the trapmonkey cleric: basing perception checks on wisdom

5e says that it is going to make attributes more important than skills: if you want to open a door, you roll your Strength. If you want to notice something, you roll your Wisdom.

This really highlights the fact that Perception has been a problem since early D&D, when it was briefly its own attribute. That’s not a great solution, but the 3e+ solution, making it a skill based on Wisdom, is not great either. It’s strange when the cleric is the best member of the party for finding secret doors and noticing ambushes.

This issue was less central in 3e and 4e, where skill points and training bonuses could be used to shore up the Wisdom shortcomings of alert rogues and rangers. But in a system where perception checks are made by a more-or-less unmodified use of your Wisdom stat, we’ll find ourselves in a world where clerics and paladins are scouting ahead of the party to look for traps.

To decide how to deal with perception, I think we should think about what classes we expect to make difficult Perception checks. I think that the best watchmen in the party should be rogues, with their trap sense; rangers, with their keen eyes; and barbarians, with their feral alertness. Clerics should be solidly middle-of-the-pack.

Based on this class-down design, it actually makes sense for perception skills to be folded under the Dexterity attribute. In most editions, rogues and rangers usually have high dexterity. Barbarians can sometimes get away without high dexterity, but they shouldn’t: warriors who wear only loincloths had better be quick.

It’s a bit of a conceptual stretch to jam sharp ears and keen eyes under Dexterity. It might help to rename “perception” to something like “alertness” or “quick wits” that does a better job of implying speed and subtlety.

Moving perception-based skills to Dexterity doesn’t really solve the base problem, which is that perception doesn’t really go with any of the six attributes. It does, however, better model people’s expectations about what characters are good at what.

The other solution? Go OD&D. Get rid of Perception checks altogether. If people are searching a room, ask them where they are searching. If they listen at doors, or try to ambush enemies, give everyone a static 33% chance of success (maybe more if they’re an elf). At least this approach dethrones the hyper-vigilant cleric.


13 Responses to “the trapmonkey cleric: basing perception checks on wisdom”

  1. Josh W says:

    I quite like having “wits” and “understanding”, with wits replacing dex for initiative, and wisdom for perception. Understanding puts both wizards and clerics on the same spellcasting stat, and covers social perception in the “getting background info of the gm” sense rather than the “his facial ticks suggest he’s lying to you”/”he’s going for his sword” sense.

    Sadly, understanding is a rubbish name for a stat!

  2. Brendan says:

    Another option would be to allow multiple stats to function as perception, perhaps the best of dexterity and wisdom, if one wanted to keep with the new design of wide-spectrum ability scores.

    The original d6 system for searching, hearing noise, and surprise is still my favorite however. Remember, abilities like ESP were originally conceived of as methods to increase a character’s perception in a dungeon. So there were ways to improve alertness as level increased, just not by getting more skilled.

  3. A.R.Hall says:

    The best solution I have is to make each sense its own stat, but that makes for a lot of stats.

  4. Roger says:

    Something else you could do is make the heavier armours, with their attendent helms, more of a penalty on perception checks. That should penalize exactly the right people.

  5. Bob says:

    I wouldn’t ditch perception all-to-gether. Thieves need something for finding traps… I don’t see a problem with doing it like AD&D did and making it just a thief skill and give them a set value.

    I’d use something similar for rangers and tracking.

    Then I’d use that skill for their “perception” checks as well as finding traps and tracking.

  6. Kurtis Trimbo says:

    Well, for 5th they have mentioned that it is up to the DM to decide what stat is used for what check. For a Rogue or Ranger, walking lightly while searching for traps, I personally would use DEX. It would just come down to description like “Your body stops half way through your step, not allowing you to finish your movement, you realize that just barely an inch away from your toes is a trip wire” or like the character just barely stepped on a pressure plate and pulled away quickly enough to stop a trap from setting off. Sure it is hard to fit in to perception and you’ll run out of descriptions, with how many times your players almost set off traps but it fits the DEX perception in my opinion. I would assume that those dexterous classes would have an innate danger sense anyways, even if they do not have an ability or feat.

  7. Jan says:

    Making Perception for traps and other physical things based in Dex is an interesting idea, though it will collide with the sense of reaslism of many people (which is at least partly “I’m used to this” in this case). Sense motive-perception should remain Wis based, I think. but since perception is all about the quick things, Dex is quite a good idea. The opposite would be search, which was intelligence based in 3e.

