Passive: It's More Than Just Perception

So, this will be my first in a series on not at all regular or planned D and D 5e blogs. I have found over the last few months of heavy community interaction, that I seem to be able to contribute quite a bit, and give (and take) advice where needed. That's pretty cool, if I do say so myself, so I have decided to occasionally write on topics in regards to D and D.

The first subject that came up for me is the concept of Passive skill checks. Pretty much everyone is quite familiar with passive perception (PP). In fact, its one of the most used concepts in all of the printed modules thus far from WotC. This makes sense if you think about it, as perception is basically your character's ability to notice things, which, as you might expect, tends to come up a ton while adventuring.

I couldn't help but notice, though, that other passive skill checks barely come up at all. I'm fairly certain I can count the total number of times they are mentioned in the official printed texts on one hand, and I have all of them (books that is, not hands. Well, I have all of my hands too, but I digress). To me, and very importantly, to my particular style of DM'ing, this does your average group quite a disservice.

Every skill check in D and D has a commensurate passive companion, which is calculated in the same way as PP is. When used correctly, this can greatly speed up the flow of your game. For example, let's reference Critical Role. *SPOILERS* At one point, a barbarian PC named Grog, who, as you might expect, has a Strength score up around 20, goes to smash something on the ground, and item that one would expect to have an extremely low DC. He rolls a natural 1, automatically failing the check per the DM's house rules (and mine).

Does it really make any logical sense that he wouldn't have succeeded there? In my opinion, no. This is an example of where Passive Athletics could have come into to play. The concept is simple, though by no means concrete. For me, I typically add between 5 to 10 (depending on how hard I deem the check to be) to the skill check DC, which will give me my passive check DC. That's a totally arbitrary set of numbers, which you are adding to an already arbitrarily set number, so, as always, your mileage may vary.

So, let's put this concept into context. A wizard, with an Intelligence score of 18, and a + 4 to his Int checks, is attempting an easy history check with a DC of 8, bringing its passive DC, in my games to somewhere between 13 and 18, depending on context. On top of that, let's say he is also proficient in History, and we'll say he's level 5. This gives him a passive History score of 10+3+4, for a total of 17. Let's further say he has advantage on the check, due to the thing he is trying to remember being something his character studied in his backstory. This gives us another +5, leading to a total passive History score of 22.

That's pretty damn high, now, you could, of course, roll a natural 20 (or a 1) for effect, but would it really make sense for him to fail that check? His character was chosen to have certain skills, based on class and background, that would naturally make him suited to this check, Moreover, was it worth stopping the game, busting out the dice, and tallying results, rather than just rewarding him for being a character with skills in certain areas.

In my opinion, it is not. One of the large ironies in tabletop gaming is the passage of real time vs game time, where travelling hundreds of miles can take seconds, and fighting a handful of people could take hours, even if those times, in game time, were drastically reversed. Game flow can have a big, if intangible, impact on your game and player involvement, and, when possible, its usually preferable to have things move forward smoothly and consistently.

Now, there are some pretty big caveats with this, of course. The first, and most obvious, is that, while it's true the character is well suited for the check, would that guarantee that he would succeed in a similar, real life situation? Of course not. On top of that, critical failures, or even just failures of easy checks, can bring a lot of drama and/or humor to a game, which is typically a good thing. Additionally, one must be aware of their players' style and desires in play. One of the PC's in one of my groups absolutely loves to role dice. In situations like this, I typically forgo the passive checks and have him roll all the time. It is also a lot of extra data to keep track of.

In a more general sense, however, I have found that benefits outweigh the cons. I have a spreadsheet with everyone's passive skills, in which I then use green and gold to highlight proficiency and expertise, respectively (and sometimes just very high values based on Ability score bonuses), which helps me prevent data bloat. What I have found is, for the most part, by simply lettings someone succeed automatically at a check they had an extremely high chance of passing anyway, I can just let them role-play the result, and putting agency into the hands of players is always a good thing.

As mentioned before, and with all things DnD, your mileage may vary.

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