A Guide to Passive Perception in 5e, Woman with her dog sitting atop a cliff looking over a forest

An Easy Beginner Player & GM Guide to Passive Perception in 5e

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition includes rules for passive Ability Checks. The only actually featured on character sheets, though, is Passive Perception. What’s more, this ruleset brings a myriad of questions on how Passive Perception in 5e works.
 
What is Passive Perception? How do you calculate it? How do you increase it? How does advantage or disadvantage affect it? And, why or when should Game Masters use it?
 
This article goes over everything Game Masters need to know about how Passive Perception in 5e works.

What is Passive Perception in 5e?

Passive Perception 5e, Woman ranger and her wolf companion

Passive Perception in 5e is a creature’s ability to observe their surroundings without actively searching. It’s a background Ability Check which determines a creature’s perceptiveness while otherwise engaged.

Technically, D&D 5e has rules for passive checks in general, not just for Passive Perception. That score is simply the only one explicitly called out on your character sheet.

The rules for passive checks come from page 175 of the Player’s Handbook:

A passive check is a special kind of ability check that doesn’t involve any die rolls. Such a check can represent the average result for a task done repeatedly, such as searching for secret doors over and over again, or can be used when the DM wants to secretly determine whether the characters succeed at something without rolling dice, such as noticing a hidden monster.

Source: DnD Beyond | Basic Rules – Chapter 7: Using Ability Scores

Basically, a passive check in D&D 5e is an ability check which assumes a base score modified by the relevant Ability Score and corresponding skill if applicable.

Passive Perception is a passive check using a creature’s Perception skill modifier. It represents a creature’s situational awareness at any given moment when they aren’t actively searching for something or observing their surroundings.

Is Passive Perception an Optional Rule?

Whether Passive Perception is an optional rule is debatable. It’s an offshoot of the core Perception skill and integral for keeping the pace of your game flowing smoothly. But, a designer for D&D 5e has stated it’s an option for Game Masters to use in their games.

Strictly speaking, Passive Perception isn’t an optional rule. It’s always present and is never presented as optional in the Player’s Handbook.

That said, Jeremy Crawford, one of the Lead Designers of D&D 5e, said on his Twitter:

Passive Perception is an option that a DM chooses to use or not. If you use it, Perception checks are typically made only when characters actively search for something, and normally, they’re searching because their passive Perception failed to notice something.

Source: Twitter

This seems to contradict the rules spelled out in the PHB. But, it’s a bit more nuanced than it seems.

Game Masters essentially have the option to use a creature’s Passive Perception or make them roll an active Perception check. This doesn’t necessarily make Passive Perception optional in the strictest sense. Rather, the mechanic is always in place, whether it becomes relevant is up to the GM.

That may seem overly pedantic, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter.

As with anything in 5e, Game Masters have the final say on what they want to include in their game. While Passive Perception isn’t meant to be optional, GMs may choose to ignore it entirely. Neither method of running a game is more correct over the other so long as everyone at the table understands how it’ll get handled over the course of the game.

How to Calculate Passive Perception

Elk keeping a lookout

Calculating your character’s or a creature’s Passive Perception follows a simple formula: 10 + Perception Modifier. Of course, there will be variations depending on whether your character or monster has proficiency in the base Perception skill or not.

It’s honestly as easy as that.

The formula for determining your Passive Perception in 5e is:

Passive Perception = 10 + Perception Modifier

Now, this may get a bit confusing when you start considering proficiency in Perception. But, the exact same calculation applies.

Basically, if a creature doesn’t have proficiency in the Perception skill the formula looks like this:

Passive Perception = 10 + Wisdom Modifier

Since Perception uses your Wisdom Ability Score by default, that’s pretty much all you add when you figure out your Passive Perception. So, even if you don’t have proficiency in Perception, you still essentially add that skill’s modifier because it’ll be the same as your Wisdom modifier.

