The Ubiquitous Perception Check

It’s gotten pretty tedious how often Perception Checks are called for in actual plays, games I GM, and games I play in. The party is passing by an interesting place in my open world? Everyone roll a Perception Check. The party has entered a new room in the dungeon? Everyone roll a Perception Check. It’s nighttime and a character is on watch? Roll a Perception Check. Someone is tailing the party? Roll a Perception Check. I just need a minute to gather my thoughts about the current scene? Roll a Perception Check.

Mind Weave is a particularly egregious offender in this regard. Getting bonuses to Perception costs you points from your character build, but it is still the single most guaranteed way to get value for those points. A party without a Perception character immediately regrets missing it. But its not just Mind Weave. It’s a fixture of 5e to need a Perception check at every turn, maybe for cultural reasons, of course, resulting in a buff to Wisdom based classes. In 3.x we even had two types of Perception check: spot and listen. That seems unnecessary in hindsight. Cogent Roleplay is trying to reimagine things from the ground up, but even so they give every character the same Perception bonus by counting Strength, Reflex, and Intelligence into that “Skill.” Why? Because its a constant presence and it evens things out to let all character types have that base to build on. Dungeon Crawl Classics makes it an intelligence check, and it seems less common. Maybe it only exists due to cultural transfer.

Am I overreacting? Yes. It’s been years of playing this way and I haven’t minded it much, but you have to admit that this little ritual we all accept has come to consume a lot of precious time at the table. I say “come to” and the reason for that will become clear soon, but first I want to focus on wasted time.

One of the reasons Perception checks consume more time than other checks is the assumption that everyone gets one (because even if you only ask one player to make it, everyone does when they get wise to what’s going on). Calling for everyone to make such a check means that those who were not currently engaged need to wake back up to make the roll.

And of course, these rolls are often completely unnecessary. Often I see (for myself and others) a roll to determine how much to tell the players about the room they just entered. This serves little purpose (other than to disguise the rooms where it does, like when they’re a secret door) since a low Perception check usually means describing what matters about the room and a high Perception check means feeling the need to embellish a little more, slowing things down further.

These types of rolls become even more damaging when they are part of a mystery or puzzle the players need the information to solve. In this case, the whole expectation is for the check to succeed and if it doesn’t then the choice is to let them languish with missing information or to give them the information anyway and render the check pointless.

So, is there a point I’m getting to? I said I never minded this state of affairs, but that was until I saw how things were done in AD&D. There is no such thing as a perception check. What? What do they do instead? you ask. Lets talk about some of the things that have been replaced by the ubiquitous Perception check.

First, the DM rolls secretly for secret door detection, so there is no reason to ask for screening Perception checks all of the time. When the players enter the room, the DM tells them what is there and can be immediately seen. If they take a closer look, there’s no check. The DM just tells them about where they’re looking. In 5e, these secret door checks could be behind the screen again to return to this fluidity.

Second, listening at doors has a Perception check-like mechanic. There’s nothing to do about it from a character building standpoint other than to have a race with better odds (namely gnomes, elves, halflings, and half-orcs). Funnily, there is a chance your character becomes keen-eared by doing well on their first listen check. At third level, thieves start to get ahead of other classes in their ability to listen at doors.

Interestingly, there’s some indication that this style of check (listening at doors) was presenting some of the same problems I’ve been talking about in Basic D&D play while AD&D was being written. From the AD&D DMG page 60: “continual listening becomes a great bother to the DM.” The DMG suggests such solutions to this trend as ear seekers to punish the activity and emphasizing the amount of time it takes to remove helmets and such to make the check (implying the possibility that the door is opened by the occupants or that a wandering monster arrive). How strange that we have now embraced the problem that had no satisfactory solution in the early days of the game.

The last thing is when determining surprise in an encounter. 5e has implemented a passive Perception to make this go more smoothly with just the DM needing to roll Stealth checks, but this mechanic is often forgotten and contested checks are used instead. In AD&D, the surprise check is its own animal, though certain creatures and classes have modifiers. For even more fun, it’s possible for both sides to be surprised!

Ultimately, it seems to me that Perception checks being so ubiquitous as they are now is completely unnecessary. Consider the next session your GMing that rather than ask for a Perception check you can just tell your players about the things you want them to see and consider rolling in secret if you want a Perception check for something a little harder to spot. My players are good about not getting caught up on times when I call for a check and they see nothing, but it would still save me time to write down their bonuses and roll myself rather than call on them to do so. I’ll comment below when I’ve tried it.

You can probably tell that I’m becoming an AD&D fanatic. Over on my patreon I am providing updates for the design of my first AD&D module and a larger campaign world generator I’m working on, in addition to providing the prep that goes along with the play reports each week. Be among the first ones there and help steer what direction I end up taking that content.

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5 Responses to The Ubiquitous Perception Check

  1. I’ve seen some talk on reddit about this exact issue.

    I find it funny AD&D is called too “mechanistic” and “combat oriented” compared to 5e. From what I’ve seen 5e literally mechs every possible action with skill checks, and is completely designed to be a World of Warcraft-like combat encounter to combat encounter with essentially automatic spell resets between, and no logistical restraints on natural “magic racial traits” (thus no need for limited consumables).

    It sure reads like the game goes from carefully calculated “fair fight” to “fair fight” with no depletion of the character’s abiliyies between them so the toughness of the next enemy can be calculated properly.

    But I yell at clouds and hate people on my lawn, so I may be biased and speaking from complete ignorance. 🙂

    • jameseck says:

      The DMG actually outlines the amount of opposition the party can meet in a day, which is separated out across multiple encounters or it would be too much. However, many people fail to follow this recommendation, and even if you do competent players find it doesn’t stretch their resources unless a “deadly” classification encounter is part of it and not first.
      It does make me laugh that people see it as more conducive to role-playing when there are mechanics to roll the roleplay away with skill checks.

  2. Another thing from reading and watching Outside XBox games, 5e is “DM creates a story with a plot which the players participate in.” More or less a writer’s technique, sure the characters (players) may act in ways the author didn’t detail up front, but the goal is to steer them through the outline to the end.

    As opposed to, “Here is a playground, there are some swings, and some monkey bars. The sandbox is over there, the teeter-totter in the other corner. Be careful, if you go in the bushes there might be hornets. Have fun, and feel free to ask questions.”

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