[RPG] Are all passive ability checks floors for active ability checks


It's relatively well established that passive Perception acts as a floor (effectively a minimum) to an active Perception check.

Does the same ruling apply to other skill/ability checks1 (i.e. not explicitly Perception)?

Is there any rules text that support this?

1: For the purposes of this question, I'm assuming all skill checks can be made passively. If that assumption is wrong then that should also be addressed in an answer.

Best Answer

Only when applicable!

First, let's keep in mind passive and active DCs can vary. From LMoP:

Spotting a secret door from a distance of no more than 10 feet without actively searching for it requires a passive Wisdom (Perception) score of 15 or higher, whereas a character who takes the time to search the wall can find the secret door with a successful DC 10 Wisdom (Perception) check.

So, passive scores acting as a floor to a roll happens only when the DCs match (otherwise, no need to have different DCs). For the remainder of this answer, let's assume the DCs for active checks and passive scores match.

Now, when can we use passive scores? The rules are clear.

A passive check [...] can represent the average result for a task done repeatedly, such as searching for secret doors over and over again, or can be used when the DM wants to secretly determine whether the characters succeed at something without rolling dice, such as noticing a hidden monster.

In the case of Perception, it is an ability that's always being done repeatedly by adventurers, and is described by the Hiding rules. As other answers have mentioned, about spotting hidden enemies, passive Perception is the floor:

When you hide, there’s a chance someone will notice you even if they aren’t searching. The GM compares your Stealth check with that creature’s passive Wisdom (Perception) score.

But can be superseeded by a better roll with an active search:

That check’s total is contested by the Wisdom (Perception) check of any creature that actively searches for signs of your presence.

That being said, I think it makes sense for some other scores to work passively. For example, Insight is my prime choice, as I assume PCs will notice by default if they're being lied to. When new monsters appear, Intelligence passive scores also tell PCs lore and names of enemies. If PCs then ask for active actions, then they may supersede the passive score.

However, actions like picking a lock, they're a short set of actions that perfectly match an active Sleight of Hand check. If he can just try and pick it all day, then I consider the passive score, but when they reach the house for the first time and try to break in, it's an active check, and not superseded by any passive scores.

Passive score first (if applicable). Then active check.

In the end, it depends on DM and PC. Use passive scores when it is something the PC is assumed to do by default, repeatedly, with no consequence (remain alert, ready to fight, recall information, maybe even seduce NPCs to affect their mood), and these may be superseded by active checks if PCs ask for them. Whenever it is not a repeatable task, and instead an actual event with consequences for failure (maybe as simple as wasted time), use active checks, since passive scores are not applicable.

Don't just assume all skills have a minimum. It would cause an 11th level Rogue skill to be useless.