How to Increase Passive Perception

Mysterious man in a trenchcoat with his deer companion approached by someone

Players have a multitude of ways for increasing their Passive Perception. These methods include; increasing your Wisdom stat, obtaining proficiency in the Perception skill, taking the Observant feat, assigning the Perception skill to the Expertise feat, or through various magic items.

Increasing your Passive Perception basically means increasing your Perception modifier. Now, you can either do this directly or indirectly through a variety of methods.

  • Increase your Wisdom Ability Score
  • Gain Proficiency in the Perception skill
  • Take the Observant feat
  • Use Expertise if you play a class with it
  • Find a magic item which increases it

Players (and GMs to a certain extent) can use any or all of these to boost their character’s Passive Perception. So, let’s go over each method in a bit more detail.

Increase Your Wisdom Score

Increasing your character’s Wisdom Ability Score is one of the more obvious ways of boosting your Passive Perception. Since the base Perception skill uses it as its corresponding stat and Passive Perception uses this skill, having a good Wisdom score means having a good Passive Perception.

To put it simply; the Perception skill uses Wisdom as its default Ability Score, and Passive Perception uses your Perception modifier in its calculation. So, increasing your Wisdom score means increasing your Perception modifier which means increasing your Passive Perception.

Of course, this means reaching numbers in your Wisdom stat since every even number comes with a +1 increase to your modifier. As such, you’ll need to make sure you reach those even numbers to get an actual increase to your Passive Perception.

Additionally, you should know when you get Ability Score Increases according to your class. You’ll only get them at certain level ups, usually roughly every 4th level, but this varies from class to class.

Take Proficiency in Perception

Gaining proficiency in the Perception skill lets you add your proficiency bonus to your Passive Perception. This means your character’s Passive Perception steadily increases as they level up on its own.

As mentioned earlier, Passive Perception uses your Perception skill modifier. So, having proficiency in Perception means adding your Proficiency Bonus to both the base skill and your Passive Perception score.

At character creation, you’ll have access to a variety of skills to take proficiency in through your class, background, and maybe race or lineage. If you want to increase your Passive Perception as early as possible, make sure your have proficiency in the Perception skill while making your character.

Aside from character creation, you could take a feat like Skilled from the Player’s Handbook or Skill Expert in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything to gain proficiency in Perception later in your game.

Also, some class features like the College of Lore Bard’s Bonus Proficiencies grant you more skill proficiencies. But, you’ll need to play those specific classes to take advantage of this option.

Finally, you could multiclass into Bard, Ranger, or Rogue. All of these classes grant you 1 skill proficiency when you multiclass into them. In the case of Ranger and Rogue, you need to pick from their available skill lists, but luckily, both classes include Perception as an option.

Take the Observant Feat

The Observant feat gives you a flat +5 increase to your passive Perception. This makes is a good, one-time boost to this Ability Check.

Easy as that.

Also, it’s about the only option which directly and explicitly boosts your Passive Perception. It doesn’t improve your base Perception skill in anyway short of if you count the small Wisdom stat increase.

Passive Perception Expertise

If you’re playing a class which gains the Expertise feature, you can include Perception as one of your skills to double your proficiency bonus for. This, in turn, means you add double your proficiency bonus to your Passive Perception.

Both the Bard and Rogue classes get the Expertise feature which reads:

…choose two of your skill proficiencies. Your proficiency bonus is doubled for any ability check you make that uses either of the chosen proficiencies.

Source: DnD Beyond | Basic Rules – Bard

Now, this is the Bard’s version but the Rogue’s works basically the same way with a few small differences.

Bards don’t get Expertise until 3rd-level while Rogues get it at 1st. Additionally, a Rogue may forego 1 skill for Expertise in Thieves’ Tools. And, they get to choose 2 more skills at 6th-level.

For the purposes of increasing Passive Perception; Expertise lets you double your proficiency bonus for 2 chosen skills. If 1 of those skills is Perception, that means you also double your proficiency bonus for Passive Perception.

This basically means even more increases as you level up without you having to do anything extra.

