March 8, 2011

Perception- What is it Good For?

For the purposes of this article Perception is that skill or game system that allows the players to “see” the hidden things in a scene. Most scenes have description text that showcases the readily apparent things the characters can see and interact with. Most systems also include methods by which hidden (or not easily seen) things can be revealed to the characters. These hidden things can include secret doors, secret compartments, a specific relevant paper in a much larger pile of papers, a small item such as a drop of blood or piece of hair, or a unique pattern in the stonework.

I’ll let the grognards correct me, but from my recollection (my older RPG books are boxed up for the upcoming move) Perception was a non-issue in the early days of D&D. The only “official” hidden things were secret doors, for which a system was provided (roll 1 on a 1d6 to spot the secret door; certain races had bonuses to this roll). Granted, the early adventures did not have the need for Perception checks. The only things not revealed were the secret doors and traps. Everything else was out in the open and part of the descriptive text of the adventure. If there was something hidden it required a player to state that his character was looking in a specific location, but no die roll was involved.

However, it is here that the groundwork was laid for the procedures of dealing with hidden things, especially the consequences of failing the Perception roll. If the party failed to find the secret door that part of the adventure was closed off from them and if the story required opening that secret door then that story ended with the missed die rolls.

It was as time progressed and RPGs began to evolve that DMs began to hide clues as part of their story. The natural default was to follow what had gone before and the finding of hidden clues was an all-or-nothing thing. A story could be derailed if the characters missed the clue by failing a Perception roll.

Through the years there have been fiddling with these early ways of doing things.
Some adventure writers made sure there was another way around. If you missed the secret door, there was another hallway two rooms further in that would take you to the same place. Sometimes these became heavy-handed and false positives. For instance, if you needed the spy’s letter to continue the adventure and then you missed the Perception roll to see it hidden in his desk, the writer would have a minion of the spy “drop” the letter after a brief fight. Sort of makes a person wonder why the adventure bothered with the initial Perception roll in the first place. Actually, the answer to that question is a core concept of the Gumshoe system, but more on that later.

Some system writers started making it easier and easier to succeed on a Perception roll. Sometimes they put no limit on the number of times a person could make such a roll. This allowed the characters to succeed…eventually. Some systems provide for huge bonuses to their Perception skill/system. Some games advised that at least one character, usually the thinky type of class, takes the extra feats/traits/advantages that gave bonuses to Perception. This worked to make those “required” Perception rolls easy to make, almost making them a default success. Some systems allowed for automatic successes, such as the Take 10/20 system, whereby you were guaranteed a level of success for investing time.

All of these were attempts to negate the all-or-nothing concept of Perception rolls. However, it still wasn’t enough to completely remove the all-or-nothing; sometimes a bad roll could still halt a plot even with all the bypasses installed in the system. Eventually, DMs began to take things into their own hands (and doubtless have been doing so throughout the history of RPG gaming). If a Perception was needed to succeed to move the story along, it succeeded. After all, the players don’t know what the target number was. However, to some, it feels like cheating and on some level it is. There have been many discussions on the topic of DM fudging.

So, what are some extra steps a GM can do when it comes to resolving the issue of Perception vs. plot advancement? Here is how I handle it and it is based on the desired result.
If the result is not needed to move the story along I let the dice fall where they may. If they succeed then things progress normally. If they fail then they missed that opportunity. For example, a short time ago there was an assassin hunting the characters. The characters entered an unknown frontier city looking for directions to their next location. While there they had an opportunity to overhear an onlooker say to another, “Those are the people that guy was asking about”. No one in the party made the Perception roll so none of them overheard the remark. If they had they could have pursued the information. An adventure was written up wherein the characters, question the onlooker, use some street skills to locate the assassin, get ambushed once from asking too many questions, invade the assassins hide-out, and end up learning more about who is trying to get them killed. Instead the party rode on, out of the town and out of that adventure. However, for that night’s game play, it was not required they make that Perception roll. I can always use that adventure set-up again down the road or at least parts of it. The result of the Perception roll was not needed to advance the story.

If the result of a Perception roll is needed to move the story along I handle things differently. If they succeed then I don’t have to step in. However, if they all fail the roll, then I simply give them the information they need to move along. The die roll is only to determine which of the characters gets the information; the one with the highest die result. This usually works out for me, unless there is horrible run of bad luck, like no one getting anything over a 5. In this case I have to improvise, but this is rare.

Why do I bother with a Perception roll at all? The system I am using, 4E, has a Perception skill. The players assume Perception tests will take place to notice the hidden. If I did not ask for Perception rolls the players would begin to think I was handing them things for free. (I am, but they don’t need to know that.) There will be a feeling of gaining things “unearned”; there is an opinion that things handed to characters “unearned” are a form of railroading or bad GMing and most players do not like this. Players expect to have to make a Perception roll to find useful information.

While I have been using my methods for many years now, I do need to point out that the Gumshoe system by Pelgrane Press (actually Robin D Laws) makes a special effort to remove the all-or-nothing Perception die roll. In fact, they have made it part of the rules that the characters are given the “hidden” clues. For their system, it is not about noticing or finding the clues, but rather it is about the interpretation of those clues that is the important part. I believe they still have Perception type skills, but it is for noticing the finer details, the information not needed to move the story along. The information that is actually needed is given for free. However, because it is designed as part of the system, it feels less like “cheating”. Players in a Gumshoe game expect that the essential clues will be given to them.

Of course there are those players out there that really don’t care if a missed Perception check stops a story/plot/adventure cold. They say ‘let the dice fall where they may’ and continue on from there. Not every adventure can be completed and not every plot can be followed along the path of the storyline. That is fine for that particular play style. However, if you don’t want a failed Perception check to stymie your story then there are alternatives available to you.

So, for me, in the final analysis…
Reveal that which needs to move the story along; roll random for that which is not needed.
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