Passive Perception: Explained

Passive skills in D&D can be perplexing, not just for players but for DMs too. However, it can give you and your players a fun and interesting statistic to keep track of. Not only that, but it can make a game go faster.

Knowing how to utilize passive perception is key to making your table have a smoother experience and speed up actions during combat and roleplay. That being said, you need to know how it works and how to improve this skill before implementing it.

Join us as we explain this exciting and valuable score and how DMs and players can benefit from using this score. Once you get done with this article, you’ll have a much better understanding of an underutilized score.

What is Passive Perception 5e?

Passive perception 5e is a passive skill, meaning that it is consistently working for your character. You do not need to roll perception checks for things under your passive perception score, and they can take over for repeated checks.

Sometimes, your DM might use your passive scores to automatically determine if something has happened and give you the results immediately. It is up to interpretation, and some DMs will avoid using passive skills instead of traditional rolls.

Functionally speaking, if your DM uses passive scores, you can tell them your passive score, and if the passive score is over the DC, you can automatically pass. No rolls are needed.

Are There Other Passive Skills 5e?

Yes, there are other passive skills in D&D 5e. Technically, all other skills can have a passive score, but some are more commonly used than others.

Some examples include:

  • Passive insight
  • Passive stealth
  • Passive investigation
  • Passive constitution

Each of these skills is lesser-known but still used at game tables. They might even give you some new ideas for your campaigns!

Passive Insight

Passive insight is perhaps the best known passive skill besides D&D passive perception. This is essentially your character’s built-in lie detector.

Every time a character lies to your character and uses their Deception skill, you can call passive insight to see if they are lying to you. Your passive insight will then set the DC for the other character.

Passive Stealth

Passive stealth is something that some newer DMs are including at their tables but has yet to take off in the larger community. It has many applications, but it is most relevant to rogues and can often damage Sneak Attack.

The basic premise is that if your character has a certain number to stealth, they can pass without trace easily, and other characters would need to contest their passive stealth with their passive perception.

Again, however, this is a table-by-table rule, so make sure to clear it with your DM and players before implementing it.

Passive Investigation

Yet another increasingly popular skill, passive investigation is a popular skill in detective-style campaigns and has a wide variety of uses. It is similar to passive perception but plays to the Intelligence built characters. This is great for your rogue or blood hunters. 

Passive Constitution

Since there are technically no Constitution skills in 5e, most of the effects of this stat are passive, or you roll directly with your Constitution modifier.

For example, the formula 1 + your Constitution modifier determines your ability to hold your breath. Your hit points are also affected by your Constitution, but no additional rolls are included in determining if your character has more or less HP at any given time.

Your DM may occasionally call for a Constitution check if there is a necessary ability, like chugging a tankard of ale in one go or staying awake for a substantial amount of time.

Alternatively, your DM may look at your party’s Constitution skills and determine how they feel, like a regular passive check.

How to Calculate Passive Perception

Calculating passive perception 5e is a lot simpler than it might initially seem. Calculating all other passive skills uses the same formula and can be applied to all other skills.

Your passive perception is calculated with the following formula:

10 + all modifiers related to the check = Passive Score

For example, if your character had a 16 to Wisdom, they’d have a +3. If they are a level nine character, they have a +4 to proficiency so that you can add that to the total. This hypothetical character would have a 17 passive perception.

There is a lot of potential for this skill and improving it out there.

How to Improve Passive Perception

There are a couple of ways to improve your passive perception DnD 5e, namely taking certain features, enhancing your Wisdom score, or taking additional proficiencies in Perception. These have their benefits and detriments, so you need to pick which method works best for you.

Boost It with Features

The only 5e passive perception-related one that you can find in the Player’s Handbook is the Observant feat. In fact, this is the only feature that gives you a passive perception boost without enhancing your Wisdom.

Observant has several parts that can affect your Perception score and passive perception.

The first part is that the feature gives you an additional +1 to Wisdom or Intelligence. To raise your passive perception, choose the Wisdom boost. You also gain the ability to lip-read other characters who speak a language that you understand.

You also gain a +5 to your passive perception and passive investigation scores on top of everything else.

Hypothetically, with all bonuses and proficiencies included, a character could have +18 to their passive perception. This would lead to a total score of 28. If your character has other bonuses from different classes, you could hypothetically get access to even higher bonuses.

Like I said above, Observant is the one feature to improve passive perception in the Player’s Handbook. There are no other features to strengthen passive perception outside of boosting your Wisdom score.

Improving Your Wisdom Score

The quickest and easiest way to improve your passive perception is to enhance your Wisdom score. You can do this at certain level-up points, magical objects can improve your score, or your DM could allow leveling up past Level 20.

Put simply, putting more points into your base Wisdom score will raise your passive skills directly. Every couple of levels (per your class level-up charts), you can put points into your base ability scores. Ability scores do cap at 20 in the base D&D 5e rules, leaving you with a +5 max into your passive skills.

However, there are many other ways you can break through this barrier.

One is if your DM allows you to improve past 20. This would be most relevant to homebrew games and is up to your DM to decide. This can remove most limits from your score.

