See Spot Passively Perceive

One of the things I noted when looking over materials from the shiny new edition of Dungeons and Dragons is the return of the Passive Perception box on the character sheet. I’ve always thought this was a strange character sheet inclusion for a game known for basic math skills and character information overflowing onto 2, 3, 4+ sheets of paper. It seems adding 10 to the skill bonus shouldn’t be THAT difficult to remember, freeing the space for more important information.

What struck me as interesting about D&D’s newest incarnation is the return of passive perception, but the omission of passive insight.

But really are passive checks necessary? I’ll save you some time by plainly stating no. The reverse of course being you can easily argue perception is always a passive check. Given the perception skill as we know it is an extension of the old spot check. You might argue as soon as you start looking for something you are no longer noticing a difference but actively searching for one, which could easily fall under the investigation skill.

But let’s assume we play with passive perception. Passive perception is a tool, and tools are useful so long as they have a use. So what is passive perception’s use? First let’s look at how it’s commonly applied:


The party walks down a hallway, there are traps in the hallway, no one actively checks for traps. The DM calls for/secretly checks passive perception versus the traps’ spot DC. On a success the DM informs the players of the trap in one of those stopped just before walking into the tripwire moments. On a failure the DM stops the party once someone triggers the trap and informs them of the traps’ effects.

The use of passive perception is to protect players from their own ignorance. Is that Roll Play vs. Role Play, a situation of your character being more knowledgeable than you, the player? Maybe, but I assume the design choice was to obviate player stupidity from getting the PC killed. It’s insurance, a safety net.

But it’s more than a simple safety net in the above example. It’s go beyond insurance and into advocacy. The passive check does what the player wouldn’t do for himself. It’s the same when Google auto searches for something it believes (rightly so in my case) you misspelled.

So let’s roll it back to its original intent, the safety net. A successful passive perception is not equal to a successful active check, instead it offers the helpful hint: you should make a perception check now.



Passive perception is spidey sense. It’s the gut feeling something isn’t right: “it’s TOO quiet,” “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” “there’s something but I just can’t put my finger on it.

The nice thing about doing this is the party can still screw the pooch. Let’s return to the original example this this idea in mind.



The party walks down a hallway, there are traps in the hallway, no one actively checks for traps. The DM calls for/secretly checks passive perception versus the traps’ spot DC. On a success the DM informs the players they feel a sense of trepidation about the hallway. On a failure the DM stops the party once someone triggers the trap and informs them of the traps’ effects.

As any DM/GM knows, the moment you state a PC is getting a feeling or sense people will ask to make checks. Congratulations, they party will now make active perception checks against the trapped hallway! Now they can screw it up of their own accord. On a success they find the traps, on a failure you get a brand new situation rife with role playing opportunity as the party stares down a hallway no one feels comfortable walking down.

Just remember to make players tell you explicitly what they are looking for, no general use ‘can I make a perception check.‘ If they want to check the floor for pressure plates make them say so.

This idea of a safety net can transfer easily to passive insight. Passive insight is getting bad vibes from someone, active insight will be checks such as ‘do I believe he is lying about X?‘ or ‘do I feel like I can negotiate more money out of him?

Follow this simple principle and you’ll never have to worry about passive skill checks getting in the way of your game.

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Double Damage

Potentially one of D&D’s greatest shortcomings is its health system. Now that’s not to say I don’t like HP, I like HP just fine. I think I made that clear when talking about hit points back in the last blog I expounded on health systems.

The shortcoming, the specific failure in this instance is the lack of longterm consequences to poor decisions and/or flubbed actions. When it comes to a scale measure of how much punishment a creature can take in combat before it simply dies hit points are difficult to beat. Hit points have a maximum, a minimum (you are dead at X/-X HP), and it is easily measurable being, you know, uniform points and all.

So what’s the big deal? In theory that sounds pretty great for gauging how much punishment a creature can take in a fight. Hell, in practice it works pretty great and that’s why we’ve been using hit points since pen and paper RPGs have been a thing. Better yet we can empirically tell the difference between a hard hit and a grazing strike just by the data. The DM/GM rolls some dice, calls out a number for damage, and the whole table reacts. Physical wincing, the sucking of teeth, the chortle of inappropriate laughter, and a litany of offhand comments are the reaction of such an event. It’s visceral and it’s a phenomenon that cultivates a true reaction from the participants. That’s a good thing for RPGs.

