Thoughts & Things

D&D 5e – Using More Passive Checks

Lately, I have been focusing my campaign on using more passive perception and passive investigation so there aren’t as many die rolls. I’ve stopped asking for so many skill checks, and instead rely on a listing of the character’s ability scores & skills to make determination of success or failure. And this helps in describing the environment to the players, because I can instantly decide to give more information based on their character’s information.

So we get Passive Skill checks from D&D 4th edition. It is a useful tool for the DM to add to descriptions and help make the game a little faster. The Passive Skill allows for a floor for things like Perception and Investigation. The party of characters go into a situation, and their passive scores dictate their initial scene. If one of them decides to actively search or investigate, then their skill roll would only “matter” and add to the description if the result is higher than their passive score.

So now, only when a character attempts an action that might fail, I’ll ask them make an ability or skill check. If they get a higher result than their passive score (rolling on the die higher than 10), then I can give them more information or succeed at the task. But remember, the trigger for the die roll is a player telling the Dungeon Master that they are performing a specific action that might fail. You might have a player that takes an action with a skill so that they can roll, but if you get in the habit of describing and using passive checks, they might stop making so many rolls.

PASSIVE CHECKS
A passive check is a special kind of ability check that doesn’t involve any die rolls. Such a check can represent the average result for a task done repeatedly, such as searching for secret doors over and over again, or can be used when the DM wants to secretly determine whether the characters succeed at something without rolling dice, such as noticing a hidden monster.

Here’s how to determine a character’s total for a passive check:
10 + all modifiers that normally apply to the check
If the character has advantage on the check, add 5. For disadvantage, subtract 5. The game refers to a passive check total as a score.

For example, if a 1st-level character has a Wisdom of 15 and proficiency in Perception, he or she has a passive Wisdom (Perception) score of 14.

~ Player’s Handbook Page 175

A typical example of using Passive Perception is seeing a creature that is hidden in a room:


We have a Goblin that has hidden in the darkness of a room that the characters have entered. The 11th Level Party consists of a Human Cleric, Halfling Rogue, Half-Orc Fighter & Elf Wizard. The characters have passive perception scores of 15, 20, 9, 12 respectively.

The Goblin has made a Dexterity (Stealth) check of 18, and is hiding in a part of the room with dim light. I have all of the character’s passive perception scores, and I note that each character without darkvision gets a -5 from their passive perception to notice the Goblin [PHB 183]. This results in passive perceptions scores of 10, 15, 9 & 12 (same order as above). I can quickly look down at a sheet, and know if the characters spot the Goblin with out anyone rolling a die. I describe the room in enough detail to satisfy the passive ability scores. Whichever character has the highest passive check (The Rogue), I will let them know they see a little bit more details than what I gave out to the other players. But the goblin just stays hidden because all of the character’s passive scores fall below 18 with the highest Passive Perception against the hiding Goblin is a 15 for the Rogue [PHB 177].

A character may take an Action to attempt a higher score than their passive. And if they get 18 or higher, then they will see the Goblin. So the Rogue decides to search the room and check the dark areas [PHB 178], and will roll at disadvantage because of the lightly obscured areas (dim light) [PHB 183]. Without specifically saying they are searching the dark areas, the goblin would stay hidden. The action of searching has to be specific in order to determine the chance of success, and not a generalized “I search the room.” because that was already done with their passive perception. The Rogue rolls a 7 and 15, and that result of 7 is brought up to a 10 because of Reliable Talent [PHB 96]. The Rogue spots the hiding Goblin in the dim lighted area with a result of 20 on his Wisdom (Perception) check.


We have an example of Passive Perception skill, but there are other ways that I can use the characters ability & skill scores to allow more passive checks. Below are some examples, not all of these skill have explicitly follow their Ability score counterparts (see Variant: Skills with Different Abilities PHB page 175), but these are just typical:

Strength

  • Athletics – The Wizard finds that the door is stuck, and is denied because it has a DC 15 (their passive is 9). The Wizard could try to force it open, and that would call for a skill check (d20 + modifiers) . The Barbarian walks over and with their high Passive Strength (Athletics) of 20 easily forces the door open.

Dexterity

  • Acrobatics – The door opens, but the room has no floor, but a single 6″ wide board running across a large pit with spikes. A difficult traverse, but the Rogue decides to walk across and does so easily with such a high passive score. The Fighter doesn’t risk it and waits for the Rogue to return.
  • Sleight of Hand – The Rogue finds a Golden Statue under a large weighted spring trap. He easily snatches the statue as the trap smashes down without crushing & trapping the Rogue’s hand.
  • Stealth – This is one that I normally use for NPCs and Monsters. They are hidden, so I use their passive score.

