So in between living life and trying to make the rambling I wrote down on this subject make some kind of coherent sense, it has taken me forever and a day to get this post done. There are no excuses. To all three of the people who read this regularly, I apologize. Anyway, onward…
Perception represents a character’s ability to examine their immediate environment, to perceive things. Things like traps, and killers hiding in trees, and loose bricks in the wall hiding untold treasures. It encompasses all senses, so it’s also used to smell things, touch things, hear things, and occasionally, taste things.
What can you do with this skill?
You can see things, natch. Or hear them, or smell them, or, if you’re so inclined, you can taste them or feel them, although you may wish to be more selective with the last two. You might use this skill to spot hidden creatures, or traps, or clues.
I have always presumed that the underlying assumption behind the skill is that everyone would know what perception is. For the vast majority of gamers, I suppose that’s accurate enough. So putting all of that aside, let’s take a look at how perception is handled in the game and what it means to have “skill” at perceiving things.
We turn to reality for the basis of our model. In reality, we find that it is entirely possible to train a sense to be better or more refined, subject to the limits of biology. We know enough about the brain and its function to build a reasonable model of perception and to surgically alter both brain and sensory organs to achieve different effects. I am a good candidate for LASIK surgery. I have a friend who has trained as a perfumer (it ain’t easy). Military and police training emphasizes observational technique and memory improvement. Painters and musicians, doctors and engineers; almost any profession imaginable can encompass works whose very nature and success can hinge on noticing some detail that the untrained would overlook. From this we can reasonably conclude that the human body and mind can be trained to perceive things more efficiently, to remember things more accurately, and to specifically look for relevance in chaos, to notice patterns (actually, this could be a flaw, as well…), and patterns hidden within patterns, and to overcome relatively inelegant human biology to gain a better understanding of the surrounding world.
That’s all great, if you like to be bored by minutia (you do), but how does it help us improve our game?
When designing rules for a game, I like to refer to the Zak S. Rule for when to roll for something. This is one of the best things I’ve seen written on the subject, and it makes me want to cry that I didn’t write it first (kudos to Zak, though. Jesus, you’d think that living a life the rest of us can only dream about would be enough for the guy, but no – he has to be an amazing writer too.) Does Perception meet those criteria? Sometimes, and that’s bad. Really bad for the game, and for me, at least, it’s a fun killing juggernaut armed with laser sharks.
Okay, so here are the problems with Perception as a skill: it’s often unnecessary, it’s boring, and it’s a skill tax. Can we address these three problems?
Problem #1: It’s unnecessary.
In many cases Perception rolls are completely unnecessary. These cases all boil down to the same thing: information the characters need to have. The solution to this is simple. You, as a GM, should know what information is absolutely vital to the characters. Then, in a radical twist, you GIVE IT TO THEM. Tell the players the things they need to know – don’t make Perception rolls for this. That’s just annoying to all parties involved. Don’t be annoying.
The corollary to this is information the characters don’t need to know. If they don’t need to know it, should you tell them? Probably not. You do, however, have to ask yourself what the point is of information that isn’t necessary and won’t likely be discovered. As an example:
Say that there’s a brick in the dungeon wall hiding a treasure. The characters can get by without the treasure; you put it in there as a bonus (or for some other non-essential reason, why it’s there is completely irrelevant). Should you call for a Perception check to notice it?
No, goddamn it, NO! If the characters search the area, give them the loot. If they don’t, then don’t give them the loot. Player skill can solve this kind of problem easily, and should do so. No skill roll needed; this can be modeled at the table.
Tell the players what they see. Be as precise as they deserve based on how they play the game (give them nothing if they do nothing…), no more, no less. Give them the chance to look around, to ask questions. Don’t lie to them if you don’t have to – and be nebulous only until they take the time to clear things up. It’s really that simple.
The pre-eminent rule of Perception, trumping all other rules, is this: Don’t pick up those fucking dice to roll if it’s not necessary.
Problem #2: It’s boring.
Player: I search for traps. *clatter* Natural 20! Woooo! What do I find?
GM: Not a goddamned thing! And also, I roll Perception checks around here, buddy!
Player: But, but, I rolled a 20! And you call for checks all the time!
GM: Just kill me now, O dark Gods of gaming.
Yeah… so the current procedure of rolling to find traps is boring as hell, and totally robs the players of a chance to use their skills. Yes, it’s entirely possible to make a trap so subtle that no character should detect it without ridiculous lengths of description, but why would you do that instead of just punishing the players directly? Here’s an example:
There is an invisible pendulum hidden in the ceiling. It is triggered when someone steps on a certain stone in the dungeon. The designer of the trap worked like a fiend to make the stone indistinguishable in any way from any of the other stones, and unseen servants clean up the mess on a daily basis, so there are no corpses or bloodstains to give the trap away. The opening from whence the pendulum swings is also designed to be impossible to detect without minute examination of the area, which is likely to set off the trap. How should the characters find the trap?
The answer: they don’t, since you clearly don’t want them to (yes, it’s an extreme example). So it hits them, they take damage, and move on. Yes, we could call for a roll, but is that fun? And since you set the DCs for the traps, you either want them to find the traps, or you don’t. Wheee! You’ve just turned avoiding the “Screaming Bleeding from the Eyes Death Poison” protecting the codpiece of the Dread Thrüst von Manshäft into a short game of “craps”. Exciting, right?