  8. Jack says:

    I think what we need is to re-assess what the Stats represent. Wisdom is described as awareness, common sense, intuition, etc. Making Perception based off of an Awareness stat makes a lot of sense. Charisma is supposed to be strength of personality and ability to lead. The problem is that historically Wisdom has also been the stat for “willpower” which muddies the waters.

    My fix would be to put “willpower” in with Charisma where it belongs, let Wisdom take it’s rightful place as “awareness” and adjust Clerics so that their magic etc is based off Charisma.

    This way you don’t have the weird effect of saying perception is somehow tied to agility (imagine the fat-but-observant sort of character), AND it cleans up the sort of confusion you have with Wisdom and Charisma both fighting over the same territory (see also: save vs magic compulsion).

  9. […] Blog of Holding notes that this highlights the odd position we find ourselves in when the Cleric (who’s whole schtick is based off Wisdom) is better at finding things than the Ranger, Rogue, or Barbarian (if you accept “feral awareness” or “aggression-fueled blindness”).  In 3E this issue was masked by the fact that skill points and Class training could make up for a poor Wisdom, but all things being equal a Cleric would have higher Perception because it was based on his key stat.  He goes on to suggest moving Perception in to Dexterity not because it makes any sense but because then the classes we expect to be perceptive (Rangers, Rogues) would have it keyed to their attribute of choice. […]

  10. camazotz says:

    I’m not sure I’d ditch perception entirely either….my old days of 1E gaming were frustrating without a perception score of some sort, and 2nd edition added some proficiencies that could work for non-thief types, but in the end I always added in a perception score based on a 3D6 check. I think that would be useful even now. At the very least, its useful for situations where it’s not at all clear a player would (or wouldn’t) know what to look for exactly, but at the same time it’s also unclear if in-game the character might be more observant about something. Of all the skills in the last two decades, perception or its variants are the ones I’ve called on the most to resolve situations with uncertainty.

  11. Josh W says:

    One thing I have found in 4e is that having the rogue team up with the cleric is actually quite satisfying, the thief can get in and scout for obvious ambushers, then bring in the rest of the scouting team:

    Our usual trap finding team is a fighter, a thief and a cleric/bard; cleric handles all perception tasks, listens for ambushes, spots magical influences etc, the thief actually goes into danger and takes the trap mechanisms and locks apart (and very effectively too), and the fighter handles stuff like letting people down on ropes and bodyguards the cleric in case of trouble.

    The thief and the cleric also tend to double-team social first encounters in a similar manner, with the thief handling bluffing and diplomacy and the cleric getting insight into the enemies.

    The other two members of the party are fast and long ranged (the barbarian and wizard), so they tend to hang back and pop in the moment things go pear shaped, or when we come across a need for weird magic or more brute strength.

    Having a scouting team division of labour means that exploration becomes just as much a team effort as combat or socialising. Everyone has something to contribute.

    The big problem we have with this mechanically is that we could do with some 6th sense mechanic that tells a thief a trap is there, but not the details of it. In other words something so that the thief can happily stealth forwards until they get a prickling on the back of their neck, then call the rest of the dudes in.

    That’s one of the reasons I like a wits mechanic; it allows you to tie together that kind of stuff with save against surprise and ambush, most of the stuff that would be handled on a separate d6 before.

    The reason I like these kinds of mechanics is that they act to minimise both “suddenly the floor opens up and you die” and the worst excesses of “second guess every inch of the scenary for 40 mins”. A wits roll interrupts your action and tells you whether you’ve almost stumbled into triggering a trap, indiana jones style. On a failed roll you carry on and it goes off. In the same way, in the moment of an ambush, roll wits, and the better you roll the faster you get to respond to their attacks.

    That way, people don’t get paranoid when you ask for perception checks, (that just leads to more or less information and maybe clues about secret doors!) instead they get tense at the actual moment that something is going wrong, which seems more satisfying to me.

  12. […] be better climbers than Rogues.  Sorcerers will always be more persuasive than Clerics.  Clerics will always be better at spotting traps than Rogues.  Some of those make sense some of the time, but with these rules they’ll always […]

  13. […] the trapmonkey cleric: basing perception checks on wisdom at Blog of Holding: Why should rogues have a class ability (noticing things) be tied to their typical dump stat (Wisdom)? […]

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