Serious Skills: Perception

Serious Skills: Perception

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What was that? That sound, that scent, that flicker of motion? It’s Serious Skills: Perception.

Perception as Mechanics.

The Rules Compendium has this to say about the Perception skill:

The Perception skill governs the locating of things, particularly by sight and sound. A successful check may allow you to notice a clue, find a secret door, overhear convsersation at a distance or through an object, spot a trap or follow tracks. The DM may use your Passive Perception to determine if you perceive phenomena of which you are not yet aware. A sleeping (as in resting, not dying or put under magical sleep) character may still use Passive Perception with a -5 penalty.

The two primary mechanical uses of Perception are to Notice Something or Locate a Hidden Creature. Use the following tables to determine if a character Notices a particular phenomenon. No action is required to use Passive Perception; an active Perception check requires a minor action.


  • Fighting or similar ruckus: 0
  • Normal Conversation: Easy (for level)
  • Whispers: Hard (for level)
  • Through a Door: +5
  • Through a Wall: +10
  • At 10 or more squares distance: +2


  • Barely Obsucred: Easy (for level)
  • Well-concealed: Hard (for level)
  • At 10 or more squares distance: +2
  • Locate A Hidden Creature: Opposed test vs. opponent’s Stealth

Find Tracks

  • Soft Ground (snow, loose dirt, mud): Moderate (for level)
  • Hard Ground (clay, stone, wood): Hard (for level)
  • Precipitation since tracks leftr: +10
  • Each day the tracks have aged: +5
  • Quarry obscured tracks: +5
  • Huge or larger creature OR company/swarm/horde: -5

In 3.X edition D&D, we had Spot, Search and Listen; in 4th, this has been cut down to the single Perception skill which is a move I approve of most vociferously. Then.. they went and did something really weird – they made all the checks level-dependent. If that doesn’t immediately strike you as odd, go read this article series or I’ll sum the whole thing up right here:

Why is finding a secret door at level 4 “harder” than finding the same door at level 1? Do the enemies learn to speak more quietly as you get stronger? What the heck? The continuing result is that even though you are leveling up and your Perception score increases, the relative difficulty to achieve the tasks is the same – 65% success on Easy if untrained, 65% success on Moderate if trained and 65% success on Hard if specialized. If you’re going to create a progression and then completely flatten it by giving the same progression to the environment, why bother? I get not wanting to have the weird artifact of characters’ senses sharpening as they age* but it seems a lot easier to just have a static Perception value somewhere and stable, absolute DCs.

The secret hiding behind all this is scope. You wouldn’t put a group of 12th level PCs up against a dozen 1st level kobolds, would you? Of course not – they’re not a challenge. You’d go for something more threatening, like Mosslings or maybe a Golden Lion. The same logic applies to your Perception checks. Actually, it applies to ALL skill checks but up until this point, it hasn’t been quite so obvious as it is with Perception. Let’s go back to that secret door for a minute. At low Heroic tier, the PCs are probably investigating sewers, natural caves and maybe the occasional abandoned temple – pretty standard stuff. The secret doors here have very small latches or are built with a nearly invisible seam, but if you wave a light source over it or look at the scrapes on the surrounding wall, you’ll figure out that there’s a door there. By the time the PCs get to Paragon Tier, all that stuff is old hat. You’ve got to get up pretty early in the morning to hide a secret door from someone who eats trolls for breakfast. That door needs to be hidden by invisibility magic, assembled from enchanted vines or made from a whole wall of the room, requiring some really crazy trick to open it. Once you break into Epic Tier, watch out! We’re well past a simple door at this point since what challenge is a door to someone who can travel into the Astral Sea at a whim? Dimensional gates, teleporters, or non-Euclidian geometry stand in the way of an Epic level PC. Your secret door better darn well require the PCs to rip a hole in reality to get through. That level 26 secret door has a 39 required Passive Perception to find because it only appears twice per year during the feast of Saint Albanastre but the PCs are bad enough dudes (and dudettes) to figure that out just by looking at the space where it will show up… and maybe after a skill challenge. In the same vein, what self-respecting Lord of Hell is going to just have important conversations in a merely natural room made of stone or wood? The building is made of Unobtanium, there’s magical soundproofing and his Sending is probably encrypted in some Navajo-like variation of Supernal. So go ahead; roll a 41 Perception to hear what he’s saying. Have fun with that. Just like your monsters and traps get progressively nastier, the very environment around your PCs should become more hostile and obtrusive as well. We as DMs tend to forget that “level-appropriate” means both ‘appropriate to the PCs’ AND ‘appropriate to the scope of the situation.’ If, for example, you’re going to hide something behind a simple sliding panel near Level 14 PCs, that door should in fact still be a Hard level 2 or 4 check and you better darn well believe they’re going to find it; they’re seasoned adventurers and know their business. A couple of dumb orc grunts arguing right on the other side of that vault is also always a low-to-mid Heroic Tier check even if the orcs themselves are level 16. Making a challenge “level-appropriate” is not a simple matter of looking up a DC value. It’s about pushing the limits of your characters’ power and authority.

