Players believe that spot/notice/search/perception is the “god skill.” It is the one place on the character sheet that needs max ranks no matter who or what you are. Eleven ranger with a PhD in squirrel tracking? Full ranks. Expert trapsmith with a fine eye for minute, hair trigger details? Full ranks. Near sighted wizard? Doesn’t matter, full ranks. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a crazy good skill to take. It can help you avoid ambushes and traps, see through disguises, catch pickpockets, find secret doors, identify potions, etc. etc. Here’s the thing though: those actually useful Perception rolls? They’re in the minority. At far too many tables, when the GM asks for a Perception check it’s really code for, “I’m about to describe something.” Here’s an example:

You find yourself face to face with the bank vault. The huge metal door glints in the torchlight. Give me a Perception roll. *clatter clatter* You can tell that’s no normal steel. It’s been alloyed with adamantine!

Or how about this one?

You walk into the tavern. Give me a Perception roll. *clatter clatter* You can see a group of half-orcs in the corner giving you the hairy eyeball. You don’t think dwarves are welcome in here. 

Or this one:

You climb down the rope into a new cavern. Give me a Perception roll. *clatter clatter* You can see your breath frosting in the air. It is cold down here…unnaturally so.

In each of these cases, I would far rather a GM simply say “the door is adamantine” or “there are some orcs staring at you” or “it is unnaturally cold” rather than making me roll for it. All of this information is obvious, and should be readily apparent without the need for dice.

I understand why GMs do it though. Asking for the roll pauses the game, alerting players to the fact that “critical game information is incoming.” Exposition is hard, and throwing in something interactive (read: asking for rolls) is an attention grabber, recalling players from side conversations and focusing their attention back on the action. It also allows GMs to gather their thoughts before they launch into a lengthy bit of description. However, I believe that “perceiving the obvious” has a downside that outweighs these benefits.

Every time you ask for the dice to come out you’re interrupting the flow of play.  You’re moving focus away from the fictional world and asking the players to recall that they’re sitting in a basement tossing chunks of plastic around Bob’s mom’s pinochle table. You are breaking immersion. Exposition is exactly when you want players to forget the real world, and to instead focus in on the fictional secondary world you’re trying to create. What I’m arguing for here is less dice at the table. Make your descriptions interesting, and make your calls for Perception meaningful. After all, you want there to be consequences for failure beyond, “Welllll….OK. I guess that’s just high enough,” before you give them the plot-critical information anyway.

And if you happen to be a player rather than a GM, consider putting less than infinity ranks into Perception. Sure you’ll roll it a lot at the table, but half of those will be inconsequential…especially if there’s nothing around to perceive in the first place.


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