Passive Checks and Saves

( ⇪ Adventuring Variants )

Let’s face it. Sometimes… players can be really… really… stupid.

When I look at their character’s ability scores and skills, in-character they wouldn’t automatically be that stupid or ignorant. A player will sometimes do things like see a pit that seems to be sparkling at the bottom and have their character jump right in to get the “jewels” without checking the pit for traps or even check how deep it is. Their character would — in-character — automatically question it (essentially a DC 3 wisdom or dungeoneering check), but the player might not. That is player stupidity. When a player does something really stupid, it hurts everyone. It hurts that player because their character might instantly die or otherwise “lose”. It hurts the other characters because they might instantly be a man down in a tough situation. Finally, it hurts you as GM because their stupidity might derail or even ruin your entire campaign because that PC might be important (perhaps even really important) to the story. We’ve all seen it happen time and time again. Sometimes it works out for the better in the end… but often, it doesn’t.

The goals here are:

  1. To allow the GM to justifiably “give away” free plot-relevant/useful information that the characters would know,
  2. To help players see the benefits of having a higher value in various ability scores and help them learn how to roleplay their character’s scores,
  3. To have justification for balking when a player wants to have their character do something that — based on ability scores and skill modifiers — the character simply wouldn’t “do” (because of prior knowledge and intuition), and
  4. To provide a clear mechanical distinction between a PC “actively” trying to do something and “passively”, unknowingly, or automatically applying trivial effort.

This is not a license for the GM to control the PCs, but gives the GM justification to tell the players to shut up, slow down, and listen to something important he has to say before they do something rash.

Only the GM keeps track of these passive values, and references them when they don’t want to ask a player to roll some kind of check (as that would be suspicious and could break game flow by haphazardly cluing-in the player to what they should be doing). Generally, a passive check result is 5 (the “easy” DC rating) + the character’s relevant modifiers for that kind of check. Passive checks should only come into play whenever something would automatically trigger that the character wouldn’t or couldn’t know to “actively” attempt to beat its DC. They should never come into play when the player actively tries to do something or directly asks the GM a question. (Use the normal rules for checks when the player actively attempts something). Even in-combat, the creature has to take prerogative to use an active check (with the exception of saving throws, see below).

Players cannot ask for or assume to be always “taking 10” on a passive ability check or skill check that they could usually be allowed to take 10 in that circumstance unless that’s the primary activity (or thematic activity, such as standing watch) in which they’re actively engaged for that period (in which case, they’re actively taking 10).

Also of note that this is not the same as “meta rolls” from the optional variant “The GM Still Rolls” described here .

Familiars and Other Aiding Creatures

For all familiars and similar aiding creatures, if alertness for its master applies, and the master’s spot or listen check (passive or not) only succeeds within the limits of the gained alertness (+2 per creature, using the normal maximum which doesn’t count item familiars), it’s recommended that the GM flavor what they learn as if it was being told to the player by their familiar.

Passive Abilities

Passive ability checks are used whenever the player should not be notified why they’re making a check.

Passive Strength = Muscular impressions

Strength measures your character’s muscle and physical power.

Creatures can on-sight tell whether another creature is significantly stronger or weaker than themselves from basic evidence. How much stronger or weaker is often unclear, but as long as it’s significant in one direction or the other, you can at least make a ballpark estimate. If a creature can clearly observe another creature’s physique to a significant extent, he automatically makes a Passive Strength opposed check against the other creature (no dice are rolled, just compare numbers).

If the other creature’s Passive Strength is at least 2 higher than his own, he automatically gets an impression that the creature is “very strong” (or some other suitable expression). Likewise, if the other creature is at least 2 lower, he automatically gets an impression that the creature is “weak”. What matters is how much qualitative emphasis the GM provides. The player should never receive a numeric value of the difference.

Passive Dexterity = Gracefulness impressions

Dexterity measures hand-eye coordination, agility, reflexes, and balance.

Creatures can on-sight tell whether another creature is significantly more or less graceful than themselves from basic evidence. How much is often unclear, but as long as it’s significant in one direction or the other, you can at least make a ballpark estimate. If a creature can clearly observe another creature’s physique to a significant extent, he automatically makes a Passive Dexterity opposed check against the other creature (no dice are rolled, just compare numbers).

