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Wasn’t Even Paying Attention
You’ve finished your character and filled out your sheets, you’re ready to go! Except, what’s this box in the corner… Passive Perception? I filled in my Perception bonus over here, what the heck is Passive Perception? Is this a basic rule or some advanced thing? If you're looking to have dnd 5e Passive Perception explained or one of your players just had a similar experience, simply read on as we go through what the heck passive perception is and everything you need to know.
What do I Write in the Passive Perception Box?
If you're in character creation for 5th edition games and just what you need to mark down on your character sheet, I’ll get to the point:
Passive Perception Score = Whatever skill modifiers you have to Perception checks + 10
This will count any Wisdom bonus, and your proficiency bonus if you’re proficient in Perception checks. It’ll also catch any weird extra bonuses to Proficiency you might have.
So, say you’re a 1st-level character (proficiency bonus of +2) who’s proficient with Perception checks with a Wisdom score of 12 (+1 ability modifier), that would make your Passive Perception Score 13 (10 + 2 + 1 = 13). Also, make sure to update your character sheet whenever your proficiency bonus or your Wisdom ability score goes up, this isn't something that's set-in stone at character creation.
Do All Skills Have Passive Scores?
Yes… Technically. It’s just that passive checks are technically a house rule or rule variant and a lot of dungeon masters either don’t know how this works or choose not to use them. It's an optional rule, but it's in the book so it's not homebrew rules. Whenever you roll a d20 for an ability check or skill check, you’re technically making an “active skill check” or "active ability check". Passive scores and passive skill checks exist for every 5e skill, and they’re all calculated the same way, by just adding up any bonuses to the skill and 10. The “10” here is sort of meant to represent an average roll on a d20 so your passive score is basically like “taking a 10” or assuming you rolled a 10 on the skill check.
What if I have Advantage or Disadvantage?
This one is super simple.
If you have advantage on an active check, add 5 to your passive score.
If you have disadvantage on an active check, subtract 5 from your passive score.
So, for example if you have a Passive Perception score of 14, and you gain advantage on perception checks, your Passive Perception score will become 19 for that passive check while you have advantage.
Why is Passive Perception on My Sheet Then?
Out of all the skills Perception is by far the most common, and out of all the passive checks Passive Perception is the most commonly used. It’s incredibly rare for a DM to need something like a Passive Strength (Athletics) score.
What are Passive Checks Used for?
Passive skill checks are used for three primary reasons, to gloss over a lot of time spent attempting the same thing over and over, to average a lot of checks together, or for situations where the players aren’t aware of something.
That first one may sound very familiar to players who’ve played Pathfinder or 3.5, it was called “taking a 10”.
Let’s say a wizard is attempting to solve a little magical puzzle box. The check needed to solve the box and open it is a DC 15 Arcana (Intelligence) check. There’re no penalties for failure, you just need to succeed it eventually to open the box. The wizard has a bonus of +7 to Arcana checks and therefore has a Passive Arcana score of 17 (10 + 3 for proficiency + 4 for Intelligence bonus). His passive score is higher than the DC of the check, and there’s no consequence to failing, so when the wizard says “I’m going to take some time and try to open this puzzle box” the DM may decide to simply ask for the wizard’s Passive Arcana score rather than bothering with rolling. Really, when used like this, passive scores are a sort of “gloss over” rule that lets you skip a bunch of unnecessary rolling. The wizard would eventually roll a passing check, and so long as time isn’t an issue and there aren’t consequences for failing the DM can simply ask for a passive score.
The next use is similar, but rather than being used on checks where there aren’t any consequences, you can use passive checks to average out a lot of minor consequences. Let’s say a bard wants to go into town and play music for people to try and make some money for a few hours. If we stuck to active checks, the bard would have to make a TON of active checks to cover that whole time period. Instead of having the bard roll a bucket of dice and do a ton of math, the DM can simply ask for their passive Perform score to get a general average of the bard’s performing capabilities. Given enough active rolls, a d20 will average all its good rolls and bad rolls to a 10 on its rolls anyway, so if you’re ever dealing with what would be a statistically massive number of d20s, try just using the passive score instead.
Finally, passive scores are extremely useful to a DM, as it essentially allows the DM to get check results without the players even knowing about it. Let’s say the party is dealing with a shopkeeper that’s trying to oversell their products and swindle the players. If the DM suddenly announces, “everyone make an Insight check”, the players are instantly tipped off that there’s something up with what this shopkeeper is saying. The DM could instead simply determine the DC needed to notice something is off and could compare it to each of the player’s Passive Insight score. Then if any player’s Insight score is higher than the DC, they notice that something is off. The problem with this (and the reason so many DMs don’t take advantage of passive checks) is that the DM would have to keep those passive scores available ahead of time, rather than relying on the players.
Stealth Vs Perception
The reason Passive Perception checks are so common largely comes down to how it interacts with stealth. We know passive checks can be used to make “checks” without letting the players know what’s going on, so Passive Perception works perfectly for detecting hidden creatures. Passive Perception gives you an excellent way to “notice” something like a stealthy monster without really looking for it.
For example, let’s say a hidden monster is sneaking up on the players while they’re unaware. The players don’t know anything is wrong, and if the DM has them suddenly roll an active Perception check they’ll know something is up. Instead, the DM can simply compare the Stealth check of the hidden creature against each of the players’ Passive Perception scores. If any of their passive scores beat the Stealth check, they spot the assassin!
Note that this can also work in reverse. Say the party is simply walking through town and a goblin bounty hunter is in the area looking for them. Since the players are unaware that they’re being hunted, their Passive Stealth score can simply represent how well they blend into a crowd. You can use the bounty hunter’s Active Perception check looking for them against the party members scores.
The Observant Feat
I've known several players who first became aware of passive checks at all due to the observant feat that references passive checks directly. Specifically, the feat grants a +5 bonus to your Passive Perception score and your Passive Investigation score. The passive perception bonus is the better of the two as while passive investigation is a great tool, many DMs sadly ignore it entirely. While ultimately, it's a useful feat, I tend to recommend it only when you're playing with a DM that takes full advantage of the passive skill check mechanics.
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Last updated: January 27, 2019
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