The Fun of Character Death

Dead Adventurer by Andrew Olsen“Obvious” is a tricky concept, because most of the time it’s not actually obvious. Some facts which are obvious to one person may only seem that way because that person is surrounded by people who take that fact for granted. And that obvious fact may not even be true! For many subjects, it’s not too difficult to find two people who hold mutually exclusive viewpoints to be obviously true. We really shouldn’t be so hasty to name something “obvious.”

Due to this, it is often helpful to state that which may seem obvious in a clear and descriptive manner. Maybe I’m wasting time, but I have a feeling that this is not as well understood as it ought to be. So here we go:

The more time a player has invested in their character, the less fun it will be if that character dies.

There are some rare exceptions to this rule, but it remains largely true for any manner of time investment. We Pathfinder GMs are at something of a disadvantage. At my best, I can help a first time player through the process of creating a level 1 character in about 40 minutes. And, generally speaking, the task is viewed by a new player as something of a chore. They may come to find it much more entertaining once they begin to understand the system better, but that comes later, if at all.

The result is that, in a game like Pathfinder, there’s no way for a GM to handle character death in the first session without significant frustration on the player’s part. After spending 40 minutes or more on a character, players are not going to want to trudge through the creation process a second time just because they failed to check for pit traps. And if you’re playing with first-timers, then they’re probably going to fail to check for pit traps more than once.

When I’m running a Pathfinder game, I handle this in two ways. First, I try never to run a game composed entirely of new people. I try to find at least one veteran of my game table to sit in and provide an example of skillful play. Second, during a new player’s first few sessions, I bend the rules, and give them advice in an attempt to show them how they can best survive. But that can’t last forever. It can’t even last very long, lest players start to think they can rely on the GM for advice. And even before I do stop giving advice, it’s important to allow the players to suffer the consequences of their mistakes.

The game is no fun if there is no danger of character death.

That’s slightly more controversial, but I hold it to be no less true than the statement above. If a player’s decisions lead to their demise, then a good GM will not protect them from their fate. The fact that a player has invested enough time in a character for that character’s death to be upsetting is not a justification for allowing PCs to cheat death. In doing so, we rob the game of its danger, and without the chance of failure, it ceases to be a game.

Games with shorter character creation methods are not immune to this problem. If it only takes 5 or 10 minutes to create a character, then players won’t be too upset if their character dies in the first session of play. They probably won’t be too upset if their character dies in the second session of play, or the third. Once they reach level 2, though, they’re going to be a little more upset if they die. And as they progress through the levels, it will become more and more disheartening to lose a character. It doesn’t matter if the GM allows them to come back into the game with a new character of equal level. Losing a character you care about is never going to be fun.

I don’t bring this up because I think it’s a problem which needs to be solved. I don’t even think it really can be solved. On the one hand you have you player’s desire for their character to survive the game, on the other hand you have the entertainment value your players get from surviving a world which is legitimately deadly. You can play with the balance all you like by making characters more resilient, increasing or decreasing the availability of resurrections, or whatever. But in my experience, players are the most interested in the game when they’re coming face to face with their character’s own mortality.

I guess I don’t really have a point to make with this post, so much as I wanted to put those thoughts down somewhere.

Overview of Pathfinder’s Skills: Conclusion

Lidda The RogueAs a GM, I’ve always gravitated towards using some skills, and away from using others. In my limited experience, I’ve found that most GMs do something similar. There are skill checks which they call for, and checks which they don’t. Beneficial as those decisions may be, players are often harmed by this practice. Because, in my experience, GMs don’t communicate which skills they will be using for and which they will not.  They may not have even noticed that they ignore certain skills. In my own experience, when a player says “I swim into the river,” I’ve never even considered asking for a swim check. I’ve always simply allowed players to do so. But what I’ve come to realize is that I have been, in effect, lying to my players because of that.

When a new player is joining my games, I’ve never told them not to put any ranks in swim, or climb, or disguise, or escape artist. I let them make their own decisions, not realizing that in doing so I am implying that any skill they put points into is a skill which will potentially be useful to them. How many of my players have wasted skill points on skills which would never be rolled even a single time? I have been at fault in this, which is why I set out to correct that oversight with this series. Over two weeks of posts here on Papers & Pencils have been devoted to overviewing Pathfinder’s skills. I’ve approached each one in turn with as clear a mind as I could manage, analyzing its strengths and its flaws in the hopes of cutting the fat from the system.