The difficulty comes with what happens right after the combat ends. The healing process allows creatures to get hit points back by resting, using medical supplies, or by means of magic. They just get better, a 15-minute rest is equivalent of a soft reset after going three rounds with a prizefighter. It unfortunately doesn’t make much good sense. For how good the system is at measuring a creature’s ability to continue fighting while in said fight, it is equally as bad at portraying the fatigue and grinding effect of wounds to a person’s overall health. But perhaps that’s implicit in the name, hit points is a term we regard as an encapsulated idea rather than what the words actually say. Hit points, well it measures how many hits a creature can take. Viewed in that way HP is designed and functions perfectly to suit that specific purpose.

Hit points in this function are limited though. What about all the stuff that happens outside of combat: traps, hazards, accidents, poisons, disease, even falling. As I ran down in a previous post on traps the problems inherent with the system is that if these out of combat problems don’t outright kill a creature they’re of little to no consequence. Sure we can talk about the meta of chipping away at things like healing surges and the bookkeeping aspect of screwing with resource management. I like that stuff, it’s interesting and it adds a deeper, more strategic level to games. Where I see the problem is I shouldn’t have to up to my elbows in the system mechanics to make a trap meaningful. A common bear trap is not going to kill a player character, it just shouldn’t. So why put it in if my only recourse to apply consequences to a creature is take away some of its HP just so it can heal it back arbitrarily?

And that’s likely the exact reason some systems like D&D 4e are almost entirely combat-based and really tone down the dungeon crawl exploration bits with traps and hazards. These things supplement combat, but rarely are notable as obstacles in their own right and often play instead more as a flat-uninspired event at the table and PC resource depletion. One of the options I went over in the trap article was simply making the traps deadly. Traps become a very real threat when (like most traps in the real world) the intent is death for the victim and that is a real possibility. Another possibility is to make the effects of these non-combat engagements and even some combat encounters be something other than straight HP-related damage.

alumni_20100729_1So let’s circle back to the bear trap. This is one of those traps not looking to immediately kill its victim. Because our adventurers possess powerful tools such as articulated, opposable thumbs and the ability to figure out trap mechanics they won’t die of exposure or starvation. Well with HP as is the creature would take X damage and move on to the next scene. But what if there was something other than just some slight damage. Still want to keep that resource management aspect deal the straight damage to HP but let’s add some flair to this trap. Well it’s a bear trap and I think it’s safe to assume the PC tripping it would do so with his leg. So why not add a reduction of the character’s speed. In something like D&D 4e this would be the Slowed condition. Continuing with 4e, this condition should not be an immediate save but should last at least one adventuring day. Why not try having the bear trap impart the Slowed condition with a save at the end of each extended rest. Functionally each day the PC has a chance to recover from his leg injury without it affecting his ability to take hits in combat.

Pro-Tip: Want to make your game feel a little extra gritty? Make critical failure results on initial checks/saves permanent injuries. Maybe the only way to get poor Dave out of the bear trap was to hack off his foot. This can turn your green adventurers into scarred veterans in short order. And no one said Dave couldn’t get a snazzy wooden foot to remove the Slowed condition.

Now I can already hear some of you out there grumbling that this sort of thing is already built into D&D and its kin with the idea of ability damage. I don’t really like ability damage, I think it’s cumbersome and too much long-term bookkeeping. Besides ability damage is regularly imparted by an attack, regardless of the attack’s severity. An attack might only deal one point of HP damage but deals a point of strength damage. A glancing blow hinders a character as much as a critical hit? That seems strange to me. I like my way better as it is variable enough to be tailored to the situation and can be easily explained within the scene’s theatrics.

So, something to think about adding to your games. Try adding it to a standalone trap or other non-combat situation and see if you get better results than you’re used to getting from your games.

The Finest Trappings

I have been playing around in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim again. Furthermore I have been on Youtube watching other people playing Skyrim. One thing I think Elder Scrolls as a series has highlighted well is traps. If you don’t pay attention you are going to get hit by a trap. Bear traps, pitfalls, booby trap chests, swinging spike walls, battering rams, poison darts, oil fires, and pendulum hallways are all present.

trapBut I also realized that traps in Skyrim, as with traps in most RPGs are not often lethal. Even getting caught in a bear trap doesn’t immobilize the character. So what is the point of a trap if it is not going to kill the victim? I don’t see much of a reason at all. In table top games traps are often used to whittle at PCs. Especially in 4th edition D&D, assuming you still have healing surges to spend a trap isn’t particularly dangerous.

If you want to include traps in your game I can see only four common implementations.

