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Passive Perception in D&D 5e Explained Simply

Are you the always looking over your shoulder Rogue type? Or more of a nose in a book, oblivious Artificer? Just like in real life, some Dungeons and Dragons characters have better situational and environmental awareness than others. How is that reflected in-game? Passive perception in D&D 5e, that’s how!

Read on for simple rules breakdowns of how Passive Perception works in D&D 5e with examples, passive vs active perception, how to calculate your passive perception, DM specific info, and suggestions for how to never let a stealthy monster sneak by you again!

Passive Perception on a D&D 5e character sheet
Passive Perception on a D&D 5e character sheet

What is Passive Perception in 5e?

Passive perception is a score that represents your character’s general awareness of their surroundings.

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It’s kind of like a Spidey-Sense: a high score means you’re attuned to your environment and able to perceive when something is out of place or needs a closer look.

Passive perception doesn’t include active examination (AKA an Active Perception check), as that requires more effort and attention.

Examples of When Passive Perception is Used in 5e

Your passive perception score may be used in situations like:

  • Detecting secret doors (which are designed to blend in)
  • Noticing concealed doors (hidden or obscured by mundane means, like a wall tapestry)
  • Spotting when a character is being pick pocketed
  • Detecting traps
  • Seeing hidden, stealthy or distant creatures
  • Exploration and travel situations in general (i.e. owlbears behind trees!)

Passive perception is also used instead of rolling a bunch for an action done repeatedly (like searching a room over and over).

These are just a few of the ways passive perception can be used as clues, hints, and story hooks. We’ll get into even more examples throughout!

If you’ve got a specific situation you need advice about, talk to your DM, they have the final say in your game, after all!

Passive Perception vs Active Perception

Passive Perception is what your character is generally aware of while being around in the world. Active Perception is what your character notices when they are actively looking for it.

In terms of how they work during gameplay, whether or not you need to roll dice is the main difference between passive perception and active perception.

A passive check is a special kind of ability check that doesn’t need a roll – it’s a static number, or “score.” It’s used as a floor, an average, and a base level awareness.

For an active skill check, however, you are attempting something so you roll dice to determine the outcome.

Whether a Perception check is active or passive is ultimately up to the DM. But, the idea is that passive checks are for when your character is casually doing their thing, and active checks are for when they are actively trying to do something.

Passive Perception Check

For example, if there are no bad guys nearby and the party has just entered a room and is casually looking around they have time to notice things like trip wires and hidden monsters. Here, the DM may choose to apply passive perception instead of having everyone roll and then telling the players what they see in the room.

In this instance, the DM would look at the passive perception score of the players to see what they can see in the room. If it’s 13, that’s enough to detect the collapsing column trap which needs a Perception score of 13 or more to find.

Active Perception Check

If you enter a room and say, “I check the room for hidden monsters”. You’re now making an active perception check because your character is actively trying to do something. You roll a d20 to see if you detect any hidden monsters. If you roll a 15, and the monster has a stealth of 13, you see them. If you roll a 12, you don’t.

When you make an active perception check, you can roll lower than your passive perception and miss things you’d usually notice.

How to Calculate Passive Perception

You’ll find the box for your Passive Perception score on your character sheet just below your base ability scores in Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma.

Passive Perception on a D&D 5e character sheet

To calculate your passive perception, first, figure out if you’re proficient in the Perception skill or not.

Proficient in Perception skill

If you have proficiency with Perception, then you’ll have marked this with a little dot on your character sheet under Skills next to Perception. This means you can add your proficiency bonus when calculating your passive perception.

Perception skill on a D&D 5e character sheet
Perception skill on a D&D 5e character sheet

Calculate your character’s passive perception score using this formula:

Passive Perception = 10 + Wisdom modifier + Proficiency Bonus

No proficiency in Perception

If your character isn’t proficient in the Perception skill, then calculate their score using this formula:

Passive Perception = 10 + Wisdom modifier

How do Advantage and Disadvantage work with Passive Perception?

Perhaps the Paladin’s ears are still ringing from the Wizard’s Thunderclap spell, so it’s much harder for them to hear the Bugbear shuffling around the corridor towards the party… Or you’re running through a room full of spiked pits with a Dire Wolf hot on your heels… Maybe the cellar you’ve just entered is only lit by a single flickering candle shrouding everything in a dim light…

Situations like these might mean the player has disadvantage to their passive perception.

If a character has disadvantage on the check, subtract 5 from their passive perception score.