For example, a 1st-level Rogue with proficiency and Expertise in Perception and a 14 in Wisdom (+2) means they have a +6 Perception modifier (+2 proficiency bonus doubled to +4 from Expertise & a +2 Wisdom modifier) meaning they have a 16 Passive Perception. Once they reach 5th-level, when their proficiency bonus increases to +3, and assuming they don’t increase their Wisdom score, their Passive Perception increases to 18 thanks to Expertise doubling their proficiency bonus.

Find the Right Magic Items

Certain magical items either confer bonuses to your Wisdom ability score or otherwise increase your Passive Perception.

Now, the biggest issue with relying on magic items to increase your Passive Perception in 5e is the fact that you have little to no influence on their availability. This relies almost entirely on a Game Master including any of these magic items in your game.

That said, players can and should talk with their GM if there’s a specific magic item they want at some point during their game. You should understand this doesn’t guarantee your GM will include that item in the game as they reserve the right to not have it available. But, communicating your wishes for your character never hurts.

The following magic items improve your Passive Perception in some way:

  • Candle of Invocation (Basic Rules)
  • Eyes of the Eagle (Basic Rules)
  • Ioun Stone of Insight (Basic Rules)
  • Stone of Good Luck (Basic Rules)
  • Robe of Eyes (Basic Rules)
  • Rod of Alertness (Basic Rules)
  • Sentinel Shield (DMG)
  • Tome of Understanding (Basic Rules)
  • Book of Exalted Deeds (DMG)
  • Blackrazor (DMG)

Of course, some of these magic items require attunement, so you should understand how that ruleset works to take full advantage of them.

How to Use Passive Perception

Horseback warrior keeping watch

Using Passive Perception involves understanding when it’s appropriate to use it and when not to. Generally speaking, Passive Perception is a tool for Game Masters to keep their games moving forward by not preventing their players from getting stuck due to poor Perception checks.

Passive Perception and passive checks in general almost seem antithetical to what makes D&D and other TTRPGs fun; they cut out the act of rolling dice. Players and GMs love their clicky math rocks, so why would you ever want to remove that element from play?

The main thing to remember when using Passive Perception is it’s a tool to keep a game from stalling. Sometimes, players don’t look for the right thing or they don’t need to look at all because they’re passively observant on their own.

That said, there are times when using Passive Perception may not make much sense.

The best times to use Passive Perception instead of calling for a regular Perception check include:

  • The player characters don’t need to actively search for something
  • The game starts to stall or slow down
  • You want to reward the high-Perception character(s) for their build
  • You want your players to feel paranoid

Let’s go over each of these use cases for Passive Perception so you get a better idea for each instance.

The Player Characters Don’t Need to Actively Look

If the player characters, or at least one of them, don’t need to actively search for something, that’s the perfect time to use their Passive Perception.

Here’s the deal; if an item is only slightly hidden or stashed away, there’s little reason for rolling an active Perception check. A player character with a high enough Passive Perception should be able to find these things without rolling.

This also applies to creatures rolling Dexterity (Stealth) checks against the players, attempting to pick their pocket through a Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check, or for spotting less-than-discrete hazards.

Now, when a player asks if they see / hear / smell anything, that’s when you have them roll a Perception check. Their character wants to actively spend time to find something.

Remember, Passive Perception is exactly that; passive. It’s a creature’s background awareness in any given situation. Once they turn their attention to observing their surroundings, then you have them roll.

You Want to Keep the Game Flowing

The main purpose of Passive Perception is to keep a game flowing. If the players start getting stuck, use the highest Passive Perception amongst them to nudge them forward.

Game sessions sometimes come to a halt because the player characters get stuck trying to find something. Maybe they can’t find the right waypoint marker or lose track of the cart they’re tailing.

Using Passive Perception in-place of a Perception check reduces the amount of time spent figuring out modifiers and running the risk of low rolls.

Now, major plot points shouldn’t rely on Ability Checks in general because of these risks. So, keep that in mind. But, sometimes the players just don’t roll well or aren’t looking for the right thing.

