Your D&D party is trudging through the forest and you spot a hidden pit on the path ahead of you. You walk into the next room of the dungeon and immediately notice the head of a goblin sticking out from behind a pillar on the other side. You’re sitting in a crowded tavern and overhearing the conversation of the table next to you.
But you didn’t roll a die to spot the trap, see the hidden goblin, or overhear the conversation. Instead, the DM just told you that’s what you saw or heard. Each of these instances was because of your passive perception.
What is a Passive Check?
A passive check is an ability to check in D&D that doesn’t require a die roll. It is used to represent two main situations. The first, which is far more common, is to determine whether or a character succeeds or fails at something without having to actively try. Secondly, it can be used to represent the average result when the task is attempted repeatedly.
While the rules of D&D do not limit passive checks to particular skills, the most common passive score is for the Perception skill. This is the only passive score that is written on a character sheet.
What is Passive Perception?
Passive Perception is used to determine the average perception of a character. If the DC of a Wisdom (Perception) check is less than or equal to a character’s passive perception, they automatically succeed.
Your Passive Perception is calculated like this: 10 + Wisdom (Perception) modifier. For example, a 1st level character has a +3 to their Wisdom and is proficient in Perception. This makes their Perception modifier +5. Therefore, this character’s Passive Perception is 15.
Why is Passive Perception useful? Imagine the party is walking down a hallway in a dungeon. In a seemingly random spot, the DM asks you, the person at the front of the line, to roll a perception check. You roll a natural 1. You know that you have failed the check. What do you know?
In this situation, your character in the game has not noticed anything. They don’t know that they’ve failed to notice something. But you, controlling this character, know that you have failed to notice something.
There must be a trap or a hidden enemy or something directly in front of you. This creates an awkward situation where you either begrudgingly walk your character into harm’s way or come up with a convenient reason for your character to take an alternate path. Either way, it’s messy.
When the DM wants to determine the outcome of such a situation without revealing that there is something or someone to notice, they use your passive perception score. If the hidden trap has DC 13 to notice it and the character at the front of the line has a passive perception of 13 or higher, they will see it without any roll being made.
Therefore, it is important to both put the party member with the highest passive perception at the front of the line and for that character to keep a lookout. If the player at the front of the line is reading a book, sharpening their blade, or undertaking some other activity, their passive perception might be decreased by the DM without them being told.
Hide and Seek
Perception is the most common ability check. Adventurers are always wary of the looming danger around them from the wilderness to the city to the dungeon, enemies can be hiding around every corner, and Perception is a character’s best chance of noticing something before it does them harm.
When a creature in D&D tries to hide, they roll a Dexterity (Stealth) check. They roll a d20 and add the modifier to their stealth. If the players are actively looking for danger, the DM will ask them to roll a Wisdom (Perception) check.
If the Perception check meets or exceeds the Stealth check, the creature is spotted. If the Perception check is lower, then the creature has successfully hidden.
However, if a player has a passive perception equal to or higher than the stealth check, the hiding creature is automatically spotted without rolling.
For example, the hostile goblin hides from the adventuring party, getting ready to ambush them. The DM rolls to 7. The goblin has a +6 to their Stealth, making the total 13. The adventuring party approaches the area in which the goblin is hiding.
The cleric in the party has a passive perception of 15. As soon as the creature enters the same area as the goblin, they will immediately see or hear the goblin and the goblin will not benefit from hiding there.
Having a high perception is especially useful for avoiding ambushes and suffering a round of surprise. If your party is attacked by a group of bandits hiding in the bushes, any character whose passive perception is not high enough to notice any bandits is considered ‘surprised’ at the start of combat.
Any surprised character does not get to act on the first turn of combat. If your entire party is surprised, your enemies get an entire round of combat, changing the outcome of an entire battle.
Taking 10 and Taking 20
In previous editions of D&D, there were rules called Taking 10 or Taking 20. Taking 10 would represent when the character was trying to succeed on an ability to check some kind and they were not in any immediate danger. If you had a minute, you could repeatedly roll the d20 to increase your chance of success.
Moreover, if you had even more time, you could repeatedly roll until you eventually rolled a natural 20. Instead of going through this rigmarole, 3rd edition allowed you to simply assume you would roll a 20 or “take 20” on the die and automatically succeed.
As a result, players would either find every hidden room, every secret, and every trap or would be in constant danger so that they didn’t have enough time to take 20 for every ability check. This easily creates problems at the table and makes managing checks very difficult for dungeon masters.
