Relevant rules on Passive Perception in DnD 5e, from the Player’s Handbook:
A passive check is a special kind of ability check that doesn’t involve any die rolls. Such a check can represent the average result for a task done repeatedly, such as searching for secret doors over and over again, or can be used when the DM wants to secretly determine whether the characters succeed at something without rolling dice, such as noticing a hidden monster.
Here’s how to determine a character’s total for a passive check:
10 + all modifiers that normally apply to the check
If the character has advantage on the check, add 5. For disadvantage, subtract 5. The game refers to a passive check total as a score.
For example, if a 1st-level character has a Wisdom of 15 and proficiency in Perception, he or she has a passive Wisdom (Perception) score of 14.
Player’s Handbook, pg. 175
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, which equals 10 + the creature’s Wisdom modifier, as well as any other bonuses or penalties. If the creature has advantage, add 5. For disadvantage, subtract 5. For example, if a 1st-level character (with a proficiency bonus of +2) has a Wisdom of 15 (a +2 modifier) and proficiency in Perception, he or she has a passive Wisdom (Perception) of 14.
Player’s Handbook, pg. 177
A given area might be lightly or heavily obscured. In a lightly obscured area, such as dim light, patchy fog, or moderate foliage, creatures have disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight…
…Dim light, also called shadows, creates a lightly obscured area. An area of dim light is usually a boundary between a source of bright light, such as a torch, and surrounding darkness. The soft light of twilight and dawn also counts as dim light. A particularly brilliant full moon might bathe the land in dim light.
Player’s Handbook, pg. 183
10 + Wisdom Modifier + Proficiency Bonus (if proficient in Perception) + additional Perception boosts*
*From feats, items, abilities, etc.
Passive Perception 5e
Passive perception is one of the trickiest concepts for first-time DMs and players to wrap their heads around. As you can see above, the relevant rules to passive perception in 5e are spread across three different pages of the Player’s Handbook.
Hopefully, we can clear up some of the confusion
Hold up! Are you just here for the basics of Passive Perception? Skip to our beginner’s section below to get a no-nonsense description of how Passive Perception works in 5e.
What Is Passive Perception om 5e?
Passive perception is a passive score that all players and creatures have. It refers to how naturally perceptive a creature is — how much they notice as they go about their business, even when they’re not actively trying to perceive anything.
Think about your day-to-day life: if you walk into a packed coffee shop and only one person is wearing blue shoes, you almost definitely wouldn’t “just notice” that fact without trying. Noticing people’s shoe colors would require an active perception check on your part.
Now let’s say you walk into that same packed coffee shop, but only one person has a neon pink mohawk. Chances are, you’ll notice that mohawk without needing to actively scan the room for the person with the mohawk. Your passive perception will pick up on the mohawk without you needing to expend any perceptive effort — it’s something you notice without trying.
How Does Passive Perception Work in 5e?
Passive perception is an optional tool that dungeon masters can use to speed up the pace of play. Basing passive skill checks around 10 + all relevant modifiers is no accident — conceptually, a roll of 10 on a d20 represents an average, baseline use of a player/creature’s skills.
While passive scores technically exist for all skills, perception is the most commonly used, since it’s a skill that all conscious creatures are constantly engaged in.
As players move about their environment, a DM can use their passive perception scores to determine whether they automatically notice certain features (traps, hidden doors, noteworthy quest items, clues, hidden creatures, etc.) without needing to make an active skill check.
This is especially useful for DMs who don’t want to spoil the suspense of a situation by asking for an active perception check, which will almost certainly put the players on guard and change their behavior.
A passive perception score also acts as the “floor,” below which a player’s active perception check can never land. In other words, if the player rolls a 5 on an active perception check, they still notice all the same things they would’ve noticed with a roll of 10. More on the intricacies of this in the rules section below.
Active perception checks typically have a lower DC as well (they’re easier to pass). The logic is that if you’re actively trying to perceive something, you should notice things more easily than if you’re not.
But first, let’s take a look at some examples to simplify things.
Passive Perception 5e Calculation Examples
Here are some passive perception examples in ascending order of complexity:
Calculating passive perception score (not proficient). If a character isn’t proficient in perception, then their perception modifier will be the same as their Wisdom modifier. Add 10 to this number to calcuate the player’s passive perception score.
Calculating passive perception score (proficient). If a character is proficient in perception, then their perception modifier will be their Wisdom modifier + their proficiency bonus. Add 10 to this number to calcuate the player’s passive perception score.
