D&D Tips: Using (Passive) Skills

“Alea iacta est.” (‘The die is cast.’)
– Julius Caesar, according to Suetonius, in
Vita Divi Iuli, 121 CE, paragraph 33

The hallway stretches ahead for thirty feet, where it ends at a set of large, ornate double doors. 

“I Perception to check for traps”, the rogue declares as she casts the die. It’s a 3. “Damn it!” she curses. She turns to you and asks the dreaded question. “Can I use my passive Perception instead?” 

Passive checks are a relatively recent addition to D&D, only appearing with the edition that shall not be named. At first glance, they make a valuable tool. They allow the DM to resolve many issues that would be complicated by having to ask a player to make a roll, such as in the case of asking for a Wisdom (Perception) check to notice a goblin sneaking up to the camp. They also seem like a reasonable mechanic for approximating someone’s average attentiveness, learning, physical ability, experience, and luck. However, in many ways they also make dice rolling a seemingly-redundant mechanic in D&D, and can cause considerable frustration in a game when they are misunderstood or misused.

This article will present some guidelines for using passive vs. active skill checks in accordance with the rules written in the official books as well as how the developers have made recommendations through Sage Advice and identify why there is so much confusion about how skills are supposed to work.

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What Are Passive Skill Checks?

A passive skill check (usually called a passive score) is a skill check that you don’t roll. It is calculated as 10 + all modifiers that normally apply to the check. To put it in other words, it’s your average result for that skill check. Your passive score is used in place of the DM asking you to make a relevant skill check. A DM might call on you to make an active Wisdom (Perception) check when you want to look around the room for treasure, while at the same time comparing your passive Wisdom (Perception) to what the hidden creature rolled for their Dexterity (Stealth) check. The emphasis here is with “the DM” because…

Passive Skill Checks Are A DM Tool

These exact words are often repeated in Sage Advice, though they don’t explicitly answer the question that they are intended to respond to. To put the meaning of these words more clearly: a player does not use their passive score, a DM will use your passive scores for you.

This confusion is part of a larger misunderstanding about how skills are used in D&D. Many people erroneously believe that they can simply use this skill or that skill whenever they choose, when in fact…

It is the DM Who Determines Whether a Skill Check is Needed

Ideally, players should never be saying “I use this game mechanic or that game mechanic” outside of combat. Players should play their characters, not their character sheets. It is all well and good for a player to describe, in character, that they use their expertise with the arcane to attempt identification of a magical effect, or they focus their keen elven senses to hone in on the space occupied by an invisible creature, or some other similar action, but it is the DM who decides when and if a dice roll should occur as part of that. Your character doesn’t know what their skill bonuses are, and so your +6 bonus to Stealth shouldn’t exist for you unless your DM explicitly calls for it.

For example, in the brief exchange shown in the introduction of this article, the rogue was actually out of turn to decide that she was going to roll a Wisdom (Perception) check. The same goes for a player who wants to roll a Wisdom (Survival) check to track a creature, or an Intelligence (Arcana) check to recall lore on a monstrosity, or even a Charisma (Intimidate) check to get the captive servant to divulge sensitive details about the countess’ secret dealings. It’s not that these aren’t the correct uses of the skills, it’s that their DM has to call for them first. It is easy for players to get accustomed to the most common uses for skills and leap to simply using them in place of roleplaying. This should be actively discouraged in order that players do not get into the bad habit of thinking with their skills and not thinking with their characters. “I growl that the young page should give up the name of Lady Delia’s new paramour before I have to rip the words out of his throat” is how a player should present their Charisma (Intimidate) check, not “I roll an 18 to Intimidate!”… especially if your DM didn’t ask you to roll anything.

A more appropriate way for the introductory scenario of this article to develop would be as follows:

The hallway stretches ahead for thirty feet, where it ends at a set of large, ornate double doors. 

“I cautiously move down the hall toward the doors”, the rogue says. 

The DM nods, and consults a sheet behind his screen where he has recorded all of the characters’ passive Wisdom (Perception) scores. He notes that the rogue’s passive Perception is 14, and grants advantage in this case because the rogue is being cautious. Advantage on a passive check adds 5, so the rogue’s passive Wisdom (Perception) is now 19, not quite high enough to spot the pressure plate cleverly hidden in the floor (DC 20). The DM also notes that the elven wizard’s passive Perception is 16, which is high enough to notice the pressure plate if given the same advantage granted by their slow, cautious progress. 

“You begin approaching the doors”, the DM describes. “Nothing is really standing out to you. But that in itself doesn’t sit right. It’s too easy. The whole group  finds itself watching the rogue’s progress anxiously. Suddenly, the wizard notices that a tile in the flagstone floor just ahead seems a little… strange.” 

