When do I use active vs passive perception?

  • So, I'm trying to figure out how to run the scene from the beginning of Lost Mine of Phandelver (5e starter set) where the party is ambushed by goblins and I'm really confused as to how Passive Wisdom (Perception) works.

    The included rulebook mentions on page 6 :

    When you hide, there’s a chance someone will notice you even if they aren’t searching. To determine whether such a creature notices you, the DM compares your Dexterity (Stealth) check with that creature’s passive Wisdom (Perception) score, which equals 10 + the creature’s Wisdom modifier, as well as any other bonuses or penalties. If the creature has advantage, add 5. For disadvantage, subtract 5. For example, if a 1st-level character (with a proficiency bonus of +2) has a Wisdom of 15 (a +2 modifier) and proficiency in Perception, he or she has a passive Wisdom (Perception) of 14.

    So the party is being ambushed by goblins and at that point the DM guide mentions on page 7 :

    Check to see who, if anyone, is surprised. [...] Make a Dexterity (Stealth) check for the goblins, rolling once for all of them. Roll a d20, add the goblins' Stealth skill modifier (+6) to the roll and compare the result to the characters' Passive Wisdom (Perception) scores.

    So to me this reads like I should roll 1d20+6 for the goblins and compare that to the static Passive Wisdom (Perception) score on the character sheet of a PC. The PCs don't get to roll anything as they're not actively looking for enemies, even though they are investigating the dead horses.

    I would also think that if the characters were supposed to roll, the DM guide would clearly instruct so, given that this is the starter set.

    However, watching the video of WotC staff playing this scene out at around 8:01 I notice that the DM is explicitly asking his party for a perception roll. And the same thing happens on a couple of other videos where people are running the Lost Mine adventure. The DM always requests a roll.

    So what gives? Shall I take it that the DMs ask for the roll because they consider the party to be actively seeking for hidden foes? Or am I just misreading the rulebook and the DM guide?

  • Passive perception is exactly that, passive. It's what the PCs are always using when not actively searching for something and doesn't use a roll of the die.

    To determine if you should use passive perception or allow a player to roll, listen to what they say their PCs are doing. If they say they are standing watch, keeping an eye out or something similar, they are actively searching so they can make a wisdom (perception) check, otherwise they are using their passive perception.

    Although, it's kind of an experience call as the DM and depends on what the PCs are actually doing and whether or not the DM gives them the benefit of the doubt. In the case of the video, one guy said he was keeping a look out, thus actively searching and two of them were scouting off to the side of the road so the DM ruled they were also searching, rather than just wondering off into the bushes for no real reason, and allowed those three PCs an active wisdom (perception) check, whilst the others would be using their passive perception.

    Although all answers were good and helped clear the confusion I'll vote for this one as the correct one because it also deals with the situation in the video. It does make sense in this situation for all the reasons you mentioned. Thanks everyone.

    Is it your house rule, or could you specify any PHB/DMG reference saying that passive/active check selection should be based on PCs doing something passively or actively? PHB page 175 has two points: "check can represent the average result for a task done repeatedly" and "can be used when the DM wants to secretly determine whether the characters succeed at something without rolling dice". Neither of that declares that DM should choose the check type based on how "passive" PCs actions are.

    It's an extrapolation of the Hiding rules on PHB177. This approach is also used for trap detection on DMG120-121.

    On listening to a Sage Advice podcast and rereading the rules, I think this is actually not quite right. Passive vs. Active refers to whether the *player* (or DM) makes an active dice check or uses the +10 instead. It *doesn't* refer to whether the *characters* (or other creatures) are actively looking or not. In fact, see the section on actions while exploring — only characters *actively on guard* use their *passive* perception.

    ... but the exploring situation is a special case. In general, passive perception acts like a floor, and in your example, the three PCs allowed active checks use that as an opportunity to _beat_ their baseline passive perception. See this answer to a related quesetion for more.

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Content dated before 6/26/2020 9:53 AM