What has been the result? Well, the original game of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 had an amusingly appropriate 35 skills. Pathfinder combined a number of these skills together, bringing the total number of skills down to 26. With the additional cuts I’ve made, the total number of skills is down to 14 total.You can see the breakdown of the skills on this chart:

List of All Skills

Lidda The Rogue D&D 3.5 Use Magic Device Explode FaceMy reduction in the number of skills is pretty drastic. It is legitimate to be concerned that it may be too drastic. If a human rogue rolls 18 for their intelligence, then they can add two to that, and start the game with an Intelligence modifier of +5. If that character also selects rogue as their favored class, then at each level they can receive a total of 15 skill points (Rogue is 8 + Intelligence Modifier, +1 for the human racial trait, +1 for leveling in a character’s favored class.) Considering that both Craft and Knowledge represent multiple skills, this doesn’t mean that the character would end up with excess skill points at each level. However, such a rogue would almost certainly be forced to put skill points into a number of abilities they had little to no interest in actually using. Such a character does not even imply any attempt to manipulate the system on the player’s part. All it would require is a lucky roll for ability scores, followed by common-sense choices.We could reduce the number of skill points each class receives. However, for now, I will be allowing characters to maintain their current speed of skill point acquisition, to see if this is actually a problem or not. After all, no class gains skill at the same pace that the rogue does, and rogues are supposed to have a wide variety of talents.

I hope I have been somewhat successful in streamlining, and improving Pathfinder’s skill system with these posts. But there’s only so much that can be done. The D20 system’s skill mechanic is fundamentally flawed, and from what I’ve seen, so is the way design decisions have been made. If not by Paizo, then at least by Wizards of the Coast.

First, there’s the issue of linear probability. Rolling a single twenty sided die for a skill check means that none of the potential results are even slightly more likely than any other possible result. A character can roll a 1, or a 20, or anything in between with equal probability. With some rolls, like attack rolls in combat, it makes good sense. Combat is chaotic, and unpredictable. Your skill at thrusting a sword is mitigated by the quality of your opponent’s armor, and their skill at parrying, or blocking, or dodging your attack. This is not true with something like a ride check or a acrobatics check. Take the instance of a jump: in Pathfinder, a level 1 commoner who attempts to jump as far as she can is just as likely to make it 1ft as she is to make it 20ft. Can you imagine anyone in the world with that kind of variance in their ability? A much better system would be one which used multiple dice for skill checks. Something like 2d10, or 3d6, which would have a bell curve of probability, where the numbers in the middle of the possible range (right around 10-11) will appear much more frequently than the numbers at either extreme of the number range.

Lidda threatens with her bladesI’ve also found that there has apparently been no real attempt to balance the skill’s usefulness against one another. It would seem to me as though any sufficient amount of play testing would reveal that skills such as escape artist are used much less frequently (and to much less effect) than skills such as perception or acrobatics. Given this wide disparity in the frequency and effectiveness of usage, a skill point put into escape artist is significantly less valuable to a player than a point spent in acrobatics. Now, I would not suggest that each skill needs to be precisely equal in value to every other skill. A game which offers as many choices for character building as Pathfinder does will always have more and less ideal ‘builds.’ But there is a limit to the disparity of balance which is acceptable. Some of Pathfinder’s core skills are more valuable than others by an order of magnitude, and that’s unacceptable.

For many of these skills, I can only imagine that they were kept in the game because the game needed to be compatible with D&D 3.5 products.

I would like to thank all of my readers who stuck with this series throughout. I know it has been a rather dry read. Truth be told, I’ve been itching to be done writing it myself. There have been a number of topics I’ve been greatly interested in writing about, but I did not want to interrupt the flow of these skill posts. Now that they’re done, I look forward to covering a variety of topics which have been on my mind these past few weeks. As mentioned earlier in this series, I am intending to re-write the Knowledge and Craft skills, as well as the process of identifying magic items. You can expect those posts in the coming weeks, but not before I’ve had some time to touch on some other subjects first.

