Passive and Active Checks

If the D&D manuals gave a rule for every possible eventuality and rules intersection, they’d be too heavy to lift. Fortunately, the authors rely on player’s to make decisions on their own; it’s up to us to interpret the rules so that we have the most fun at our games. However, every once in a while, a rule comes up that makes a person scratch their head. No clear direction provides more or less fun, so what was the designer’s intent?

One of those rules has come up more than once and there is no clear answer: What happens if a DM asks you to roll a Perception or Insight check and you roll lower than your passive score for either?

I asked this question on the EN World forums and received an interesting answer: “Before you even roll your check, you would have already seen whatever it was with your passive.” That answer seems to cover most cases.

But what about those times when only an active check applies? A passive Perception check won’t help you find something that you need to actively search for. A great real world example of rolling lower than your passive Perception is when you’re looking for your keys; ever spend half an hour searching for them, only to find them when you stop looking? Every once in a while, even when you’re actively looking, you can indeed roll lower than your passive.

In the end, if I ask for a Perception or Insight roll, and you roll lower than your passive score for either, just assume that if your passive was good enough to have found anything in the first place, I would have mentioned it. In other words, your roll artificially raises to your passive score. However, in those rare cases where passive scores don’t apply, your roll is your roll.