*and no, I can’t find the OOTS comic about that. Dangit.

Perception as Platform

Who are the folks trained in Perception and why?

The reasons your character may be trained in Perception range from the ordinary to the nearly insane, offering a wide variety of character concepts. Start from the mundane (at least for a fantasy setting anyway) My Race Has Keen Senses, which works for… well, pretty much anyone who’s not a vanilla human, but more specifically Fey races, Shifters, Dragonborn, Wilden and the like. You might also be Uniquely Gifted for your race, and plays to greatest effect if you choose a single sense (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) to latch on to. My players will tell you that smelling magic is one of my favorite descriptions and I will go to great lengths to describe the smell as tinny, foul, sweet, subtle, musky, etc. A nice subversion to this trope is Aided Sense in which perhaps your character is just horribly near-sighted, but the monocle he wears makes up for that deficiency and then some. If your character is naturally a Nit-Picker or maybe even has Attention Deficit Problems, fine details will stand out like a sore thumb, thus justifying that Perception training.

Training in Perception can also be a product of nurture instead of nature. A character who is Master of My Craft is likely to have the fine-detail skills mechanically given by training in Perception. The blacksmith, for example, needs to be able to hear imperfections in the material when struck, feel the proper heat of the furnace, see the way the metal is bending and shaping, maybe even smell organic impurities being burned away. If you’re Always Travelling, you likely have Perception training as well as you try to take in as much as you possibly can from all the sights you see on your journeys. Not all backstories are quite so light-hearted and helpful, though. Running From the Devil? You need sharp eyes, ready ears and the willingness to constantly be on alert from whatver’s after you. Even if you’re not being pursued, I’ve Seen Too Much or Highly Paranoid might cause you to think you are and thus behave in a similar manner. Living in dangerous conditions might cause the ‘training’ as well. Rugged Outdoorsman, Political Refugee or Troubled Childhood are reasonable ways to explain why your character goes from ‘sound asleep’ to ‘armed and dangerous’ in less than a round.

Though there are no professions or jobs that specifically call for Perception above and beyond all others, I would encourage you to NOT take Perception if you’re trained in Insight, and even more so if also trained in other primarily interpersonal skills like Diplomacy or Streetwise. Why, you ask? First, unless the party is in need of a super-scout (and admittedly some are), let other people have fun finding clues too. As those numbers begin to climb, you look more and more like Sherlock Holmes – which is fine for a guy running around on his own, but not so much for a member of a Five-Man Band. Second, if you’re a real people-person it’s quite likely you’ll ignore the scenery for the actors, so to speak.

Perception as Sense

How can Perception be used as a sense, to gain and process information?

I shouldn’t need to go into any sort of detail here, but I would like to reiterate a point from a previous article. Perception, like Insight, is a skill you don’t necessarily want your players to know how well they did on a check. “Oops, looks like we failed a Perception check,” while occasionally humorous, really pulls the wind of out dramatic sails pretty quick. Have your PCs’ passive Perception (and Insight) scores readily available to cut down on rolls and metagame knowledge. You could conversely use the fakeout techniques from the Insight article to create a similar effect. Finally, don’t make your PCs roll for something they need to notice or let them roll for something they need to NOT know about. Few skills can derail or stall the plot as randomly as Perception; So much so, in fact, that I almost wish it weren’t a skill… almost.

Perception as Social Skill

The primary information-gaining skill for social situations is Insight and so while we rely mostly on Insight for that work, there are still a few things to be done with a Perception check in such circumstances. Context is the key to social use of Perception. Is the NPC wearing fine jewelry? A hidden weapon? A holy symbol? Clothing may or may not make the man, but it certainly gives you a good place to start. Where is the meeting taking place? A guy who wants to give you a map to an ancient treasure at the old, run-down ‘take your life into your own hands’ tavern might have different intentions than one who meets you at The King’s Arms Inn. Does the NPC speak with a regional accent? Is anyone else watching the encounter? This is all useful information your character might obtain with Perception during a social encounter. That probably means that you’re doing less talking and more observing, but that’s perfectly fine. Listening is just as useful a skill as talking and admittedly less common sometimes. If you use Perception in a social encounter you’re playing a support role, feeding necessary information to the rest of the party and watching out for danger.

Hope you enjoyed that breakdown of Perception! Next week: Reli.. actually… no. I want to save that one for later. How’s about we sneak over to Stealth?

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Ryven Cedrylle was introduced to 2nd edition D&D by his father at age 8 and has been hooked ever since. When not out somewhere with his nerd-loving wife, he spends an inordinate amount of time staring at small objects - primarily beakers, stars, books about religion and virtual gaming miniatures. Follow him on Twitter for previews of upcoming material and random nuggets of wit! There's also a guy Ryven knows who's trying to adopt a baby. Take a look at the site, see if you can help him out.