Perception Checks : The Gordian Knot of RPGs

I’ve commented before about Bardic Knowledge and Gather Information. If these are powers and I have to roll for success, then the success must garner my character an in-game, mathematical bonus. “Your bardic knowledge indicates that the Orcs of Bone Hill are sensitive to light. Knowing this, you can prepare yourself with enough torches and lamps to get a +1 to hit against them.”

The entire design fulcrum of the game rests on the notion that every aspect of the game somehow leads to:

a. a character getting to something easier, faster, or without blood-shed.

b. a character fighting better.

The reasoning may not be obvious at first, but it always come back to the min-max mentality of what my POINTS represent. And this is a very important aspect of RPG design. Someone who foolish squirrels away points into Charisma and utility spells only to find out the game is a grind inside the World’s Largest Dungeon is already behind the curve of the game.


… the game has mechanic benefits inherent in those spells (and Charisma?). Meh.

Why can’t tensor’s floating disk be used to get a flank bonus? Why can’t jump be used to get a bonus to initiative? Why can’t Charisma be used to manipulating party members into standing where you need them to stand? Etc.

But this isn’t about those missing parts of the RPG that we are already working around.

It’s about an interesting and trusty friend who we rely on too easily… too readily… too lazily.

Perception Checks.

If you’re playing in a skill-based RPG (and I know you are), then you know that skills are not equally weighted. In order for them to be equally weighted, you’d need to roll on each an equal number of times. And that’s just not likely. Perception checks are among the most common skill checks in RPGs, and as such, probably should be a skills, but derived secondary stats (like saving throws).

All that aside, outside of a “surprise” round of combat, the function they serve is kind of silly. And here’s the Gordian Knot.

Perception is not about who spotted the thief shadowing the party through the streets. It’s about whether or not they spotted the thief. It is important that they notice? Is it important that the thief remain hidden? It is a function of Game? Story? Character? Plot? These are all very different ingredients and these ingredients lead to a different measure of how Perception should be handled.

To use an allegory, if you were baking a cake and you replaced semi-sweet chocolate with bitter or dark chocolate, and baking soda with baking powder you would have also have to adjust how much water you used (maybe) and/or how long you cooked at what temperature. And if it would even be a good cake at that point.

What perception means determines how it is used. For dealing with surprise, don’t change a thing. That’s a function of game, not story. Characters and their adversaries both need an equal chance of being caught off guard.

But what about when it’s an element of story. If it’s an element of story, then the players have to notice it, right? They can’t just walk passed the cave opening to the Tomb of Horrors? Or not see the book in the chest with the secret code to get to the next part of the adventure. These things have to be found. Perception checks here make no sense. They only measure WHO found it, not what was found.

What about special treasure, like a +1 ring of monkeys? That’s an element of character. Certainly a roll should be made to notice it. And this is tricky. Perhaps a roll should be made to notice it’s value (appraisal is a lame skill, ignore it). In a pile of gold and gems, who would notice if a ring was important or not (ignoring magical dweomer, stupid).

But there’s also elements of plot (not the same as elements of story, btw). The PCs have been tasked with killing the orcs who stole some cows. This plot has many outcomes, and the PCs are not guaranteed to learn anything of [VALUE] before they leave. Maybe they learn about a trap door and gain a +4 to disarm it because they can plan for it. Maybe they find out about a local group of goblins who hate the orcs and they can hire them to help, getting bonuses in combat. Maybe they stumble upon a veteran in town who has fought the orcs before and tells them about a shield move they can’t defend against. +2 AC!

And maybe they learn nothing.

In any case, the list goes on. Elements of plot have value and as such, players should be allowed a limited number of Bardic/Gather/Perception checks before heading off to kill the orcs.

What truly fails here, though is the books themselves not being explicit about when and what a skill check is for. In a board game, you don’t roll dice to see if you can set up your armies. You set up your armies. Skill rolls are used to deter the value of a success. But the value of success is relative to the value the success has to the overall game.

Knowing where the next plot point is not VALUE. It’s part of the structure. There’s no game without it. Knowing a safer route to that plot point has VALUE. Just because a character wants a +1 sword does not mean he finds one.  But, finding a +1 sword and understanding its value are not the same thing.

To quote the Fates: “Know what to measure. Know how long to measure it. And know when to cut.”


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