“Oh! Stop!” interjects the wizard. 

“The warning comes just in time”, the DM decides. “The rogue’s foot had been just about to step down.”

“What? What?” the rogue asks.

“The next stone!” the wizard answers.

“I’ll examine it”, the rogue says.

The DM nods, and asks the rogue to roll an Intelligence (Investigation) check. It’s DC 10 to figure out what it is, and the rogue rolls a 12.

“As you take a step back and lean down to examine the section of the floor”, the DM describes, “you notice that the edges are worn and the grout seems deliberately cut around the tile. You deduce that this piece is designed to be depressed by the weight of a passing creature”.

“A pressure plate”, the rogue surmises. “Can I see what it triggers?” 

Now the DM asks the rogue to make a Wisdom (Perception) check, as the character can reasonably assume that the plate will trigger something in the vicinity and is not relying on general awareness but, rather, attention to detail. The rogue rolls a 21 against the DC 20. The DM offers up a description of the trap.

“You notice a series of nozzles recessed into the walls and ceiling of the corridor immediately after the pressure plate. Cautiously leaning towards one, you catch a faint, acrid whiff. It’s not a smell that you can identify, but you know that you’ve smelt it before as it immediately reminds you of that time you were nearly incinerated by a fireball.” 

“I’ve caught up with the rogue by now”, the wizard says. “Do I recognize it?” 

“You do”, the DM confirms for the wizard who has proficiency in alchemy tools. “It’s sulfur. From this, you all can deduce that this is a flame trap that unleashes gouts of fire on this whole section of the corridor when the pressure plate is pushed.”

“Wait”, the fighter interjects, “I thought were beneath some kobold fortress? They have well-engineered traps? They can hardly put together decent weapons!” 

“I’m starting to think that there’s something else going on here”, the wizard says darkly. “We should be on the lookout for other surprises.” 

Now, this scenario is much more interesting than the original version where the rogue attempted to resolve the entire encounter with a single roll. Not only did this new version offer more than one player the opportunity to participate, it also allowed the players to explore the situation using various abilities, all to the extent that they felt necessary. There was no reason the rogue had to investigate the pressure plate any further; she could have simply continued on, knowing where it was and so avoiding it. Out of caution, however, she decided to be thorough, and was rewarded with learning more about the type of defences employed in the complex. Now, knowing that sophisticated traps are present, the party will be on guard against the unexpected.

This scenario also demonstrates when passive or active checks are appropriate, something that the developers constantly emphasize whenever they address this question. When the rogue was advancing along the hall, the DM opted to use her passive Perception. However, when she focused her attention in a specific area, looking for specific things, the DM called for her to roll a die. Had the rogue said “As I go down the hall, before I take a step, I make sure that the tiles all look the same where I’m about to walk”, then the DM could possibly have asked for an active roll along the way. In that case, the DM would likely not have granted advantage to her passive Perception as well, as she was preoccupied staring intently at the floor.

One final note about this scenario was that it also shows the difference between a Wisdom (Perception) and an Intelligence (Investigation) check, which is something that can sometimes confuse even veteran players who are accustomed to the two being part of the same skill (Search in 3rd edition and Perception in the edition that shall not be named). They are two separate skills, and it’s a pet peeve of ours at Dungeon Master’s Workshop when the two are conflated. One measures percipience and general awareness, the other measures comprehension and deductive reasoning. They have vastly different applications.

Passive Scores and Minimum Results

Rarely does a week go by without us seeing the question ‘Can I roll lower than my passive Perception?’ or some other variation thereof. The answer to this is more complicated than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, because it is a question that comes with a whole host of other factors.

As we clarified above, there is a clear distinction that the developers emphasize between active and passive checks (see here), and a strong emphasis on the passive score being something that the DM uses (see here). That being said, whether or not the rogue in the first scenario we presented could call on their passive Perception score as a minimum result is, in the words of Jeremy Crawford, “entirely up to the DM”.

But before you run back to your DM to say that the developers said it was okay, you have to remember that this is the exact response that the developers offer whenever they cannot point to any written rule that supports it. To put it another way, it is a roundabout way of saying “Sure, if you want to completely invalidate the whole purpose of a rogue’s Reliable Talent feature, we can’t see a rule that says you can’t do that”. We at Dungeon Master’s Workshop don’t recommend allowing passive scores as minimums, as it takes away from the rogue class and—more importantly—we have never heard of it improving gameplay. In fact, it eliminates a significant chance of failure on active rolls and puts much of the game on ‘easy mode’.