Intelligence

  • Arcana – The Wizard finds a Red leather book in a store that has familiar sigils. He knows that it belongs to a Magic School that can be found on the Mafic Road in the City of Atla
  • History – We have a Cleric that recalls a great battle that took place at this site and defeated an Orc Leader. But can’t recall his name, the Wizard has a higher passive, and remembers that it was Azhurg the Brittle.
  • Investigation – A Rouge walks past a bookshelf, and from the markings on the floor, deduces that the bookshelf doubles as a secret door that pulls out into the room.
  • Nature – The party notices some strange purple mushrooms on the forest floor. The Druid knows that these are dangerous and can induce poisoning by touching them with your bare hands.
  • Religion – A Warlock walks into a temple, but doesn’t touch the forehead of the statue on the right. The priest in the temple are now suspicious.

Wisdom

  • Animal Handling – The Barbarian sees a lone wolf approaching. He can tell from it’s walk, that it is hunting, and definitely a lead for a hunting pack.
  • Insight – The Paladin just knows that guy is lying to the adventuring party. The innkeeper is not sincere when he tells you that the western road is safe and free of trouble.
  • Medicine – Looking at the unconscious human, the Cleric knows from the rapid breathing and beading sweat on their forehead that he has been poisoned somehow. Rolling him over there is a small knife wound surrounded with a trace of a black sticky substance.
  • Perception – Standing in the crowd, you notice a suspicious dark hooded figure out of the corner of your eye that dashes behind a corner into the alley.
    • Granger 44: “Something is odd about the performer’s rendition of this soliloquy. You notice the performer mouthing things during the dramatic pauses, almost as if he’s trying to communicate with someone…another performer or an audience member perhaps?
  • Survival – Our Druid was able spot the tracks that a horse left that lead off the main road into some brush to a side trail.

Charisma

  • Deception – The Wizard talks  walks over to the barkeep to let him know the stables are on fire. (They aren’t)
  • Intimidation – The Fighter walks over to the bar. The barkeep stammers, “Whwhwhhhat will you have mister?”
  • Performance – This is a difficult one, as it is mostly an active ability of performing. Maybe you have an idea of how this can be a passive skill?
    • Granger 44: “You notice the performer limps during his stage walk as Horatio, but do not recall that being in the script nor does it seem indicative of a style. You suspect the limp is not an act, but an actual injury.”
  • Persuasion – I use this as basis on how NPCs initially react when greeting & talking to the characters. The Bard walks over and the barkeep’s face lights up and smiles. The Wizard then walks over, the barkeeps ignores him and starts talking to another customer.

These are all just examples, and I am sure there are others that might be better than the ones I put together. Please let me know what you think. and I can always add to these ideas.

Thanks!

LINKS

https://media.wizards.com/2016/downloads/DND/PH-Errata-V1.pdf

EDIT: added some clarifications and additions that you’ve suggested. 🙂

 

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TagsD&D 5e
  • Lexues

    I would like to know situations, especially with things like Persuasion, deception and insight, where you would use passive skills versus active rolls.

    As i understand, Passive Scores allow a narrative with fewer interruptions, since a character may be able to glean insight or overcome a simple obstacle without much effort. But I still find the uses a bit nebulous.

    • Michael Long

      Hi Lexues, I’ve tried to include examples of uses for each of the different skills.

  • Granger44

    Passive Performance might describe how artfully someone does ordinary things. It would work similar to your description of passive Persuasion, though it probably has less of an effect on the immediate NPC reaction and more of a long-term effect on the reactions and relationship.

    It might also be used to analyze a performance to determine how skillful the performer is, where they trained, and other interesting details, i.e a sort of specialized way to get stuff that other skills would reveal but only for things related to performances.

    Passive Performance:
    “You notice the performer limps during his stage walk as Horatio, but do not recall that being in the script nor does it seem indicative of a style. You suspect the limp is not an act, but an actual injury.”

    In place of Perception:
    “Something is odd about the performer’s rendition of this soliloquy. You notice the performer mouthing things during the dramatic pauses, almost as if he’s trying to communicate with someone…another performer or an audience member perhaps?”

    • Michael Long

      Thanks. I’ve added those examples to the article.

    • Granger44

      Just to clarify, my first example is something that only someone with a good passive Performance would notice. My second example is another use of passive Performance in a case where someone with Perception might just notice it out right via their passive Perception. Someone with Performance might notice it because it doesn’t fit with the style/script/it’s just plain not something performers do/etc…but they wouldn’t notice something like that outside of a “performance” (play, song, art show, etc.).

  • I like using more passive rolls. Good stuff!

    Players like to roll dice, but I think they also like to avoid getting horrible rolls on things they are good at and are more mundane tasks. I usually treat the passive perception value as a floor roll for perception checks when aren’t under stress. I think this could work better for other checks too, vs. waiting around to take a 10 or 20.