Overview of Pathfinder’s Skills: Stealth to Use Magic Device

To strike from the shadows is a valuable skill. Stealth (Full Description on PFSRD)(-C’s Post):  The stealth skill is not quite so broken as I thought it was before I sat down to do my analysis. It can be easy for those of us who played Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition for years to not notice, or forget, some of the changes which Pathfinder has made. Pathfinder’s stealth skill doesn’t include any information on hiding whatsoever: hiding is left up to the GM and players to work out on their own. Which is good and proper. If my players tell me they would like to hide behind a statue, then I see no reason to make them roll for it. Simply using commonsense rules about line of sight is enough. Though I would appreciate it if the stealth skill included information about hiding in shadows, or using camouflage in the woods.

In my games, I assume that all characters standing in darkness and not moving are effectively hidden and cannot be perceived unless a creature has darkvision. Moving half your speed in darkness requires a stealth check (for moving silently) made with a +4 bonus. Characters standing in dim light make stealth checks directly opposed to perception checks so long as they are not moving. If they do move, they make their check at a -4 penalty. In areas of normal or bright light,  hiding in shadows is done at a -2 penalty when standing still, and a -6 penalty when moving.

I also use facing in my games, as presented under the OGL for D&D 3.5. Note that the rules include a -5 penalty for perception checks made to the “flanking” (left and right) areas, and -10 penalty for perception checks made towards the “rear” area. So characters standing to the side or the rear of a creature can attempt to use stealth checks to move silently into an area where they can hide, which allows them to hide during combat.

Judgement: As written, the skill is not clear on several key points. And, without facing, the skill’s use in combat becomes a little ridiculous. By polishing these aspects of the skill, it can be made acceptable.

The Mythbusters can survive with just Duct Tape, because they rolled a 20 on their survival check.Survival (Full Description on PFSRD)(-C’s Post): I like survival. When attempting to subsist in the wilderness, there are some tasks which shouldn’t be ignored, but which are none the less not interesting or easy enough to actually model at the table. Finding food and water, for example. While this may be a simple task in a forest, scrounging up the necessities of life might be significantly more difficult on a rocky mountain, or in a desert, or a poison-filled swamp. The skill also helps players avoid becoming lost, which is good when world travel is handled by a hex crawl rather than the much less entertaining “fade to black” style travel. The skill is also essential when attempting to find, and follow tracks, which is a time honored ability in D&D, and functions effectively under the Pathfinder rules.

Judgement: I would like it if this skill had more utility, but some of the utility it already has (determining weather a day in advance, for example) is pretty useless. A better mechanic for these tasks could probably be worked out for future editions of the game, but as it stands survival is adequate.

THEY DON'T HAVE ANY RANKS IN THE SWIM SKILL, YOU FOOLS!Swim (Full Description on PFSRD)(-C’s Post): If you read my entry on climb, then you already know why I hate the swim skill. It is utterly without merit for a game which takes place largely on land to treat the ability to swim as anything more than a binary function. Either yes, a character can swim, or no, they cannot swim. I suppose that if a specific adventure called for the characters to spend significant amounts of time in the water, then a “water maneuverability classes” similar to the ones traditionally used to gauge flight ability might be useful. But that’s about it.

The rules offer a number of examples of when a swim check should be asked for, such as when the water is rough, or stormy. But how often is this really an issue? In all my years, I’ve only ever played through a single underwater dungeon, and a handful of water-environment combats. Even in those instances, I never felt the need to roll dice to determine how well players could move. I understand, of course, that my personal experience can’t be extrapolated to everyone who plays the game. But the game is clearly not designed around adventuring through watery environments, and if it was, I doubt you would need to roll dice to determine whether or not you could move at all.

In my games I allow players to simply swim if they feel as though it’s an ability their character would have. If you need a mechanic, then have players who wish to swim spend a single skill point to gain the ability to do so. It makes more sense than learning languages by spending a single skill point.

Judgement: Purge this skill from your game, and let its name never be spoken again.

