Passive Perception 5e

Published on February 7, 2022, Last modified on December 8th, 2023

Passive skill checks are a confusing mechanic and the official rules don’t offer a lot of clarity. In this article, we seek to understand the passive rule, when it applies, and how players and DMs can better utilize it in their games.

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What is Passive Perception in 5e?

The Player’s Handbook covers passive checks in the section on Ability Checks (p.175), but it’s pretty brief. In this article, we will analyze what has been provided in official sources and what has been discussed by the Rules Designer for D&D. 

Passive checks exist to provide a baseline for what characters can accomplish with a skill. For example, when a character walks into a room, they will notice things based on how perceptive they are even if they aren’t actively searching for things. The “passive” mechanic was created so that players don’t need to always ask their DMS to make checks. 

Any skill can have a passive score, but Perception is the most important as it is used the most in official D&D adventures. Every adventurer should be perceptive to a degree. It’s a dangerous world out there! Checking for traps or picking up small details can mean life or death.

How to Calculate Passive Perception 5e

For any passive skill, the formula for its passive check is:

10 + Skill Modifiers + Proficiency Bonus + Any other modifiers that may apply

Additionally, if a character would have advantage or disadvantage on a check, they would add or subtract 5 from the final score.

As an example, let’s say we’re a 3rd level Cleric with 16 WIS and proficiency in Perception making a Perception check:

10 + 3 (WIS Modifier) + 2 (Proficiency Bonus) = 15

How Does Passive Perception Work 5e?

Passive Perception is mainly used to detect traps or small details when looking around a room. If their passive Perception is high enough, adventurers can easily spot traps or things that might seem out of place.

Ideally, passive Perception is used in place of having players constantly roll to see if they notice things. In real life, people don’t have to attempt to notice things when they enter a room; they just do. This is the same for Dungeons and Dragons, where adventurers are able to perceive certain details at first glance.

Is Passive Perception the Lowest Result on a Perception Check?

Based on the rules provided, it is never stated that passive Perception is the lowest that a character can roll to perceive something. There are, however, rules that suggest passive Perception isn’t the lowest that can be rolled. The Rogue’s “Reliable Talent” feature grants the ability to treat all rolls of 9 or less like a 10 for skills they are proficient in. This essentially makes their passive score the baseline for skill checks they are proficient in. Because there are specific rules that grant the ability to treat passive scores as their baseline, it suggests that passive scores are not typically baselines.

It’s worth talking to your DM and seeing how they view it, but in my experience, most DMs don’t agree with it being the floor.

How to use Passive Perception as a DM

It can be confusing to figure out how to incorporate passive Perception in your game as a DM. Here are my suggestions:

“You notice that something is off” – You don’t have to tell the character with a high passive Perception exactly what’s going on. Instead, you can tell them that they have a funny feeling about a situation. This will allow them to investigate further the gather details (using Perception, Investigation, Insight, etc. checks).

Set Passive DCs – When preparing for your campaign or writing adventures, make notes along the lines of “Creatures with a passive Perception of X notice Y.”

Record your characters passive skills – Passive skills aren’t useful if you have to continuously ask “What is your passive Perception?”. Passive skills are used by DMs to surprise players and help the game move quickly. If you have to stop the game to ask, your somewhat defeating the purpose of passive skills.

Ways to Improve Passive Perception in 5e

There aren’t a lot of ways to increase passive Perception. Here are the few methods available to those looking to become more perceptive:

    • Higher WIS can affect your passive Perception. If you have 20 WIS, that’s +5 to your score off the bat.
  • Expertise in Perception will double your proficiency bonus. 
  • The Observant feat adds +5 to your passive Perception and also increases your WIS.
  • Having advantage on Perception can add another +5 to your passive Perception score.

Passive Perception 5e FAQs

Do characters with high passive Perception automatically notice traps in 5e?

In official 5e adventures, there is usually a DC associated with traps. If a character were to have a passive Perception equal to or higher than that DC, they notice the trap immediately. Some DMs prefer that players still roll for traps. At this point the role of passive Perception in discovering traps takes a backseat.

Do you roll for passive Perception 5e?

Nope! This is an intentional mechanic to prevent excessive rolling. Usually characters that have a passive Perception higher than the DC required to perceive details automatically notice the detail in question.

Does expertise affect passive Perception 5e?

Yes, just like your regular proficiency bonus. You can theoretically reach +12 in your passive Perception by 17th level.

Does passive Perception help against surprise attacks 5e?

Passive Perception can help against enemies that are hiding. The DM should compare the Stealth checks of those enemies versus the character’s passive Perception. Anyone whose passive Perception doesn’t beat the Stealth roll is surprised.

Usually, this mechanic is used for ambushes in which the characters aren’t actively searching for enemies.

Does passive Perception supersede rolled Perception 5e?

This is more of a per-DM discussion. There’s no hard rule either way. In a Sage Advice podcast segment, Jeremy Crawford (Lead Rules Designer for D&D) clarifies this:

Passive Perception is always on. It’s impossible to roll an active Perception check that is below your passive score. If you’re rolling, it’s just to see if you can roll higher than your passive score.

This goes against the idea that this is discussed further up in the article, wherein this cancels the effectiveness of the Rogue’s Reliable Talent. Unfortunately, the definitive answer hasn’t been printed errata anywhere, so it is up to the DMs discretion.

Mike Bernier

Mike Bernier is the lead content writer and founder of Arcane Eye. He is a Adamantine best-selling author of Strixhaven: A Syllabus of Sorcery on DMs Guild and is a contributing author at D&D Beyond. Follow Mike on Twitter.

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