    • Michael Long

      Yes, they are automatically the floor.
      A character instantly sees everything that their Passive Perception score would reveal. If they tell the DM that they are actively look around and want to perform a skill check, then they are attempting to get a result that is higher than their Passive score.
      So rolling a 9 or less would not reveal more information.
      And then there is the quirk outlier rules of Disadvantage or Advantage that might entice a player to roll since.

  • Drow

    Absolutely going to start using these ideas for other passive checks! Especially the knowledges and social skills, since my players have coincidentally built in separate directions as far as Arcana, History, and Charisma-based skills. Trying to remember if the system already does something of the sort with Tool checks, or if this could be appropriated into those as well (maybe something like classic World of Darkness’ degree of difficulty auto-success; the higher your passive DC, the better you instinctively succeed at the task)…barring certain ones like thieves’ tools and gambling sets, which are usually pulled out under stressful conditions and with possibilities of catastrophic failure.

    I’m still trying to get the hang of what to do with passive rolls in my campaign, particularly passive Perception. I understand where it’s coming from, streamlining the narrative (and I certainly don’t want my characters to have to roll Perception or Investigation every room they enter, like in most of the 3.5 campaigns I’ve played), but I’m a little worried about the chances that

    A) certain things with set DCs will become essentially meaningless (I have two players with passive Perception above 15, so anything DC 15 or lower), and I’ve not hit a way to deal with it that doesn’t involve the rightfully-abandoned 3.5-style DC inflation, and
    B) they’ll either get complancent and not roll when there are things beyond their passive capabilities (i.e. DC 20 checks), or start rolling for absolutely everything again, making the passive checks moot, or I’ll start giving things away by calling for certain rolls as the DM.

    So far I’ve started treating successful passive checks as a chance to give some vague hints (“Christine and Francis notice something unusual about the shadows in this room…”, “Corin the Bold catches something out of the corner of his eye…”) and call for an active roll. Don’t know how I should treat subsequent rolls lower than the passive score, though; on the one hand, it’s fair and makes sense in a “centipede’s dilemma” kind of way, on the other, I don’t want to cheat a player out of something the system seems to give them straight-out.

    Or is that just too much second-guessing?

    • Michael Long

      —- “So far I’ve started treating successful passive checks as a chance to
      give some vague hints (“Christine and Francis notice something unusual
      about the shadows in this room…”, “Corin the Bold catches something
      out of the corner of his eye…”) and call for an active roll. Don’t
      know how I should treat subsequent rolls lower than the passive score,
      though; on the one hand, it’s fair and makes sense in a “centipede’s
      dilemma” kind of way, on the other, I don’t want to cheat a player out
      of something the system seems to give them ”

      I started out asking for rolls all the time with my current campaign, and the last session I didn’t ask for any unless the player triggered the roll. If they are rolling lower than their passive, then they don’t get anything extra. Usually though it’s not a show stopper…

    • John Blaise Lent

      That is EXACTLY why you dont do it this way. If someone says, “I am always taking time to look for clues” during the Exploration phase of the game, you can treat that the same as the “slow pace” method of overland travel: you are not moving as fast, but you get to use your passive Investigate on each room (in lieu of rolling – if you could have rolled higher, you are out of luck).

  • crimfan

    I use them a lot but this is a nice set of ideas elaborated out.

    • Michael Long

      Yeah, that was the hard part. I think those examples can be tweaked some more…

  • Colin McLaughlin

    Despite the book being a complete pile of layout garbage, the Secrets of Zir’an book has an awesome section on doing just this sort of thing with further commentary on types of tension and how to identify when you should roll. Needless to say – but I will anyway – I am on board with this, and only ask players to roll when failure matters.

  • Tim Baker

    How would these passive abilities interact with the rogue’s Reliable Talent? How do you prevent taking the spotlight away from a rogue PC in the party?

    • Michael Long

      No one takes the spotlight away from the Rogue. They are always awesome. 🙂

  • John Blaise Lent

    I do not recommend using passive skills this way. The idea is that this should only be used in two situations: 1) a Player is performing the same action over and over again or 2) you need to keep the result (or the existence of the check) a secret. By using it all the time, you are over-riding reliable talent and effectively giving the PC’s advantage on many checks (its 10 or what you roll, whatever is higher).

    Also, you seem to adding a meaning to the game words active and passive that are not correct. “Active” means rolling a die. “Passive” means not rolling a die. It has nothing to do with how “active” the character is. You can be actively searching the wall for a hidden switch and I will still use your passive score, because I don’t want you to metagame that you rolled high and therefore there is no switch, vs. rolled low and therefore will search again because you know you can’t trust the fact that you didnt find it.

    To use a few of your examples:

    The locked door that needs to be kicked in. If time or sound are issues, I make the PC roll this check. If he does it right away, the door comes flying open in less than 6 seconds. If he wants to use his passive, that represents many repeated attempts over time (lets assume at least a minute) – he is bashing his shoulder over and over against the door until it gives. That gives enemies time to escape and draws attention to the PC.

