No, I didn’t misspell “pacifism.” I’m talking about passive skill checks—the most notable of which are passive Insight and passive Perception. These components are so important in a D&D 4E game that they have earned themselves a feature spot on a character sheet, right alongside Initiative. I am a major subscriber to the “passivist” school of thought. As a Dungeon Master, I constantly make use of a character’s passive skill checks, and as a player, I hope to have a DM that understands the advantages of using these mechanics.
Regardless of what edition or RPG you’re playing, I think passive checks are a useful mechanic. Whether a character has “Investigation,” “Listen,” “Perception,” or any other ability that involves collecting information from one’s surroundings, using a passive number (10 + modifier in d20 systems) can speed up gameplay and allow players to focus more on the details a DM provides rather than making a roll and adding up the result. For any unfamiliar with how the mechanic works in 4E, here’s a quick summary:
A character has Perception and Insight skills, which can be used to find hidden things or detect lies (respectively). A character is not always actively trying to see through someone’s lies or to spot hidden doors in a room. If a character were to do this, a player might be rolling dice every minute, and I suspect the other players would become quickly irritated. Instead of machine-gun dice roll, a character who is a skilled lie-detector or perceiver has some innate ability to pick up hidden things or lies, and the passive skills represent this ability.
(Art from the Wizards of the Coast website; ilustration by William O’Connor)
As a DM, I find the only danger with frequent use of passive checks is the “auto-success.” For example, I know in my group that the druid and warden have the highest Perception checks, and I know about what those numbers are. Thus, when planning an adventure, I can usually be assured that one of them will find a hidden door if I set the dice check (DC) at a certain number. The way I get around this problem is setting distances on hidden things (or in the case of Insight, how much a person is interacting with the deceiver). In my notes, I jot down that a door has a Perception DC of 25/range 5. I know that the warden or the druid have a high enough passive perception to notice the door, but if its a large room, they might or might not go near it.
You might be thinking that my system is all well and good only so long as everything is mapped out or laid out on Dungeon Tiles. My interpretations of this “range entry” do become a little more liberal when characters are exploring without a grid or a map. In those cases, it’s just necessary to make the details of the room extra clear and to get explicit descriptions of where each character is within the room or what he or she is doing. Alternatively, you can always just slap down a map or a set of Dungeon Tiles even in a non-combat scenario. Doing this has the added benefit of keeping the players on their toes, since they’ll suspect a combat encounter when the grids show up.
(Art from the Wizards of the Coast website; ilustration by Wayne Reynolds)
I strongly encourage all DMs (or GMs, if you prefer) to take advantage of the concept of passive skill checks, regardless of what game you’re playing. If players aren’t afraid of missing important details constantly, they won’t slow down an adventure by relentlessly searching a room (effectively “Taking 20”), and it’s less of a headache for the DM, because he or she doesn’t have to worry as much about the characters missing important details. Instead, you can reward the character with the high Insight, Perception (or whatever game-system relevant skill it is) by telling that player that his or her character alone notices some critical detail in the room.
I was going to talk about how I use passivism in other skills—particularly the knowledge skills like Arcana and Nature. Instead, I think I’ll save that discussion for another time.
Next Blog: D&D Lessons I Learn from Dragon Age (Monday)