DnD 5e: How Passive Skills Work

In Dungeons & Dragons, timing and mood are key, using passive skills correctly can help keep the momentum going without sacrificing atmosphere.

By its very nature, Dungeons & Dragons involves a lot of dice rolls. Just about any action taken requires a die to be rolled, and skills are no exception. However, excessive throws can bog down a game. In older editions, J&D used the concept of “taking 20”, the idea being that a task could be repeated until successful, as represented by a natural 20 on the die roll. In Fifth editionhowever, this feature is balanced and simplified in the passive skill mechanic.

Sometimes Dungeon Masters may want to keep a contested enemy roll secret, or may feel that a player should know information without having to roll for it. In such cases, a passive skill check can help. While most are familiar with passive perception, the truth is that all skills have passive value.


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All skills calculate their passives the same as the Perception passive: 10 + the character’s skill mod. However, just like other skills, certain effects can increase or decrease the passive value. For example, having an advantage on a skill check grants a +5 to its passive value. Conversely, the disadvantage gives a -5 penalty to the passive. This means that the poisoned condition would give all their passive values ​​a -5 character.


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While the decision to allow a passive check is ultimately up to a DM, a good rule of thumb is that passives should not be used in combat or under high stress. A passive value is meant to represent a character’s average ability on a skill under ideal conditions. For example, if a thief is trying to pick a lock on a chest when there are no traps or visible signs of danger, or a bard wants to perform a show for a night at an inn, it makes sense to use a passive skill test, as these would be second nature to the characters.


However, a passive skill should not be used when trying to defuse a dangerous glyph or trap. The pressure is too great to adjust without rolling dice. It’s best to think of them as a kind of skill check radar. When a monster tries to knock a player down, if a character has a high enough passive perception, say they see or hear a figure rushing through the shadows. This tells players that something nearby is hiding from them, prompting them to make an active roll. Likewise, it can be used to indicate when a person’s knowledge may indicate that something is important to remember or that handwriting in a journal seems vaguely familiar.


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Other good uses for passives are in situations where a player would otherwise have to do repeated checks to maintain skill. If players all decide they’re going to sneak into a noble’s mansion, it can be annoying or frustrating to continually cast Stealth every time they move from room to room. Using the passive instead allows players to focus on throwing the checks they need for situations outside of the obvious. They do not need to constantly declare that they are sneaking, as this is assumed until the situation changes. Also, if they roll badly, they aren’t penalized for the whole stealth segment just because of bad luck.


Passives are also great for maintaining the mood. If players wander through a dungeon, asking for perception tests sends a red flag that something in the room is worth finding, undermining the element of surprise. However, if the DM maintains a list of a player’s passives, it can allow for a much more dramatic event when ninjas suddenly attack. Although not often discussed, passive skills can elevate a J&D game to new heights. Players will be grateful to see that their high skill values ​​aren’t just at the whim of fate, and DMs will be grateful to have an easily accessible break.

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Maria D. Ervin