Using Skills – Perception

Thank you for joining us for this week’s edition of Using Skills, covering perception. Last time in this series we took a look at Nature. Last week we had taken a break and instead presented to you a new version of the Automaton race. Check it out!


Using Skills – Perception


As her party circumvents a dank old tunnel, the sorceress taking up the rear finds that an odd shape on the ceiling above catches her eye. From his hidden spot on the balcony above the ancient chamber, the thief gazes around trying to find anything out of the ordinary in the chamber below. As he makes his way through a large crowd, the knight notices a small dirty hand make its way to his belt pouch. Perception is the boon of any adventurer that wants to survive in the dark and hidden places of the world.

The Player Handbook describes it thus: “Your Wisdom (Perception) check lets you spot, hear, or otherwise detect the presence of something. It measures your general awareness of your surroundings and the keenness of your senses. For example, you might try to hear a conversation through a closed door, eavesdrop under an open window, or hear monsters moving stealthily in the forest. Or you might try to spot things that are obscured or easy to miss, whether they are orcs lying in ambush on a road, thugs hiding in the shadows of an alley, or candlelight under a closed secret door.” (PHB pg.178)

Normal Usage

Perception is the skill you use in order to notice things. It is the default skill to use when trying to find a hidden object. When looking around a room, perception is what you use to spot things. It is one of the most used skills in the game, and it is important for every adventuring party to have at least someone who has a high perception bonus. Noticing a hidden trap? That’s perception. Detecting a hidden monster in the shadows? That is also perception.

Perception will be your default “search the room” skill most of the time, with some exceptions. The Player’s Handbook describes trying to see a hidden object thus: “When your character searches for a hidden object such as a secret door or a trap, the DM typically asks you to make a Wisdom (Perception) check. Such a check can be used to find hidden details or other information and clues that you might otherwise overlook.

In most cases, you need to describe where you are looking in order for the DM to determine your chance of success. For example, a key is hidden beneath a set of folded clothes in the top drawer of a bureau. If you tell the DM that you pace around the room, looking at the walls and furniture for clues, you have no chance of finding the key, regardless of your Wisdom (Perception) check result. You would have to specify that you were opening the drawers or searching the bureau in order to have any chance of success.” (PHB pg. 178)

Another major use of Perception is as a passive skill. Any skill has a passive score (equaling your skill bonus + 10) that can be used in certain situations, generally when the skill isn’t being used in a voluntary or active way. Perception is the most used in this way however, so much so that the character sheet has a spot for it and no other passive score. Passive perception is used in detecting hidden threats that you are not aware of. If you are on watch in your camp, for instance, you’re not sitting rolling perception checks for a two hour stint. Instead, if a hidden creature stalks up to your camp, the DM will use your passive perception check against its stealth roll to see if you notice it. The same with hidden traps: if you are walking down a hallway cautiously but without making active perception checks by looking at every inch of the floor and ceiling, the DM will use your passive perception score against how well hidden the trap is to see if you notice it in passing.

What it is Not

  • Investigation – Investigation is deduction, while perception is observation. When looking around a room, perception is called on to see if you can spot a hidden item like a key under the bed or a lever behind a dresser. However, if you spot a torch-holder on the wall that is actually a switch to open a hidden door, investigation is what you use to figure out its function. It is very important to remember that perception is the spot and search skill of D&D 5e, and investigation is more about figuring out the things you can already see… though confusingly figuring these things out might lead you to find things that you cannot see. This overlap is a murky area and it is up to your DM to parse through this. Essentially it is best to default to perception unless the player is very obviously investigating something in particular.


Optional Uses & Dungeon Master Examples

Unlike most of the other skills in this series, I think Perception is actually used too much. Far too much relies on it, so I won’t try to come up with even more uses for it. Here I will just remind you to use passive perception. It can add a lot to your game and eliminates needless dice rolls. Unless a PC is searching a particular place actively, default to passive perception.

I also will tell you that despite the RAW uses of perception and investigation, I tend to use investigation for searching in quite a few cases. If a PC is searching through drawers or a chest, for example, I call on investigation despite the RAW because I think it makes more sense, and I like to try and balance the overuse of perception. Intelligence as an ability needs more love in my opinion, anyway.


Thank you for joining us again for Using Skills! I am really enjoying doing this series, and will be sad when it ends. I’m still looking for ideas to replace this ongoing series, and we’ll see what I can come up with.

Next week we’ll be covering Performance, so get those lutes ready.

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