Rolemaster Skill Deconstruction: Perception, is it even a skill?

PERCEPTION: This skill affects how much information and how many clues a character gets through observation. It may be used to notice the right things, to find carelessly hidden objects, to see that pile of old clothes in the corner, to notice the imperfection in the wall that hides the secret door, the trigger for the trap ahead, the ambush. These are the type of things that the GM cannot mention to the players because to do so would call them to special attention that the character’s perception might not allow. (ref. Character Law)

Arguably one of the most important skills for any character to have is Perception. At least in my player groups, it’s a skill that is taken at least 1 rank every level. Why is it so important? Perception is the gateway for the game narrative. This is critical for table top role-playing where most information is provided by a GM through exposition. Information can be provided or withheld based on a players perception skill–it’s a throttle that can increase or decrease the game experience!

Like many elements of Rolemaster, the perception skill was probably based on the “find traps” or “detect secret door” ability in D&D. But RM perception is a massive expansion of that specific ability and it’s not just an active skill, but can be used as a passive one which greatly improves it’s utility. In my game it’s almost automatic that a player will announce that they are going to make a perception check. Basically what they are asking, is for any “hidden knowledge” based on a skill roll. For me, that’s very reductionist, it lowers the roleplaying experience down to a randomized game mechanic. And because every character in the group has perception, it’s also not uncommon for every player to make a perception check to maximize the probability of a successful result. Even if every character has an average +50 skill bonus, one of 4 or 5 players is going to roll high. At higher levels every character is a “crack observer”. No absent minded or myopic mages in my groups!

As a GM, I usually WANT the group to find secret doors and other mysteries to enhance their enjoyment or reward them. So having them able to perform successful perception checks can be important. On the other hand, these rolls also take some of the narrative control from me. Either way there is no denying the importance or impact of the Perception skill.

So what makes up perception? Quality of eyesight? Tactile sensitivity? Smell? Hearing? If that’s the case, than perception is based on innate physical abilities. Can you train up better vision? Teach yourself better hearing? Probably not. Perception should be purely physical based with an added emphasis on any racial ability.

Or is perception a trainable skill with “rules”, “systems” and processes that can be taught and learned? Aren’t spies taught the ability to notice small details? Are policemen taught to “detect” things? Aren’t soldiers taught to detect tripwires and boobytraps?

If perception is mostly physical capacity then perhaps it shouldn’t be a skill at all. However, if it is a trainable skill shouldn’t it be considered quite specialized and not classified as a general skill? Shouldn’t it be left to professions like thieves, assassins or mystics? Wouldn’t that make it more interesting for game play and give a cool niche role for certain profession types?

What are your thoughts?

9 thoughts on “Rolemaster Skill Deconstruction: Perception, is it even a skill?”

  1. Interesting post, raising some points I hadn’t considered before. I suppose you could have Perception as a stat (I always thought this made a considerable amount of sense), and then trainable ‘active’ perception as a skill/talent for appropriate individuals. if you didn’t want a new stat, you could use Intuition or perhaps different stats depending on the kind of thing you’re looking for (Empathy for Social perception, Reasoning to find traps etc.). I prefer Perception as a stat, as using other stats privileges certain professions unnecessarily (as does Intuition and Reasoning, the current stats for Perception).

    My personal take is that, if this is a problem, Perception-type skills should be more expensive for most professions outside of their specialty areas (this only applies in RM2 and RMFRP, where there are multiple perception skills).

  2. Ooh, lots of thoughts!

    First up, I have killed off the everyone asking to make a perception check as soon as they enter a new location/scene. I have done this using two mechanisms. When I am prepping the adventure I make the perception checks for the characters and then prepare the narrative with the success or failure built in. I have a pool of dice rolls that the players have made for me that I draw on for this sort of thing including detecting traps should a character be in a position to activate a trap.

    The other way was to ask what the character wants to find. If the characters spot the enemy camp then I have already decided if they have spotted any scouts but if a player says that he looks for any signs of movement outside the camp that indicates patrols then I will allow a second check.

    My players never roll their own perception checks. They always come from the stack of rolls made before we start. If a character rolls 297+ and I say you do not see any guards then they will be more confident than when they roll 12 and I say they do not see any guards.

    On a different subject RM2 professions like the thief that get a professional bonus in Perception have a huge and massively wide ranging advantage over all other professions!

    Finally, have you ever considered a Gumshoe type system? In that system finding the clue is automatic the roll is more about additional information. Missing a clue will never derail your plot in that scheme.

  3. In real life, I would say that Perception is a trainable skill – there is the term ‘trained observer’ after all. Whether it should be a skill in RPGs is another question. As Peter mentioned, GUMSHOE avoids having an entire campaign derailed by missing a vital clue, which is something that can happen – more so in investigative games which is what GUMSHOE tends to be used for.

  4. I definitely think you can train to be able to spot things better. My wife had a job like that: she was a wildlife biologist whose job was to find species at risk like burrowing owls and rattlesnakes so that they could be protected. When we drive down the highway, she is great at spotting nests and rare wildlife and that sort of thing. I have become bettt too now that she has taught me what to look for.

