We’ve previously explored where to draw the line between passive and active skills. Today, we’re taking that analysis one step further: Are there skills which should only function as passive skills?
Passive perception is the most prevalent passive skill in the rules. This makes sense. It’s something that you can’t stop doing without impairment.
So, it’s definitely passive. But, when does it become active? We can think of all sorts of examples:
- Squinting or shading your eyes to see through glaring light.
- Cupping your hand to your ear to listen for noise.
- Closing your eyes to savor a tasty morsel.
- Drawing a deep breath to discern a scent.
These techniques allow us to focus our perception specifically. But, we already have a word for actively using our senses to deduce information. It’s called investigation.
Perception and investigation are the passive and active sides of the same coin. They’re even tied together in the same bullet point of the Observant feat, which grants both advantage (translated to +5 in the case of passive skills):
As we discussed in the Passive Skills vs. Reliable Talent article, investigation feels like a very active process. If you’re not actively investigating something and you just discover it—well that’s perception, isn’t it?
Insight stands on similar footing. It’s a skill that can be honed by establishing the background knowledge to spot things.
Unlike perception, it doesn’t feel like it can be used actively. If you’re trying to actively gain information about something, isn’t that another type of investigation?
Players asking for insight rolls always felt counter-intuitive to me. If the player is asking, they already don’t trust the NPC. Likely because the player has picked up on some clue in the roleplay. That means we’re using the insight roll to determine whether that message was conveyed to the character. In which case, we should be using insight rolls in every social interaction, not just when the player asks for them. And if we need to use them with intense frequency, we should be using a passive skill.
Insight rolls also suffer from some other issues. Let’s set the stage with an example:
Player A: “I don’t trust her.”
DM: “Make an insight check.”
Player A: *rolls a 3*
DM (chiding): “She seems to be telling the truth.”
Player B: “I’m there too. Can I make an insight check?”
Player B: *rolls a 25*
DM (stoically): “She seems to be telling the truth.”
We all laugh when this happens. But, is it good gameplay?
Issue 1: Insight rolls provide the player with metagame knowledge regarding their performance. When you roll low and don’t get any information, you know that you wouldn’t have known anyhow. If the DM rolled your insight behind the screen, all you would know is that you know nothing. Which is better for the experience because it aligns the knowledge of the player and the character.
Issue 2: Insight doesn’t make sense as a group check (wherein the party passes if more than half make the check). Each player interacting in the roleplay should have a chance to gain some level of insight. When rolling against an entire party, an NPC is unlikely to ever get away with a lie.
Consider the benefits of making perception and insight into passive-only skills:
Instead of the players rolling with metagame knowledge of whether they saw something or caught a lie, you align their player and their character knowledge. The only roll that occurs is the DM’s roll behind the screen, for the opposing monster’s stealth or the opposing NPC’s deception.
It allows DMs to plan ahead. If you know the characters’ passive scores, you can already determine what will happen at certain points in a published module that provides set perception DCs for spotting things such as a trap or ambush.
If you’re in the mood for more skill hacks, check out 5 Skill D&D, where we combined perception, insight, and investigation into awareness. You can also read our full passive vs. active skill breakdown. You can support what we do on the ThinkDM Patreon.