Scroll Thief, art taken from a Magic the Gathering CardUse Magic Device (Full Description on PFSRD)(-C’s Post): This is another example of a well constructed skill, like Sleight of Hand. It allows any character to use items, such as wands and scrolls, which would typically only be usable by casters. This allows characters greater flexibility in their planning. My players, and myself when I am a player, often come up with elaborate plans which require the use of a specific spell cast in a specific place at a specific time, where there might be no caster present. But since a fighter is not fully capable of understanding the complexities of a scroll of fireball, it’s only logical for there to be a chance for failure.

Judgement: Keep this skill in the game as-is.

And there you have it. All of the skills. The conclusion will go up over the Weekend, after which we will return to our regularly scheduled writings.

Overview of Pathfinder’s Skills: Sense Motive To Spellcraft

Sense Motive (Full Description on PFSRD)(-C’s Post): By now, I’ve gone over every skill pretty thoroughly, and I have a good idea of what I want to say about each one. I’ve even run a game using the reduced skills list, and it went quite well. Sense Motive Cat is Suspicious of your MotivesI’m sure that some of my changes are breaking other minor rules. No doubt there are a number of spells and feats which have been rendered useless by the way I’ve changed and removed skills. But I believe the reduced list has been an overall improvement. My players spent a little less time looking at their sheets and asking if they could make skill checks, and a little more time engaged with the game world, asking whether they could perform certain tasks.

The one skill I left in the game at the time, which I am now pretty certain I will remove, is sense motive. I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with whether this skill has value to the game. On the one hand, I agree with -C’s basic assessment. If you break it down, it seems clear:

  1. In an good game, players are able to succeed by making meaningful, intelligent choices.
  2. In order to make intelligent choices, players must be able to access relevant information to base their decisions upon.
  3. If players must roll a die to access information, then there is a chance they will fail that roll.
  4. If they fail that roll, they will not be able to access to the information they require in order to make intelligent decisions.
  5. If players cannot access the information they require to make intelligent decisions, then they will not be able to succeed by making meaningful, intelligent choices.
  6. Ergo, if players must roll a die to access relevant information, then a game is not good.

There are other skills, however, such as knowledge and perception, which also require a roll in order for a player to receive information. -C’s posts decry these skills on much the same grounds as he decries sense motive, but I have chosen to keep them in my game. Albeit in modified forms. So am I a hypocrite, or is there a difference between the types of information players gain from knowledge and perception, and the type of kind of information players gain from sense motive?


Knowledge is a different beast altogether, but sense motive and perception have a number of commonalities between them. Both are most commonly rolled against an NPCs, both can be used to give players advance warning of danger, and both can potentially produce interesting results regardless of success or failure. With perception, it is interesting both when players are ambushed, and when they detect an ambush before it occurs. With sense motive, it can be interesting both when a players are fooled, and when the players manage to see through a deception. On those grounds alone, sense motive would seem to be a legitimate and useful skill.

However, sense motive isn’t perfectly analogous to perception. Perception is used to determine whether characters can notice things they are not looking for, such as an orc sneaking through the trees. Sense motive, on the other hand, is most commonly rolled to gauge an NPC which players are intently engaged with, such as a back-alley informant who may be lying to them. That alone is reason to cast serious doubt on the value of sense motive.

I don’t think it’s always wrong for a GM to use NPCs to lie to the players. I think untrustworthy NPCs who lie to, or even betray, the players adds an element of social danger to the game which is valuable. But there must be a better way to do it than with the sense motive check. An untrustworthy NPC surely gives some signs that they aren’t being entirely straight with the player characters. Shifty eyes, oddly emphasized words, inconsistent stories about who they are and what they want, there are dozens of ways to give the players a chance to figure out that they’re being had. And once the players have an inkling, the desire to confirm that inkling gives the GM a good opportunity to challenge them. A street thug’s reputation for lying might be easy enough to find out if you know who to ask, but finding out that the duke is planning to frame the PCs for his crime might be a little trickier.

Judgement: After much deliberation, this skill should be house-ruled out of the game. In a pinch, perception checks can be used to fill-in for it. Bluff checks should only be used by the PCs against NPCs, so a DC is adequate. If you prefer, it can be rolled v. another bluff roll.

