Passive-Only Skills

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?

Perception

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

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?”

DM: “Sure.”

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.

Passive-Only Skills

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.

8 thoughts on “Passive-Only Skills

    1. Passive perception doesn’t pre-determine outcomes because advantage and disadvantage can still modulate your PP score based on the situation.

      The issue presented in that thread is also an oversimplification. Perception gives you a clue that something is out of place. Investigation means that you actually try to find out what it is.

      When the player has high enough PP, tell them “you catch the glint of a tripwire” not “you see a trap.”

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    2. I’d think about rolling for the room. DC-8 is your d20 bonus roll. The real deviation is the players. If they’re moving quickly (advantage) or it’s dark (advantage), or if they’re moving slowly (disadvantage).

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  1. On the question of whether a skill can be used actively or not, I use “can the character DO things to affect the outcome, or not?” as a litmus test. Just like there is a difference between passively looking around a room and interactively searching a room, there is a difference between passively observing an NPC and actively interacting with the NPC (or those who know the NPC).

    For example, suppose the PCs are trying to determine whether the captain of the guard is a good guy or not. And one of the players says he wants to go to the bar where off duty guardsmen hang out and buy a few rounds, play some poker, and engage off duty guardsmen in casual conversation (i.e. complain about bosses and then see what they say). I’m more inclined to call for an insight roll than an investigation roll. Because I see this as more a “people reading” challenge as opposed “deducing conclusions from clues” challenge.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, David!

      I tend to use Charisma (Investigation) for carousing, but I would view Wisdom (Insight) as a fair roll in the circumstance you’ve described.

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  2. My take on Perception, Investigation and Insight is as follows:

    – Perception is general alertness to non specific but interesting things happening in the environment eg PC is actively engaged on guard duty overnight. They’re not looking for a specific threat but are being aware/curious.
    – Investigation is where you’re looking for specific thing(s) in a more limited scenario eg the PC searches a room looking for valuables or items of interest.
    – Insight is where you’re trying to work out an NPC’s unspoken intentions towards you (ability to read their emotional state) eg trying to determine if they are lying, hiding something or being open. In the example above whichever PC is having the conversation gets to use their Insight

    Above are all examples of a PC calling for a roll (active). With passive but it’s essentially where something happens that the DM wants to give the PC a chance to notice.

    – Perception – PC is sitting in a tavern and becomes aware that someone at the next table is trying to listen in on their conversation. The DM gave the NPC a chance to be noticed based on their stealth roll.
    – Investigation – PC is searching the room for valuables and notices that a box on the table has the insignia of a local lord on it. They weren’t specifically looking for it but the DM gave a chance to notice a clue.
    – Insight – PC is chatting to a guard at random but notices that the man is sweating and seems uncomfortable.

    Key part for me with Passive scores is DM discretion. Having a really high PP score shouldn’t become a suspense killer, where every possible clue has to be continuously passed to one PC. They should get an Active roll if they ask to make one but Passive ones should add to the story telling, not subtract from it.

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