In 5th edition of D&D, this mechanic of taking 10 or 20 is replaced by passive checks. Since a passive check is calculated by taking 10 + all modifiers that normally apply, it is identical to the Taking 10 mechanic of 3rd edition.
This means that if you’re looking for a hidden figure in the bushes, you can’t continuously roll perception checks until you roll at 20. Instead, you either roll once or use your passive perception score.
Your DM asks you to roll a perception check, so you oblige and oh no, you rolled a 1! But your passive perception, which represents your perception even when you’re not actively looking, is 15. How is it possible now that you’re actively looking, you see less?
There are two methods that DMs will deal with this. The first is to explain that your character suffers momentary domestic blindness and cannot perceive as they normally can. Alternatively, when you roll lower than your passive perception, you instead take your passive score. This makes your passive score a skill floor.
While they might function differently, they should result in the same result. If your DM has asked you to roll a perception check, it should mean that there is something worth seeing that your passive perception has not already noticed. Whether you take the natural one or your passive score should not matter because they will fail the check.
Passive Perception Modifiers
There are many effects in D&D that result in changes to the ability to check in general and specifically. Whenever you are subject to such an effect, it not only impacts your active Wisdom (Perception) checks but your passive score as well.
When a creature gains advantage or disadvantage on an ability check, their passive score gains a +5 or -5 respectively.
Some effects only impact one of your senses such as sight or hearing. In such a case, your other senses still work as normal and you can still perceive through them. However, the intent is that most perception checks will be based on sight.
You can technically try to hear if someone is hiding but don’t be surprised if your DM sets an incredibly high DC for such a check.
- Blinded. You can’t see and automatically fail a perception check based on sight. Your passive perception for sight drops to zero. You can still perceive using other senses but the difficulty of such a check might be much higher.
- Deafened. You can’t hear and automatically fail a perception check based on hearing. Your passive perception for hearing drops to zero. You can still perceive using other senses such as sight but the difficulty might be higher.
- Frightened. You have disadvantage on ability checks. You take a -5 penalty to your passive perception while the source of your fear is within line of sight.
- Invisible. If you are trying to locate an invisible creature, you can perceive them through senses other than sight.
- Petrified. You become unaware of your surroundings. You automatically fail perception checks and your passive perception is zero.
- Poisoned. You have disadvantage on ability checks. You take a -5 penalty to your passive perception.
- Unconscious. You are unaware of your surroundings. You automatically fail perception checks and your passive perception is zero.
- Exhaustion After one level of exhaustion, you have disadvantage on ability checks. You take a -5 penalty to your passive perception.
The nature of your surroundings from light sources to foliage to fog can inform your passive perception.
- Lightly Obscured. In a lightly obscured area, you have disadvantage on perception checks that rely on sight. You take a -5 penalty to your passive perception. Lightly obscured areas include:
- Dim Light: the edges of torchlight, twilight, or a creature seeing in darkness with Darkvision
- patchy fog
- Moderate foliage
- Heavily Obscured. In such an area, you are effectively blinded. Heavily obscured areas include:
- Darkness: magical and non-magical.
- Opaque fog
- dense foliage
Most playable races in D&D 5e have darkvision. While many people think this means that their character can now see perfectly in the dark, it does not. Instead, darkvision allows a character to be able to see in total darkness, out to a specific range (usually 60 feet) as if it were dim light.
This means that if you are in a room that is pitch black, you can still see but you have disadvantage on perception checks to see and take a -5 penalty to your passive perception.
If you’re traveling through the dark area, don’t assume your high passive perception is serving you because your DM might have subtracted 5 without telling you. Vice versa, if you are hiding and the DM says that you have been spotted, check that they’ve considered the dim light.
These are special senses that some monsters have that can be obtained by player characters through class features and spells. While they don’t affect your passive perception, they allow you to perceive without the use of sight or hearing. With such a sense, environmental effects such as fog or darkness don’t penalize your perception.
Increasing Passive Perception
All of this begs the question: how high can your passive perception be? We’ll need to take into account different sources to boost your Wisdom score and Perception bonus.
Keep in mind that you don’t benefit from multiple sources of advantage at the same time. If you have one or more sources of advantage on perception, you will gain a +5 bonus to passive perception
- Ability Score Increase. The most obvious way to increase your passive perception is to increase your Wisdom score. Reaching the maximum of 20 gives you a +5 to perception.