In contrast, if your Halfling Bard were riding on the Dragonborn Fighter’s shoulders during travel she might have advantage to spotting monsters ahead on the road!

If a character has advantage on the check, add 5 to their passive perception score.

Can you roll below your Passive Perception score?

You cannot “roll below your passive perception” because you do not make any rolls for passive checks. However, if you roll for an active Perception check, your roll could be less than your passive perception score.

That doesn’t mean rolling is always a worse bet though! Remember, you get different information on passive vs active perception successes.

Imagine you fail an active Perception check to catch someone with her hand in your pocket. A good passive perception could mean you notice a suspicious individual moving through the crowd, or that your money pouch feels lighter than it did a second ago.

When to use Passive Perception as a DM

DMs can use passive perception to do away with excessive/unnecessary dice rolls or to narrate the player’s experience, give them hints, and even as story hooks.

  • Walking through the forest you notice a downed tree far ahead on the path… could it be placed there deliberately?
  • Passing through a crowd, a furtive-looking child catches your eye… are they up to no good?
  • Exploring deep in a dungeon and suddenly you catch an acrid scent on the air… you could be strolling into an acid bath!

It’s a good idea to keep a note of your players’ passive perception scores to hand. Otherwise, as soon as you ask, “What’s your passive perception?” you’ll tip them off that something’s hiding/lurking!

How to Determine a Monster’s Passive Perception?

Bad guys have passive perception scores as well, and are most often used to see if they notice hidden or approaching foes (AKA the party!).

If the monster is proficient in the Perception skill:
Monster’s Passive Perception = 10 + WIS (Perception) bonus

If not proficient:
Monster’s Passive Perception = 10 + WIS modifier

The same rules for advantage and disadvantage apply to monsters as well.

What is a good passive perception in 5e?

Whether a score is “good” is highly relative. What a good passive perception means to you will likely be different from other players.

To get a better idea of what a desirable score is for you, here’s what different task difficulty classes mean as described on page 174 of the Players Handbook:

TaskDifficulty Class (DC)
Very Easy5
Easy10
Medium15
Hard20
Very Hard25
Nearly Impossible30
typical difficulty classes D&D 5e

Just want your Bard to be quick on the uptake? Perhaps 15 is a decent score for your purposes.

If you want a character that is consistently up to the challenge of really tough checks, aim for 20 and above.

How to increase your Passive Perception

Seeking a super-effective Ranger, highly attuned Druid, or hyper-vigilant Paladin? Dislike the thought of walking by a hidden treasure trove being none the wiser? Then you’ll probably want to boost your passive perception. Let’s jump into how you can do that with builds and bling!

High Wisdom Modifier

As you saw in the formula earlier, your Wisdom modifier is a key component to a high passive perception. Because Perception is a Wisdom-based skill, whenever your Wisdom modifier increases so does your Perception!

Classes that draw power from their Wisdom like Clerics and Druids, tend to have high passive perception as a nice bonus for having a high Wisdom ability score.

Here’s a quick reminder of how ability scores relate to ability modifiers:

Ability ScoreModifier
6-7-2
8-9-1
10-110
12-13+1
14-15+2
16-17+3
18-19+4
20+5
ability score modifiers D&D 5e

Keep reading for a shortlist of items that increase your Wisdom score.

Skill Proficiency

One of the best ways to get the best passive perception score possible is by making sure your character is proficient in the Perception skill. When you’re proficient, you can always add your proficiency bonus to any check for that skill.

And the proficiency bonus you receive from this increases as you level up, so it’s the gift that keeps on giving! As a 1st level character, the bonus starts out at a modest +2, but at higher levels gets up to +6. Sweet!

For more on this, including how to increase your total number of proficient skills, check out our article What Proficiency Bonus is in D&D 5e!

Feats

There is only one feat that directly increases your passive perception, but it does double duty:

Observant

Quick to notice details of your environment, you gain the following benefits:

– Increase your Intelligence or Wisdom score by 1, to a maximum of 20.
– If you can see a creature’s mouth while it is speaking a language you understand, you can interpret what it’s saying by reading its lips.
– You have a +5 bonus to your passive Wisdom (Perception) and passive Intelligence (Investigation) scores.

Page 168, Dungeons & Dragon’s Players Handbook, 5th Edition

The straight-up bonus and potential increase to your Wisdom modifier makes this feat an excellent choice for any Ranger or scout-type Rogue!

