Perception Rolls Re-Revisted

In the past, I’ve made comments about how certain RPGs have too much variegation as to how Perception is handled — do I hear it? see it? notice it? smell it? And what is it? My previous arguments have been about how to deal with too many stats governing perception — cut them all down into one Skill roll. [The same goes for hiding stuff.]

But I’m taking a new approach today.

You’re a gamemaster. You’ve written a adventure/story/headache that you want the players to enjoy/endure/report as torture. You’ve already taken advantage of their Bardic Lore (more on this later) and fed/informed/scared them with the “mission”  information. You want them to get to the castle/tomb/underground lair of ugly brown things and encounter/slay/taunt the plot.

So, why are you asking them to notice your adventure?

Perception rolls require that I notice something. But what if we all fail to notice what you want me to notice? What was the point of the roll? Did we not find the hidden sigils on the tomb door showing the entrance? Did we miss the turn at Old Mill Road? Are we about to get ambushed by traveling minstrels? What do you mean we’re hunting rust monsters?

There has to be a reason for a gamemaster to call for a perception roll. One can’t just ask for them arbitrarily lest Perception become the dominate stat behind “kill things you notice.” (Not to mention that the more you call for rolls, the greater the chance of a critical failure or success. And nothing is more exciting than a critical success on noticing a fossil.) If noticing things is paramount to the game and the task of noticing it is left to the dice, why did you write it in the first place? Don’t you want the players to play your game? Maybe immerse them into the things they are seeing/hearing/tasting.

Now. I can see the value of a Perception roll in relation to the {VALUE} of the thing.

You find the entrance the tomb. Sigils cover the door. The command word scrawled in some ancient tongue. It could be Elvish or perhaps something diabolical. However, some of the letters are missing and the rough worn stone shows signs that someone has defaced this rock.

A Perception roll here can do a number of things. It can help reveal the language (unless the game your running has decryption as a skill; although even then a good Perception roll by give some bonus to the decryption). It can help to find the indentations of the worn stone so the edges of the sigils can be fully drawn out. It might even help reveal how old the work is, or what kind of stone was used to deface the sigil. It might do a hundred little things that all up to a bonus to get through the door. But the Perception roll should never replace the story points that have to be “found.” The players have to find the door and the sigil to get into the door. They don’t need to know that trolls did this. They don’t need to know that the sigil was written in a banished form of Elvish that brings harm to the reader. And they don’t need to know that the sigil, when read incorrectly causes the door to seal permanently. These are all valid elements to define failure.

Not finding the door means the adventure fails to happen.

The value of Perception rolls in combat are invaluable. Gamemasters can keep information about the enemy hidden from players who can’t see the enemy archers or who fail to notice the traps and so on. And being ambushed in combat is a trope of the fantasy-adventure genre. I would never even consider removing these from play. Having a scout in the group to notice the ambush is invaluable to certain styles of play.

This extends to “searches for traps.” PCs should never have to actively search for traps. A game will grind to a halt as the player takes a five-foot step and searches for traps and repeats ad nauseum. Rather, the gamemaster should consider a passive system (see below for an example) where the rolls are only called for in situations where the potential to find them might actually exist.

Ratchet up the Tension
Before the game starts, consider secretly rolling five Perception rolls for each player at the table. Keep the information secret. It’s okay if the players know you are doing this, but not what the results are. At random times during the game (or at moment’s key to a specific character’s fate), pick a random Perception roll and use it to determine the necessary {VALUE}. You’d be surprised at how quickly this becomes routine for your games and how the player’s stop arguing about “can I roll to notice that?” Their eyes and ears are already dependent on the gamemaster for interpretation in so many other formats, why not here as well.

Bardic Lore
I feel like I covered this extensively in the d20 Topic series I wrote years ago, but in case I didn’t…

There are a number of character abilities in game that do nothing more than “advance the plot.” 99% of Information/Knowledge-related skills do nothing more than give PCs information they must have to advance. For instance, a Microbiology roll might indicate that the science lab under investigation has been performing Eugenics experiments. This is hardly beneficial information to the players. It’s vital to the story, but the PCs want some {VALUE} for their skill points, and skill points that just advance the plot are a waste of everyone’s time.

Information skill checks, before/during/after the adventure must impact {VALUE} to the player, regardless of system. Even in a story game, some sort of {VALUE} is passed at the end of a scene. What this means to the gamemaster is informing some system of {VALUE} associated with these skill checks, e.g. an information check about the enemy you are about to hunt down might reveal that the skull orcs behind the kidnapping are particular sensitive of very bright light. The PCs will be keen to exploit this information, so whatever penalties the skull orcs would have received from bright light is now doubled as a result of this skill roll (assuming the PC imparts this information to the rest of the team).

To use the above example of the Microbiology roll, the PC (as a result of even having such a pedantic skill) knows about the experiment. However, a good roll here informs the PCs that data from the eugenics experiments has been compromised on two different occasions and a Mr. Pembrant has been called in both times to sign off on the project resets. Using the name Pembrant later in the adventure will impart a +2 to any Social skill rolls to get information out of any scientists encountered.

Some of this abstraction seems foreign, especially in games focused on simulationism. But I point the finger of some of this behavior squarely back on the old school style of ME vs. THEM (GM vs. PC) inherent in so many designs. I know a lot of modern players don’t have this issue anymore, but it doesn’t stop some games from drawing upon archaic paradigms.


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