“Make a Perception check,” is the GM’s fallback.

I’ve played in games (particularly combat-light modern games where social skills weren’t rolled but were just roleplayed) where perception-based rolls might be the only rolls made for entire sessions. Even in D&D, where there are standards to encourage a wide range of skill checks in a session, most build guides I see encourage players to always be proficient in Perception if possible (which indicates that lots of such checks is common across all tables). The Gumshoe system basically exists to add variety and certainty to investigation genres where little is rolled besides perception skills.

We’re probably overdoing it.

I’d been thinking for years that, at the very least, perception checks needed to be more intentional, as a GM. Was I requiring rolls when I should just be giving the information? Was failing a perception check interesting? Was succeeding? Could skills that didn’t get used enough (like science and academics) be used instead of perception when investigating things? So when I decided to run Scion and realized that the game didn’t come with any attributes or skills that were used for raw perception, I was interested to finally get a chance to try out my theories.

It was very awkward.

The first thing I realized, not having a generic perception roll to call for, was that often gating information behind a skill does have a purpose.

  • In the most basic sense, there are often things in a scene that are obvious and things that are subtle, and calling for a generic perception check is a marker of the divide between the two: it lets you break up a scene description rather than just narrating for an extended period (and, due to players feeling like they earned the extra description by rolling well, they’re more likely to pay attention).
  • In a more extended sense, sometimes it’s clear that there are parts of the scene description that are optional but valuable. You’re not going to break your plot by not revealing them, but giving them out may grant an advantage.
  • And in the most active sense, sometimes there are enemies that are hiding or items that have been actively hidden. Perception is a way to engage in conflict.

Now, most of this, I’m convinced, is GM training. After years of running games, the call for a perception check is a reflex. It’s instinctual. The cognitive dissonance would probably lessen after further years of not having that particular tool, requiring the development of new GMing muscles. Here are some tips for building those muscles (which might be good things to try even if you do have a perception skill to use in your game).

  • Embrace the old school mindset. Describe only the obvious in a scene. Rather than using a roll to break up information, encourage your players to ask for more details. Some information may be rewarded simply for asking (“What kinds of books are on the bookshelves?”) while others may require some kind of directed interaction (“Is one of the books a switch for a hidden door?”). None of these things even need a roll, just the players describing their characters focusing on and/or interacting with part of the environment.
  • Break narration into immediate and delayed impressions. Even without the players deliberately asking for more information, there are parts of a scene that would naturally resolve over time spent in the area. Think of your scene like downloading images on slow modem connections back in the day: first you get blobs of color like an over-stretched thumbnail, then you start getting finer details. Particularly in scenes with tension or combat, you can start with the very broad and mention more after the characters have been there for a bit. For example: “The baron’s office is done in dark woods and reds. There’s a desk, chair, a cabinet, and a couple of bookshelves, with a window onto the lawn.” “You’re starting to notice a weird smell of death in the room as you look over the cluttered top of the desk. The books are haphazardly shoved onto the shelves.” “You’re getting the impression that someone rifled through the room already, and shoved things back quickly to tidy up. The bad smell is worse by the cabinet, and some of the red on the carpet that you initially assumed was a pattern might be dried blood.”
  • Consider which skills you would use to hide the information that’s secret, and let the players roll the same skill to investigate. It takes a thief to catch a thief. Roll stealth to consider where the best places in the scene would be to hide a person/object. Roll deception to figure out the techniques you’d use to distract someone from the secret you’re trying to ferret out.
  • Allow bonus information as a reward for doing well on unrelated rolls that otherwise don’t benefit from it, or flat-out gate it behind player narrative currency. “You slide into the bedroom so silently the guards don’t notice you, and you happen to pick an approach that’s so good you notice…” “You have a sense that something else might be interesting here. Anyone want to spend a fate point to find it?”
  • Make stealth/deception the only active roll in a conflict. It’s already a problem for sneaky characters that multiple guards means an almost guaranteed chance of detection if they all get a separate roll (because the more people rolling, the more likely someone is to get an unusually high result). Set a reasonable difficulty for the check based on the situation (light/cover/number of guards for stealth or believability and stress level for deception), and if you succeed, you’re good until the situation changes. Players already have a hard time not metagaming when they know they failed an unprompted perception check. “I rolled a stealth check for the NPCs at a difficulty based on the information available to you” is just as reasonable as “I rolled your perception checks in secret.”