Calculating passive perception score (additional perception modifiers). If a character has feats and/or items that affect their passive perception score, first calculate their perception modifier using the two examples above.
Next, add the bonus from the Observant feat (+5) and the bonus from Sentinel Shield (advantage = +5 for passive skill checks).
Passive Perception 5e Gameplay Examples
Examples are often easier to parse and wrap your head around than numbers in a vacuum. Hopefully, these passive perception scenarios will shed light on how exactly it plays out during a game.
Lost Mines of Phandelver. One of the best gameplay examples that highlights the differences between passive and active perception comes in the Starter Set’s adventure book, Lost Mines of Phandelver. When players are investigating a hideout, the adventure book guides DMs with this phrase:Spotting a secret door…without actively searching for it requires a passive Wisdom (Perception) score of 15 or higher, whereas a character who takes the time to search the wall can find the secret door with a successful DC 10 Wisdom (Perception) check. (LMoP 20)
This example is great for illustrating how passive perception has a higher DC than active perception. Most characters won’t “just notice” a secret door, because, well, it’s secret. But if they’re actively looking for secret doors and such, there’s a good chance at least one player will find one.
Let’s play this example out further and assume that nobody in the party has a passive perception score of 15+ (let’s say the Bard is the closest with 14). The DM would describe the room as it is, without mentioning any hint of secret doors. But the group’s Wizard feels suspicious and makes an active perception check to look for alternative passageways.
She rolls an 8 and has a +2 perception modifier, so she passes the DC 10 perception check with a final result of 10. She notices the secret door and brings it to the attention of the rest of the party.
High passive perception party member. Now let’s play out that same scenario from above, but assume that one of the players in the room has a passive perception score of 17. As soon as that party member walks into the room, it’s up to the DM to inform them that they spot what looks like a secret door along the wall.
It’s up to a DM whether they flat-out tell you “there’s a secret door right here” or if they just give you enough clues to easily figure it out on your own, but that’s really just a flavor/style choice rather than a mechanical one.
Looking for something in darkness. Let’s say the group’s Ranger takes a stealthy solo trip to scout out the Orc encampment. It’s nighttime, no fires are lit, but the moon is full and the sky is clear.
The Ranger surveys the area with dim light, which counts as a lightly obscured area. As the DM decides what the Ranger sees, she should take into account that the Ranger has a disadvantage on their passive perception score. Since you don’t roll for passive checks, a disadvantage is expressed as -5.
Let’s say the Ranger’s normal passive perception score is 15 — as long as he’s trying to perceive things using sight, the DM can consider his passive perception as 10. So if there was a DC 15 check to notice that the Orcs have several prisoners, the Ranger would fail to automatically notice that with his passive perception.
Of course, he could make an active perception check to see if he notices more.
Noticing hidden creatures. Let’s say a pack of three goblins is stealthily waiting to ambush a party. As the party walks by, the DM makes three stealth checks, one for each goblin. The results of the rolls are 17, 13, and 5. Now let’s say that the party’s passive perception scores are 14, 12, 12, and 11.
The player with a passive perception of 14 would hear slight rustling as the goblin who rolled a 13 moves into position, and could inform his party of this fact. The whole party would hear as the goblin who got a 5 stubs his toe and curses quite loudly under his breath. Nobody in the party notices the goblin who got a 17, so he’d still have a chance of surprising everyone.
Of course, at the point when the party hears some signs of an ambush, they could try to make an active perception check that successfully picks up on the third, thus-far undetected goblin.
Sneaking by creatures. Let’s say a party is trying to sneak by two vigilant guards. The DM might determine that because these guards are specifically on the lookout for intruders, they have advantage on perception checks (and therefore +5 to their passive perception). Their total passive perception score is 17 — this sets the DC for the party’s stealth check.
The party makes a group stealth check (PHB 175), resulting in rolls of 5, 14, 15, 18, and 19. Because less than half the group passed the stealth check, the guards notice the players trying to sneak by — roll initiative!
Passive Perception and Stealth 5e
The passive perception score of creatures acts as the difficulty class (DC) of stealth checks for creatures that are trying to sneak by them.
A single stealthing creature rolls a d20 and adds their stealth modifier to the result. If the total is equal to or greater than the passive perception of the creature(s) they’re trying to sneak by, then they successfully sneak by.
The reason that ties go to the sneaking creature is that if a “contest results in a tie, the situation remains the same as it was before the contest” (PHB 174). In other words, the perceiver didn’t perceive the stealther before the roll, so that’s how things remain.
