Skills in D&D 4e part 1: Passive skill use and training

Skills in Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition seem to have been a big topic of conversation online in recent weeks. I’ve finally gotten to the point that my own views are well-formed enough for me to chime in. I’m going to start with the way I handle passive skills and skill training.

Oftentimes, a published adventure will refer to PCs’ passive Insight or passive Perception skills to tell whether a character can detect a minor illusion, an NPC’s deception, a small detail, a hidden enemy, etc. Lots of virtual ink has been spilled debating the pros and cons of this approach, especially when the DM is crafting adventures for his or her own group. After all, the DM can know all of the PCs’ passive scores in advance. If the highest passive Perception in the group is a 19, then the DM can choose to assign the hidden thing a DC of 20, in which case no one will notice it, or a lower DC, in which case at least one PC will notice it. What’s the point of bothering with the number in that case?

I’ve started handling things a little bit differently. Whenever there’s a situation in which a PC might or might not passively know something, I ask the table, “Who’s trained in Perception / Insight?” Anyone who’s trained gets the bonus info.

  • “Ah, you notice a small humanoid crouching behind a tree over three.”
  • “You get the feeling that the fishwife is holding something back in her statement.”
  • “You notice that the texture of the stone wall here looks slightly unusual.”

Furthermore, I use this with other skills, too (mental skills more than physical skills for the most part):

  • Arcana: “You can tell that this construct is not very strongly tied to its creator.”
  • Diplomacy: “The duchess just committed a minor breach of protocol by continuing to stand until the baron was seated.”
  • Dungeoneering: “The rocks piled up in that corner are not there naturally, and furthermore they look a little unsteady.”
  • Heal: “The stab wound was definitely not self-inflicted.”
  • History: “You remember that the empire never conquered this particular town.”
  • Insight: “The innkeeper is sincere when he tells you that the road east hasn’t seen any bandit attacks lately.”
  • Nature: “You recognize that vine as being out of place in this type of forest.”
  • Perception: “The footsteps of at least three people can be heard in the common room downstairs.”
  • Religion: “This shrine is dedicated to Gruumsh.”
  • Streetwise: “This part of town is known to have the occasional illicit goods shop.”
  • Thievery: “You recognize the workmanship on this trap; it was built by gnomes.”

This is all very much in the spirit of “passive skill use” rather than anything active that a PC might try. I could see a case for Endurance perhaps, but usually Endurance comes up when a PC wants to try something active. Athletics, Acrobatics, Bluff, Intimidate and Stealth are all pretty hard to use passively, so I didn’t list any examples.

My general approach is pretty simple:

  • Find situations where someone who knows a lot about a particular thing might get a little extra information thanks to their expertise
  • Reward characters who are trained in the relevant skill with that bonus information

It’s very much like normal passive skill use, except that I use it for skills other than just Perception and Insight, and I don’t bother with checking the exact value – I just hand out the bonus info if the PC is trained.

I like this in part because it’s easier (no need to figure out what passive DC will be caught or missed by the PCs) and in part because it rewards players for their choice to train a particular skill.

Now, I know that this means that the 8 Int fighter who somehow has trained History might occasionally get to recall a fact that the 20 Int wizard with no history training doesn’t automatically know. I’m fine with that, because this particular skill use is about rewarding the choice to train the skill, not high stats. If the wizard wants to make an active roll to see what she recalls, she might well get a high score even without training, in which case there could be additional information. But the freebie comes from the choice to train the skill.

I’ll mention here that I do still use passive Perception, for instance, if a monster makes a Stealth check to hide. But when it comes to “PCs automatically know this information or not,” I check whether a PC is trained rather than whether their passive score is greater than or equal to a particular number.

I’m always looking for suggestions on how to make skills more interesting, how to reward player choices, etc. I’d love to hear the creative things that other DMs do with skills in their own games!

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

8 thoughts on “Skills in D&D 4e part 1: Passive skill use and training

  1. Where I’ve seen this poorly applied is when the DM says “Everyone roll a Perception check.” We all roll and give him our result. He then says “Anyone with a score over 15 notices …… ” What was the point of that? You know if at least one character has a good roll, the whole party gets the same information. There isn’t any consequence to the player not having training in the skill. A good party will have training by at least one PC for every skill. A group check is not useful unless it’s part of a larger skill challenge, or there is a real consequence to the players to don’t exceed the DC.

  2. A GM that I play for who has his own homebrew rules uses the system you’ve outlined here. Players who are trained in a skill, or are exceptional at it are “rewarded” in that the hint is brought to their attention. How they share that info with the group becomes part of the role play (yes, we players all likely heard the info, but being that we’re playing an RPG we mostly wait for that PC to reveal it.)

  3. Pingback: Links of the Week: November 14, 2011 | KJD-IMC - KJDavies "In My Campaign" Articles

  4. I hadn’t considered it before reading your post, but what if one of the benefits of training a skill is that you HAVE a passive score in it? No training equals no passive use.

    Bob the 20th level rogue (Perception +15) is trained in Perception. Jim the 20th level cleric (Perception +16) is not trained in Perception. Although Jim is more proficient at finding things when really looking for them, he cannot do so without effort. Bob, on the other hand, has a knack for finding things without really trying.


  5. I know I’m about a year late (was poking Google around for hints about the worth of diplomacy vs streetwise for my character). Anyhow, if I recall correctly there might actually be some part of RAW that says that certain checks can only be made by characters trained in a particular skill. So this seems like a great way to do it. The RAW I remember or hallucinated probably was more of the kind “This is an obscure fact that only those with formal training have a chance to have stumbled upon”. That would also reward training in a skill (and in the case of history it makes perfect sense that if you have never come across the information you cannot recall it).

    • Viktor – This is true, that there are cases where only a character trained in a skill can attempt certain things, but the one case where I strongly recall this is with Thievery. I know that being trained in Acrobatics lets a character try to reduce damage from falling, too. I don’t recall “trained only” being the case with knowledge or social skills, but I might be forgetting something.

      -Michael the OnlineDM

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