What do I see? What do I know?

I’ve posted on the topic of ‘perception checks’ before (can’t find the post right now– trust me; it’s there), but in a group I am playing ‘Dragon Age’ with, we have been discussing our own takes on ‘knowledge’ checks and mechanics in games and whether we like them or not.

If you are not familiar, a ‘knowledge’ check is a rules mechanic within an RPG where you roll the dice to see if your character knows something. If you roll well, the referee will give you a hint or a nudge in the right direction. If you roll poorly, you get no hint (or maybe even a hint in the wrong direction). If your character is smart or knows something about the subject, you might get a bonus to the roll of the dice or vice-versa.

‘Perception’ checks are similar, but instead of seeking to decide what your character does or does not know, they seek to determine what your character notices or sees. If you decide your character wants to look for the footprints of the person you want to follow, you roll a dice to see if you pick up the trail. If your character is a skilled tracker, you might get a bonus. If it has been raining and the tracks are faint, you might get a penalty.

It is worth noting that when I started playing rpgs (1978), ‘perception’ and ‘knowledge’ rolls or rules were unknown (at least to us). I quit playing for a while, and when I returned to rpgs(~2000ish), such rules or concepts were common.

In one of the first 3e games I played when I had ‘returned’ to playing RPGs, I had a character who had high STR and CON and abysmal other stats. He could fight well but I was very limited in whatever else the character could do. It was my first 3e game and I didn’t know the rules at all well, but I remember getting frustrated and bored because there was so little my character could do other than attack things. We were constantly being asked to do ‘notice’ and ‘listen’ and ‘search’ and ‘spot’ rolls… and, not to toot my own horn too much, but when the DM would describe the setting, I paid attention and try to formulate my character’s actions according to what I knew from the description I had been given — so if there were tapestries in the room, I would say that I wanted to look to see if I could spot anyone or anything hidden behind them, whereas some of the other players would just roll a dice and say, “I got a 26… what do I know?” This left me thinking that such ‘notice’ and perception rules were not a development I was interested in. Other folks I currently play with are less annoyed by the knowledge or perception rolls; they see these as means to introduce new info to the players or allow opportunities for further detailing of the environment.

Perhaps it is best to strive for a middle ground — if the player is engaged and takes initiative, and listens to what the DM says and attempts to use his or her own noodle to extrapolate info from what the DM has said or details that may have been offered up earlier, then a low “wisdom” score on the character sheet shouldn’t be as much of a handicap (perhaps the character is not naturally gifted in wisdom, but he or she is paying attention at the right time (since the player is paying attention)). One of the terms that I hear tossed around a lot that rubs me the wrong way is ‘flavor text.’ To me, ‘flavor text’ implies that the words don’t have any meaning or substance — so if the DM describes a red rug and a green metal chest, if it’s just ‘flavor text’ the colors will have no potential significance and the players can just roll ‘search’ to check for traps and whomever has the most skill points in search or perception is most likely to discover if the rug or the chest are trapped.

What I would prefer is having a situation where players can affect outcomes through thinking and remembering and describing actions and asking questions. Perhaps other items they have encountered have been color coded and the players might get a hint if they remember this… or maybe the red rug is just a rug. Players might get a bonus to their search roll if they describe what they are doing (i.e.: “I use my spear to lift up the edge of the rug and look under it — and I rolled X on my search — do we think it is trapped?” as opposed to “We search for traps and I rolled X — do we think it is trapped?” I know that creates more work for the DM, but I really like being able to interact with the environment and figure stuff out.

One of the first DMs I ever played under used the standard rules for ‘search’ for secret doors, but made us describe how we were going to open it — so even if you rolled a 1 on a d6 which meant you found the door, you might have to pull on a torch holder or press on a special brick to open it… which usually had to be determined by trial and error… which could be quite exciting/nerve racking if you were in a hurry. I thought that was a nice touch, and if I were to have my druthers, the ‘pure talking’ method of resolving such events would be my method of choice.

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