What is Passive Perception (And Passive Checks) in D&D5e?

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A Passive check is a type of ability check mostly done by DMs “passively”, rather than actively. This means the PCs(player characters) may not even know what a passive check is being used for.

It’s fairly common for a DM to ask players to “make a perception check” or other ability checks to see if they’re successful at doing something or noticing something. However, DMs also have the option to do a Passive Check, which is a kind of ability check that does not require rolling dice.

Passive checks in 5e are usually reserved for skills that are always active, even if a player isn’t explicitly stating that their character is using that skill at a particular moment in time.

Let’s look deeper into passive checks with some scenarios.

Passive Checks in 5e

Here’s a simple example: a DM might want to check to see if players can detect a secret door.

Rather than asking them to roll dice(which would likely tip them off that there is something hidden in the room) the DM could do a Passive Perception check (aka a “Passive Wisdom (Perception) check”) and compare the players’ Passive Perception to a pre-established DC to determine if they detect the secret door.

A character’s score for a passive check is 10 + ability modifier + proficiency bonus if they’re proficient in that skill.

For example, a level 1 character with a wisdom of 16 (+3) would have a Passive Perception of 13 (10 + 3), or 15 (10 + 3 + 2) if they are proficient in perception.

If a creature would have advantage at using a certain skill, they add 5 to their passive score. If they would have disadvantage, they subtract 5 from their passive score.

In the case of the secret door, it’s up to the DM to set the DC of the passive check. If the DC is 15, characters with a passive perception of 15 or higher would automatically succeed at spotting the door, while characters with a lower passive perception would not spot the door unless they also had advantage on their passive check for some reason.

Passive perception is typically the most used of the passive checks, and it is the only skill that has a space on the character sheet to enter a numerical value, under the heading “PASSIVE WISDOM (PERCEPTION).” Passive perception is often used for things like detecting traps, spotting hidden items, hidden doors, or spotting someone who’s hiding.

Monsters also have a value for passive skills.

For example, when a character tries to hide, the DM may ask them to roll a Stealth Check (aka a “Dexterity (Stealth) check”) and then compare their roll to the enemies’ passive Perception scores.

Investigation and Insight are two other skills that are occasionally used for passive checks.

For this reason, DNDBeyond character sheets include PASSIVE INT (INVESTIGATION), PASSIVE WIS (INSIGHT) and PASSIVE WIS (PERCEPTION).

In theory, a DM can turn any kind of check into a passive check. Although it often doesn’t make sense to do so.

Some examples of passive checks that might come up during game play include:

Passive Wisdom (Insight) to detect lies or sense the mood of an NPC
Passive Dexterity (Stealth) to remain undetected when someone isn’t actively trying to hide
Passive Intelligence (Investigation) to spot a hidden clue
Passive Wisdom (Survival) to notice tracks when they aren’t actively looking for them
Passive Wisdom (Medicine) to notice that an NPC is sick
Passive Wisdom (Arcana) to recognize a name as belonging to a famous wizard
Passive Wisdom (Animal Handling) for a character to attract the attention of a friendly dog.
Passive Strength (Athletics) to determine a character’s ability to swim or climb under favorable conditions.

Rather than using a set DC (which is boring, in my opinion), if a DM decides to use passive skills, it often makes sense to have an enemy or NPC make a roll against a player’s passive score if that’s applicable.

For example, an enemy soldier could roll perception vs. the player’s passive stealth score to see if they spot the character carrying an illegal weapon in a crowd.

Some DMs use certain passive skills as a minimum.

Jeremy Crawford, the Lead Rules Designer for D&D 5e, once said that he likes using Passive Perception as a floor to determine the minimum roll a player can get on certain perception checks. For example, a character with a passive perception of 13 might be allowed to automatically get a 13 to notice something using a perception skill check, even if they rolled poorly. MP3 Source here (D&D Podcast 4/27/2017 @ 22:14).

Crawford later clarified that it’s up to the DM to decide whether to use a passive vs. an active check, and whether to use a passive check as a skill check minimum.

Passive Checks In-Game

Ultimately, when and how to use passive checks is left largely up to the DM in D&D 5e.

Personally, I prefer not to use passive checks often when I DM.

Instead I prefer to ask players to pre-roll several dice before a session starts. For example, players might roll 5 random perception checks, which I would put into a random order and use throughout the session for secret skill checks, instead of using passive skill checks.

I do it this way because I favor using dice rolls over passive perception checks with a set DC.

Despite my personal preferences, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using passive checks. Ultimately the goal of D&D is to have fun, so I suggest that DMs play passive checks in whatever way is most fun for your group!

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