Bearded Stage Magician with Wand, Cape, and Top HatSleight of Hand (Full Description on PFSRD)(-C’s Post): There is very little to say about sleight of hand. It is just about the perfect skill. It comes up decently often in play, success and failure are almost always both interesting results. And since I can’t think of a way to handle it which would be more fun than a dice roll, it doesn’t circumvent any potential fun. If anything, having this skill in the game encourages players to use it in creative ways. I once had spell caster put points into it so he could attempt to hide his magical hand gestures.

Judgement: I cannot think of anything wrong about this skill.

Spellcraft (Full Description on PFSRD): The spellcraft skill has five officially listed functions in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook. It is used to identify a spell which is being cast, copy a spell from a borrowed spellbook, prepare a spell from a borrowed spellbook, and as part of crafting and identifying magic items. The book also indicates that spellcraft “is used whenever your knowledge and skill of the technical art of casting a spell […] comes into question.”

Counterspell, counterspell, COUNTERSPELL!Spellcraft functions well for the most part. I don’t really like the way in which it interacts with the craft skill, but as I’ve already mentioned in this series, I have plans to entirely re-write the Pathfinder crafting rules in the near future. I’m also dubious of the value of needing to roll a check in order to copy a spell from a borrowed spellbook. It strikes me as an unnecessary and ultimately ineffective attempt to control a wizard’s power through drawing out the amount of time it can potentially take to gain new spells. However, requiring a roll to actually prepare as spell from a borrowed spell book functions as a minor but effective throttle on a wizard’s power, since it has a more immediate effect on gameplay. Plus, on the fluff side of things, the failure chance meshes with the way Vancian magic is described in the rulebook.

My only real problem with the skill is the way it is used to identify magic items. I’ve tried a number of things over the years, and never really been happy with any of them. As of late I’ve simply been allowing any spellcaster to identify the purpose of an item she believes is magical, so long as she has 10 minutes to examine it. I would also like for some items to be un-identifyable to a spellcaster, because this can create interesting scenarios where characters must seek aid in identifying their items.

I don’t think the spellcraft skill can reasonably be involved in this process, though. A level 1 elven wizard with 18 Intelligence has a +10 to their spellcraft check. That goes up to +12 if the the magical properties for the item they’re attempting to identify are from their specialist school. So you can’t simply allow casters to automatically identify items with a caster level equal to or lesser than the caster’s spellcraft check bonus, because a level 1 elf could identify items on the high-end of mid-level. The typical solution would be to add 10 to the item’s caster level, and call for a roll, but then you’re back to asking the caster for a dozen rolls every time the party encounters a decent sized treasure horde. Checking an item’s caster level against a character’s caster level is also a possibility, but I would like non-casters to be able to identify magic items by investing in the spellcraft skill.

The process of identifying magic items is one I plan to cover more thoroughly in a future post.

In the past, I’ve also allowed casters to use spellcraft to spontaneously craft new spells. If a caster is in combat, and they would like to modify one of their spells in an unusual way, or would like to combine it with another spell, then I’ll allow them to do so. They must first provide a good explanation of how the spell will work (“I want to cast acid orb on my crossbow bolt, and fire it into the ogre!” or “I’d like to cast Cone of Cold and Fireball simultaneously to create a blast of steam.”) They must succeed on a DC 15 + [level of any spells involved, added together] spellcraft check, and expend one of their highest level spells slots available, which is lost whether the spell succeeds or not.

Overview of Pathfinder’s Skills: Perform to Ride

Perform (Full Description on PFSRD)(-C’s Post): A skill is a mechanic. It is not a character trait, nor is it a role playing device. Role playing and character development are handled by the player. The player can choose to build their character’s personality off of the character’s mechanics if they wish. Pencil Drawing of a Bard Strumming a Lute. Source unknown. It is fun, and even recommended. However, the fact that character mechanics can serve as the basis for role playing traits, does not imply that role playing traits must be represented mechanically. Why, then, does the perform skill exist? Can’t players simply write down that they know how to play the fiddle without requiring a number to keep track of how good they are at it?

