Player Characters with high perception bonuses can be a bane to DMs who are unequipped to deal with them. Let’s explore the odds and different ways to manage high perception.
High Perception Characters
As arguably the most useful skill, Wisdom (Perception) is a natural proficiency investment for any character. This is especially true for skill-monkey scouts like Rogues and Bards, who can take expertise for double their proficiency bonus.
Odds of Success vs. Increasing DCs
Here’s the odds to pass a perception check against increasing DCs, beginning with Level 1 at Wisdom scores from +0 to +3:
Now, assuming the character invests fully into perception by using their Ability Score Improvements to pump their Wisdom score, here’s the fastest they could improve:
Finally, here’s the top end:
Note: The above calculations are based on a straight Wisdom (Perception) roll. D&D Lead Rules Designer Jeremy Crawford has stated that perception is “always on” via Passive Perception, with a floor of 10 + Wisdom (Perception) bonus (Dragon Talk, April 27, 2017). This could arguably change the metrics, depending on how you’re running it, but that’s a topic I’m saving for another day.
For context, here’s what D&D rules designers suggest for standard Difficulty Classes:
To me, this shows that these concerns are a little overblown. Even a fully-invested Level 8 character with 20 Wisdom and expertise in Wisdom (Perception) has 10% chance to spot something nearly impossible to see. Scaling back, they’ve still got a 40% chance to fail a DC 20 Hard check.
How To Handle It
Knowing how to DM for high perception players is important because there’s likely to be one in most parties.
What Not To Do
The worst possible thing you can do in this situation is to follow the knee-jerk impulse of raising the Difficulty Class (DC). Doing so creates two issues:
First, you never want to punish a player for the choices they’ve made in character creation. If a player invested levels or skills or feats into something, its because they want to be good at it. Let them be good at it. Few things are worse than committing your precious character resources to a game mechanic that the DM simply handwaves or actively seeks to defeat.
Second, it punishes every other player in the group. Perception checks are ubiquitous. If you jack up the DC to an impossible level, the PCs are going to be stumbling around the game world like they got up in the middle of the night for a glass of water.
What to Do
When exploring, the perceptive character will be more highly attuned to all of its surroundings. However, just because the character is very observant, does not mean that there is anything particularly interesting to perceive. In such cases, detail is your best friend. Describe the mundane details of the setting with all the neurotic minutae of The Silmarillion.
If you’re in a situation where you really need to conceal what’s going on, use environmental effects: mist, fog, swamp gas, sleet, snow, smoke.
If a player rolls a high enough Wisdom (Perception) check to detect the presence of a trap, just tell them about the trap. By which I mean, describe the details that evidence the presence of a trap. For example:
- A lifted tile that covers a pressure plate.
- Small holes in the wall concealing darts.
- A draft to a passage holding a boulder.
- The oily sheen of a fire trap.
- A hinge for a pit trap.
- The glint of a tripwire.
Traps are not fun as a save-or-suck mechanism. The PCs should obtain some degree of knowledge from making their Wisdom (Perception) check. If they roll badly, consider giving them superfluous information that may even distract them from the real danger. Using that (good or bad) knowledge, the party can attempt to defuse or avoid the trap.
If a later check–failure with Thieves’ Tools, Strength (Athletics), Dexterity (Acrobatics), etc.–causes the player some damage, it happened because of the action the player decided to take. This is a huge distinction psychologically. Players take dumb risks all the time for the sake of fantasy. They are used to getting punished for it. This way, traps no longer feel like a fateful incident that just happened to the character.
For tips on running traps where the party fails their perception checks, check out The “Click” Rule from Angry GM. When the players unknowingly trigger a trap, the DM says “CLICK!” Each player can make a quick reaction (without any further information), that may give them advantage or disadvantage on their save against the trap’s effect.
In combat, perception is very mechanical. At the outset of battle, it determines surprise. Then, it affects advantage against your opponents, due to unseen attacker rules.
Initiative and unseen attackers are situations where you should just let the character be good at what they’re good at. The designers are comfortable bestowing features that facilitate this in combat. The Alert and Observant feats are available to all classes. They’ve also become comfortable adding these as class features. The Inquisitive Rogue’s Eye for Detail allows them to spot hidden creatures as a bonus action. On the initiative side, the Gloom Stalker Ranger adds its Wisdom modifier and the Swashbuckler Rogue adds its Charisma modifier.