Passivism in D&D

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)


6 thoughts on “Passivism in D&D

  1. I’m glad passive checks work for you and you players. Me, I generally try to avoid scenarios in which an auto-detection would ruin the enjoyment.

    Also, it seems as though your method of using distance and interaction (though they work for you and your group) would, for some, just shift the annoying behavior from rapid-fire rolling to in depth interaction with every room and NPC. If that means more description and role-playing from the PCs, great, but seems like it would be easier for them just to sense that the butler’s up to something then have them interact with him. Besides which, if I had a secret that I wanted them to work to discover, I’m afraid I might not always be an impartial judge of when they were close enough or had interacted enough. If the mystery were later revealed, I’d then be facing some distrustful players.

    So, interesting perspective and good article, but I’m going to keep avoiding hidden gotchas that a simple passive check can reveal – unless it doesn’t matter to me whether it’s revealed.

  2. I look forward to the knowledge check discussion. I’ve played with that in my campaign some. The downside is that added passive skills checks add a level of … determinism.

    That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s finding the balance that’s important, especially since D&D is a game built around random chances of success.

  3. Good thoughts on how to use an important tool. The idea of passive perception/insight was a really good call.

    Though, in general it is part of knowing what the characters can do, which is always a good idea.

  4. @Centauri It might not be the best system for every game—like many rules, one has to customize for his or her group. I think there is danger in players becoming too complacent about rolling Perception or Insight checks. I sometimes see that in my group—the PCs are talking to an NPC and don’t bother rolling Insight (or just forget to). Still, for the majority of the things that they learn through passive Perception or passive Insight, they’re not game-altering revelations. In my game, secrets are meant to be found out, and whether the PCs discover it through a passive check, an active check, or whatever doesn’t really matter—so long as they get it eventually.

    @modernkutuzov I had big issues with passive perception early in the life of the game when we were still playtesting it because of that level of determinism. Ultimately, though, if something is important enough that I don’t want it to be detectable with a passive perception check or passive insight check, then I make it that way. For instance, I’m not going to let a character’s passive Insight let him realize that that noble he’s talking to is actually a rakshasa using an illusion spell. To figure that out, a character needs to catch on to my clues, such as when the noble says that it’s “Grrrrreat to meet them.” Sorry, couldn’t help myself with the Tony the Tiger joke.

    @seaofstarsrpg I definitely like to keep a general sense of what the PCs’ skill checks, defenses, attacks, etc. are, just so I can make sure that stuff I design for them is challenging when it’s supposed to be.

  5. It took me a few sessions to “get” passive skill checks, but we utilize them pretty constantly, now. However, there are times when you want things to be a surprise, or want to add an element of drama, but I find the players do that very well for me–if I write down what they see or find on an index card and hand it to them, instead of announcing it to the group.

    So the high perception player gets a card that says “You notice the corner tapestry wavering in an unfelt breeze.” Instead of everyone stopping and going over to investigate because I made an announcement, that one character decides if she wants to check it out herself, whether she wants to announce it to the party, and how her character would handle such information.

    I like the “range” idea as well. Definitely would encourage me to include more tiny details that a player only catches if she/he moves in to really investigate.

  6. @Jenny – the idea with the card is great! I want to try and implement that into my campaign.

    Also I was just tweeting about this the other day, I think passive checks are great, and also does wonders for the speed of things and reducing the dice rolls but at times I really just do want the players to have a chance to fail at finding something obviously not something huge, but a sack o’ coins or other tidbit, and just setting the DC to finding something small extremely high just to beat a certain PC’s passive check seem silly.

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