Fixing the Perception Skill

Hello! Spring is well on its way here in southern PA, the baseball lockout is over, and it looks like the Phillies are putting together a lineup that might just be the best in baseball. And, yeah, there’s lots going on in the world, but I’m returning to game design thoughts today. I think we can all use the distraction of thinking out fun stuff for a bit.

So, let me start by saying that I want to fix the Perception skill.

Now, Dungeons & Dragons (and similar games) needs some sort of mechanic to test the question of whether creatures trying to not be seen successfully escape the notice of heroes who are looking for them, and vice versa. But ever since 3rd edition D&D married the Spot and Listen skills to the Wisdom ability, we’ve got a system that’s ugly for two reasons:

  • Wise characters are naturally the best spotters in the game, even when they shouldn’t be.
  • Perception is a “mandatory” skill that drinks up character-building resources—skill points or proficiencies—players might otherwise spend on more flavorful choices. (It’s one of the rare places in the skill system where your selections directly impact your ability to fight. Minimizing the number of times you get surprised by enemies helps your character survive.)

Tethering the ability to detect enemies to Wisdom was a bit of a kludge twenty years ago. It works for some high-Wisdom characters, I guess; I’m not troubled by monks or druids being good spotters. But why should clerics be good spotters? And why should plain old fighters or rogues—you know, the guys who supposedly are ready for sudden violence at any moment—be worse at it than clerics are?

How to Fix It (5e)

There isn’t any other ability score that Perception could be tethered to that would make any more sense, to be honest. Possibly Intelligence, but then we’d be asking why wizards are better at seeing things than sorcerers. You can make a good argument that Perception ought to be its own ability score (and in fact there are plenty of game systems where it is). But I think D&D has another answer for this question.

Perception ought to be a class feature like Hit Dice.

When I ask myself “Who should be good at noticing sneaky enemies?” the answers I come up with are strongly class-based. Barbarians, rangers, and rogues feel like they belong at the top of the list. Clerics and wizards, not so much. Character class already tests for basic fighting skill and resilience, so adding  combat awareness to that makes sense to me. Character race feels like it might contribute, too: elves are famously perceptive in D&D.

So, I might try something like this:

  • Perception isn’t a Wisdom check. Instead, you add a Class Perception Bonus to checks to perceive things.
  • To keep Perception checks on the same “scale” as other checks in the game (including enemy Stealth checks), we’ll make sure our Class Perception covers the same range as ability modifiers: 0 to 5.
  • All characters are proficient in Perception. Proficiency bonus increases as you level up, after all, and experience is probably the best way to learn how to notice danger approaching. Spend that proficiency somewhere more interesting.

In some ways, this is a throwback to some of the surprise rules from 1st Edition D&D. Remember how rangers only had a 1 in 6 chance of being surprised? Same basic notion, really. Anyway, here’s a list of Class Perception bonuses to chew on:

ClassPerception Bonus
Elf (race)+1
Observant (feat)+2

Barbarians, of course, are known for their primitive senses—just read a Conan story. Rangers, as we know, are rarely caught off-guard. And if two rogues are engaged in a test of sneak vs. spot, well, I kind of want that to be a coin flip. We’ll give them the best bonus so it’s even with their Stealth check.

I arbitrarily picked bards (as the jacks of all trades) and warlocks (as the sneakiest of the arcane classes) for the medium bonus. You can certainly argue that druids and monks instead deserve the best bonus—I just feel like a rogue ought to sneak up on a monk a little better than a monk sneaks up on a rogue, but it’s totally a judgment call. And I gave the fighter the medium bonus just as a nod to overall combat awareness, but that could just as well be another 0.

Finally, I can certainly see other character races or backgrounds or feats that might give you that +1 bump like an elf character. What can I say? It’s a first draft.

That’s all for this time! Feel free to share the link or let me know what you think!

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