As a mechanic, it simply seems silly. If a character is not a bard, then the skill breaks down to “roll the dice, get some money!” Even if treasure is not the central focus of your game, rolling a twenty sided die to determine the effectiveness of your busking has got to be the least entertaining way to earn money that I can imagine. It’s not even a worthwhile amount of money! The most you can possibly earn in a day is 18 gold. The book goes on to hint at some potential plot hooks for characters who frequently succeed at DC 30 performance checks (“In time, you may draw attention from distant patrons, or even from extraplanar beings.”) but that hardly seems to make it worthy of being a skill in my view.

Bards, of course, are the exception. For them, the performance skill is integral. Many of their bardic performance abilities depend on making a perform roll, and then allowing the bard’s companions to use that roll’s result in place of some other type of die roll. This can be an extremely potent ability, and an effective use of the skills system. For example, consider a level 1 bard with 16 Charisma, 1 rank in performance, and the skill focus(performance) feat. That’s a total of +10 to a performance roll, which the bard can roll in place of his companions will saves (which will probably be +4 or less for most characters). On the other hand, a number of the bardic performance abilities (Inspire Courage, Inspire Competence, etc) don’t use a perform roll at all. Instead, their effects increase in strength based solely on the bard’s level.

Judgement: For non-bard players, this skill should be house-ruled out of the game. For bards, I see two possible options. First, you could make Performance a bard-only skill, and edit the bardic performance abilities to make the skill check more relevant. Alternatively, you could house-rule the performance check out of the game for bards as well, and edit all of their performance abilities to be level based, rather than roll based.

Profession (Full Description on PFSRD)(-C’s Post): The problems with the profession skill are so similar to the problems with the perform skill that it hardly seems worth it to write a separate entry for each one. Medieval Profession: BakerMechanically, both skills essentially boil down to exactly the same thing: roll dice to see how much money you make. There are some subtle differences, (such as the fact that a profession check takes a week, and a perform check only takes a day), but they are largely inconsequential. The profession skill doesn’t even have the dubious benefit of having a class built upon it. As it exists in the game, profession may be the single most useless skill of all. Purge it.

Useless as the profession skill may be, however, there might be some benefit to a character having a listed profession. In my Twittertop RPG, a character’s profession was used as a substitute for an entire skills system. The idea is that if a player can justify their character possessing a certain skill on the basis of their profession, then the character will be able to use that skill effectively. For example, a character whose profession was sailor would obviously be able to swim, tie ropes, and avoid sea sickness. Whereas a player whose profession was miner would be particularly effective at noticing details and dangers underground.

There’s no reason that the same thing couldn’t exist in Pathfinder as a supplement to the skills system, rather than a replacement. Nothing which a player would need to roll for, mind you. Just an extremely simple, rules-light way of determining whether a player has minor knowledge or abilities which won’t come up frequently.

Judgement: House rule this out of the game as a skill. If you are so inclined, make it a stand, alone trait for each character.

Ride (Full Description on PFSRD)(-C’s Post): I like the idea behind this skill, but I feel it lacks solid implementation. It takes some steps in the right direction, though. Medieval Knight and Horse, source unknownUnlike many skills, you can actually do most of what you might imagine is “easy,” without ever spending a point. Characters with 0 ranks in ride are able to saddle, mount, ride, and dismount from a mount without a problem. Even a character with a dexterity modifier of 0 has a 75% chance to avoid falling off their mount when hit. For most players, this should be plenty. It allows them to make use of the standard benefits of riding: moving quickly, and increasing encumbrance limits. A character only needs to put points into the skill if they want to perform more difficult tasks with their mount.

That’s what I like about the skill. What I don’t like is how limiting it is. For example, it would be fair to say that horses can jump further than humans, right? Yet if a human character has 1 rank in jump, and 1 rank in ride, then if he rolls the same on both a long jump check, and a leap check with his horse, then the distance covered will be exactly the same. That’s flat-out ridiculous. I think the game would benefit from advanced riding techniques, and mounted combat, being given a little more spotlight. I’m not certain how it should be done at this point. Perhaps it is something I will direct my attention towards in the future.

Judgement: This skill is fine to leave as-is for now, but it would benefit from some polish, and expansion.