If a group of players is trying to sneak as a group, they would all make stealth checks. If half or more of the party succeeds (beats the passive perception scores of the perceivers), then the whole party succeeds (PHB 175).
Being in a lightly obscured area will help the party pass stealth checks, as the perceivers’ passive perception score will suffer a -5 penalty from the rule on lightly obscured areas giving disadvantage to active perception checks that rely on sight (expressed as -5 for passive skill checks) (PHB 177, 183).
Of course, creatures that rely on other senses, like a keen sense of smell or tremors, suffer no such passive perception penalty to those senses based on obscurity.
Passive Perception 5e Rules
Here are common rules discussions around passive perception in 5e:
Passive perception is an optional rule up to DM discretion to use. First and foremost, passive skill checks are entirely the domain of the dungeon master.
At no point should a player say “I’d like to make a passive perception check” — it’s up to the DM to constantly be checking the player’s passive perception versus whatever they might perceive.
That being said, a DM never really has to use passive perception. As Jeremy Crawford points out in this Sage Advice thread, “the DM decides whether the rule is used at all.”
If a DM would rather tell the players information regardless of their perception score, require active perception checks to find anything, or some combination depending on the scenario, they’re free to do so (as with every “rule” of DnD).
Passive perception is used to speed up the pace of play. The idea of passive skill checks, according to the game’s developers, is to increase the speed of play. Rather than require rolls for every little perceptive detail (in the case of perception checks), the DM can just assume an average roll (10) and tell them what they’d see if they’d roll that way.
The same logic can be applied to other skills checks — someone with a +7 history modifier doesn’t need to roll to remember a basic historical fact for example.
Passive perception is used to keep things secret. The other function of passive perception is to keep information secret from players. Asking players to make a perception check alerts them that there is something interesting to perceive, regardless of the results of their roll.
This will naturally induce active perception checks with easier DCs, which makes for less satisfying gameplay. Players will “meta-game” the situation and continuously roll perception checks until they find the thing they want to find. Passive perception prevents this feel-bad playstyle.
Passive perception represents the “floor” of a creature’s perception. Jeremy Crawford spoke about the topic of hiding, stealth, and passive perception in this podcast. In it, he explicitly clarifies that we can think of passive perception as the “floor” of a character’s perceptive abilities.
Even if a player rolls less than a 10 on their active perception check, they still notice all the same things they would have noticed if they had rolled a 10. Again, it’s on the DM to tell them what they’d see if they rolled a 10 before the player has to roll at all.
Expertise doubles passive perception as well. Bards, Rogues, and players who take the Skill Expert feat (TCoE 80) have access to the class feature “Expertise,” which doubles their proficiency bonus for a skill that they’re already proficient in. If they choose to use one of their Expertise features on perception, then it benefits both passive perception score and active perception checks.
Confirmation from an example case on Sage Advice.
Advantage to passive perception is expressed as +5; disadvantage is expressed as -5.
When do you have disadvantage on passive perception? You have disadvantage on passive perception when trying to perceive something in light obscurity.
Additionally, traveling at a fast pace always hurts your party’s passive perception scores, at least for noticing threats.While traveling at a fast pace, characters take a –5 penalty to their passive Wisdom (Perception) scores to notice hidden threats. (PHB 182)
Otherwise, it’s more of a DM-fiat thing. But here are some other situations where a DM might rule that a creatures passive perception is disadvantaged:
Busy street with lots of crowd noise
You’re running from a swarm of hornets
You’re involved in an intense game of cards
It’s lashing rain and the wind is incredibly powerful
These are just some of many examples — just think of the situation and ask yourself, “if I were in this situation, would I be noticing things as well as I usually do?”
When do you have advantage on passive perception? Advantage on passive perception can be gained through some items (Sentinel Shield, Robe of Eyes (for vision-based perception)). You can also take the Observant feat, which gives a +5 bonus to passive perception (the same as having advantage).
Additionally, a DM might rule that behaving in a certain ways makes for advantageous perceptive abilities. For example:
Having a clue about where to look for something
Knowing the lore of the structure you’re in
Growing up in the culture you’re dealing with
Again, it’s up to the DM to think of why players would naturally notice more based on common sense.
A DM should only have players roll a perception check if their passive perception didn’t pass the DC of the thing they’re trying to perceive. This is basically the same sentiment as the rule above about passive perception acting as a “floor.”
If a DM asks you to roll an active perception check, there’s no way a player can do worse than a 10. If a 10 already should have perceived the thing, then the DM shouldn’t have asked for a roll in the first place.
