Thursday, November 17, 2011

DM Tips: Passive Doesn't Mean Active

Brace yourself, kiddies. I've finally got another topic to talk about and yes, it is about 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons.

What does it mean to use your Passive Perception? As written, the rules want you to treat it as taking 10 on your skill check. But does this create a believable scenario in terms of story?
Taking 10, as written, means you are assumed to have rolled a 10 on a given check because your character is taking their time to complete a given task. Now if you ask me, this sounds like they are Active rather than Passive. Consider this: My character is a tinker trying to create the world's first airplane. Because he wants to do it Wright the first time (see what I did there?) and has nothing better to do for quite some time, he Takes 10 on the check. If his skill is high enough and the DC low enough, the tinker succeeds in creating the airplane eventually.

When doing something passively, you aren't even trying to do it. You breath passively. You blink passively. Something you do passively is something you are not putting any conscience effort into. It may just be that I am reading the name too literally, but I like to think that reacting to something that hits your passive skill requires a roll to make sure.

Example: The PCs are walking down a road to their next destination. They are not actively keeping an eye out for danger, but there is a bandit ambush up ahead. The bandits are hiding in the foliage and will attack once the party has passed by. The DC for spotting them matches one of the PC's Passive Perception. The PC pauses at the hint of movement and looks into the woods to make sure it wasn't just a woodland creature scampering away. They then make an Active Perception check. Whether they succeed or not, the party may gain some manor of benefit they would normally not have gained if the ambush was successful. For example, the PC stopping to double check, mentioning they thought they saw something, could alert the others to draw their weapons (no need to spend that Minor Action in combat), or even make Perception checks of their own, not to mention the lack of a surprise round since the PCs are now expecting a surprise. An example of using this with Insight, perhaps the PC felt as if there was a hint of untruth to what an NPC said, to which they make an Active Insight check just to make sure.
"Dude, I can totally see you." "Nuh-uh! I've got total cover!"
Since the rules for Passive skills are intended to make the check automatically succeed, I would allow the PC a +2 or +5 bonus to the check, or just lower the DC, to make things fair to some degree. I plan on play-testing this at my next game.

What do you think? Would this method benefit your storytelling as a DM or would it just cause more confusion at your table? Let me know what you think and I'll post the results from the game in the future.

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