The Perception Shotgun

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I'm having a rather classic issue with Perception checks in my play-by-forum game, and I'm not sure I handled it right.

The PCs are on the outskirts of an encounter, but the area is foggy and they can't tell who is who. If they could, they'd go in blazing, but they don't want to assault (even non-lethally) possible allies. They made a bunch of cruddy perception checks, so I gave them very basic and ambiguous information. Then one of them rolled high. Bound to happen, of course. There's only about a 24% chance that, if they all roll, not one of a group of 5 PCs won't roll a 16, which even without training is going to be pretty good. I hadn't set any specific DCs for Perception, and neither did the adventure, but I felt this deserved something.

I didn't want to give the whole game away. I'm pretty sure the players know what's up and are simply doing a good job roleplaying their characters, but I didn't want to simply relieve the tension or negate the interesting planning they've been doing. Yeah, it's fun. So, I gave the player something, but not everything, not the key item they were looking for, i.e. an identifying mark on the creatures' faces. They now have positive identification of the creatures' weaponry (which is not itself conclusive) and have heard a fragment of their conversation that may spur them to some kind of action. I think that's fair. What do you think?

I probably should have set some Perception thresholds. Frankly, the reason I don't is because of shotgun checks. Even if I did, there's precedent in published material for Perception and Insight not to reveal everything, and I know a lot of people have already been doing that. So, my Perception thresholds, if I'd thought in advance about them, probably wouldn't have had a provision for the PCs knowing enough to go charging in. In fact, there's a key piece of information about the encounter that the adventure all but specifies that the PCs should NOT know.

Anyway, what do you think?

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

Historically, that's why they wore brightly colored uniforms and such.

More practically, I think you've already achieved the desired result, yes? The PCs aren't about to blindly fling AoEs in, nor charge whatever murky silhouette presents itself. That one of them had a good Perception check means they are telling each other to "be careful, there are friendlies in there". If the intended approach of the encounter is for the PCs to advance cautiously into the foggy area, figure out who's who once they get close, and only then get to the fighting, and the players realize this and are okay with it, just let the scenario play out.
That's Someone, with a capital S. "Cat's out of the bag on that one, isn't it? Who puts cats in bags, anyway? Cats hate bags." -Sheogorath, Oblivion
Historically, that's why they wore brightly colored uniforms and such.

More practically, I think you've already achieved the desired result, yes? The PCs aren't about to blindly fling AoEs in, nor charge whatever murky silhouette presents itself.

Well, what I want is an interesting scene and to reward the roleplaying that's going on. If a single Perception check tells them what they need to know, then I feel like their caution was pointless. If they'd gone in blazing, though, I'd've been fine with that and probably not even raised the issue of them not knowing who they were attacking.

I feel as though telling the characters the key piece of info would fly in the face of the roleplaying they've already done.

That one of them had a good Perception check means they are telling each other to "be careful, there are friendlies in there".

I may not have been clear. THEY are the ones assuming there might be friendlies there, though that's aided by the vauge description I gave in response to their initial low Perception checks. The information I provided for the high check was still ambiguous, but let them know that something was going on.

If the intended approach of the encounter is for the PCs to advance cautiously into the foggy area, figure out who's who once they get close, and only then get to the fighting, and the players realize this and are okay with it, just let the scenario play out.

There's no intended approach. The one who made the very good skill check explicitly stated that he hoped this would be enough to tell them what they needed in order to be sure, so he seems to think the intent is to "solve" the issue without risk. I think that's my main issue: There's no risk to shotgunning Perception checks. Since there's no risk, I feel like there should be no guarantee of getting what they want. I didn't call for the Perception checks, and they're mostly making them in anticipation of my asking for them, since this is play-by-forum and checks are often rolled up front to try to save time. But I feel that I should honor those checks at least a little.

The sad irony here is that I was complaining earlier about how I wish they'd just do something, instead of wasting days with these checks and back and forth about who should attempt which of several perfectly workable plans. If I would just tell them that it's okay to attack, we'd get to move forward. But I feel compelled to honor what they've done so far, which is to come up with those plans. Maybe if this was at a table and everyone had rolled at once, I would have just told them.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

I know a certain ex-PC paladin who'd have shouted at them, demanding they identify themselves.

I'd say you handled that right. Basic information about equipment gives the players some value for their successful perception check. You could also give a rough head count or some hints about the terrain if people are being perceptive.