Items

Since passive perception most reliably increased by boosting your Wisdom score and proficiency bonus, here are the (very few) items that modify those:

ItemEffectsSource
Ioun Stone of Mastery+1 proficiency bonusDungeon Master’s Guide
Deck of Many Things (Star)+1 to ability score of choice (max 24)Dungeon Master’s Guide
Tome of Clear Thought+2 WisdomDungeon Master’s Guide
passive perception items D&D 5e

What is the Highest Passive Perception in D&D 5e?

First off, to achieve the highest possible passive perception in 5e you need to play a Rogue or Bard. They both have a class feature called Expertise that allows them to double the proficiency bonus awarded to their proficient skills.

So, playing by the basic rules as a max level Bard or Rogue the breakdown for highest passive perception looks like this:

  • +5 : Wisdom of 20
  • +12 : Perception Expertise
  • +5 : Observant Feat
  • +5 : Advantage
    Total: 37 Passive Perception

Wowsa! We didn’t even put any legendary items on! If you start adding in magical items and epic levels you can add more bonuses to boost it to an even higher number!

Passive Perception in D&D 5e FAQs

Is Passive Perception an optional rule?

Passive Perception is not an optional rule. It is a regular gameplay rule written into the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide.

Like everything though, your DM is the final word. Whether or not passive perception situations come up in game is completely up to them – but that doesn’t mean passive perception is “optional.”

Does Passive Perception Detect Traps?

Passive perception can be used to detect traps, but it depends on the situation and your DM.

While exploring, the DM may use your passive perception to alert you to something that needs further inspection, as a hint that you should make an active check. Or, if you are searching for traps repeatedly you could instead use passive perception as an average instead of rolling a bunch.

But are you distracted by those Gnolls? Since you’re preoccupied, your DM may deem that any Perception checks would be active.

Is Passive Perception an Ability Check?

Passive perception is an ability check – passive checks just don’t use dice rolls like normal ability checks. Anything that affects a Perception ability check also affects passive perception.

For instance, the Blinded condition specifies that a blinded creature automatically fails any ability checks related to sight. No matter how amazeballs your passive perception score is, your blinded Ranger would auto-fail any sight-based Perception check – active or passive.

Is Passive Perception always on?

Passive perception is “always on.” That doesn’t mean you’re constantly on alert and can’t be snuck up on or surprised if your score is high enough.

Because passive perception is always on, with a high score you’re more likely to notice when something is amiss and needs your attention.

Does Passive Perception include Proficiency?

Passive Perception includes proficiency only if your character is proficient in Perception. Just like with any other skill, if you are not proficient in it no proficiency bonus for you!

Does Passive Perception supersede Active Perception?

Passive Perception and Active Perception are mostly used in different scenarios. But, for the times they intersect, you can consider passive perception as a floor – your minimum threshold for noticing something is different/off.

Let’s consider detecting hidden monsters. A high passive perception does not mean that as soon as you walk into a room you automatically identify the location and type of any monsters with a DC below your score.

It means that you have a greater likelihood of noticing something amiss – a glint of metal in an unexpected place, an odd smell or air current, an out-of-place detail – and clues you in that you should do an active Perception check to identify the source.

Does Passive Perception Work in Combat?

Passive perception does work in combat but there are not many situations in which it is applicable.

The most common is when a foe is attempting to hide so it can sneak up on you later. Unless you spend an action to specifically pay attention to that creature, the DM will roll their active Stealth check and compare it to your passive perception.

What if a Stealth check vs Passive Perception ties?

Passive perception comes into play for Stealth checks when you are sneaking by someone who may not be actively looking for you. The Players Handbook lays it out pretty simply:

When you hide, there’s a chance someone will notice you even if they aren’t searching. To determine whether such a creature notices you, the DM compares your Dexterity (Stealth) check with that creature’s passive Wisdom (Perception) score…

Page 177, Dungeon & Dragons Players Handbook 5th edition.

For example, a Rogue may use an action to hide so that they get advantage on their next hit. If the Ogre they’re sneaking around is distracted by a big Barbarian, it would be the Rogue’s Stealth check vs the Ogre’s passive perception score.

If a creature is alert for trouble, like a guard on watch, the check would likely be active: their Perception check vs your Stealth check.

Conclusion – Passive Perception in D&D 5e

We hope this article increased your wisdom when it comes to passive perception in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition! Perhaps you have some fun new ideas for your next game too!

If you’re a D&D player, chances are your friends are too! How about treating them to a D&D gift? Here’s a list of my favorite Dungeons and Dragons gift ideas for some inspiration!

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Emily
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