Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Reconciling Differences: The Perception Roll

One of my players insists that roleplaying searching for things is boring. The very idea of having to tell me that the character is searching for secret doors, for example, is unbearable. The assumption is that the character is looking for such things, it shouldn't be up to the player to remember to tell me or even have to tell me if they do remember. 

I'm not inclined to buy this on the grounds that searching takes time, time means wandering monsters, torches burning out, and worse. Since there are attempts to simulate the effect of time via in-game consequences for in-game actions, it seems to me that it's inherently part of the game. Indeed, it's part of the game I enjoy on both sides of the DM screen. It's the tight rope of risk vs. reward. You don't search every room but only the rooms where you feel there's some reason to do so.

(Maybe it's just me, but if there's a statue in the room, expect players to spend about half an hour of real time searching it, but if the room is simply a combat encounter with some orcs, in my experience, players tend to assume that, barring loot or a clue to something more, the room is "finished" at that point.)

You can argue, convincingly, that I don't do a good enough job of providing reasons for a search (the PCs in the current campaign aren't explorers, so mapping the unknown for its own sake is of no interest). But that's not the charge being leveled here - it's that roleplaying searching is boring anytime in any game. 

I'm not going to "win" the argument if my player begrudgingly goes along with me, nor will I "win" if they stop playing all together, so I have come up with a compromise that I'll use to satisfy my preferences while giving them a possibility of noticing things without explicitly looking for strangeness. I do not want to go the way of rolling dice for everything but I do accept that characters do things in-game without explicit description by the player. Breathing and relieving themselves come to mind.

First, I need some way of doing perception checks in Labyrinth Lord

I could just use the secret door roll as perception generally, without the players indicating they're searching. However, it seems to me that the secret door detection would be used when the characters are actually searching for something, not just looking around the room. Searching for a secret door is tactile as well as visual. Perception, as I am using it, is the ability to sense more than what's apparent at first blush.

Looking at the given stats, Intelligence and Wisdom, to me, seem to have a hand in perception. Wisdom  handles the "gut feeling" aspect of things, while Intelligence utilizes either inductive or deductive logic. 

Neither one of these accounts for any of the other senses- only the mental faculties used in processing the environmental information from those sense organs. Nor is either the whole of the story. Noticing a pattern in the floor tiles requires no gut feeling, but then, the feeling that something isn't quite right and merits caution, isn't the result of logic typically.

To compromise, I'm going to try the average of the two scores as the target number for perception checks - which I as the DM will make on the PCs behalf, in every room, whether it's needed or not. This is primarily to avoid the allure of metagaming that comes from being asked to roll only when something is there to notice, and also, to avoid having players roll for every room (as a way to undermine metagaming) which sounds horribly tedious. It's also because I still want them to roleplay their actions rather than walking into a tavern and yelling "I roll perception!" - the roll of dice should not interrupt the game if it isn't necessary. If I handle the roll, then the PC perceives or not less jarringly.

As I'm imagining it right now, there are, loosely speaking, up to five levels of description (ignoring magic and illusions) for any given room/area/scene:

  • Sensible to anyone entering area. Any PC ordinary working senses would notice this just surveying the area.
  • Sensible to the perceptive (success on perception roll, by DM behind screen). A highly perceptive PC will notice something such as, all but one of the books on the shelf are vertical or that the there is a small puddle of liquid that catches the torch light or that the seemingly random tiles actually form a pattern or that the rush of wind sounds more like a voice warning the PCs not to proceed. 
  • Sensible if engages environment (i.e. if they sift through the rubble, opens the chest, etc.) - this can be the same as being perceptive, or something else entirely. A PC that examines the floor for tracks or such will find that same puddle described above, for example, but it can also mean opening a chest to see the interior or determining whether the puddle is blood or water.
  • Sensible if engages environment and is perceptive (perception roll, by DM behind screen) - This sort of overlaps the next. If the PC is examining the walls for "anything unusual" without specifying a secret door, or if it's more of a cursory inspection than the 10 minutes of game time proposed by the secret door search, I'll roll and if they pass, tell them they notice some odd colored stones in the wall near the corner (in this case, if there is a secret door, they now know where to focus that effort. Of course, it could just be a red herring).
  • Sensible if engages environment and is focused on achieving a particular end(traps, secret doors ,false bottoms in a chest, etc) The PC is explicitly searching for a secret door or trap or listening through a door, and this utilizes the appropriate roll from the rules.
Areas inside other areas, such as the interior of a chest, are not visible until one opens the containing area (the chest), but once visible, are treated as areas unto themselves with up to five layers of visibility. 

I may well drop this after one session but I figure it's worth trying as a way to bridge the gap between player ability (or refusal to use that ability) and character ability, thereby making the game more enjoyable for the PCs and for myself.


  1. In my OD&D games, I use "half Wisdom" (round down) as a "perception roll" . . . and I'll hand the character a note saying "something doesn't seem right".

    I don't do this for all characters unless they say they're specifically looking/searching, etc. . . . but only for the first person (or two) to enter the room.

    I also frequently roll a die behind my GM screen for no reason at all . . . except maybe keep the player's nervous.

    -- Jeff

    1. I've decided to enforce it in my games. If they don't specifically look for such things they don't find them. If they want a pure hack and slash that's what PC games are for.

      "I also frequently roll a die behind my GM screen for no reason at all . . . except maybe keep the player's nervous."

      Me too! I also like to suck a breath between my teeth and whistle occasionally like a plumber who has found something complicated and expensive to fix. Great fun!

    2. I too am a fan of the threatening die roll behind the GM screen!

      I like the idea of only rolling a perception check for the first character or two to enter an area. Using a note is also intriguing.

      It gives the player a roleplaying opportunity. And it also prevents the situation where the GM describes something only one character can see, and then the player states "I tell everyone what you just said."

    3. Millsy, thanks for the comment.

      I may need to add some similar theatrics to my die rolling. Perhaps a wince and shaking of my head will instill the appropriate feelings of impending doom?