Five pairs of eyes see more than one: I'd try to reveal more information depending on the number of "good enough" checks in addition to giving out more on silly high checks. Suppose we have a Barbarian rolling a poor check: He'd be able to tell there's at least two people out there, possibly more. Then the party's Avenger brings his lucky die and gets a high check: He sees about five human-like figures wearing heavy armour between ten and fifteen meters away; they seem to be armed with both swords and crossbows. The Bard also takes a peek and rolls moderately well, noticing that the open ground up ahead is wet and probably quite slippery.

This has some nice (imho) effects:


  • High skills matter. You definitely get more if you invest in a skill.

  • A single high check, which is bound to happen if enough people try, does not reveal every detail.

  • If the first player makes a sky-high check, other players can still contribute in a meaningful way.

  • Players with a low to moderate skill bonus can still contribute.


It's probably excessive to prepare information like this for every encounter out there. But you can usually look at the encounter makeup and improvise a little useful fact you could hand out without spoiling too much. Maybe it goes without saying, but stick to a single check per player - any more and a perceptive NPC might notice something and investigates.
I would have wished that I had thought of the following:
Rather than letting perception checks potentially ruin the drama, lay out the absolute baseline information that they will know from the start, no matter what they roll. Then lay out three pieces of information that will possibly be made available depending on the rolls:


  • Those who roll above X get one piece.

  • Those who roll above Y get two.

  • Those who roll above Z get all three.


That which you do not want them to know, they simply cannot know through perception.

Like I said, I would have wished I had thought of this. I am in no way saying that I would have thought of it ahead of time.
Here are the PHB essentia, in my opinion:
  • Three Basic Rules (p 11)
  • Power Types and Usage (p 54)
  • Skills (p178-179)
  • Feats (p 192)
  • Rest and Recovery (p 263)
  • All of Chapter 9 [Combat] (p 264-295)
A player needs to read the sections for building his or her character -- race, class, powers, feats, equipment, etc. But those are PC-specific. The above list is for everyone, regardless of the race or class or build or concept they are playing.
I believe that vagueness on successful Perception checks is used commonly as a technique because adventure design tends to be very linear given the system. All you're really doing is hiding the rails. For exactly the reasons you stated, you feel that if there is no cost to failure, then success shouldn't be absolute.

Therefore, I strive to be very honest with information when a PC makes a successful check. And when they fail, rather than provide a "null result," I add a complication. It's a cue for me to add something to the fiction that adds tension or offers a choice. On a success, having the information doesn't necessarily result in any potential benefit per se. It's what they do with that information that drives the story more than anything, rather than what they think about it.

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
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I believe that vagueness on successful Perception checks is used commonly as a technique because adventure design tends to be very linear given the system. All you're really doing is hiding the rails. For exactly the reasons you stated, you feel that if there is no cost to failure, then success shouldn't be absolute.

C'mon, there are no rails to hide. They could do anything they want, here, upto and including bagging the entire encounter and leaving or waiting. They decided to be stealthy. I'd've been within my rights just to declare that they'd been seen by the bad guys and move into the provision the game provided for that, but I decided to go with what they proposed.

Therefore, I strive to be very honest with information when a PC makes a successful check. And when they fail, rather than provide a "null result," I add a complication. It's a cue for me to add something to the fiction that adds tension or offers a choice.

I think I did that, by leaving the identities of the enemies ambiguous, though I didn't know the degree to which they'd take that. They're also making a bit much of how dangerous it would be simply to show themselves or try another plan. Things could always go wrong, but one crossbow attack won't kill any of them.

On a success, having the information doesn't necessarily result in any potential benefit per se. It's what they do with that information that drives the story more than anything, rather than what they think about it.

I guess I achieved that too. In general I don't plan for hidden information to be a big part of my games. I'd tell the players anything they wanted to know, because I trust them not to break anything too badly as a result. If one of the PCs said "Those aren't Fallcrest issue crossbows! Get them!" I'd be all for it.

Anyway, the mage used Ghost Sound to mimic a voice and now the bandits are threatening a hostage, so the jig is pretty much up.

Thanks for the responses.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

C'mon, there are no rails to hide. They could do anything they want, here, upto and including bagging the entire encounter and leaving or waiting. They decided to be stealthy. I'd've been within my rights just to declare that they'd been seen by the bad guys and move into the provision the game provided for that, but I decided to go with what they proposed.



My point is that obfuscating clues on success rather than giving it all up is a technique somewhat unique to linear game systems, otherwise the DM feels he is giving away "too much" and the planned reveals are "spoiled." In general. Perhaps that doesn't apply to your particular situation. The alternative is to have no reveals or reveals that come about organically in the fiction (even surprising the DM on occasion), but that's hard to do in a published adventure (if you're sticking to it) or in 4e in general because of the need to create encounters beforehand (if you want them to be particularly interesting).

