“You Don’t Notice Anything.” – Why Perception is Rubbish, and How To Make It Better

Over on his blog, @vinegarymink has posted about Failing Forward – ensuring that failed challenges are just as fun as successful ones. Half way through playing a game of Pendragon (played ‘straight’ and devoid of indie pretentions – and a fantastic game, don’t get me wrong) this week, a realisation came to me somewhere around our fifth Awareness check. Perception is a bit rubbish. It’s a ubiquitous skill in all trad systems, and one of the hardest to “fail forward” with. It’s usually quite hard to fail at all with it, which is why I think it often leaves me frustrated as a GM. I’m going to go through some of the issues with it, and then suggest some hacks that can overcome them.

Awareness 15: the essential Knightly skill
  • If it’s something the group could notice, only one player needs to notice, and they tell the others. Having everyone roll makes a group perception check trivially easy – the probabilities of just one person having to pass make them super generous. If you’ve got a 50% chance to pass the check, with the 4 players you’ve got a whopping 94% chance of at least somebody noticing – and with something harder, with a 25% chance to notice, its still at 68%.
  • Failure is usually crap. “You don’t notice anything” creates a disconnect, because by asking for the roll, the player most certainly knows there’s something to notice. D&D5e tries to solve that with Passive Perception scores, but that’s crap too – bounded accuracy means that they have a really tight range, and they concentrate the first problem – the cleric’s going to notice and tell everyone.
  • Clue restriction is rubbish. If there’s something to notice, we should want our players to notice it. When you’re negotiating with the Romulan Captain, I want my players to notice that she’s stalling for time – and even if they fail, because of the point above they know there’s something off about her.

So, how can we fix that? Here’s a few techniques.

Have Failure Consequences, or Don’t Roll

For every Perception check you call, have a clear idea of a non-restrictive consequence of failure. This is good advice for every skill check – see Alex’s blog post for more ideas – but especially important for Perception, because its failure consequences are so often not-fun. If you can’t think of a consequence for failure – don’t call for the check, and just tell them.

Have Success Benefits, or Don’t Roll

Equally, instead of just telling the players if you have a Perception check you can’t think of a cool failure condition, give them a benefit for passing instead. Maybe you accept that everyone is going to notice the bandits planning to ambush you – but if you make the check, you know which of them has decent armour under his grimy cloak, or also see the hidden archers in the trees covering the road, or you see a weak spot in the wyvern’s hide from a previous skirmish (maybe enough to make a called shot bypass some of it’s armour).

You Can’t Roll if You’re Talking/Acting

One way around the group check problem is to suggest that if you are taking action, you’re not as able to notice stuff. The players who aren’t active in the scene are the only ones that get to roll. This makes the check have closer to normal probabilities, and has the additional benefit of sharing the spotlight in a cool in-game way. Just ask any players who aren’t directly interacting with the events in play to make, as they hang back and observe.

Use it For Initiative

One of the issues with Perception checks to notice enemies trying to ambush you is that the consequences of a surprise round in most games can be enormous (notably, 13th Age avoids this, making them just inconvenient –but not entirely unbalancing). Instead, make Initiative the result of a Perception check in these circumstances. Maybe the ambushers get to roll Stealth instead, as well, for their score? There’s another blog post in my head about how initiative is also often rubbish, though, so I might come back to this.

Use it To Bank Resources

I’m running Star Trek Adventures, the 2d20 game from Modiphius at the moment, and it is (like Conan, which I posted about here) heavy on resource management. Players want to get as much Group Momentum banked early in the session, so they can spend it on extra dice for checks. The best way to get this in STA at the start of the session? Scan the planet from the ship. It’s probably low difficulty, so you can get some Momentum banked for future skill checks. In some ways, this is like designating a Success Benefit, but it fits nicely into the balance of the system. It’s accepted that there will be some easy skill checks, often for things like noticing stuff, but they have some game impact through the meta-currency of the system.

Likewise, in Fate, you can offer a Fate Point Compel to miss something – to not even make a check, and have a failure consequence ready for them. In my experience, most players will do anything for a Fate point, and it’s very likely they’ll have an Aspect you can use to get this. Other systems will have their own solutions, I’m sure.

Just Ditch It

One way to force yourself out of the habit of asking for Perception checks – just remove the skill. If it’s important enough that the players need to notice something, tell them. If it’s one of the few circumstances where failure or success can be interesting, just pick another skill relevant to the context. Ambush in the Forest? Roll Nature to notice the absence of usual sounds. Trap in an ancient tomb? Sounds like a History check, or maybe a Thieves’ Tools check to notice and disarm in one roll before it triggers.

So, a selection of ways to hack perception to make it less rubbish. Are there any more techniques that you’ve used to improve it? Any games that do it particularly well? Let me know in the comments, or get me on twitter @milnermaths.

Review: Thews of Iron – and Three Kinds of Resource Economies – Conan 2d20

I’m forced to admit I was wrong. I tried to be polite about it when I appeared on The Smart Party podcast and was innocently asked about the 2d20 system from Modiphius games – but it was pretty clear I wasn’t a fan. A couple of games, and a few hours spent trying to navigate character generation in Mutant Chronicles (MC), had left me switched off to this new hotness of a system.