  1. The trap must possess the potential to kill someone

  2. The trap must be implemented by creatures for their benefit

  3. The trap must have some significant, ongoing effect

  4. The trap’s activation must impede the victims from something

The trap must possess the potential to kill someone. Head over to the Dungeon Masters Guide (pg 87). The False-Floor Pit. The pit trap is one of the oldest tricks in the book. The trap itself only does 1d10 damage. It is in no way lethal by itself. However, upgraded to Elite the pit is deeper and is filled with poison spikes. As an elite trap it deals 3d10 and ongoing 5 poison damage (save ends). This can absolutely be lethal for low level characters, even if the initial fall isn’t a death blow.

The trap must be implemented by creatures for their benefit. As stated traps by themselves are rarely lethal and more so considering they can usually be disabled or avoided with relative simplicity. One of my personal favorites is the Magic Crossbow Turret. A level three trap it deals good damage, does not fire on native monsters and each trap consists of two turrets. That’s two traps for the price of one. The best implementation I have seen is a room with a gaggle of minions with one or two true monsters and this trap placed high up in the room. PCs have to make a decision to not kill monsters and climb up to disable the turrets. If left alone this trap will reduce a party to corpses in no time. If you want to be particularly sinister put something in the room like a chest to tempt them to overstay in the turret’s cross hairs.

Also consider using things like bear traps and pit falls. Place large, burly brutes in the encounter. Use your brutes to push PCs into the pits. Being placed in a pit essentially removes a PC from combat for a round in addition to damaging them. This is a great way to push around healing and ranged classes and putting them in a position where they no longer have line of sight. For bear traps make the traps do a small amount of damage but also restrain the victim until they can make a check to free themselves. These are great traps to use with monsters like Lurkers that thrive on combat advantage. Throw a pair of Bugbear Stranglers into the mix (MM1, pg 136) and have the PC spend its entire turn attempting to escape the bugbear’s garrote grab and the bear trap.

The trap must have some significant, ongoing effect. Most traps as designed will not outright slay a PC. That is not to say you cannot have the odd, lone trap in the dungeon but its impact should be significant, be crafty. Kobolds are known for traps, it’s what allows the small creatures to combat dumb, more powerful monsters. Consider a trap that dumps hot oil or tar on the PCs. Sure they will take some damage, but the significance is in the next encounter. Add some Kobold Slingers (MM1, pg 168) to the next encounter with firepots. Hit a PC or two covered with flammable oil/tar and watch them turn into living torches. As a bonus the smart party with a wizard can easily prestidigitate the oil/tar off the party. Reward your wizard for playing smart.

For a further example check out the Poisoned Dart Wall (DMG, 89). By itself the trap is not lethal and does not recognize friend from foe in a fight. I suggest removing the ongoing poison damage and fitting it with the 4e disease framework. Diseases are one thing most people can agree 4th edition did correct. Unfortunately they are not used very often. The framework is great for applying, lasting effects to PCs as they are only afforded one save per day. Failing the save by a certain margin means the effect gets worse. Consider replacing the Dart Wall’s poison with Filth Fever (MM1, pg 219). The loss of a healing surge is nothing but fail the first save and suddenly the PC has a -2 penalty to all defenses. Fail the next saving throw and the target has a -2 to all defenses, loses healing surges and cannot regain hit points. Drop something like this in the middle of a dungeon and things can turn dire quickly for some of the party. The Dart Wall’s ‘poison’ will stick with them for a while. Some will get better and some may get worse. I have run games where PCs go to the final stage of diseases it really pumps of the danger factor.

The trap’s activation must impede the victims from something. Sometimes a trap does not have to directly affect PCs for it to be a significant obstacle. This is the most difficult to implement in a game as it takes more planning on the DM/GM’s part. Sometimes a trap just needs to keep the PCs from something. A trap that blows out a bridge across a chasm, or bars a door automatically from the other side is just as useful as one that attempts to kill the PCs. These are really great tools to heighten the stakes of a ‘race against the clock’ scenario. The PCs need to accomplish something quickly and setting off a trap has made the task more difficult.

One of my favorite implementations for this is greased stairs. An artillery/control monster is perched on a ledge fortified with cover raining down damage on the PCs fighting below. The PCs can move 2 squares a turn without consequence up the stairs to the monster but attempting to go any faster they have to make a difficult Acrobatics check. If the PC fails he goes prone and slides all the way to the bottom of the stairs. Even if the PCs have killed everything else in the room the monster in its fortified perch can hold its own against the full party.