Passive Perception helps Game Masters maintain the flow of the game.

Basically, keep track of each player character’s Passive Perception and compare that against the Difficulty Classes (DC) of checks. If a character’s passive meets or exceeds the DC, don’t make them roll and waste everyone’s time. Just tell them what they see / hear / smell to keep the game moving.

Reward Player Characters with a High Passive Perception

Game Masters should reward their player’s specific builds from time to time. Letting the character with the highest Passive Perception shine is a good way of validating that player’s choices.

If a player builds their character to have a high Passive Perception, a Game Master should let them take advantage of their abilities. Constantly foregoing passive checks in favor for rolling dice may eventually make these players feel like their build is useless. Especially if you don’t treat Passive Perception as a floor (more on that later).

So, let the high Passive Perception character act as a sort of perpetual lookout for the party. They see, hear, or smell things without having to roll for them.

Now, you shouldn’t do this all the time. Oftentimes, the player characters need to roll to see if they succeed in active searches. After all, your awareness may not extend to trying to find something which usually constitutes an Intelligence (Investigation) check anyway.

Just remember; if you have a player who has a character with a high Passive Perception score, let them use it from time-to-time.

Instill Paranoia in Your Players

Asking what every character’s Passive Perception is and then not elaborating is a great way for instilling paranoia in your players. This may motivate them to further the story as they start worrying about why you asked.

This sounds much more sadistic than it is…mostly.

Paranoia is a fantastic motivator for players. Once they feel like something negative is about to happen or has happened due to their inaction, they’ll usually try to move things along much faster. So, this kind of goes hand-in-hand with using Passive Perception to improve the flow of your game.

All it takes is you, as the Game Master, asking "What’s everyone’s Passive Perception?" Once you get everyone’s answers, don’t elaborate. Even if your players ask why, give a noncommittal or dismissive answer; "No reason" or "Just checking" are amazing answers in this situation.

Players are already a paranoid bunch, speaking from experience. As soon as the GM asks for something and doesn’t elaborate, their imaginations usually run wild, coming up with situations and dangers that are usually much worse than what a Game Master has planned.

As such, they’ll want to push the narrative forward quickly to either prevent or stop whatever they may have missed due to their perceived low Passive Perception scores.

What is a Good Passive Perception?

Bear looking at something

A good Passive Perception is more dependent on what you want your character to achieve. A Passive Perception score of 20 is generally a very good score, but it takes creating your character a specific way to get there.

Determining a "good" Passive Perception relies on what you want to accomplish with your character. If you don’t care that much about having an observant character, you can get away with a 10 to 12 score. But, if you want a deliberately aware character, you’ll want to push your score as high as possible.

Getting your Passive Perception score to 20 is a pretty good level and allows you to "pass" a lot of checks. You can get your Passive Perception up to 32 without advantage or magic items (20 in Wisdom for +5; Expertise for +12 at 17th-level; Observant for +5; Base 10 + 5 + 12 + 5 = 32) but you really need to specialize to achieve this.

Honestly, a good Passive Perception relies on an understanding of how Difficulty Classes work in 5e.

Passive Perception & Difficulty Classes

Understanding what the general Difficulty Classes (DCs) are and their relative difficulty helps players know what a good Passive Perception is. It also helps Game Masters in setting the DCs for their adventures.

Almost any challenge your character comes across has a DC assigned to it. Spells which force saving throws, traps, environmental hazards; these all have a Difficulty Class set which a creature needs to meet or exceed to pass.

Luckily, 5e has a handy guide to setting DCs passed on how hard they tend to be.

  • Very Easy: DC 5
  • Easy: DC 10
  • Medium: DC 15
  • Hard: DC 20
  • Very Hard: DC 25
  • Nearly Impossible: DC 30
Source: DnD Beyond | Basic Rules – Chapter 7: Using Ability Scores

Now, these are the typical DCs. They provide a good resource to guide Game Masters on setting how hard a check should be.

