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The Perception Problem in 5E – Part 1

5E Dungeons & Dragons has a problem with Perception.

The Perception Problem (as I like to call it) is one of the most common for 5E players and DMs, if you go by how Reddit threads and Google searches asking questions such as:

  • When do you roll Perception in 5E?
  • What is the difference between Perception and Investigation?
  • What is Passive Perception used for?
  • How to handle looking for traps in 5E?
  • How to handle looking for secret doors in 5E?
  • How does Stealth and Perception work in 5E?

And, not only are there a ton of questions about Perception in 5E, there are also a ton of different answers – because the rules and guidelines for Perception are so vague and scattered around the different sourcebooks.

The Perception Problem has occupied my mind because we’ve been working on DELVE – a guide to running dungeons, which, with its 10+ ready-to-play dungeons, also includes a lot of hidden stuff, like traps, secret doors, stealthy enemies, and so on!

DELVE is a 200+ page sourcebook for both 5E & Shadowdark published by Eventyr Games and Bob World Builder, which features 10+ dungeons, 40+ monsters, 40+ magic items, 40+ traps and hazards, new dungeon-inspired player options, and more!

In this article series, I’ll take a look at how you can make Perception run smooth and easy in your game, without having to make complicated or inconsistent rulings, ask for unnecessary checks, or give the players meta-knowledge their characters shouldn’t have!

In this first part, we’ll define why Perception causes so many issues in 5E, how you cut the number of Perception checks by up to 90%, and what the difference is between Perception and Investigation.

Let’s dive into it!

The Problems with Perception 5E

The biggest problem with Perception in 5E is that Perception is misused and overused.

There’s a lot of confusion about when to call for Perception checks (and when to use Perception and when to use Investigation, for example). Because it’s so easy to just say “make a Perception check”, it’s often what GMs fall back on. Lost a shoe? Perception check. Checking for traps? Perception check.

Because Perception is used for everything from eavesdropping to finding secret doors and identifying traps, it’s often referred to as a must-have skill. It’s incredibly versatile, protects you from a slew of dangers, and you’re sure to be making a handful of Perception checks every session.

Aside from reducing character diversity (proficiency in Perception is almost always the optimal choice), the many misuses of Perception causes another issue: Perception reveals metagame information (i.e., the players learn something that their characters’ shouldn’t)

Consider this very common scenario: the characters enter a hallway, and immediately one of them says “I look around for traps”. If the GM says, “you don’t need to make a check”, they’ve revealed that there’s no traps here. But, if the GM asks for a Perception check, the players now know that there’s something to be found here, even if they fail on the check.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t – unless, of course, the GM decides to ask for a check every time, regardless of whether there’s something to be found. But that just causes another issue: superfluous Perception checks slow down the game.

Take the same scenario as before, but the GM knows there is no trap in the hallway. The GM asks for a check anyway – the player rolls an 8. GM says “you don’t see any traps”. Another player pipes up: “I’d like to check too!” Another Perception check is made. That’s two unnecessary checks that never had a chance of succeeding. Now repeat this every time the characters enter a new room. Ugh.

Perception vs. Investigation

Before we dive into fixing Perception in 5E, let’s first have a quick aside to define what Perception is – and what it isn’t. Which also means answering the age-old question: What’s the difference between Perception and Investigation?

Essentially, it boils down to this:

  • Perception is to sense something – perceiving it with your senses – but doesn’t tell you anything about what that something actually is or how it works
  • Investigation is to make sense of something that you’ve perceived – deducing or recalling what it is and how it works.

So, when a character examines a wall for a secret door, they use Perception to spot the faint outline of the door and Investigation to deduce that the outline is a door and that it’s likely opened by twisting the sconce next to it.

To reiterate in even simpler terms: Perception is for sensing stuff and Investigation is for making sense of stuff. It’s that simple!

Fixing Perception in 5E

The first step to fixing Perception in 5E is to use it a lot less. In my experience, around 90% of Perception checks are superfluous. Yes, 90% – let me explain why.

The cardinal rule of ability checks in 5E (and most other TTRPGS) is that GM should only call for a check if:

  1. A) There’s a chance of failure and
  2. B) There’s a consequence of failure. 

It makes sense right? If something is so easy a toddler could do it (open a door, walk across a room, see a bookcase in a lit room) there’s no reason for a check.