 I think I did that, by leaving the identities of the enemies ambiguous, though I didn't know the degree to which they'd take that. They're also making a bit much of how dangerous it would be simply to show themselves or try another plan. Things could always go wrong, but one crossbow attack won't kill any of them.



It's cool that they're playing up that notion considering their relative power. You must have done a good job in the fiction to play it up. But the moment at which the one dude rolled a good Perception, the jig is up, right? Thus, I'd have chosen a different complication on the rest of the failed rolls, perhaps an even completely unrelated one. I'd have to have been there, really to say for sure.

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
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I think I did that, by leaving the identities of the enemies ambiguous, though I didn't know the degree to which they'd take that. They're also making a bit much of how dangerous it would be simply to show themselves or try another plan. Things could always go wrong, but one crossbow attack won't kill any of them.

It's cool that they're playing up that notion considering their relative power.

Yeah, I sort of get that, but at the same time it seems forced. I know they're not going to die, they probably know it, their characters would have or will come to expect it, yet we all have to play as though the PCs could die at any time.

But the moment at which the one dude rolled a good Perception, the jig is up, right?

No, that's specifically what I'm talking about avoiding, and what I avoided here. If they saw that the people had yellow skulls painted on their faces, the PCs would know to attack. Based on the description of the foggy weather and their poor initial Perception checks, I withheld that. When the good check came in, I still didn't feel it was right to reveal that, since planning and time had already been devoted to working on riskier, more interesting approaches.

There's another layer to this, and perhaps some instruction: The bandits have a "prisoner" who is actually an allied doppelganger. The adventure says "Any character who suspects a ruse can make a DC 20 Insight check to determine that the dwarf is not, in fact, the bandits’ prisoner or a DC 19 Perception check to spot the short sword hidden on the dwarf’s person." Nothing in there says I need to out-and-out inform the characters (though I might inform the players) that the "dwarf" is a doppelganger. In fact, I'm not even sure I'm going to check their passive skills against those DCs, since the line says "any character who suspects a ruse." Maybe, once they get closer.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

Yeah, I sort of get that, but at the same time it seems forced. I know they're not going to die, they probably know it, their characters would have or will come to expect it, yet we all have to play as though the PCs could die at any time.



I can see that. There is probably no way around that. It's just an expectation of the system. To that end, it's probably better to play into that design-wise rather than pretend otherwise, but whatever is fun is fun.

No, that's specifically what I'm talking about avoiding, and what I avoided here. If they saw that the people had yellow skulls painted on their faces, the PCs would know to attack. Based on the description of the foggy weather and their poor initial Perception checks, I withheld that. When the good check came in, I still didn't feel it was right to reveal that, since planning and time had already been devoted to working on riskier, more interesting approaches.



I think a lot of that will come down to questioning the PCs to be specific as to exactly what they're trying to perceive. That gives the DM more "outs" to focus on one thing with a success as opposed to everything. It also creates more fiction because it stimulates more conversation. You made a good call here.

There's another layer to this, and perhaps some instruction: The bandits have a "prisoner" who is actually an allied doppelganger. The adventure says "Any character who suspects a ruse can make a DC 20 Insight check to determine that the dwarf is not, in fact, the bandits’ prisoner or a DC 19 Perception check to spot the short sword hidden on the dwarf’s person." Nothing in there says I need to out-and-out inform the characters (though I might inform the players) that the "dwarf" is a doppelganger. In fact, I'm not even sure I'm going to check their passive skills against those DCs, since the line says "any character who suspects a ruse." Maybe, once they get closer.



Ah. See, now there's a perfect chance to offer them an opportunity with cost or to tell them the requirements and ask. "Yeah, those are the enemies you've been warned about. You can attack them and will likely win, but that might mean the dwarf buys the farm. What do you do?"

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
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This seems more of a skill check "machine gun" rather than "shotgun". As mentioned, it probably would have been better if the PCs had made their Perception checks simultaneously rather than one after the other after the other. Its sort of like the old "skinny wizard forces open door burly fighter failed to budge because of dice rolls" scenario.

My approach to Perception checks is that a PC who doesn't make the check isn't allowed to try again until something changes- they get closer/ the target becomes less obscured, or they are directed by another character who is aware: "its right over there, see it?". That last one might even warrant a circumstance bonus if the directions are well presented.