Comparing this with Passive Perception, if you have a 20 in your score, you’re technically succeeding at "Hard" checks. If you build for Passive Perception and get it up to 32, you’re passing Nearly Impossible checks and your character can basically see anything they need to. But, you won’t really be able to reliably reach this score until you reach 17th-level with your character.

Active vs Passive Perception

Archer woman keeping a lookout

The difference between active and Passive Perception is simply the act of rolling. An active Perception check involves rolling a 20-sided die and adding the relevant modifiers. But, Passive Perception is exactly that; passive. A player character or monster uses this number as their general awareness in any given situation.

Honestly, the main difference between active and Passive Perception is whether you roll for it or not. If you roll a Perception check, that’s active Perception. If you don’t roll, you use a creature’s Passive Perception.

The idea between the 2 is that a creature rolls an active Perception check by rolling a d20 and adding their Perception modifier when their Passive Perception score isn’t high enough to detect or find something.

Is Passive Perception a Floor in 5e?

Wolf observing its surroundings

Passive Perception can be used as a "floor" in 5e. Basically, Game Masters may make it so a player character or monster can’t roll for below their Passive Perception score when making a Wisdom (Perception) check. But, many choose not to rule it this way.

The line of thought on treating Passive Perception as a floor is it’s "always on" even when rolling an active Perception check. So, even if you roll lower than your score, your Passive Perception still counts. Essentially,

Greg Tito and Jeremy Crawford discussed this on a 2017 episode of Dragon Talk (around 22 minutes in). They basically confirm that Passive Perception serves as the minimum possible a creature can roll on a Perception check. When you roll an active Perception check, you’re basically just trying to get a higher number.

Now, many Game Masters disagree with this. Some feel it devalues certain class abilities like the Rogue’s Reliable Talent feature. Others simply don’t treat passive skills as the floor for anything.

So, whether Passive Perception is a floor in 5e entirely depends on the Game Master.

Advantage & Disadvantage on Passive Perception

Warrior woman keeping a lookout in an open field

If you have Advantage or Disadvantage on Passive Perception, you simply either add or subtract 5 from your regular score, respectively.

It’s honestly as easy as that.

Page 175 of the Player’s Handbook explicitly states in the Passive Checks section:

If the character has advantage on the check, add 5. For disadvantage, subtract 5.

Source: DnD Beyond | Basic Rules – Chapter 7: Using Ability Scores

Plain and simple.

There’s some mathematical wizardry which goes into figuring out why advantage and disadvantage is equivalent to +/-5 that I’m not qualified to explain. But, Online Dungeon Master has a breakdown of it if you’re into the statistics behind this mechanic.

Now, Game Masters should understand what imposes advantage and disadvantage on Perception, and by extension Passive Perception, checks. Lightly obscured areas like dim light or thin fog impose disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks, so creature’s should have that -5 to Passive Perception while within these areas.

Stealth vs Passive Perception

Warrior woman hiding from a giant snake monster

When rolling for Stealth against Passive Perception, you essentially treat an unawares creature’s Passive Perception as the Difficulty Class. Since you aren’t making a contested check, there’s not need to have the non-stealth creature roll a Wisdom (Perception) check.

Unless a creature is already actively scouting an area, you should treat that creature’s Passive Perception as the DC for a sneaking creature’s Stealth check. You’re basically running a skill contest between the 2, but the Passive Perception acts as the unawares creature’s roll.

Now, if a creature is actively paying attention to their surroundings, then you’d roll opposing Dexterity (Stealth) and Wisdom (Perception) checks.

Page 177 of the Player’s Handbook features the rules on how you compare Stealth with a creature’s Passive Perception:

To determine whether such a creature notices you, the DM compares your Dexterity (Stealth) check with that creature’s passive Wisdom (Perception) score….

Source: DnD Beyond | Basic Rules – Chapter 7: Using Ability Scores

So, you compare your Dexterity (Stealth) check against a creature’s Passive Perception score to determine how successful at sneaking you are.

