I Perceive A Problem

Over the holidays a brief discussion took place on Twitter about the utility of the various perception skills and how they should be divided. In particular, @Squach of the Tome Show podcast reasoned/ranted only the necessity for a Perception skill and that separate Search/Spot skills are redundant. (For this article I will refer all of these skills, whether a single Perception, specialized Search vs. Spot, and even Intuition, as general perception skills.)

Skill System Problems

The first problem with general perception skills is that they are too general. Their utility begins to be a crutch, so much so that articles are written about how to avoid stalling an adventure over a failed perception skill check.

Besides the debate about perception skills, D&D has also suffered from unused or underused skills. Usually these skills are knowledge or trade skills; they often just take up space on the character sheet and are sometimes tossed token skill points for “character development.”

So we have two problems with D&D skills:

  1. Perception skill overload.
  2. Unused (wasted?) skills in the skill list

Is it possible to solve them both? I believe yes.

Perception Generally Considered Harmful

There should be no general perception skills. To notice or find something, you have to know what you’re looking for. This has two effects:

  1. other skills become more valuable
  2. attributes are more important

All Skills are More Valuable

How does this work? Let’s look at some examples:

You’re in a room after having stopped the horrific rite of summoning from the netherworld. The riddle on the old parchment the wizard gave you says there is a key in the room that will lock the gate to the Abyss forever. But where is the key? There is no Search skill or Perception skill, so how do you find it?

Well, the cleric probably knows something about the religion of this cult. Might his religious background give him an insight into where such an item might be hidden? Roll a Religion skill check.

Or the party’s wizard, with his knowledge of magic, might know that the key must be kept within certain materials (e.g. lead box) if within a certain proximity of the gate. Roll an Arcana skill check.

How about the venerable secret door? You’re in a dungeon that you’ve fully explored, but still haven’t found the artifact you were sent here to find. It’s possible it’s not really here, but your divinations indicate that it still is. It must therefore be somewhere you haven’t been yet, somewhere hidden, behind a secret door. How do you find it?

Well, the dwarven fighter is an expert in dungeoneering. He would likely know how to spot the telltale signs of a doorway. He would know what kind of signs of workmanship would indicate a hidden passage and where it would be dangerous to place such a passage. Roll a Dungeoneering skill check.

How about something more spontaneous? Your party enters a small book store looking for a book on town history. Easy, peasy, just roll History Knowledge (instead of Search).

Knowledge skills become more valuable because they become more applicable. No more wondering what the engineering or dungeoneering skill is useful for. No more trying to stretch the circumstances where players can use these skills.

More than Just Knowledge

So we see how easy it is to adapt knowledge skills, but what about the other physical skills like Athletics (Climbing, Swimming, Jumping, et. al.) or Thievery? These skills are based on Strength or Dexterity. Can they be used for general perception?

As the party is drudging through the mountains, an orc tribe is preparing an ambush. Does the party see the orcs hiding in the pass? Without general perception, how do we know? Based on our previous examples, we should use a skill that encompasses hiding… How about Hide or Thievery? If you know about hiding, it stands to reason that you could more easily spot someone who is hiding since you know what to look for.

But it doesn’t take nimble fingers or a quick step (Dexterity) to spot someone hiding, you say? True, so just use your Wisdom or Intelligence attribute + the skill bonus as the skill roll modifier.

Does that mean only the thief can see the hidden orcs? Of course not, everyone can roll to see; she just simply knows more and therefore is more likely to see them. You might even have the fighter roll a Knowledge (Tactics) or something similar if you want to.

Gut Checks

This guideline is not only for knowledge and practical skills, but the instinctive situations. Intuition could be considered a general perception skill.

If we remove Intuition, how do we gut check? Again, depends on the situation. Want to know if someone is lying? It depends on how they are lying to you. If they are trying to beat you into submission, roll an Intimidate skill. Are they trying to smooth talk you? Since you know how to bluff, you might recognize it.

Gut check skills (can) use Charisma. Given that Charisma is a more interactive or social attribute, this should work better than the more concrete skills of Wisdom or Intelligence. Since part of Charisma is knowing how to talk and act in given situations, detecting such chicanery should be easier with a higher Charisma.

Attribute Importance

Removing general perception skills has the side effect of making the Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma attributes more useful. This is desirable because:

  1. that actually matches one of the goals for D&D Next, to be more attribute driven over skills and feats,
  2. it makes the attribute increases more appealing, increasing the likelihood that players will select them rather than feats
    1. (anything to temper the potential for overpowered feats is a good thing in my opinion).

An Exercise for the DM

This idea is not a panacea. It would add more tracking work for the GM. Rather than having the character’s Perception/Spot checks listed at his whim, he would likely need their entire skill set available for consultation when the characters can’t roll their own skill checks.

Or, this could be an opportunity for more player involvement. Rather than rolling a silent check behind the screen, the GM could solicit ideas from the players about how their skills might apply. A well role-played explanation might even yield a bonus.

I encourage discussion and hope to hear your opinion via e-mail or on Twitter (@icosahedron). Thanks for reading.