    That though i guess emphasizes Brian’s point that perhaps there should be specializations. Or perhaps you could gain an additional specialization for every 5 or 10 ranks in the skill, jusst as in RMU additional ranks in weapon skills reduce the fumble range.

    I don’t think i would want a return to the old RM2 way of having multiple independent perception skills, like snese reality warp, sense ambush, etc etc. But perhaps getting extra specializations for higher ranks would work well.

    What shoud the specializations be? Maybe one for traps, one for ambushes, etc.

    1. Interesting. So, while I didn’t get into it, “observance” is also an active process looking for trained stimulus: we call this “pattern recognition”. btw, that far different than being trained for ANY outlier pattern isn’t it?

      Can a thief trained in an urban environment see or perceive snares or pitfalls in a woods or jungle environment?

      Perhaps the best way of parsing “perception” is through distinct environments? Will a lifetime country dweller truly “Percept” the ongoing patterns of a city? Will a “city dweller” see a woodland ambush or bear trap?

      Maybe the best option is to make ‘Perception” a unique skill but modified by the # skill ranks of the specialization? That’s what we do as part of our skill rank mechanic. (see Ambush in early RM as a guideline)

      1. My approach would be to give a city slicker thief a penalty initially when faced with dealing with snares or bear traps until they acclimatised. The penalty would diminish incrementally over time.

        I think perception is trainable. Over the past 6 months I have spent far more time standing around in fields since we have had the horses and I am now much more acutely of the signs of wildlife than I ever was. About the only thing my horse does not like is squirrels. She thinks they are going to eat her. I can now spot a squirrel a hundred yards away with my eyes closed and my back to it. Darwinism in action.

  5. I also agree with the ‘common thought’ that perception is most certainly trainable and something that hopefully improves over time in real life. I compare my kids now and how well they ‘perceived things’ in their environment as they aged, or quarterback being able to see the formation the defense, the mall security officer trained to pick up on suspicious behavior of shoplifters or armed robbery, the fire fighter trained to notice when the room on fire suddenly gets very quiet, or hears the crackling sound within a wall. These are things professionals are trained to notice.

    In the case of my kids, they learned the hard way. They knocked over the glass of water, the shelf falls over because they didn’t look first, they tripped because they weren’t looking where they were going. How about first time drivers who need to pay attention to all of their senses when driving. The sound of a car engine too close to them, noticing flashing lights because the radio is too loud to hear the sirens, noticing the cars around them are slowing down and pulling over because there is a state trooper off to the side of the road pulling people over for speeding. Eh, the list goes on and on.

    In the gaming world, certainly General Perception can be trained. In fact, in our gaming world we’ve added Hearing Perception and Smell Perception for those who would like to take it. The Assassin doesn’t sneak past the guards, pick the lock and slip into the dark room then light all the torches and fire up a lantern to see where the target is sleeping. Being able to focus her senses on hearing to pick up when someone is approaching, or if the patrol has passed by the door prior to opening it is very important. Out in the forest and travelling at night or standing watch, perception is no longer ‘general’, it’s reduced to the light from a campfire (possibly) then a whole bunch of hearing sounds and being able to differentiate between twigs falling, animals walking, or slightly clumsy assassin trying to sneak into camp. General Perception would give a broad overview, maybe even sensory overload where Hearing Perception would allow for focused concentration on the sounds that are most definitely out of the ordinary.

    I definitely see your point with 4-5 players having average of 50 in General Perception… rolling 100+ is going to happen certainly, but it’s not always going to happen. I’ll set a target difficulty value in my mind when players roll for Perception. Under 100, well, they may be close but not get what they were hoping for. They want something far more specific like picking out the thief from a crowded outdoor market, they need 145+. They want to pick out the thief in a crowded tavern at lunch they need 125+. The ‘generalities’ would be “… there seems to be one person off to the side, but still near the busy section who seems to be deliberately not looking your way. His hand is up trying to block his face from your view, but he doesn’t have his back turned completely to you and he seems to be picking at his food…”

    If they roll exceptionally well “…there seems to be two people who could be the target, but one guy seems to be sitting off to the side a bit, his hand up covering his face, but you notice he’s trying to peek sideways just over his fingers to watch your movements. He seems to be doing very subtle glances around the room to look for escape routs. He’s sitting on the edge of his seat, but looks like he’s ready to bolt at any moment…”

  6. Additional thought I left out of the previous post…

    My folks don’t usually request a General Perception roll. If I hope they’ll discover something or I want to set up a scene, I’ll tell them to roll General Perception. Some of the hardcore, rules lawyers I have will roll often, but nothing that’s unbearable. When I add in a “target” score for them to hit for a decent result, it helps mitigate the high rollers.

    If the group is split, I’m sure to enforce the “you aren’t there… you don’t see it…” Some meta-gaming occurs, but I try to dissuade it whenever possible.

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