For DMs with players attempting to ‘abuse’ the passive score mechanic, we recommend making the official decision that rolling the die means that the player is making an active check, and therefore they cannot benefit from their passive. This is appropriate when, say, searching a room (as opposed to just passively noticing the features that are out in the open). If the player rolls terribly, that’s on them. Alea iacta est. There is no appealing to an arbitrary minimum for active rolls; they have to employ other game features such as the Lucky feat or Inspiration to escape their fate. Let the existing game mechanics serve the functions they were designed to accomplish.

Final Thoughts

There is a reason why the developers don’t commit a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to many questions about skill checks and passives: every table is different. The advice that we have offered here is based on our best experiences following the rules as they are intended, but that is not to say that you could not develop another arrangement that works. Every game is different, and sometimes the rules need to simply be thrown out.

For instance, there are some occasions where the players are excited and know the skill the DM will ask them to roll. When two party members are asked to roll a Strength (Athletics) check to leap over a pit, the third party member who is paying attention will know what’s coming and quite possibly preempt the request. It’s not necessarily a bad thing for players to be ready with the roll in those circumstances, and you don’t want to stomp all over your players for being diligent. If conflict should arise, it will likely be because of a difference in interpretation of a certain action. (“No, no. I flip over the pit. You know, acrobatically.” … “That’s all well and good, but you’re aiming for distance, not style. It’s a test of athletics to make the jump, so that’s the check I’m calling for.”) In such a circumstance, it falls to DM discretion to balance the task against the execution. We recommend rewarding player creativity, as long as it doesn’t stretch the imagination too far.

Do you have a notable experience with skill checks? Are you still confused about what any of this even means? Leave a comment below! Also, in case you missed it above, we have a Patreon that you can donate to if you like our content. Even just $1 a month helps us to produce more stuff for your enjoyment, and also gets you access to Patron-exclusive content such as the full versions of our monthly periodical: Arcane Emporium!

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4 thoughts on “D&D Tips: Using (Passive) Skills”

  1. Great post. I use a variety of the passive scores with my players to get a general sense of who will excel in certain situations, and who will struggle.
    I’ve encouraged my players to describe their intentions and actions, and I think it’s OK when they do so in terms of the skills they’re proficient in. What I’m looking for is viable narrative justification to call for the check.

    Some of my players are more comfortable “playing their character sheets” and I try to take this into account as well.

  2. I’ve been reading a number of posts and articles in this subject because the one issue that bothers me most, and which you did not cover, is the consequence for the threat value of traps out the DM uses passive perception.

    There are a number of traps with a Perception DC of 10. Since most parties will have a light source with at least 20′ of bright light, or at least one PC with a +5 to perception at level 1 from backgrounds, races, classes or feats, if passive perception is in play, any trap with a Perception DC of 10 to 15 _is_ going to be seen by someone, immediately neutering it’s potential threat, killing any drama, and making out pointless dressing because the PCs will almost certainly find a way to avoid it.

    As s DM if you’re writing your own adventure and know your PCs passive perception, why would you bother putting in a trap with a perception DC less that 15? No reason. And if you’re running a published adventure with a low find DC trap, you’d might as well just tell them the trap is there, and that they take a moment to bypass it before moving on.
    The whole point of a trap is to threaten the PCs, but if anyone (even commoners in some cases) can see it, it’s pointless.

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      We generally find that spotting a trap does not necessarily mean the party will be able to defeat or avoid it. Certainly, we attempted to demonstrate in this article that it’s possible to use even simple traps as more than just a hazard, but to reveal something about the dungeon. We also like to reward when players invest in abilities, such as boosting their Perception bonuses.

      That being said, some suggestions in how to keep traps exciting is a great idea for an article, and we will definitely give some thought to writing something for this.

      – the Archmage

  3. Greetings,

    I’m wondering about your decision (above) to grant advantage to the rogue because he was being “cautious”….

    “He notes that the rogue’s passive Perception is 14, and grants advantage in this case because the rogue is being cautious.”

    It seems to me that the act of being cautious is by definition what allows the DM to apply passive perception in a situation. If the character isn’t paying attention then either the passive skill is not available or it would be available at a disadvantage. See the Player’s Handbook “Activity While Traveling” (pages 182-3) and the section contained therein, “Other Activities”.

    “Characters who turn their attention to other tasks as the group travels are not focused on watching for danger. These characters don’t contribute their passive Wisdom (Perception) scores to the group’s chance of noticing.”

    In my mind this seems to imply that if I am focused on my surroundings then my passive skill would apply, but it wouldn’t be “special” situation deserving of advantage.

    Thanks for your input!

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