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What is this? Is this ANOTHER installment of Ask Angry? Yes. Yes it is. So many people have been sending their questions to TheAngryGameMaster@gmail.com with the subject: ‘Ask Angry’ that I can’t possibly just do this once a week. So many desperate souls would be going unhelped. So, from now on, you’ll get a new Ask Angry every Tuesday AND every Thursday. Because I’m a motherf$&%ing saint! You’re welcome!
A Kind of New GM going by the name: “KindOfNewGM” Asks:
Hey Angry, I’m Kind of New Gm. I’m a kind of new gm and I’ve always noticed how divisive it is – among other things – to ask GMs “How do you use perception and insight?” Please explain perception, insight, and the passive uses of anything to us all. Examples and the reasoning behind it all would be great. Also if you can, include an explanation of “knowledge skills” as well sometime.
Help me AngryGM, your my only hope!
Holy f$&%nuggets, Kind of New GM, did someone put you up to this? After Charisma and Intelligence, passive skills are my next biggest f$&%ing gripe. I hate passive skills but I LOVE talking about why. I’m going to try and give you a neutral, unbiased answer, but I don’t know if I can. Because this topic really gets my goat. And pisses it off.
So, first, let’s talk about the idea of active skills vs. passive skills. An active skill is a skill that is triggered by a character actually making a choice and doing a thing. For example, searching a room for traps or secret doors or trying to locate the hidden goblin that was right there a minute ago? Those are active uses of Perception. And those are easy to deal with. Because the character actually does a thing and you can see the thing they are doing and roll the check. Simple.
Things fall apart when skills are passive. A passive skill is a skill that is just sort of supposed to happen. When you walk into a room, you MIGHT notice a thing is there and you might MIGHT not. Noticing or not noticing is automatic. Your eyes and ears and senses and brain just work. You don’t have to flex your eyeballs to get them to see things. That’s passive.
So, Perception is a skill that can be active and can be passive. Got it? Now, I’m still talking conceptual. I’m not talking about the actual game mechanics. I’m just defining some terms.
Now, Insight is the ability of a character to read body language and subtle cues and figure out things aren’t right. To detect when someone is not telling the whole truth. To detect when someone isn’t themselves. Moments of hesitation, furtive glances, odd tics and tells. Right? That’s insight? But so is spotting inconsistencies in the things people say. You can actually think of Insight a bit like the social equivalent of Perception.
And it’s easy to see how Insight can be passive, right? When someone lies to you, you might notice the inconsistencies and oddities. When someone is pretending to be someone they are not, you might realize they are bluffing. When someone is under mind control, you might notice their words aren’t really their own or the swirly hypnotism lines in their eyes.
But Insight can also be active. Just like you can search a room by tapping on walls, running your fingers along door jumps, feeling for drafts, peering under and behind things, and so on, you can also search a conversation if you feel things are untoward. You can ask probing questions or try to catch people in contradictions. You can give misleading information and see if people fall for it, indicating they are trying to bluff you. You can try to tease out their motives by making accusations and watching their response. These sorts of active probing SHOULD fall under Insight. But they rarely do.
Perception and Insight should be rolled (used actively) only when the players purposely do things that count as searching or probing. That is, when the players interact with something in the world with the express purpose of discovering things that are hidden or not what they appear to be, that’s when they roll Perception and Insight.
Passive Perception and Passive Insight are target numbers. They are the numbers SOMETHING ELSE rolls against when they are purposely trying to be deceptive or sneaky. A goblin is hiding, he rolls Stealth against Passive Perception. A con artist is bluffing, he rolls Bluff against Passive Insight. That’s how it SHOULD WORK.
Now, this is where I have an aneurism and here is why it gets so f$&%ing confusing when it really shouldn’t be. Sometimes, the thing that is actually trying to be sneaky isn’t the one rolling the dice and whole f$&%ing system falls apart.
For example, traps. Traps are hidden things. They are TRYING TO HIDE from the PCs so they can jump out and kill them. I know it sounds weird to talk like that, but mechanically, that’s how it should work. A trap is trying to hide in a room and a PC MIGHT notice it just by walking nearby. Depending on the edition of D&D, the PC might roll Perception or the Passive Perception might be compared to the DC of the trap. Neither of those mechanical answers actually line up with how things SHOULD work. So it’s confusing as f$&%. You can think of the DC to notice a trap or secret door as a “pre-rolled” Stealth check. The door or trap rolled a Stealth check AGAINST the PCs Passive Perception.
If you keep all of that in mind, you should be able to make it work out.
Now, Knowledge checks.
Knowledge checks have the same goddamned problem only worse. Let’s talk about them in the same terms.
First of all, Knowledge checks are passive. You generally take an action to know something. You see a thing and you either remember something about it or you don’t. You don’t have to screw up your brain really hard and squint your eyes or anything. You just remember things or you don’t. Or you remember things a day later after it doesn’t matter anymore because brains suck sometimes. But in general, Knowledge is a passive check.
And that’s already a problem because there is no ACTIVE THING. You can argue a trap is TRYING to hide from someone and you can point at the thing doing the activity and therefore say Passive Perception is the target, the chance of success. But Knowledge doesn’t have anything like that. Knowledge is just a coin toss. Either you remember something or you don’t. It’s just a f$&%ing die roll to see if you get a clue or not.
In that respect, though, players should NEVER NEVER EVER ask for Knowledge checks. And they shouldn’t have to. The minute they see a thing they might know, the GM should call for a Knowledge check and give the appropriate information, just like when the goblin is sneaking and the con artist is lying. Most GMs don’t follow this rule though. They wait for the player to “trigger” the knowledge check by performing some stupid non-action like “I examine the thing, do I recognize it” or just flat out asking “I have Religion, do I know what that icon is?” This should never EVER happen if you’re a good GM.
But, now the question is, if Knowledge can be passive, can it be active? I would argue that yes, yes it can. Every field of study includes not only the collective body of information that it consists of, but also of the ability to use the right tools to get the answer. Arcana is not just “knows a lot about magic.” Arcana is “knows the field of academic of study of magic.” Someone versed in Arcana should know how to research magical answers. How to use libraries, how to find experts and ask the right questions, and how to conduct magical experiments. Someone schooled in Religion doesn’t just know about the gods, they also know rituals and prayers and proper ways to deal with priests and ways to make offerings and gain specific deity’s favor. They also know the scriptures well enough to know where to look for an answer if they don’t have it. If someone doesn’t know the prayer to stop undead from rising, they at least know which experts to consult or what books to start with.
In that respect, Knowledge can be active. And it really should be. But GMs rarely use it as such. Knowledge skills are only ever about recall. And then they are misused because the GM insists on direct questions and non-actions, as if Knowledge is a button the player has to press.
Anyway, I hope all of that helps.