How Not to Notice Things

This week is the “Tom Hates Stealth and Perception Skills” week.  Today, I’m going to talk about NOTICING THINGS and how you should really learn to do them right.

Sample scenario: Steve is nursing a drink at the bar, waiting for Lacey to show up so that he can buy a little information about Hardwick from her.  Minkle walks through the entrance, heads to a booth in the back, and he’s carrying a gun.

In a lot of games I’ve played (and run), the typical roll to notice something goes like this:

GM: “Steve, give me a Perception check.”
STEVE: “I rolled a five.”
GM: “You don’t notice anything unusual.”

This is badwrong.  For starters, by publicly calling for a Perception check, the GM is informing Steve (and everyone else) that there is something unusual going on.  So what if Steve doesn’t notice it?  Steve’s player knows it, and he’s going to act accordingly (even though he shouldn’t).objection-vector

OBJECTION!  Use a secret roll.
The GM could avoid the above scenario by rolling Steve’s Perception check in secret.  Problem solved, right?  Wrong.  Well, right, but you’re still wrong.  The GM rolling dice against himself is the role-playing equivalent of a visit from Rosie Palms.  You’re playing a game with your friends.  Playing the game without including them is boring ergo lame ergo don’t do it.
OBJECTION: Overruled.

However, Steve’s metagaming is not the big issue here.  The big issue here is that nothing happened.  I’m a firm believer that something needs to happen when you roll the dice, even if that something is bad.  At the bare minimum, the GM should provide some information on how the situation has changed–because, as I said, Steve’s mindset has changed, which means that his character actions have changed.

My radical solution: stop calling for “passive” notice checks.  Perception checks shouldn’t be a test to see if you invested enough resources to engage the game.  When the GM calls for Steve to make a Perception check, it should be because shit’s about to hit the fan and he’s giving Steve an opportunity to act before it does.  If things aren’t about to go south, then the GM should feed information directly to Steve.

GM: “Steve, as you’re waiting on Lacey, you see Minkle walk through the door, headed to a booth in the back.  He’s carrying.”
STEVE: “I don’t suppose that this is just a happy coincidence, is it?”
GM: “Probably not.”

The purpose here is to heighten the tension, to light the fuse of the firecracker.  As the GM, you want to make sure Steve is aware that wicked things his way come.



OBJECTION!  This is unrealistic.  It doesn’t take into account whether Steve is capable of noticing.  It’s been a long day, he’s absorbed with his drink, who is to say Steve notices Minkle enter?
In literature, “not noticing” works out fine because the text can address the change in situation directly to the reader.

Example: “Steve took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and sipped at the glass of whiskey.  He didn’t notice Minkle walk through the door–or the bulge of the gun holster at his side.”

The reader knows that Minkle is bad news and Steve is in trouble, but you can’t do this in an RPG because the player and character are intertwined in a way that the reader and the character are not in a book.  This is why I suggest feeding the information directly to Steve instead of calling for any sort of roll.  Despite my own feelings, I’m not going to disparage this approach.  If Steve is bookish and absent-minded, it would be poor form to give him this information (at least not without him getting lucky).

OBJECTION: Sustained.

In the scenario where the GM isn’t comfortable telling Steve the information directly, he should call for a roll, but that roll should not end with nothing changing.  “Nothing happens, carry on” is a bad way to do things.  Instead, the GM might resolve the exchange as follows:

GM: “Steve, give me a Perception check.”
STEVE: “I rolled a five.”
GM: “Out of the corner of your eye, you see a guy walk in.  He looks familiar, but you don’t get a good look.”  (Steve can then act on this information.)


GM: “Steve, give me a Perception check.”
STEVE: “I rolled a five.”
GM: “As you’re waiting on Lacey, a suspicious character walks in, heads to the back booth.  Before you do anything else, though, Lacey walks in and sits down next to you.”

The purpose here is to push the game in a direction that engages Steve rather than one that disengages him.  Telling him “you failed your roll, you don’t see anything” just isn’t very fun.