Overview of Pathfinder’s Skills: Perception

Perception (Full Description on PFSRD)(-C’s Post)(-C’s OTHER Post): I doubt there is any skill quite so divisive as perception. I hardly feel qualified to assess it. So many dozens or hundreds of men and women much more experienced than I have spent so many forum threads and blog posts debating back and forth over the issue of perception that I feel presumptuous even attempting to resolve it. Lawyer Dog In My Client's Defense The Red Light and Green Light Look Exactly The SameBut that’s what I signed up for when I said I was going to begin this series of posts, and I’m not going to back out now, so here we go.

If you recall from earlier in this series, I believe disguise and escape artist are two skills which should be house ruled out of the game because they are needed so incredibly infrequently as to be useless. Well, if those skills commit the sin of a deficient frequency, then perception commits the sin of excessive frequency. The skill is so frequently called for, and so necessary, that -C uses the term “Skill Tax” to describe it. Putting points into perception is more of a requirement, than an option. And if something is a requirement for effective play, why clutter up the skills list by giving players the illusion of a choice?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. If you’d like to have perception torn to pieces in front of your very eyes, read -C’s two posts linked above. He’s done a superb job highlighting the problems with this skill, and I feel no need to repeat that task. As daunting as it is to attempt to resolve the problems with perception, I have no qualms about stating quite firmly: perception does have problems.

Pathfinder uses perception in two different ways: one which I’ll call active, another which I’ll call passive. Active perception checks are generally requested by the player. “I’d like to make a perception check to search this room,” or “I’d like to listen intently for someone sneaking up on me.” Active perception checks occur when the character is primarily engaged in the act of looking, listening, smelling, feeling, or tasting. Passive perception checks (sometimes called “reactive”) most often occur without the player’s knowledge. They are rolled by the GM, in secret, to determine whether or not a character is able to perceive something. This might happen when there is a faint scent of cooking coming from behind a door, or if someone is attempting to move without the player’s noticing them. Passive perception checks are useful for information which the players might not be looking for specifically, but which the characters might nevertheless notice and find useful if they’re alert.

Pathfinder is actually pretty vague about when a perception check should be rolled, and what information a player should be able to gain from it. As such, we can’t exactly blame the game for the fact that many GMs and players use it as a substitute for creating & interacting with an actual environment. However, the game would function better if it presented a more focused version of this skill. In the hopes of correcting this oversight, I’ve broken perception down into its component parts. Below are the various uses I’ve seen for perception, and my attempts to work out what the skill should apply to, and what it shouldn’t.

Active Perception: Primarily used to find hidden treasure, discover secret doors, and avoid traps.

If a room contains treasure, that treasure is either obvious, or not. Obvious treasure, such as that found in a chest, on the body of a foe, or simply laying on the floor, should never require a perception roll to find. So long as the players say they’re searching the body, or opening the chest, they should be allowed to find the treasure. I'm on your stairs, fucking up your perception! Silly lolcats, always doing things to my stuff!I would hope that was self evident. If a treasure is not obvious, then the players ought to be forced to look for it if they want to find it. The GM should describe the environment the players are in, and if they feel there may be treasure present, they can describe to the GM where they look for it.

What could possibly be gained by having the players roll to discover non-0bvious treasure? If their roll succeeds and they find the treasure, then it’s not functionally different from obvious treasure. It simply required the extra step of rolling a die. If, on the other hand, their roll fails and they don’t find the treasure, then the treasure effectively does not exist, because they can’t find it. It’s not as though it’s fun for a player to simply be aware that treasure was hidden before they found it. What is fun is the process of finding that hidden treasure. Coming up with the idea to search for loose bricks on the wall, and being rewarded by finding a bag of 30 gold is a lot more fun than entering a room, rolling a die, and being told you found 30 gold behind a loose stone.

Locating secret doors is somewhat different from finding non-obvious treasure in two important ways. First, the hiding place of even the most well hidden treasure ought to be mentioned in the room’s description. If it’s not, then the players have no way to know where to search That doesn’t mean you need to drop obvious hints, simply that it’s not fair to hide treasure under a bed without telling the players that the room contains a bed. On the other hand, secret doors are most commonly built directly into the walls or floors. Since those are present everywhere, there’s no good way for players to search for secret passages intelligently. The second difference is that treasure is an end unto itself. It, along with experience points, is how players are rewarded for successful play. Secret doors, on the other hand, exist only as a means to an end. That end being whatever lies beyond the door. Though the joy of discovery shouldn’t be discounted.

