This is How Passive Perception REALLY Works in 5e [With Easy Examples]

Last Updated on November 15, 2023

Passive Perception is a statistic every character in D&D 5e has that determines how aware they are of their surroundings. Instead of rolling dice in certain situations, we have a static number that is equal to 10 plus any modifiers we would normally add to our perception checks.

This is not the same as a Perception Check, in which a character would say something like “I am searching the bookshelves for anything interesting” or “I’m scanning the woods ahead for any signs of danger”

A check would require a dice roll.  While passive perception is always on.

Passive skill checks in general are special ability checks that don’t require any die rolls. What this means for passive perception specifically, is your ability to detect things that you are not actively seeking out. Take a look at our handy guide here:

Passive Perception Guide - Black Citadel

So in the image above we’re simply saying 3 things:

  1. The Goblin rolled a 14 stealth with all modifiers
  2. Elora scored a 15 in passive perception (10+ her modifiers)
  3. Dashel scored 13 in passive perception (10+ his modifiers)

Neither Dashel nor Elora had to roll dice.  It’s always 10 plus your character’s relevant modifiers, in this case, proficiency in perception and wisdom.  

Elora’s passive perception of 15 is over the goblins stealth roll of 14, so she notices him passively.

Dashel’s passive score of 13 is under the goblins’ stealth of 14, so he does not notice it.

Passive Perception Difficulty Classes

We use passive perception whenever a character isn’t actively seeking to perceive something. Using our passive score allows us to know what our characters can spot when they aren’t trying.

The concept itself may be simple, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the application is. When it comes to perceiving things I break it down into how hard it is to spot.

In our example with the Goblin, he was actively hiding and had a stealth score to check against.  

But what if you’re walking through a room, do you notice voices coming from another area?  Do you spot something out of place?  A secret door maybe?

Use this table with the examples to set your own passive perception difficulty.  I’ll give more context below.

Task DifficultyDCExample
Very Easy5Smell something burning, determine if food is spoiled.
Easy10Hear footsteps or the details of a conversation in the next room. 
Medium15Find a concealed door; hear whispered conversations; smell the first sign of rain. 
Hard20Find the trigger for a secret door; hear a key being turned in a door.
Very Hard25Notice the tan line of a removed wedding ring.
Nearly Impossible30Successfully follow a street hustler’s three shell game without any guesswork. 

The difficulty of a task is still going to determine its DC, but determining what easy, medium, and hard are can be a lot more nuanced.

At the end of the day, it’s up to the DM to decide, but I’ll do my best to give tips and tricks that make it easier.

Easy passive perception checks

If you recall from above, the DC for easy tasks is 10. And the way we determine a character’s passive perception score is by adding 10 to any modifiers they would apply to perception. 

This means most characters will have a passive perception higher than 10, not all though. 

If a character has a negative wisdom modifier they might find themselves below the easy threshold. These characters might not notice something that everyone else would.

Medium passive perception checks

A DC of 15 is a bit harder to get to, it requires either a high proficiency, a high bonus, or a combination of decent modifiers in both sections. Essentially, wisdom-focused characters will quickly get to this DC while others will be hard-pressed to achieve it. 

An example for this given by XGtE is that characters with a passive score of 15 will be woken up by speech in an otherwise quiet environment. 

Generally, a passive perception of 15 in my book means being able to automatically observe a decent amount of things that otherwise rolling a 10 would give you. 

Hard passive perception checks

A character with a passive perception of 20 or greater is easily on par with Sherlock Holmes. That means a maxed out wisdom modifier along with a high level/proficiency bonus, so a lot of experience under their belt.

Another rip from XGtE pg.77 is that whispers within 10 ft. can wake these characters from sleep. That’s pretty impressive and definitely sets the tone for other things we might allow these players to do.

Characters of this caliber should be able to notice most concealed weapons or a slight favoring of a leg. If perception is being attuned with their surroundings, these characters are finely tuned in.

I hope this guide has helped you with understanding Passive Perception and how to use it in your game.  

As always, any question you have feel free to comment below and we’ll do our best to answer!

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