Revisiting the Past: Perception Checks in OSR

As the recent publisher of Mazes & Perils, I’ve been working on getting more experience with playing the system at the game table. I have to admit that a) I don’t GM a ton these days and b) most of my tabletop gaming experience of late has been in playing D&D 3.5e and 4e (and GMing 5e). That said, I have multiple opportunities over the next few months set up to play some good Old School M&P games and if the last session is any kind of indicator, I will enjoy it.

But one of the things that came up quickly in my first game at my FLGS with M&P novices was the disconnect between modern concepts and OSR practices. Some folks seemed shocked at all the naked die rolls that were completely without bonuses, which was entertaining but not unsurprising.

After doing a bit of thinking on the topic, I have come up with some ideas for how to map a few of the new ideas onto our old school system. This is the first of a new series of posts where I’ll talk about some of the ways I’m rethinking Old School ways for New School players.

Perception Checks

The Old School way of determining if a PC is aware of something that may potentially kill them is by the player actively telling you that they’re searching for something. There is no catch-all roll for players who choose to be lazy and just charge forward where angels fear to tread.

D&D 3/4/5e have all had the concept of a “Perception” skill. According to the 5e SRD Wiki, the definition of the Perception skill is:

“Your Wisdom (Perception) check lets you spot, hear, or otherwise detect the presence of something. It measures your general awareness of your surroundings and the keenness of your senses. For example, you might try to hear a conversation through a closed door, eavesdrop under an open window, or hear monsters moving stealthily in the forest. Or you might try to spot things that are obscured or easy to miss, whether they are orcs lying in ambush on a road, thugs hiding in the shadows of an alley, or candlelight under a closed secret door.”

This is a skill which you can add points to and goes up as your PC gains levels. This really doesn’t fly in the Old School systems. It’s all about players keeping their wits about them and assuming that everything in the environment is out to kill them, because usually it is. So we have to retrain our players a bit to be more proactive rather than assume that a single die roll or skill is going to save their butts. There is no “passive Perception” here.

Mazes & Perils has a few different “checks” you can use to actively be aware of your PC’s surroundings:

  • Listen checks – A basic Listen check is a d6 roll. Humans hear something on a 1. Other races have a bit better hearing apparently and hear something on a 1 or 2. Thieves also have the “Hear Noises” skill, which gives them a better chance to hear things depending on their level. 
  • Find/Disable Traps – Thieves have the ability to locate and disarm traps as a percentage that rises based on their level. Other character classes can use a simpler Find Traps roll on a d6, detecting the trap if they roll a 1. In addition, dwarves gain the ability to detect slanting passages, traps, shifting walls, and new construction on a roll of 1 or 2 on a d6.
  • Detecting Secret Doors – This is another d6 roll. Elves are able to spot them with a roll of 1 or 2. But chances are increased if the party takes a turn to search. In that case, the elf’s chances rise to rolling 1-4 on a d6. Other races can detect doors (if searching) on a 1 or 2.

And after talking with Vince, we’ll probably add a “Search” roll to the list as well. Characters would find something on a roll of 1 or 2 on a d6. This roll could become the default “Perception” check when all other rolls may not quite apply.

By removing the catch-all skill and making it more dependent on what the player active declares they are searching for, we’ll slowly bring these new folks around to thinking in Old School ways!

Example of This in Play

So how might this appear in a game? Let’s say our party is exploring a dungeon…

A dwarven thief is exploring in the dark as the leader. The player tells the GM he’s slowing their progress to search more thoroughly. He rolls a 2 on a d6 using his dwarven senses and finds that the passage has slowly gained a downhill slant that is suspicious. He rolls a Find Traps d6 and misses the roll, managing to step on the pressure plate that lets a giant boulder start rolling straight forward from behind.

When that happens, the player of the elf Magic-User gets suspicious. She doesn’t see anything up ahead, but rolls a Listen check on a d6 and rolls a 1. Yup… Certain doom has begun rolling their way quickly! RUN!


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