Interactions with Invisible Creatures

Players and Game Masters don’t treat Passive Perception any differently when it comes to invisible creatures. The only differences is a creature can’t see an invisible creature, assuming their Stealth check fails, only hear them.

You’ll follow the normal steps for Stealth vs Passive Perception. The difference is an invisible creature may attempt to hide at any moment without needing to find suitable obstacles or means to do so.

You do this because the Invisible condition confers the benefits of the heavily obscured rules in 5e to a hiding creature. This means other creatures are effectively suffer the Blinded condition which means they can’t see the invisible creature.

That said, invisible creatures are not beyond observation. They still may make noise, knock something over, disturb puddles of water or dust. This is why Game Masters don’t rule Passive Perception differently for invisible creatures; this stat applies to all methods of observation including hearing, touch, and possible smell.

Of course, an invisible creature enjoys the other benefits of this condition. But, when it comes to sneaking around while invisible and beating Passive Perception, they basically simply gain the ability to attempt to hide at any time.

Passive Perception 5e FAQ

Warrior man watching dragons fight in the distance

Does Passive Perception Detect Traps?

Whether Passive Perception detects traps in 5e is up to the Game Master. Generally speaking, Passive Perception can aid in finding traps as it represents a creature’s baseline, constant situational awareness.

Game Masters have a couple options when determining how a player character may go about finding traps. At the top-most level, you have to roll a Wisdom (Perception) or Intelligence (Investigation) check. After all, your character is going out of their way to find and, hopefully, avoid traps.

On the other hand, a GM may choose to use Passive Perception or Investigation to detect traps if they so choose. The idea here is your character has a baseline awareness which extends to identifying traps and other imminent hazards.

So, Game Masters; understand you have this option to both make play progress more smoothly and reward the high-Perception character. And players; ask your GM how they’d rule this at their table.

Is Passive Perception an Ability Check?

Yes, technically Passive Perception is an Ability Check in 5e. While you don’t roll anything, it still uses an Ability Score and a skill.

Technically, Passive Perception counts as an Ability Check.

Strictly speaking; an Ability Check is any roll a creature makes that uses one of their Ability Scores and isn’t an attack roll or saving throw. While you don’t roll anything for Passive Perception, it does use Wisdom for determining your score. Also, it’s basically like you always roll a 10 and add your Perception modifier.

Is Passive Perception "Always On"?

Yes, Passive Perception is "always on" so to speak with the exception of becoming Unconscious. It represents a creature’s base-level, constant awareness in any given situation.

Passive Perception is exactly what it sounds like; passive. It represents a creature’s situational awareness at any given moment.

The only exception to when Passive Perception isn’t "on" is when a creature becomes unconscious either due to natural or magically induced sleep or by falling unconscious due to damage.

Does Passive Perception Work in Combat Encounters?

Yes, Passive Perception works in combat. But, the effectiveness of it depends on the Game Master. They may impose disadvantage on it due to the chaos of battle.

Since Passive Perception is "always on", that means it still works during combat.

Now, a battle is a chaotic situation. As such, your GM may impose disadvantage on your Passive Perception during a combat encounter or some other sort of penalty. Alternatively, they may rule you need to roll a Perception check to see anything specific even if you have a good Passive Perception score.

Honestly, it’s all dependent on how your GM rules how Passive Perception works in combat.

 

Summary on Passive Perception in 5e

That should cover everything you need to know about Passive Perception in D&D 5e.

Passive Perception is a passive Ability Check using a creature’s Wisdom (Perception) modifier in its calculation. It represents a creature’s baseline awareness in any given situation when they aren’t actively observing their environment. As such, increases to a creature’s Wisdom Ability Score also increase their Passive Perception. There’s differences in opinions on whether Game Masters should treat Passive Perception as a floor for Perception checks and depends on the table.

Do you use Passive Perception in your game? Why or why not? Leave a comment below with your thoughts!

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