Skills: passive, active and proficient

In previous posts, I have looked at A history of skills in BECMI, looked at the different 5e skills in detail, and explored what skills can (and equally importantly can’t) do. I’ve looked at complex tasks and negotiations which require more than one skill check. I keep thinking I’ve discussed different types of skill check, but while I’ve talked about the different skills, I haven’t looked at the different ways they’re used.

Different ways they’re used? What are you on about, Melestrua?

Hopefully there’s a bit of a clue in the title. I’m talking about Passive skill checks versus Active skills checks. And what’s the point to Proficiency? I’ve hinted at both in the previous posts – Passive vs Active in A flash of Insight into skills, and the paradox of Proficiency in Skills aren’t magic, but a recent discussion on Sly Flourish’s Discord chat made me think it’s worth a dedicated article.

The basic problem

As I mention in Skills aren’t magic, there’s a bit of a paradox if you adjudicate everything using skills checks. Skill bonuses range from -4 (an ability score of 3) to +5 (an ability score of 20), with most characters falling in the range -2 to +3. That’s only a difference of 25% of the range of a d20.

Proficiency in a skill means you get to add your Proficiency bonus to the check. Which is +2 for levels 1-4, and only increases by 1 (5%) for every four levels. This means beginning characters only have a 10% (2 in 20) better chance than someone without any training but with the same ability score.

In other words, the randomness of the roll in most cases far outweighs the impact of the skill bonus. This can lead to some very strange outcomes.

Say the party are trying to cross a river on a plank bridge. The GM decides this is fairly easy, but there’s a chance of failure – DC10.

  • Marcella the trained Acrobat (+2) with 17 Dexterity (+3). She rolls a 3, giving her an aggregate of 8 and falls off,
  • But clumsy Josua the bookish wizard with 5 Dexterity (no proficiency, -3) rolls a 16, giving an aggregate of 13 and gets across easily.

That acrobat training didn’t really count for much…

So what can you do to make a skill meaningful?

Passive versus Active skills checks

First, let’s look at the difference between passive skills checks and active skills checks.

Here’s what the Players Handbook has to say about Passive skills checks:

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.

Here’s how to determine a character’s total for a passive check:

10 + all modifiers that normally apply to the check

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

D&D Basic rules

That’s okay as far as it goes, but I don’t find it very helpful. It’s both too specific and not specific enough.

A passive skills check represents what the experienced campaigner could do just by being generally aware and capable. It’s most often applied to Wisdom (Perception) checks, representing what they would naturally notice in passing through being alert and observant.

Have you had the experience where you’re driving along, thinking about something else, and suddenly your attention snaps back to the road. That’s your passive perception kicking in and alerting you.

An active skills check (where the player rolls) represents the character taking some specific action to apply their skill in more detail. This should build on top of what they can pick up or achieve using their passive ability. Going back to the driving example, this would be you noting the brake lights coming on on the cars up ahead, and spotting the lorry which has just decided to pull out and overtake another causing everyone in the outside lane to have to slow down from 70mph to 60mph.

Or to put it into a game example, imagine the party are going along a dungeon corridor and are approaching a trap.

Their Passive Perception represents clues they get from the environment just by being there and being alert and being an expert adventurer. Each character has a passive perception of 10 + their Perception modifier. So if a 3rd-level character has a Wisdom of 12 (+1) and proficiency (+2), their Perception modifier will be +3, making their PP 13. This means if the trap is given a DC13 or lower to notice, they will pick up on there being something wrong.

Getting active

However, this shouldn’t mean they automatically get given the full details. Instead they maybe get told about scrapes on the floor, a discoloured floor tile – hints that there’s something worth investigating. Or maybe they get told they have a bad feeling about the corridor ahead.

To learn more a player will need pick up on this and ask to investigate in more detail. At which point they’re into active investigation.

If they’re looking actively, I would tend to give them more information for free. Maybe this is where they get the scrapes on the floor, the discoloured floor tile. Maybe they actually spot the floor tile is loose. This reflects the greater attention they are placing on the area, and avoids a bad roll meaning they discover less through active looking than through passive looking.

However, there comes a point where even actively looking only has a chance of success, and here’s where an skill roll comes in. Probably an Intelligence (Investigation) check in this instance to determine how much they find. So when they say they’re trying to check for a trap, ask them to make an Intelligence (Investigation) check, and vary the information they get depending on their score. Whatever they roll tell them the tile is loose, but maybe they need to score 10 to spot the wire and 15 to spot the crack in the wall where the blade will come out. With that information they can take action to try to prevent the trap triggering or avoid it.

Note that Passive checks only make sense for skills where you’re picking up clues, so Perception, Insight, Investigation, elements of Medicine, Survival or Animal Handling related to spotting dangers and problems, elements of Religion related to acting correctly in a religious setting. They are particularly useful when just asking the player to make a check might alert them to the fact that there’s something to pay more attention to.

Most skills, by their nature, have to be applied actively – Athletics, Acrobatics, Sleight of Hand, Stealth, Persuasion, Performance, etc. I would probably also add Arcana, History and Intimidation to this, though I could see an argument for very occasionally allowing a passive check.

Making proficiency meaningful

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Proficiency feeds into the Perception and Investigation checks above. But as I mention at the start, for low-level characters it only improves the chance of success by 10%. Was it really worth it?

Well, you can make it worth it. Maybe decide characters with Proficiency automatically succeed. If that feels too much, you could give them Advantage, which boosts the 10% improvement to 35%. Or maybe Proficiency is a pre-requisite for being able to do something at all.

Another approach which lends itself particularly well to knowledge-based checks is to vary the amount and style of information a character can gain depending on whether they have Proficiency.

For example, the group come across a door with a particular symbol engraved onto it.

Maybe a character without proficiency who succeeds on their Arcana check gets that it’s a symbol of a god who used to be worshipped here.

A character with proficiency might get the “symbol of a god” whatever their score. On success they may also get that it’s the symbol of Kraa’akt, a firebreathing lizardman deity. On a really good roll they might even get that Kraa’akt encouraged his followers to scourge the unbelievers with fire – hints to possible impending traps.

In summary

So where have we got to?

  • Passive skills reflect what you notice naturally; they are good for situations where you don’t want to alert the party to something being out there by asking for a roll
  • It feels like active skills should be able to get more detail because you’re giving your full attention (and to compensate for the variable success due to a dice roll)
  • Consider allowing Proficiency to give automatic success on some checks, be a pre-requisite to succeed on others, and increase the amount of detail the player receives

How do you use skills? How do you make Proficiency meaningful? Discuss in the comments below.

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