- Proficiency Proficiency scales with your character level and reaches maximum of +6. You can gain proficiency in perception in the following ways:
- Play a half-elf, human variant, custom lineage, lizardfolk, tabaxi, leonin, orc, warforged, githyanki, dhampir, hexblood, or reborn.
- Play a customized half-orc, goliath, kenku, bugbear, minotaur, satyr, centaur, vedalken, changeling, shifter, tortle, or verdan. Customized races Swap out a racial skill proficiency for another skill proficiency.
- Play an artificer, barbarian, bard, druid, fighter, ranger, or rogue.
- Take the sailor, faction agent, or far traveler background.
- Take the Skilled feat.
- Expertise. This allows you to double your proficiency bonus for a given skill. Therefore, this can reach a maximum of +12. You can gain expertise in Perception in the following ways:
- Get to 3rd level in bard
- Get to 1st level in rogue
- Take the Skill Expert feat
- Observant Feat. This feat grants you a +5 bonus to your passive perception.
- The Owl’s Wisdom option from Enhance Ability grants advantage on all wisdom checks.
- Candle of Invocation. While within 30 feet of a lit candle of your alignment, you have advantage on all ability checks and you gain a +5 bonus to passive perception.
- Cloak of Elvenkind. Imposes disadvantage on perception checks to see you. Creatures take a -5 to their passive perception to see you.
- Eyes of the Eagle. These crystal lenses give you advantage on perception checks that rely on sight. You gain a +5 bonus to passive perception.
- Insight Ioun Stone. Being attuned to this item boosts your Wisdom score by 2 to a maximum of 20.
- Luckstone (Stone of Good Luck). Attuning gives you a +1 to all ability checks.
- Robe of Eyes. Wearing this robe gives you advantage on perception checks to see. You gain a +5 bonus to passive perception.
- Rod of Alertness. Holding this rod gives you advantage on initiative rolls and perception checks. You gain a +5 bonus to passive perception.
- Sentinel Shield. Wielding this shield gives you advantage on initiative rolls and perception checks. You gain a +5 bonus to passive perception.
- Take of Understanding. Reading this book boosts your Wisdom score by 2 and your maximum Wisdom score by 2.
- Book of Exalted Deeds. Reading this book increases your Wisdom score by 2 to a maximum of 24.
- Blackrazor. After devouring a soul, this sword grants you advantage on all ability checks, granting you a +5 to your passive perception.
- Blessing of Understanding. This gift boosts your Wisdom score by 2 to a maximum of 22.
- Divine Oracle. This gift boosts your Wisdom score by 2 and your maximum Wisdom score by 2.
Therefore the most passive perception one can get is:
- Maximum Wisdom Score: +5
- Expertise in Perception: +12
- Observant Feat: +5
- Sentinel Shield (or similar source of advantage): +5
- Attunement to Insight Ioun Stone: +1
- Attunement to Luckstone: +1
- Read the Tome of Understanding: +1
- Read the Book of Exalted Deeds: +1
- Receives the Blessing of Understanding: +1
- Becomes to Divine Oracle: +1
- Total Passive Bonus: +33
Maximum Passive Perception: 43
Question: How do You Calculate Passive Perception?
Answer: Your passive perception is 10 + all perception modifiers. If you have advantage on perception checks, you add +5 to your passive score.
Question: Do I Add my Proficiency Bonus to Passive Perception?
Answer: Yes, if you have proficiency in perception. Similarly, if you have expertise in perception, you add expertise to your passive score.
Question: Can I use Passive Perception Instead of Rolling?
Answer: Yes, but your DM should only be asking you to roll a perception check if your passive score is not high enough.
Question: Is Passive Perception Always On?
Answer: While you are not incapacitated, your passive perception is on but its value can change depending on the environment and other external conditions. Any effect that gives you disadvantage to perception causes a -5 to your passive perception. If you’re blinded or otherwise debilitated, you might automatically fail perception checks.
Passive perception was introduced in 5e to streamline the process of characters noticing danger and secrets without constantly rolling every second of the game. Your passive perception is calculated as if you rolled a 10 on a perception check and acts as a skill floor for your perception.
There are many features, environmental effects, spells, and magic items that can increase or decrease your passive perception.
Perception is one of the most used skills in D&D 5e. As you spot ambushes and uncover traps. It can also lead you to great treasure as you notice hidden levers and secret doors. It’s all about how you look at it.