Another way you can improve it without formal stat upgrades is if you acquire a magical item that improves relevant skills or proficiencies. These could even allow you to increase over 20 if your DM is feeling generous.

Add Additional Proficiencies

Taking another proficiency in Perception will raise your passive perception score and double the proficiency boost added to the total.

Many classes or backgrounds will give you bonus proficiencies to tack onto your total passive perception score. Some of them will even offer double proficiencies to the final score, giving you upwards of a +12 to your score.

How to Use Passive Perception

Passive perception is a bit of an enigma. It can be hard to remember, especially during highly-charged scenes, and some DMs may eschew it in favor of checks to preserve moments of surprise, especially with high-level parties.

However, it can be instrumental when implemented correctly. You can do this in many ways, but DMs and players can use passive perception differently for different results.

For DMs

DMs can use passive perception to give their players more information without making them roll a perception check 5e. This can make combat and roleplay move faster and give your players more immersive sets.

If you’re having trouble keeping track of your players’ passive perception, you could set up a sheet with their passive scores and keep that nearby or in line of sight. That way, these scores are always near you, and you can’t miss them.

If your players’ passive perception level is too high, you could always set the DC even higher or put a table rule cap for passive perception. It would be best to discuss the level cap with your players so everyone is on the same page about this.

Setting a table cap will prevent players from having a +18 to their passive perception and leveling the playing field. However, players who can have a higher score might feel cheated if you lower the cap after they have used it before.

Speedy conversation and consistent communication can mitigate conflict and ensure everyone is on the same page.

For Players

Players can also use passive perception to find all kinds of other details that their DM may have been reluctant to hand out without a roll. If you keep track of your passive perception, you can refer back to it and keep your DM on their toes.

However, you need to respect your DM’s table rules about passive perception. If your DM has banned passive perception or doesn’t use it, you should talk to them about it or work with their decision.

Many people don’t fully understand how passive perception works or don’t like keeping track of passive skills during sessions. Utilizing this mechanic can be complicated, and larger parties with longer sessions can make it hard to keep track of everything.

Be patient with your DM and keep the conversation flowing. This is how you can know when to use this skill and make sure everyone is on the same page.

When to Use Passive Perception

You can use passive perception in two main places: roleplay (or downtime) and combat scenarios. Passive perception can have several different applications in either of these places, and you need to know the difference.

Roleplay Applications

In roleplay, there are plenty of ways to use passive perception.

Not only can your players use the skill to look for new details, but you can also use it to reveal new details that they might not have noticed otherwise.

Not only that, but you can give your players free details about a setting and create a dynamic set. You can give them all the little nuances of a building or environment that others might not immediately notice or ask about.

They could even pick up on different sneaky things NPCs are doing. For example, they could notice if a bartender slipped a potion into their drink or if they were being pickpocketed.

This is also a great choice if your players are going to recognize specific signals. These could be foreign languages, symbols of affiliation, and anything else that is suspicious.

There are also very funny or dramatic character moments that could come from this. They could include spotting someone across a bar who shouldn’t be there, catching another PC doing something they lied about, or anything else that is trying to be hidden from them.

You can also ask to use your passive perception to spot something your dice aren’t allowing you to. It can be interchangeable, depending on your DM’s rules.

Combat Applications

In combat, there are even more options to use your passive perception.

For example, your players could spot an enemy stealing an object with Sleight of Hand. They could also detect other activities that the enemies are trying to do subtly.

They could also make plans for escaping by seeing different landmarks or dangers on the path. This could be for their benefit or as a way to push their enemies into a new threat.

Passive perception is also beneficial for spotting different traps consistently. A DM might have the characters let passive perception carry the party to spot a trap, but roll perception to spot specific, other types of traps.

Practically speaking, D&D 5e passive perception could be the difference between your party’s continued health and your party ending up in a TPK.

Passive Perception Fully Explained

When utilized correctly, passive perception can be a powerful stat for both a DM and players. You can consistently level it up, and it can give you quite the edge as a player while taking the stress off your DMs back. Focusing on Wisdom boosts is crucial to make this skill work for you.


Are There Other Passive Skills?

Technically, all ability scores can have passive scores. Passive insight is a standard passive skill that some DMs may use to automatically determine if your party can tell if someone is lying.

Is Passive Perception Optional?

Yes. There is no rule saying that every table has to use passive skills for their campaigns. Talk to your DM about their table rules regarding passive skills if you’d like to implement or avoid passive skills.

How to Determine Passive Perception 5e?

You can use the formula 10 + your Wisdom modifier and other proficiencies to calculate passive perception. Some features will give you additional boosts on top of these scores.

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Written By Jake Morley

Jake, the founder of The Dungeon Rats, started playing D&D in 2012. He has continued to level up his player and dungeon master skills and wanted to share his journey and helpful knowledge with other like-minded individuals. He launched The Dungeon Rats in 2021 as an outlet for those interested in learning more about Dungeons and Dragons in hopes they can take what they learn and apply it at their own table!

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