Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Problem with Perception

Anyone who's played certain editions of Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder will tell you that the Spot and/or Perception skills are some of the most-utilized skills in the game.  In some groups, it's considered to be the only skill that every character should have.

Contributing to the craziness of Perception is the fact that the games encourage users to make skill checks for nearly everything they want to do, and there aren't really very strong guidelines about when to tell a character to make a Perception check and when to just give them the information they request.  The Difficulty Class (DC) charts for the Perception skill in Pathfinder, for example, have DCs that range between -10 (hear the sound of battle) to 25 (hear a bow being drawn). Source: d20PFSRD.com: Perception.

A common scene in any d20/Pathfinder game may go a little something like this:

Player 1: "I look around the room. Do I notice anything?"
GM: "Make a Perception check."
Player 1: [Rolls a 5] "Dang, only a 5. I guess I don't."
Player 2: "Here, let me try." [Picks up dice.]
Players 3, 4, and 5: [Pick up dice.]

Ultimately this scenario boils down into a test to see who can roll the highest number first.  The players are just investigating a room and aren't looking for anyone or anything in particular.  All they know is that they're searching for anything that may not have been part of the initial description of the room.  They're not in any danger, and there's no harm if they fail (aside from, perhaps, missing a pertinent clue) so they can take as much time doing this as they'd like (in fact, the system even has a rule for this, called "Taking 20").

This is all nothing more than an exercise in dice rolling, and in my opinion gamers don't need any more practice with that (we're already Great at it, thankyouverymuch).  In Psi-punk, we've come up with a different solution to making Notice checks and, indeed, any skill check.  It's really more of a guideline, in the form of some GM guidance.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 8: Game Mastering about adjudicating skill checks that we hope will help GMs make decisions about when skill checks are necessary and when they aren't.

Adjudicating Skill Checks

As the Game Master, it is your job to let the players know when they should be making skill checks and when they can simply expect to accomplish a task. You should already be familiar with how skill checks work (if not, read Chapter 4: Playing the Game) but simply knowing the mechanics behind the skills doesn’t give you guidance about when or where they should be invoked.

From a mechanical and dice-rolling standpoint, the goals of Psi-punk are simplicity and speed.  The game should run smoothly and without too much dice rolling getting in the way of the story.  With that being said, it is important to only ask the players to make skill checks when absolutely necessary.  So how do you know when it’s necessary?

As a rule of thumb, if the task is so easy that a normal person could do it as part of his daily routine, it doesn’t deserve a dice roll.  For example, driving a car to work is routine for most people, while performing medical surgery is routine for many ER doctors.  Unless pressed for time, stressed, or otherwise hindered, these sorts of routine checks aren’t necessary.

Another good rule of thumb is that a character who is at least Fair at a given task shouldn’t need to make a roll for it unless opposed by someone or something else.  A gourmet chef doesn’t need to make a skill check to cook a fancy dinner unless he’s in a contest against other chefs to see who can make the fanciest dinner, for example.
In game terms, this means that skills such as Language aren’t necessary to roll against unless a character is trying to decode a message, understand spoken dialogue in a language for which he has only a Mediocre comprehension, or to communicate to someone with only a Mediocre level of understanding.

Likewise, driving or piloting a vehicle is considered a simple task for most people (especially since nowadays most cars drive themselves) and characters can really only screw up when circumstances are out of the ordinary, such as during a chase, along a windy road on a stormy night, or when piloting a very technical craft such as a helicopter or tank.

Many GMs have a particularly difficult time determining when to call for Notice checks.  Other games often use Notice or Perception checks far too frequently (at least compared to their Psi-punk counterpart) so keep the following in mind: when in doubt, don’t ask for it.  Notice, in any of it sforms, shouldn’t be used as a precursor to divulging information to the players.  If a character says he is searching the room for clues, you should give him everything he needs to know – unless, of course, he is trying to quickly scan the room for evidence while under suppressive gunfire.  Ordinarily, Notice skills should only be employed when actively searching for targets that are being actively hidden from them (e.g., a Spot check made to notice a character using Stealth, or a Taste check used to notice chemical ingredients too subtle for the average human to detect).

Allowing characters to do things within their normal range of skill without making dice rolls will not only speed up the game, it will help players feel like their skills actually matter.  Nobody likes to try doing something that they’re Great at only to randomly fail for seemingly no reason, for example.  It is, however, understandable that even a Great artist make something that is only Mediocre compared to the talented craft of a Superb artist.  By calling for skill checks only when necessary, you will actually add depth to your game and may be surprised at how much more creative the players will try to be.
What do you think of this advice?  Do you think skills should be used any time they might be employed, or should it only matter when failure is a problem?  Would you prefer a system in which you can Take 10/Take 20 and still potentially fail a check, or one in which failure only occurs when stress is involved?  Let us know in the comments!