If the other creature’s Passive Dexterity is at least 2 higher than his own, he automatically gets an impression that the creature is “very agile” (or some other suitable expression). Likewise, if the other creature is at least 2 lower, he automatically gets an impression that the creature is “clumsy”. What matters is how much qualitative emphasis the GM provides. The player should never receive a numeric value of the difference.

Passive Constitution = Hardiness impressions

Constitution represents your character’s health and stamina.

Creatures can on-sight tell whether another creature is significantly more or less hearty than themselves from basic evidence. How much is often unclear, but as long as it’s significant in one direction or the other, you can at least make a ballpark estimate. If a creature can clearly observe another creature’s physique to a significant extent, he automatically makes a Passive Constitution opposed check against the other creature (no dice are rolled, just compare numbers).

If the other creature’s Passive Constitution is at least 2 higher than his own, he automatically gets an impression that the creature is “virile and sturdy” (or some other suitable expression). Likewise, if the other creature is at least 2 lower, he automatically gets an impression that the creature is “sickly”. What matters is how much qualitative emphasis the GM provides. The player should never receive a numeric value of the difference.

Passive Intelligence = Automatic Puzzle Hints

Intelligence determines how well your character learns and reasons.

By the GM remembering the rough difficulty ratings of the different DC values, Passive Intelligence allows the GM to automatically give the player hints about a puzzle or puzzling scenario that will at least get the player on the right track towards a solution. For example, upon seeing a suspicious shallow pole-shaped hole in a wall, a Passive Intelligence that beats DC 5 (the “easy” difficulty rating) could mean the character determines that it’s meant to have a pole or quarterstaff inserted into it. These checks usually involve Passive Spot and Passive Listen checks as a means to automatically locate clues.

Passive Wisdom = Common Sense and Campaign Memory

Wisdom describes a character’s willpower, common sense, perception, and intuition.

Players often forget really basic things about the campaign that their character would not forget, such as NPC names, their party’s most significant capabilities, who had the MacGuffin at the moment and what the MacGuffin can do, or even basic common sense about the world around them and what anyone would have learned from growing up in the campaign world. These all are things anyone with a Passive Wisdom score of 4+ automatically remembers (and GM can pipe up and let them know that information if they get confused about it). Having a high Passive Wisdom though (7+) indicates that the character is so in-tune with their surroundings and current events that they get automatic special insight on things like body language, subtext, nuance, and small details of a situation.

For situations of player stupidity (Wisdom DC 3~4), the farther the character’s Passive Wisdom exceeds the DC then the more emphatically the GM should express how the character would not normally do that and to ask whether the player is sure that they want to override their character’s Common Sense. Of course, the GM could be asking you that just to mess with you.

Passive Charisma = Personality impressions

Charisma measures a character’s force of personality, persuasiveness, personal magnetism, ability to lead, and physical attractiveness.

You can on-sight tell how much force of personality another creature has from basic evidence. How much is often unclear, but as long as it’s significant in one direction or the other, you can at least make a ballpark estimate. When a creature enters your line-of-sight, you automatically make a Passive Charisma opposed check against the other creature (no dice are rolled, just compare numbers).

If the other creature’s Passive Charisma is at least 2 higher than yours, you immediately notice the creature as if it had “a great presence” (or some other suitable expression). Likewise, if the other creature is at least 2 lower, he automatically gets an impression that the creature is “pathetic”. The GM can express this as blatantly as describing everyone in the room suddenly turning to face it or as subtly as describing the creature as having a jolly demeanor and warm smile. What matters is how much qualitative emphasis the GM provides. The player should never receive a numeric value of the difference.

Passive Senses

All passive senses start at 10 instead of 5 (inspired by Rules Compendium page 9). These are essentially equivalent to passive perception and insight from D&D 4e.

Passive Spot = Seeing things automatically

To actively look out for something is a normal “active” spot check. Determining whether a character automatically sees it is a Passive Spot check. Apply distance, elevation, size, and distraction modifiers (if any) as normal. For example, assuming all other conditions are typical (Passive Spot 10, DC +0), you automatically spot an unobstructed unconcealed medium-size creature at your elevation from 100 feet away.