Given those differences, I think it is reasonable to allow players to roll perception checks to discover hidden doors. The area for such a perception roll should be relatively small–perhaps 15ft square, centered on the character. Some characters could even be allowed to find hidden doors with a passive perception check, if they passed within 10 feet of it. Traditionally this is an ability which was given to elves, but perhaps it would be better if anyone with 5 ranks or more in perception was given the chance to automatically discover hidden doors. Reducing the act of finding a hidden door to a roll does come with a danger, however. If the entirety of the interaction is rolling to look for a door, finding a door, opening the door, and going through the door; how is that any different from rolling to find non-obvious treasure?

I would propose that a perception roll allows players to, as -C puts it “learn the location of the secret door but not how to open it.” Once they know the door is there, the players are free to attempt to bash it down if they wish. Though in some cases that may be pretty difficult. Alternatively, the players can search for the mechanism within the room which opens the door. Perhaps a loose stone needs to be pushed in, or three worn-down keys on a piano need to be pressed simultaneously. And if the players notice the loose stone or the worn-down keys before they find the door in the first place, then the discovery of a secret passage will be made all the more exciting.

Using perception checks as a means of finding traps is something I’ve struggled with as of late. My party’s rogue has frequently complained of the tediousness involved in searching every door, every chest, and every trigger that they find in order to avoid the handful of traps in each dungeon. And I have to agree: it is tedious, and not at all fun. I suppose I could make it less tedious by simply adding more traps to my dungeons, but that seems like a lazy solution. The problem is not that there’s an insufficient amount of things to find, it’s that excessive rolling is boring.

Pathfinder has a rogue talent called Trap Spotter, which allows rogues to make an automatic, passive perception check whenever they are within 10ft of a trap. I propose that this be removed as a possible rogue talent, and instead, this effect be made part of the Trapfinding class ability which rogues receive at level 1. Additionally, any character with 5 ranks or more in perception could also be granted the ability to notice traps using passive checks.

Judgement: In general, active perception checks seem to sap potential fun from the game. I propose eliminating active perception checks from the game, except when it comes to searching for secret doors or traps within a 15ft square area centered of the player.

Passive Perception: Primarily used in opposition to a sleight of hand and stealth checks or to notice fine details in an environment.

Sleight of hand may be the single most well-designed skill in Pathfinder, and rolling perception against it is a reasonable method of conflict resolution. There is no need to alter the way in which perception interacts with that skill. Combing the desert, get it?!The stealth skill, on the other hand, has a number of problems, which I will detail once I write my overview for that skill. Speaking strictly on how perception interacts with stealth, however, I can find no fault. If the stealth roll is being utilized properly, then rolling perception against it makes perfect sense.

That only leaves a roll for noticing fine details in the environment. This is anything which the character’s might not notice right away. A faint smell from two rooms over, an orc’s knee sticking out from behind the barrel he’s hiding behind, or a crack in a stained glass window across the room. I think this application of the skill works well enough. Whenever I go to use it, though, I ask myself one important question: is there any reason to withhold this information?

Using the examples above, it makes sense to roll a passive perception check to see if the players notice the orc’s leg sticking out from behind a barrel. The creature is obviously attempting an ambush, and their success or failure in that attempt will hinge on whether or not the players notice him first. That’s a good use of a roll. It also makes sense to make the roll to determine if the players notice the faint smell of cooking from two rooms over. If they notice it, they have an opportunity to prepare to enter the evil cult’s mess hall, if they don’t then they’ll be surprised when they walk into a room filled with enemies. The crack in the window, however, is essential information if the players are going to figure out the room’s puzzle. If they fail their spot check, then the puzzle becomes unsolvable unless one of them decides (out of the blue) to examine the window for cracks.

Note that you’re not rolling perception based on the type of information, you’re rolling it based on how that information will be used within the game. That may seem silly and unrealistic, and it is. But realism does not equal good gameplay.

Judgement: Passive perception is mostly fine. Just don’t use it to hide information the players ought to have.

Overall Judgement: I think perception has a valuable place in the Pathfinder game. However, the game benefits significantly from reducing this skill’s importance drastically.

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