Wrong. Traps work so much better when the players can do things to either find them, or set them off, or run screaming from them, but the important thing is that the players get a chance to think about what they see, and make decisions. Yes, in the real world anyone with a lick of sense and the available resources might well design an undetectable trap, but so what? And is it all that fun for you to know that the trap got your players because they missed one stupid roll? I thought not. So if you want to hurt your players, just hurt them; don’t bother justifying it. Just have lightning bolts strike them at random times. Let me know how that works out for you.
Here’s a particularly good idea on how to run traps, to make them interesting and fun. You should consider doing something like this. It’s old school, and you may have to make some changes to fit it into Pathfinder, but fuck it, you’re a GM, aren’t you?
Note that this applies only to mechanical traps, in the sense that any player can and should be able to use player skill to find purely mechanical traps. When it comes to magical traps, we turn to the trap experts, the Rogues.
The currently existing trap rules already work in this case. Only characters with trapfinding can attempt to use Disable Device on a magical trap, and the formula for calculating the DC is simple, fair, and available. The only real change is that only characters with trapfinding use Perception to find traps at all, and even then only for magical traps (which we can’t model at the table, ‘cause it’s magic’); also, the Trap Spotter Rogue talent naturally only works on magical traps. Yes, this means that Fighters can’t find magical traps. So what? You didn’t choose a Fighter to find traps, did you?
Problem #3: It’s a skill tax.
So the reason people take Perception is because it’s so damn useful. Wanna spot traps? Perception. Want all of the info? Perception. Wanna spot hidden enemies? Holy snapping duckshit, take Perception. It’s a skill tax because you’d be a fool not to have someone in the party with maximum ranks in Perception, just to be sure. So can we make it not a skill tax?
Well, maybe. We’ve already killed the threat of ever-present Perception checks, and reduced the use of Perception for traps. But it turns out that there are a few things we really can’t model at the table, things like spotting hidden enemies, or knowing if someone is lying or not. So can we use Perception for these things? Yes, yes we can. Does that still make it a skill tax? Maybe. That kind of depends on the campaign you’re playing. Is it chock full of ninja assassins and devious invisible magicians just waiting to kill you and take your pie? Then yes, you’ll need Perception, and it’s a skill tax. It is, however, a skill tax in the same way that a campaign based on being Cavaliers riding to the rescue has Ride as a skill tax; the players should know what to expect from your campaign. If, on the other hand, the campaign doesn’t feature a stealthy killer behind every corner, then it’s entirely possible to never put a point in Perception. So how should we model these things?
In earlier editions we had Hide in Shadows, which was a flat percentage unaffected by the observer (it also didn’t have scaling issues, but that’s another story altogether…). Either you hid or you didn’t. To be fair, you were able to hide in places no one else could, but still, a near-sighted old lady was the same as an eagle-eyed sharpshooter as far as the rolls went. So then, in Pathfinder the game has a Stealth skill, and we need a way to determine if someone is successfully hiding or not. Perception is a good answer for this. We can’t really model hiding at the table, if someone’s trying to find you. I mean, I guess you could hide in the room you’re playing in, but that’s just silly (and weird…). It’s always opposed (why are you trying to hide from nothing?), and there’s always a time constraint (if you’re hiding, you don’t want to be found by someone, for some reason, and that’s usually to avoid an ass-whuppin). The consequence of being seen while trying to hide is rarely good (if so, why are you hiding, again?). So here we have a situation where a roll is clearly called for, Stealth vs. Perception.
Does Perception have any other uses? Note that in earlier 3rd edition play there was a Listen skill, a Spot skill, and a Search skill. These were merged into Perception for Pathfinder. So what was the goal of the original trio? Well, there’s Search, which we’ve effectively disposed of above, and good riddance. There’s Spot, which is the part of Perception used to find hidden things instantly, without searching. We keep the use of Perception for hidden creatures, and we discard looking for hidden items by using logic and reason instead (again, as above). So far, so good. Listen? No thanks, just roll that into Perception, use as directed, and we can kill Move Silently and roll that into Stealth. We’re on a roll! Can we fuse anything else into Perception?
Perception is about senses, and about noticing things other creature oppose the noticing of. Is there any other skill that meets the requirements for when we should roll, something involving the senses? Yes, I’m talking about Sense Motive. It should be killed, and its corpse fed to Perception to make it stronger. Noticing subtle cues from conversational partners indicating veracity really does seem like a Perception thing, doesn’t it? You can argue that the two skills overlap but should be kept separate; I’m sure that’s true, but A: I like to keep it simple, and B: so what? If you want a game that models reality exactly, go outside. This solution works for me, and it’ll work for you, and we’ve killed another unnecessary skill (blood for the blood gods!), and it’s close enough. Perception vs. Bluff, to see if someone’s lying, and Perception vs. you rolling some dice, if someone’s not lying but the PC’s want to check anyway. You can never be sure, amirite?
The point of this is to not just meet the conditions of the Zak S rule, but also to give the GM a way to randomly determine if the PC’s can tell when they’re being lied to. I don’t want to have to act out every nervous tic; I’m not Meryl Streep, and sometimes NPCs lie. I could use some kind of more evolved mechanic, or rely on my acting skills and their player skill, but honestly? I don’t want to. I’ve already said that you MUST give the players the information they need to have, sometimes that includes knowledge of who’s lying, and why. But sometimes it doesn’t, and I want to have a simple way to resolve this without undergoing interrogation.
Final? Analysis: There’s more that I’d like to say about Perception, but it took me forever and a day to get this far. The long and short of it is this: use Perception when opposed by liars and sneaks, and for Rogues (trapfinders) to find magical traps, and that’s it. Still a good skill? Yep. Still a skill tax? I hope not. Feel free to roast me in the comments, because in all honesty I’d really like to hear other people’s thoughts on this skill in particular.