't search, it is when a character actively looks but the DM determines the result by using their passive Perception score without the player making a roll.

Any ability check, active or passive, is a result of the character's activity and conscious intent; as described in the PHB's section on Ability Checks (emphases mine):

An ability check tests a character's or monster's innate talent and training in an effort to overcome a challenge. The DM calls for an ability check when a character or monster attempts an action (other than an attack) that has a chance of failure.

Passive ability checks are included as a subsection of the Ability Check rules and must follow the general rules for ability checks; they happen when the character is making an effort for them to happen. Further, it can be assumed that most of the time your character is on the alert for danger. As the Hiding sidebar (PHB 177) says:

In combat, most creatures stay alert for signs of danger all around, so if you come out of hiding and approach a creature, it usually sees you.

The only time a character is not actively looking for danger is when they focus their attention on another activity. And when they do so, they don't then use passive Perception. Rather, they lose the the ability to make passive Perception checks, as described in the PHB section on Noticing Threats:

Use the passive Wisdom (Perception) scores of the characters to determine whether anyone in the group notices a hidden threat...Characters who turn their attention to other tasks as the group travels are not focused on watching for danger. These characters don’t contribute their passive Wisdom (Perception) scores to the group’s chance of noticing hidden threats. However, a character not watching for danger can do one of the following activities instead...

When the characters are actively looking for danger, but the DM does not want them to roll, they get a passive Perception check. When they stop actively looking for danger, because they are engrossed in something else, they get no check at all.

'Active' and 'passive' refer to what the player and DM are doing in the meta-game (rolling or not), but not what the characters are doing within the narrative. The DM should not be determining whether the players 'get' an active roll based on what they say their characters are doing, but rather on how the DM wants the meta-game to proceed. What the players say the characters are doing is the basis for permitting a check in the first place, regardless of whether the DM decides it will be active or passive.

From the OP:

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.

If the PCs are suspicious of an NPC, you can assume that they are actively using their Insight on every unverifiable statement. The DM could say "Roll an Insight" after any particular statement, but then if the player rolls particularly high they might conclude 'He can't be lying because I rolled a great Insight', while if they roll low they can think 'I don't believe that, but I have to pretend my character does'. Instead of permitting this meta-knowledge, the DM could just allow the NPC's statements to be met by the PC's passive Insight - and while obvious falsehoods would be detected, particularly skilled lies would go undetected, without the players having meta-knowledge about it.

From the OP:

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?

The DM describes the symbol as the characters walk in. If the players ask whether their characters recognize it, if they take an active interest, a check is appropriate. The DM might permit an active roll - but here again, this allows the players to know that they likely failed, when their characters would not. Instead, the DM applies a passive Religion check and simply narrates the results - and the players are left to wonder whether they are getting accurate information about a well-known faith or false information about something so obscure their characters are simply misled.

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