Even if something is difficult (open a stuck door, walk across a narrow beam, find a specific book in a bookcase), if there’s no consequence of failure and there’s no time constraint, there’s no reason for a check.

Somehow, GMs (and I’m also guilty of this) tend to forget this rule when it comes to Perception checks. Take the following scenario.

A character opens the door to a small room with a cluttered desk and a bed inside and asks what they see – should the GM ask for a Perception check to see if they spot the desk and the bed? What if the characters want to take a closer look at the desk to see if there’s something interesting there – should the GM then ask for a Perception check? And what if there is an important key hiding there, under the papers?

It may surprise you, but the answer is “No” on all counts. 

The GM should just tell the player that there’s a bed and a desk with clutter on it in the room. The character would see that, easily. If the player then asks to examine the desk and get close and spend a few minutes, they should easily find the key, even if it’s ”hidden” under some papers.

The point is, that because there’s no chance of failure and no consequence of failure, there’s no reason for a Perception check.

So, every time a player asks “Can I make a Perception check?” ask yourself: “Would the character be sure to find what’s here if they spent a few seconds or minutes looking for it?” If the answer is yes, then ask yourself: “Does it matter if it takes them a second, a minute, or 10 minutes?” If the answer is no, then you shouldn’t ask for a Perception check – you should just tell them how long it takes: “You spend a minute rummaging through the papers on the desk and find a key.”

In essence, as long as a character isn’t in a rush, you can treat it as if they had rolled a 20 on their Perception check when they examine something closely.

When to Call for Perception checks?

Let’s revisit the above scenario but this time, the dungeon is flooding with water because of an insidious trap – the party needs to find the key to open the door that’ll lead them out of the dungeon before it’s too late!

Now, as a character runs to the desk to search for the key, there’s good reason to ask them for a Perception check, even if it’s a relatively easy check (DC 10, for example), because failure means that the character wastes their turn while the water level rises dangerously!

Here are some other examples:

  • Listening at a door to hear if there’s anyone inside the room? No need for a check – if the character stands there long enough, they’ll hear what they’re physically capable of hearing. But, if there’s an important conversation going on they’re trying to hear before it ends, it makes sense to ask for a Perception check to see how much of the conversation they catch.
  • Trying to spot land from a ship’s crow’s nest? No need for a check – spend long enough and you’ll see what your eyes are capable of seeing eventually. Trying to spot another ship before they spot you? Well, now every second counts and it may make sense to ask for a contested Perception check to see who spots who first.

If you’re used to asking for Perception checks all the time, it might take some time to get used to, but once you learn when to (and, especially, when not to) call for Perception checks, you’ll find that the game runs much smoother and much faster.

Conclusion & Summary

That wraps up the first part of this mini article-series. To summarize, here are the highlights:

  • Perception is for sensing – seeing, smelling, feeling, tasting, hearing – something and Investigation is for deducing and recalling information about something.
  • Only ask for Perception checks when there is a chance of failure and a consequence of failure – in most cases, simply examining something up close for a few minutes finds all a character is physically capable of finding (treat the character as if it rolled a 20 on their Perception check).

Of course, that doesn’t answer all the questions you might have about Perception, including how to deal with traps, secret doors, and hidden foes – you know, all the cool stuff dungeons are filled with. For that, make sure to check out the next article in this series!

DELVE is a 200+ page sourcebook for both 5E & Shadowdark published by Eventyr Games and Bob World Builder, which features 10+ dungeons, 40+ monsters, 40+ magic items, 40+ traps and hazards, new dungeon-inspired player options, and more!

And, if all this talk of traps, secret doors, and stealthy monsters have got you itching for a good dungeon – and even more advice and rules for handling dungeon exploration – make sure to check out DELVE on Kickstarter!

Alright, that’s it for this one – may your dungeons be deep and filled with treasure!

1 thought on “The Perception Problem in 5E – Part 1”

  1. Thank you for the article! I completely agree that the call for a perception check is oft overused; I’m guilty of this myself. It’s nice to have someone take the time and effort to write this all out — explaining perception, the difference with investigation, etc. I’m going to be keeping this article in mind when delving any dungeon.

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