I guess I need to admit that some of my problem with MC probably isn’t the system on its own – but there’s probably a whole other, much more snarky, blog post about that. So I gave it more time, and after playing a game of Star Trek 2d20 that left me, well, ambivalent, I had a go at running their Conan game.

And it was great. I enjoyed myself as a GM, and as far as I can tell the players had a blast as well. I might have been wrong. True, it’s crunchy as hell and relies on an awful lot of bean-counting to achieve, but it combines multiple tactical options with the opportunity for players to do pulpy awesomeness all the time.

The Fluff

I ran the adventure The Red Pit, from the Jewelled Thrones of the Earth adventure supplement, using the quickstart PCs. I had 6 players – one arriving later – and at least one of them hadn’t had much experience of gaming since D&D in their past. For balance, another of my players was Remi Fayoumi, indefatigable 2d20 evangelist and Modiphius fanboy. The adventure is a classic pulp that I know many GMs would dismiss – the players start weaponless and shackled as slaves in the Red Pit and have to fight their way out to the surface. It’s one great big series of linked combat encounters, but works surprisingly well with a few hacks. I did add in a neutral/sympathetic NPC in the form of a suspicious fellow slave who might or might not join their rebellion, and cut out some of the relentless dice rolling of the constant arrow fire, but it still allowed enough opportunity for heroics and roleplay – in part because the system is rich enough to make it interesting.

I also started the game with a pulp montage by telling the players to imagine they are playing characters in a TV series – and asking the players to describe the opening credit scene where their PC is introduced. They just have to say what they look like and what they are doing when their name appears below the credits – it helps get everyone in the right frame of mind, and set the tone for the game. I did the same for the villains too, including the ominous shadow of an animatronic giant lizard.

The Crunch – It’s a Dice Pool System

At its core 2d20 has more in common with dice pool systems than it admits to. Your dice pool is just normally two twenty-siders. You roll your pool and count successes – one for each die equal to or under your skill, and two if equal to or under your Focus – usually much lower and often just 1. You might need just 1 success, or you might need more – up to 5 for Epic tasks, which clearly you don’t have much chance of succeeding on if you’re just rolling two dice. So in order to succeed in difficult tasks, or to make sure you are really effective (extra successes generate Momentum which can be spent immediately to improve your outcome – say, more damage in combat, or extra effect on a skill roll), you’ll have to buy more dice.

The Crunch – Three Resource Separate Resource Economies

You buy extra dice in three ways – by spending Momentum or Fortune, or by adding to the GM’s Doom pool. Fortune is straightforward and gives you an extra die set to 1 – so almost always guaranteeing 2 extra successes. You start with 3 Fortune points and although there are some rules for refreshing them, I didn’t let my PCs refresh in the one-shot.

Momentum is trickier – after you generate extra successes, you can either spend them on extra effect – more damage and the like – or bank them into Group Momentum. This resource can be spent by the players to add an extra dice up to 5d20 on a one-for-one basis – but these dice, you have to roll. There’s a maximum of 6 Momentum points in the Group pool at any one time, and it reduces by 1 at the end of every combat turn, so there’s an incentive to use it or lose it.

Doom is the GM’s pool, and it starts at 3 x the number of players – the same as the total number of Fortune points. The GM can spend it like Momentum, or the players can get extra dice by adding points back into the Doom pool. Players also need to add to Doom to react to attacks – by Parrying or Dodging – and the GM needs to spend it for almost anything, so there’s a good flow of Doom throughout the game. I kept my Doom on show so the players could see it grow and fall through the session – and allowing some tactial play where one player took a telling blow rather than avoid it using Doom so that my pool was run down before the final confrontation – and there’s clearly some tactical nuances to running games with it which I like as well.

The One-Shot

In order to make it work as a one-shot, you need some straightforward resources, I think, in order to help the players make sense of a particularly crunchy system (also see this post on running one-shots with crunchy systems). I had some of these, but not all of them

  • You need 3 different sets of counters. I used skull tokens from All Rolled Up, and glass beads for Momentum, and I wish I’d had something else – maybe poker chips – for Fortune. I kept my Doom in one place in front of the players, and chucked Group Momentum in the middle of the table, but ideally two different bowls would have been great – maybe one skull-like and evil and one, er, pristine and heroic.
  • A sheet with what you can spend Doom and Momentum on would have been great. There are nuances with Momentum spends – you don’t always have to spend it on extra damage – and it would have been good to have it out in front of the players to encourage more creative use of this.
  • An actual copy of the rules. I realized half way through the game that I hadn’t downloaded the rulebook onto my tablet – while the Quickstart rules covered nearly everything, I couldn’t find the recovery rules in there and had to busk them when it came up halfway through the game.
  • You need well-marked-up, clear pregen sheets. The Quickstart PCs are great for this.

So, I’m prepared to admit my own mistakes and will certainly be running 2d20 again – Conan for sure, but almost certainly Star Trek as well, and maybe even Infinity or John Carter when they get released. Mutant Chronicles, maybe not – but that’s for a future post.