It can be generally assumed that most of the time most people are distracted by what they are attempting to accomplish at that moment, increasing the DC by 5. If you’re explicitly “on watch”, then the results of your check are as in the example above.

Passive Listen = Hearing things automatically

To actively listen out for something is a normal “active” listen check. Determining whether a character automatically hears it is a Passive Listen check. Apply barrier, distance, and distraction penalties (if any) as normal. For example, assuming all other conditions are typical (Passive Listen 10, DC +0), you automatically hear people talking from 100 feet away, but can’t make out what they’re saying until less than 10 feet away.

It can be generally assumed that most of the time most people are distracted by what they are attempting to accomplish at that moment, increasing the DC by 5. If you’re explicitly “on watch”, then the results of your check are as in the example above.

Passive Sense Motive = Noticing suspicious behavior automatically

To actively try to discern a bluff (such as through interrogation or detecting a feint in combat) is a normal “active” sense motive check. Noticing suspicious behavior automatically is a Passive Sense Motive check. Add your ECL or CR to this value when someone lies to you.

Passive Education

Passive Knowledge (field-specific) = Auto-recognizing something

Actively taking a second to try to remember something within a specific field of interest is a normal “active” knowledge check within that field. To remember something from it just popping into your head, it’s a Passive Knowledge check within that field. You still have to have ranks in a knowledge skill to passively remember things within that field above a DC 10.

Passive Spellcraft = Identify magical effects automatically

Often, you can identify a magical effect on-sight without having to actively try to dig into your memory to intuit or recall its name. The ability to do so is represented by your Passive Spellcraft check. This is basically a way for you to not have to actively roll to identify really recognizable magical effects. You still have to have ranks in spellcraft to make Passive Spellcraft checks.

Passive Psicraft = Identify psionic effects automatically

Often, you can identify a psionic effect on-sight without having to actively try to dig into your memory to intuit or recall its name. The ability to do so is represented by your Passive Psicraft check. This is basically a way for you to not have to actively roll to identify really recognizable psionic effects. You still have to have ranks in psicraft to make Passive Psicraft checks.

Passive Saves

When you’re fighting for your life, every saving throw is “active”, but when you’re flat-footed, you use passive saving throws. Out of combat, if you can’t be aware that an attack might happen, you can’t defend yourself as actively as when you know it’s coming. Basically, a magically-silent wrecking ball trap that blindsides you would use a passive save, but if you’re aware of the trap and are actively trying to dodge it, you use an active save. When a passive save is triggered, the GM first rolls a d4 (because “total immunity” and “always fail” are not fun). On a 1, you automatically fail. On a 4, you automatically succeed, and on a 2 or 3 then your passive save value determines whether you succeed or fail.

Passive Fortitude = Initial save against poison and disease

When you initially save against a poison or disease (or similar effect), you couldn’t possibly know what’s happening, so you can’t “steel yourself” against the attack. Thus, saving throws you make against poison and disease are initially a Passive Fortitude save, and you receive no notification of the passive save (other than losing either half or all of the effect’s DC-worth of Fortitude Points a short while later at the GM’s discretion, and the GM rolls your FP Check in secret to determine whether you truly failed the save) until there’s some immediately obvious effect (such as ability damage or being required to roll against the secondary effect). Once you know that there’s something to save against, every save against the effect is an active fortitude save. Your autonomic immune system controls your Passive Fortitude save, not your subconscious, so you only use Passive Fortitude versus poison and disease (all other fortitude save effects are obvious, so they use active fortitude saves).

Passive Reflex = Dodging something you couldn’t see coming

If you can’t possibly perceive something coming at you that would require a reflex save, you must use a Passive Reflex save. Once you’re aware that there’s something to dodge, you make normal “active” reflex saves as normal. Instances of Passive Reflex saves are relatively rare because usually effects that would require a reflex save at least make some kind of noise or alert some other sense. Of course, if you’re deaf and/or blind, these might happen a lot more often.

Passive Will = Automatically bypassing willpower attacks

There are minor things that would annoy, distract, or drain you of your ability to stay focused and centered. Additionally, some attacks on a person’s will can’t be detected until it’s too late (such as being dominated by surprise). In these cases, the person makes a Passive Will save. Once you’re aware of an attack on your willpower, you can “steel yourself” against future attacks and make normal will saves.

Passive Checks and Saves

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