There have been a lot of debates surrounding 5th edition D&D, but few have felt more confusing than the “Who, what, when, and why?” of passive perception. Even over 5 years after the release of fifth edition, this is a topic that still causes debate and confusion.
Which is unfortunate, because passive perception in 5E Dungeons and Dragons is actually a pretty cool mechanic and can be a great tool for making a game run more smoothly.
Passive perception is a mechanic to speed up 5th edition games and make it run more smoothly by setting an “automatic success rate.” Basically this is the floor for perception checks, representing what details or checks a character will automatically notice or pass, bypassing the need to make a roll.
So you want to look at passive perception as the floor of what a character is going to notice. Have something hidden in a room that would require a 16 to find? A character with a passive perception of 17 doesn’t need to role. He/she should simply notice it. A character with a passive perception of 15? He/she will need to roll an active check.
Want any evidence this is how passive perception actually works from an expert?
How about from Head Rules Master of Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, Jeremy Crawford?
Passive Perception Vs. Active Perception
There really isn’t as large a difference between the two here. The Active vs. Passive simply defines when to use the score. If you’re in a dungeon full of traps or hidden passages and the party has a rogue with a perception in the 20’s, having that character roll over and over for spotting basic traps or fake falls is grindy and doesn’t make sense.
You know how you have some friends who just notice details really quickly? They always seem aware of what’s around them whereas you’d really have to look around to notice the same things?
That right there is a real life way to think of high passive perception versus someone who needs active perception.
Now it’s important to keep in mind that there are many reasons why perception might not come into play. Some spells require an intelligence check. The DM might decide an environment is so alien or different that a player may see something but not perceive its relevance because they don’t have the understanding, the background, or the in-campaign knowledge to make a perception check.
There’s also the old +5 or -5 boost or penalty. If a player is extra paranoid they might be more perceptive than usual, even passively. If the bard is flirting with the nearest thing with a heart beat (as bards are known to do) you might decide their passive perception is -5 from the usual number.
For a quick set of guidelines on using passive perception:
- If the player’s passive perception is higher than the check, just use passive perception for the win
- If a player is walking into an ambush, passive perception might determine if they know something is wrong while active perception check might be to see if a player can process information received (like an ambusher stepping on a twig that snaps) into an accurate picture
- Passive perception is used to speed up the game through checks the players should fly through without issue
- You use passive when the DM says and active when the DM calls for it
How to Figure Out Passive Perception
There’s a very direct formula for passive perception, but with an important point that too many players and DMs miss.
The formula for passive perception IF THE PLAYER IS PROFICIENT IN PERCEPTION
10 + Wisdom Score Modifier + Proficiency Bonus
If the player hasn’t made their character proficient specifically in the perception skill then the player does NOT get to add their proficiency bonus to the passive perception score.
In that particular case, the formula to determine passive perception is:
10+ Wisdom Score Modifier
What’s the Point of Passive Perception?
Some games simply choose not to use passive perception. That’s a perfectly valid play style and will work well for certain groups. That said, 5th Edition’s guidelines around how passive perception works and/or can be used for a variety of reasons.
One is speed of game.
If there is a dungeon with dozens of traps and hidden doors that are medium difficulty, and you have a rogue with a passive perception of 20, there’s no point in doing all those rolls.
If you play with the Natural 1 as an automatic failure (no modifiers added) as a house rule for 5th Edition, you might choose not to use passive perception but even then with that many traps it can be good to go with passive perception anyway…perhaps just saving that occasional roll for traps that would be particularly deadly or have major repercussions.
Another is rewarding perceptive players.
One of the best things a good DM can do is give players their moments, make them feel like their decisions are actually affecting the game. Just saying things like “What’s your passive perception?
Cool, in that case you spot multiple traps along the way and easily help the party navigate around them,” is a fast way to speed up the game, still keep a sense of danger, and give a nod to that player’s build and choices.
Guiding the story along
Passive perception can help players spot an ambush ahead of time, pick up clues that guide them towards an NPC you want them to meet, or give players a chance to see a threat or get a clue that encourages an active check. If they choose not to do it, the DM can point back to that moment where it went sideways.
Passive perception has sometimes received an unfair reputation for being game breaking. This doesn’t have to be the case. It really is a mechanic that can be a net positive for both DM and players during a campaign.
When Do You Use Passive Perception?
We’ve already covered this pretty extensively, but as a DM it never hurts to have a cheat sheet.
So here’s your bullet point cheat for when to use passive perception:
- To speed up the narrative of the game
- To reward players who specialize in perceiving things
- To determine ambushes, secrets, or what players notice without having to actively search
- To give basic information that could encourage players to make an active check OR justify/set the stage for an event about to happen if they don’t
- To guide them from point A to point B without railroading by letting them perceive something they’ll then investigate further
5th Ed Passive Perception FAQ
Let’s face it: few things get more questions about mechanics in 5th edition than passive perception.
Does passive perception supersede active perception?
Most of the time yes, but this can be situational depending on how the DM chooses to interpret passive perception. In most games this passive perception almost always comes first. This is used for repetitive tasks (check for traps, search for ambushes, look over a room, etc.) and so passive perception is a great short cut.
Your rogue, monk, or ranger scout with a passive perception 20, so anything less than hard for noticing a detail they see automatically. Anything that’s a hard notice requires an active roll at that point.
So the passive perception comes first, and if a character’s passive perception is higher than the “success level” the view is automatic.
Unless the situation is uncommon to the character, not a normal skill, or there’s something that puts them out of the element. Then the DM can choose to say it takes active concentration here to make it work.
Is passive perception an optional rule?
Yes. Not only does the beginning of the Fifth Edition state that these are more guidelines than rules, with the only rule being that the DM always has final say, page 179 of the Player’s Handbook states: “A passive check is a special kind of ability check that doesn’t involve any dice rolls.”
While it doesn’t specifically say there it’s an optional rule, the section is written like it’s giving guiding advice for how to use an optional rule.
However, Jeremy Crawford, the lead rules designer of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, has also straight out said that passive perception is an optional rule that DMs can use.
If the guy who writes the rules says it’s optional, then it’s optional.
What’s the difference between perception and investigation?
Honestly there’s a lot of overlap. The best rule of thumb is that perception uses the active senses (sound, sight, taste, etc) to notice something. Investigation is using abstract abilities like mulling over books, piecing together different stories to find holes in one, or a hard analytical focus on doing something very specific.
There are some situations where either one could be used, and which is chosen depends on possibly the preference of the DM. Examples include investigating a body for clues about cause of death or looking for a hidden door or passageway.
5E Passive Perception Fully Explained
And there you have it! Now whether a player or a DM you have a full mastery of passive perception in 5E D&D including when to use it, when not to use it, and the pros/cons of passive perception in any D&D campaign.
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Proud to embrace the locally created moniker of “Corrupt Overlord” from one of the all time great Lords of Waterdeep runs, Shane is one member of the Assorted Meeples crew and will be hard at work creating awesome content for the website. He is a long-time player of board games, one time semi-professional poker player, and tends to run to the quirky or RPG side of things when it comes to playing video games. He loves tabletop roleplaying systems like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Werewolf, Fate, and others, and not only has been a player but has run games as DM for years.