More on topic, how did the bandits do on their Perception checks? If they had noticed the PCs, it could have been the bandits calling out "who goes there?" or pulling back deeper into the fog to try to hide.
That's Someone, with a capital S. "Cat's out of the bag on that one, isn't it? Who puts cats in bags, anyway? Cats hate bags." -Sheogorath, Oblivion
This seems more of a skill check "machine gun" rather than "shotgun". As mentioned, it probably would have been better if the PCs had made their Perception checks simultaneously rather than one after the other after the other. Its sort of like the old "skinny wizard forces open door burly fighter failed to budge because of dice rolls" scenario.

My approach to Perception checks is that a PC who doesn't make the check isn't allowed to try again until something changes- they get closer/ the target becomes less obscured, or they are directed by another character who is aware: "its right over there, see it?". That last one might even warrant a circumstance bonus if the directions are well presented.



Good example, good way to handle it. The ol' wizard opening the door the fighter pulled his back on is classic!

If a player wants to make multiple rolls, it's a cue for the DM to ask questions to tease the fiction out of them. "How is this attempt different from the last when you saw nothing? Tell me what you're doing to try and improve your odds of finding something." Then let them respond. Ask more follow-up questions until you're satisfied (and hopefully the PC has put themselves in a spot), then ask for a new roll. At least then, you've gotten more story with the table transaction and that's gold for a DM because he can then react to what the player has said with new complications...

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
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This seems more of a skill check "machine gun" rather than "shotgun". As mentioned, it probably would have been better if the PCs had made their Perception checks simultaneously rather than one after the other after the other. Its sort of like the old "skinny wizard forces open door burly fighter failed to budge because of dice rolls" scenario.

Yes, it's a general problem with skills when there's no penalty to making checks. That's why I prefer checks in combat (where they cost an action) or in skill challenges (where they risk complete failure) or both.

More on topic, how did the bandits do on their Perception checks? If they had noticed the PCs, it could have been the bandits calling out "who goes there?" or pulling back deeper into the fog to try to hide.

The bandits didn't make Perception checks, nor did the players make Stealth checks. I simply decided, for a number of reasons, that they PCs were able to sneak up at least to the encounter area. If they'd decided to sneak in, the bandits still would not have made skill checks, and the PCs would have rolled against whatever I deemed was an appropriate DC for the challenge.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

Yes, it's a general problem with skills when there's no penalty to making checks. That's why I prefer checks in combat (where they cost an action) or in skill challenges (where they risk complete failure) or both.



Definitely a problem. This is why I take part of another system and use failed skill checks as a way to make a "soft move" and add a complication. For the failed skill checks, I might have had the sound of bushes rustling or footsteps or unrelated conversation coming their way (say, between two bandits coming back from patrol or watering a tree), then asked, "The sound is getting closer. What do you do?"

Adds dramatic tension and doesn't take away from the guy who actually made the check and got the information about the other threat "over there."

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
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This is the sort of situation where a group check is appropriate. I don't remember where the mechanic was first presented, but it came post-DMG.

Everyone makes the check vs the Easy DC and if at least half of the group succeeds, the group collectively succeeds on the check. No more "dartboard" results.
This is the sort of situation where a group check is appropriate. I don't remember where the mechanic was first presented, but it came post-DMG.

It was proposed in the DMG under the Skill Challenge rules. Even so, I dislike them. And I don't see them making sense in this situation since one's perception should not really pull down someone else's perception. But I guess it depends on what it means to fail the check. If it's just that the party as a whole is not on the ball and suffers in terms of group coordination, via an initiative penalty or something, it could make sense.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

This is the sort of situation where a group check is appropriate. I don't remember where the mechanic was first presented, but it came post-DMG.

It was proposed in the DMG under the Skill Challenge rules. Even so, I dislike them. And I don't see them making sense in this situation since one's perception should not really pull down someone else's perception. But I guess it depends on what it means to fail the check. If it's just that the party as a whole is not on the ball and suffers in terms of group coordination, via an initiative penalty or something, it could make sense.


It could make sense depending on how it's framed. If it's framed as "you see X," then of course the group check doesn't make sense, as there is no reason that the group would make you not see X. If, however, it is about group hierarchy and deference to supposedly superior skills, then it works. Sure, you thought you saw the seal of your patron, but your elven scout swears to Correlion that those tabards carry the symbol of the dark lord of the eastern marshes, and he's much better at this sort of stuff than you. The choice for who makes the Perception check is then framed as who the party trusts the most.

If these are individual checks, I'd likely make them happen in initiative order instead of all at once, requiring the characters to get closer than they are to make a clear ID. The players would risk giving up position and a surprise round in order to make sure they aren't firing on friendlies. Or, they could just trust the first person to make the check.
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