The GM Awakens – SkillZone – Perception


This series follows the trials, tribulations, successes, and failures of a fairly inexperienced GM who has recently picked up the hobby after a long time away. It aims to assist new GM’s by examining what worked, didn’t work, and what failed miserably as he spins up new campaigns, modules, encounters, and adventures for his friends and family in Fantasy Flight Games’ Edge of the Empire/Age of Rebellion/Force and Destiny system.

Welcome to the SkillZone.  This article is one in an occasionally running series on one of the cornerstones of most RPGs:  Skills.  Skills usually have pretty cut and dry uses in roleplaying games.  They are used by the player characters to perform actions and see if they are able to accomplish tasks.  If your group is like my play groups, about 6 or 7 skills are used in almost every adventure, 3 or 4 that pop up occasionally, and about 10 that are rarely used.  But what really separates the great player and games I’ve found to be creative, narrative use of skills that aren’t necessarily obvious in the moment.  These uses generally create the best roleplaying fodder as well!

So in the SkillZone we will discuss a skill that’s not commonly used, and possible creative uses of skills that are too often taken for granted.  For the next examination, we’ll cover a skill that’s rarely used in my games:


Perception is a skill that looks like it would be used for many purposes during character creation.  In some RPGs it’s also known as awareness, insight, or observation.  All my PC’s paid some attention to this skill during the development of their characters.  However, I can count on one hand the number of times it’s been used in our entire campaign to date.  I’m not sure quite why.  I often suggest ways to use the skill during games but players don’t like spending their action on trying to notice or find out something.  They want to DO things.  That’s my best guess.  After character creation, they do not spend XP to improve it, that’s for sure.  But let’s look at the ways you can use Perception more in your games.

Perception is the maintaining of awareness of your surroundings and environment.  It represents both your passive state of awareness as well as a conscious effort to find or notice something.  It’s for noticing subtle clues when you aren’t normally looking for them, and it’s for seeing how much detail you can glean out of a found place, situation, or item.  So let’s examine both ways in which this skill can be used, both passively and actively.

Perception – Passive Use

First to point out, as a GM, I don’t mind the passive use of skills in this regard as long as the player can tell me what it is they’re hoping to achieve, even if it’s not completely specific.  I hear players say, “Do I notice anything?”  I’d tell them, “I don’t know, it might need a Perception check.”  Then, as the player reaches for the dice, I stop them and say, “What is it you want to notice?”  The response doesn’t have to be extremely specific, as that is Active Use.  “Do I see a trap?” is a bit too specific.  But I do need to have a little bit of help with where they’d like to narrow things down to.  In the Star Wars Fantasy Flight Games’ narrative dice system, this could denote boosts, setbacks, or difficulties depending on what the player is hoping they perceive.

Alternatives to Fighting

I have a lot of good, experienced gamers that I’m running with in my campaigns.  They don’t always just look for the first fight out of the gate.  They try not to turn every Star Wars adventure into a dungeon crawl.  They like to find ways around fights and ways around problems without plowing ahead with swords and blasters.  However, they don’t use Perception as a skill in doing so.  They often ask me what’s around a room they might use.  Many times, though, I don’t have those things prepared ahead of time.  A good Perception skill check would work nicely in these situations.

If you’re pinned down in a room, perhaps a Perception check allows you to notice something, like a fire suppression system that can flood the room and create fog or cover.  Perhaps you notice controls to a door you can shut quickly, just like Luke did on the Death Star as Vader was heading for the hangar.  “Blast the door, kid!” could have easily been Han’s Perception check, narratively.  In a fantasy or D&D setting, perhaps one notices a large boulder off balance and a strike could cause it to roll in front of a door blocking the foes from advancing.  This is more “passive” use of the Perception skill because you’re not focusing on finding a specific element of your surroundings, but rather trying to see what stands out.

Boosts in Social Encounters

RPGs in my humble opinion, turn into true roleplaying games when characters really play their parts socially within the confines of the game itself.  A Perception skill check or two can really amplify this idea.

Perhaps during a negotiation a Perception check can be used to spot patterns in speech, look for deception, or notice when certain elements of what you say worries the other person.  During interrogation, you can use Perception to notice specific question types that bother the target more, giving you boosts to future checks to extract info.  Advantage rolled or perhaps a natural 20 or high number means new facts are learned.

When in a crowded area, a bar or street or market, one could use Perception to pick up conversations, notice groups, or get a read on the overall situation.  I find when my game groups encounter an unknown situation, they often do not stop to observe before heading in.  A good Perception check could help even the playing field.

Perception checks could be used to prepare for future encounters as well.  In dealing with a Hutt or crime lord perhaps, a Perception check in the first meeting could clue you into mannerisms or lieutenants that can help influence the boss.  Maybe you pick up on how and what the crime lord keys on or what’s important to him.  With a successful Perception check, the next encounters you have with him can grant you boosts or pluses when you meet.

Perception – Active Use

Active use of a Perception check means to actively try to find something specific, as opposed to seeing what you can pick up in a general sense.  You’re actively trying to notice something.

Investigations and Clues

This is the obvious use.  Working an investigation adventure and needing to find clues or leads, Perception checks can tell you what you find and how much you find.  This is the classic use of the skill.  Depending on the success of the roll, the number, or advantage rolled could dictate just how much you learn or what extra facts you find.  As this is a rather obvious use we’ll leave this one be for now.

Boosting Abilities in Combat

One thing that’s quite present in the FFG system is the idea of boosting future checks from yourself or your PC teammates.  The idea of performing a skill check to see if you can have advantages in future checks.  While the FFG system has this concept baked right in, I would also allow these kinds of skill checks in fantasy settings as well with traditional d20 systems.

Perception checks in combat encounters can be quite potent, all considered.  I find too often, however, my players feel a round where a blaster shot doesn’t go off is a wasted turn.  But support characters can aid the PC combat-focused characters with a good Perception check.  Perhaps you roll a Perception check to find a weakness in a bad guy’s armor.  Success would have you get bonuses to hits or damage.  Or maybe you can spot enemy tendencies, giving them penalties or setbacks to try and hit your teammates.  Maybe you roll a Perception check against a minion group and identify a pattern to their actions, that could grant you a bonus to initiative.

Knowledge checks can tell you what certain things are, but Perception checks can tell you what things are available in combat.  A Perception check while fighting in an encounter can possibly allow you to take inventory of all the weapons an enemy has.  Does he have a ranged weapon or grenade?  What equipment does he have right this moment?  Tactical knowledge of your opponents can be quite useful as you tell your teammates what to watch out for.

There are many uses for this skill.  Far more than mentioned here.  Do you have any other creative uses for the Perception skill?  How much do you use it in your games?

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Scott Alden

Scott Alden

Scott is a full-time IT Manager living in Lawrence, KS. (Rock Chalk, Jayhawk! Just outside Kansas City for those who don't know.) Scott is a veteran of several role playing, table top miniatures, video, and board games, starting with the Atari 2600 when he was 6, and the classic red box Dungeons and Dragons game when he was 12. After a long hiatus away from the hobby, Scott has recently picked up gaming once again, and is running two different campaigns in Fantasy Flight Games' Edge of the Empire/Age of Rebellion/Force and Destiny lines. He is an avid X-Wing miniatures player, as well as Armada, Imperial Assault, Space Hulk, and Rebellion. (His family is obviously a Star Wars family, right?) Scott is married to his high school sweetheart, and has 2 children in middle school, both Black Belts in Krav Maga martial arts.