NPCs have passive perception scores too. All creatures have passive perception scores, and they’re calculated the same way as they are for players:Passive Perception Score. All monsters have a passive Wisdom (Perception) score, which is most often used to determine whether a monster detects
approaching or hidden enemies. A monster’s passive Wisdom (Perception) score is 10+ its Wisdom modifier. If the monster has proficiency in the Perception skill, its score is 10+ its Wisdom (Perception) bonus. (DMG 279)
It’s up to the DM to use this passive perception score whenever players are moving stealthily because it acts as the DC that players have to beat on their rolls.
Without Darkvision, you can’t use your passive perception for sight when in Darkness. Here are the relevant rules:A heavily obscured area–such as darkness, opaque fog, or dense foliage–blocks vision entirely. A creature effectively suffers from the blinded condition when trying to see something in that area…
…Darkness creates a heavily obscured area. Characters face darkness outdoors at night (even most moonlit nights), within the confines of an unlit dungeon or a subterranean vault, or in an area of magical darkness. (PHB 183)
A blinded creature can’t see and automatically fails any ability check that requires sight. (PHB 290)
Basically, the automatic failure on ability checks that require sight means that your passive perception (for things that are sight-based) is effectively 0 while in darkness.
You can’t hide in plain sight. Passive perception ceases to be a thing once players aren’t actively being stealthy. As the rules point out:
In other words, no amount of great stealth rolling and/or terrible passive perception is enough to keep a creature hidden once it’s plainly visible/perceivable to a foe. No checks, passive or active, are required at that point.
How to DM Passive Perception in 5e
Here are some quick tips on how to use passive perception at your table if you’re a DM:
Write down the passive perceptions of all your players. Asking players for their passive perception in the middle of a dungeon is just as bad as asking them to make a perception check — either way, you’re tipping your players off that there’s something to perceive.
Instead, jot down these numbers and keep them in front of you. That way, you can compare them to the various DCs of things they may notice without alerting them to the fact that you’re doing anything at all.
Plus, when you need to make a stealth check for the creatures that you’re running, it helps to have the players’ passive perception scores handy so you know what DC you have to beat.
Jot down DCs for various perception checks for important details. As you run pre-made adventures, you might see tips for the required passive and/or active perception checks to notice things. Make a note of these, and also consider adding in your own little details with various DCs to get comfortable with the mechanic.
Try not to stick to multiples of 5, or players might become too meta-gamey.
Don’t make players roll for an active perception check if their passive perception should have already noticed something. We’ve reiterated this a few times already, but it bears repeating in the DM tips section.
Remember, a player can’t do any worse on an active perception check than a 10 — it’s not like they forget what they’ve already perceived normally (unless you want to play that as a humorous take on rolling a 1).
Use passive perception to not tip players off. One of the main points of using passive perception as a DM is to maintain a sense of mystery. Asking for a perception check as players enter a space informs them that they’re something to find in this space.
Even if they all get horrible rolls, they’ll keep looking and eventually find the thing. That’s what passive perception avoids — by essentially assuming that the players all rolled 10s on their perception checks, you’re assuming that their baseline perceptive abilities do or do not detect something without further investigation.
Use passive perception hints to lead to active perception checks. Sometimes you want to tip players off, but not in too obvious a way. In these cases, you can make sure that players have a high enough passive perception to notice hints or clues, but still need to put the pieces together and actively roll to find the thing.
Passive Perception 5e for Beginners
Here are the basics of passive perception in 5e. With just this knowledge, you’ll be fine to calculate and use your passive perception as a player, as well as correctly incorporate passive perception into your games as a DM:
Passive perception calculation: 10 + Wisdom Modifier + Proficiency Bonus (if proficient in Perception)
Passive perception is a DM tool. Players never need to “use” their passive perception; it’s a number that DMs use to determine how much information players notice automatically as they move about their environment.
An active perception check can never be worse than a passive perception score. If you’re actively looking for something, you make an active perception check by rolling a d20 and adding your perception modifier.
However, because your passive perception already noticed everything that rolling a 10 would have told you, the worst result of your roll is effectively a 10 — anything higher might tell you more information; anything lower, and your access to information stays the same.
Passive perception exists to speed up the game and keep things secret. By using passive perception, a DM can move more quickly through the narrative without requiring perception checks for every little detail.
Additionally, when the players are walking into an ambush, the DM can secretly make stealth checks against the players’ passive perception scores to see if they notice the enemy moving into position.
If the DM had to ask for active rolls in these scenarios, she would tip the players off and change their behavior, which is bad for immersion, roleplaying, and satisfying gameplay.