JP On Gaming

Monday, October 14, 2013

Tweaking Pathfinder: Overuse of Perception (Rant)

One thing that greatly annoys me is the Perceptipn skill.

No. Not really. I was one of the many who hailed the combining of Listen, Search, and Spot into one skill as a stroke of genius. I still believe that.

What grinds my gears is the overusage and overreliance on the skill by BOTH players AND GMs. Every situation can be resolved by a Perception skill.

How did he die? Perception.

Where does the trail lead? Perception.

How are they arranged and their troop quality? Perception.

What monsters are present? Perception.

You get my point. The above example are four skill checks (Heal, Survival, Profession (soldier), and Knowledge) that were made useless by Perception.

Who's fault is it?

Who is to blame? Players are not to blame, the GM asked for that roll. The GM is not to blame, if he does not give the players a roll, they have no chance of learning anything. The author is not to blame, he has no clue what the PCs will do with his adventure.

So you're all innocent.


You're all neither blameless nor innocent.

I will do something I rarely do and something I do with a sour aftertaste. I will take a stance here and put the blame on the writers and developers of the Pathfinder RPGs, particularly the AP, modules and PFS adventure crews. I'll start there. Because of the way adventures are written and the constant auto-surprise-unless-you-spam-your-Perception encounters, they have taught us that doing so is the right thing to do. Unlike other skills, not having uber-Perception can and will kill you.

Can we simply say "it's Paizo's fault", raise our hands in surrender and get off the hook so easy?

Hold your horses, I won't let you off so easy.

Not by a long shot.

How Did it get that bad?

How many players do you know have Perception trained and with full ranks in it when they are part of a class that typically does not have Perception? I'm talking about clerics, sorcerers, and wizards in particular? Skills like Perception are why you surround yourself with a party of other adventurers.

Players are a crafty bunch. When they see that their GM is not constantly asking them for Perception, they will go for what makes sense to them, what they can get the biggest bang for their buck. Who can blame them?

Players are a lazy bunch. If you can provide them with no-brainer choices on their characters, so they can focus on other things, they will.

GMs are a crafty bunch. Ther want players to have a good time (unless they're jerks) and to get involved in the story. If the only way to convey is to play to the players' strength, they will most likely do it.

Diversify so they have to use as many skills as possible. If they don't know or don't learn some piece of information because they do not have a given skill, then let them fail, or at least make it harder.

GMs are a lazy bunch, if they can spend their time focusing on the story, and descriptions rather than "what skill would that be?", they will.

Many failed adventures (not just because the players have failed, the whole adventure was a disaster), have rested on a successful skill check. That's bad adventure design (and since I used to write/run home brews a lot back then, the issue was on me). A single skill check should not be the difference between life and death.

I've done that before. I'm not proud of it.

How to fix

Unlike some other cases of rules elements where the fix is "do this", this issue runs deep. It is unlikely to be a quick-fix. However, with a little effort, it can be done.

The simplest (and hardest) things is to "stop granting Perception checks for everything".

Just stop.

I'm serious. Learn the skills and offer as many different skill checks as you can in your adventure.

I personally use Perception for a few finite things:

  -  Searching for traps or secret doors

  -  Determine the starting distance of an encounter

Other than that, unless the situation really calls to Perception, I will do my best to avoid calling for one.

Seriously: just stop calling for these checks all the time.



  1. I'll have to say, in my games it would go exactly as you pointed out at the end of this statement.

    How did he die? Perception. - No way, cause of death should be Heal

    Where does the trail lead? Perception. - Survival, or maybe even Knowledge (Geography) as a stand in.

    How are they arranged and their troop quality? Perception. - Profession (Soldier) should be the only means to get this type of info.

    What monsters are present? Perception. - Ok, maybe Perception works here for numbers and descriptions, but that is where I'd end it.

    You get my point. The above example are four skill checks (Heal, Survival, Profession (soldier), and Knowledge) that were made useless by Perception.

  2. First I apologize: I stopped in because I misread it as "twerking Pathfinder" and my brain was trying to process that image when I realized you had an interesting point to make....

    It's all how you do it. Someone rolls perception and fails, I say they caught something in their eye or were busy navel-gazing. They roll high and I ask, "Where are you looking, what are you doing to search/listen?" and go from there. I never just give information unless someone knocks a roll out of the park....I treat Perception as the gateway to looking. On a very good roll I might elucidate with a detail that would be really hard for the player to deduce through verbal interrogation, but if the clue is something you listen for, and the player is busy describing how he's feeling for cracks...then he may not notice the dripping noise of the monster since he's too busy trying to find a non-existent secret door or something.

    Not sure I'm willing to go back to the old days though, when all observational actions in the game were entirely a game of "guess what the GM wants us to look for," and that's me speaking as the GM....I found the old way tiring; sometimes it's nice to have a way to adjudicate where the character is obviously supposed to be better at this than the player. But aside from that: you're right, people lean on perception as a pass/fail skill way too much these days.

    1. I read you there... having too much rely on one skill is bad. Having too many skills is also bad, and have everything be pass/fail is also bad...
      I am quite happy that this post has led to so much soul-searching from many GMs. Only good can come of this!

  3. I myself am bad at this, i typically dont take perception ranks if i have a low wisdom until 3-5th lvl when i take a rank in it after the dm calls for excessive use. RP wise in the back of my head im training the use of the skill. use it enough times and its worth giving a rank.

    I myself run a game for JP and occasionally the rogue will search for traps every 5 feet. Thats too much. a search like in 3.0/5 was you search a 20' square area with 1 roll. I still use that method. Or you ask a specific player to roll perception and everyone suddenly rolls.... irritates me. I know pathfinder doesnt use facing, well by god i do. Even as a player i do. AoO i tend not to unless the person isnt in combat and he/ she is being snuck up on.

    im searching for traps someone says, another says i'll assist that. no the frak you wont because you dont actually know they are unless they say they are.

    However i agree with Tori a players intention of how they go about the task should impact how they resolve a situation.

    I find I'm guilty of it on occasion, but I do my best to rp it out.