    The balance beam over a trap: your method COMPLETELY removes any fear of failure from anyone with even a reasonable bonus. That is simply not good dramatic story-telling. A PCs knows if they are going to fall – no secret keeping required. Unless this is some crazy-long several hundred foot beam, there is no repeated check involved. On the other hand, if you were in a competitive event, like the floor exercises at the olympics, that is repeated several times, and at that level of things its unlikely you will “flub”, so using the passive score makes sense.

    Arcana: maybe I would use a passive here, if there was some chance that something could be “misrecognized” and send the PCs in the wrong direction (I dont want them to see the “1” on the die and assume its a failure, then retry). Id much rather they use passive in that case, so they don’t know if they succeeded or not, and I tell them whatever is appropriate based on thier result.

    • Michael Long

      Performing an action over & over, and DM secret roles are only 2
      examples from the rules. They are not the all inclusive only way to use
      Passive Skills.

      Passive is a characters natural ability. When walking into a room, the character sees whatever their Passive Perception score reveals. They can make an active check and roll the die to get higher.

      (my example didn’t have a locked door, but…). If the heavy wooden door that is locked needs to be kicked in, I’d probably set that as an DC18 for Strength (Athletics). A Level 10 Barbarian with a 20 Strength and proficiency in Athletics (19 passive athletics skill) would not need to roll… he just knocks the #$%&’ing door down and runs over the top of the door…
      If the lock is a DC15 for lock-picking. The Level 10 Rogue could have instantly unlocked it as a bonus action, and move out of the way of the Barbarian.
      Easy.

    • John Blaise Lent

      Those aren’t EXAMPLES FROM THE RULES. They are THE RULES.

      What you are doing Michael, in essence, is giving everyone a 25% bump in their chance of success, altering action economy, and negating the value of a high level class feature in a way that is explicitly contradicting the rules. The only time a passive check should be used as you describe is for Perception related to Traps and Surprise, since the rules explicitly tell you to do so.

    • John Blaise Lent

      Example: Level 5 Fighter with 16 dex and prof. theives tools: Using your rules, he Unlocks DC 15 lock automatically, with no roll, and no action cost. That is the same thing Rogues get to do at level 11.

    • Michael Long

      Does failure stop the story?

    • John Blaise Lent

      What do you mean?

    • Michael Long

      When it uses the words “Such As” those are examples.

    • John Blaise Lent

      I’m not trying to be a dick, but I feel like you are just misreading the sentence. The examples in the sentence are “such as searching for secret doors over and over again” and “such as noticing a hidden monster.”

      The rules list those as to examples oh how the rule is applied. Secret keeping and average over time is the rule.

  • Benz74

    I use Passive Scores a lot in my own game. Helps story move along without needless rolls, and as pointed out, DM can add information when detailing a situation based on PCs proficiencies and Passive Scores. To help other DMs that use them as well, I created a “Skills Table” one-sheet, available on the Dms Guild.

  • Manos Ti

    A good read.

    There is a problem with Passive Checks in the game, people many times interpret them as “I only need to roll for this as long as the DC surpasses my Passive Score”. Well, this is not always the case. In certain parts of the story players will need to roll for an ability check, no matter the value of the Passive Score.

    Also, I’m not fully on board with your solution right there, as it still involves a die roll. The purpose of the mechanic is to avoid dice rolls and speed up the game.

    The remedy in our table is to use Passive Checks in parts of the adventure that are not crucial; Passive Perception (Wisdom) to describe the contents of the Inn, Passive Charisma in order to determine which rumors they find in the common room, etc. Crucial checks (i.e. disable the trap, spot the hidden Goblin etc) are all rolled as normal.

    Still, I’d allow Passive Perception or Investigation checks in dungeons like the Tomb of Horrors, where they are actively searching for traps all the time.

  • Steve Grod

    Passive perception is a poor mechanic imo, a step backwards. The same guy finds the traps/clues etc all the time, and you get the wierd static PP vs static trap DC effect (auto find or auto fail to find – why not just roll?), not to mention min maxer stealth ninjas fudging up combat. I dislike passive scores for anything that would ordinarily be some kind of opposed check: stealth vs perception, deception vs insight, and so on. Taking the random out of the game in these instances is a mistake imo.
    However… I like the idea of a “passive check” for what would be non-opposed rolls: busting down doors, monster knowledge checks, item appraisal, that sort of caper. I think this can be simplified further however by putting attributes to use (which frankly, dont get any other use in 5e besides providing bonuses). Eg: Str 17, sure you bash the door down without a roll, but Str 10 guy needs to make a check. If the character has the relevant skill, this might add/substract to the overall assessment.

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