[RPG] How to make sense of having one’s passive Perception better than the active one? (e.g. when one takes the Observant feat)


Doesn't the Observant feat make you see more, when you're not actually looking? Or if you'd like me to rephrase that: doesn't it make you notice more, where you're not actively trying to notice anything?

I've browsed through every possible answer to questions about the Observant feat and how the passive checks work on this site and others, but it still boils down to me to this simple question.

Unless there's a rule somewhere (and I haven't seen such in the PHB) that requires a DM to consistently apply lower DCs for active checks, it really seems to work like stated above and thus doesn't make much sense.

I wonder why they didn't make it an automatic advantage for the selected checks (be them passive or active) rather than giving a bonus (incidently equal to an advantage) to the passive ones only. Wouldn't then such a change make for a good house rule concerning the Observant feat?

Best Answer

Short answer

Yes, the Observant feat helps a character only when they are not actively looking. It is possible to make sense of this in terms of how active Perception is framed by the rules, and with reference to real-world ideas about the conscious and unconscious mind. The +5 bonus only applies to Perception/Investigation skills when used passively, but it is still possible to exceed this score ("notice more") with active Perception/Investigation by rolling 16 or more.

Long answer

As the introduction to feats in the PHB says (my emphasis):

A feat represents a talent or an area of expertise that gives a character special capabilities. (PHB 165)

The talent/special capability which the Observant feat gives is that you are:

Quick to notice details of your environment (PHB 168)

This is different to an active Perception check, where you mostly have to specify exactly where you are looking to have any chance to find anything.

In most cases, you need to describe where you are looking in order for the DM to determine your chance of success. For example, a key is hidden beneath a set of folded clothes in the top drawer of a bureau. If you tell the DM that you pace around the room, looking at the walls and furniture for clues, you have no chance of finding the key, regardless of your Wisdom (Perception) check result. You would have to specify that you were opening the drawers or searching the bureau in order to have any chance of success. (PHB 178)

I can think of two reasons why it makes sense that the Observant feat only benefits passive Perception. The first is based on the wording of the rules, and the second on my basic understanding of psychology.

  • Observant will only work with things which are potentially noticeable in the immediate 'environment', ie not more narrowly specified locations (this is the purview of active Perception)
  • You could understand passive Perception as being what the unconscious mind sees, and active Perception as being what can be uncovered by the conscious mind.

You can take or leave the last point, as not everyone subscribes to this psychological model.

I've argued here from the point of view of Perception, but the same ideas can be applied to active and passive Investigation, which the Observant feat also covers.

In any case, this does not mean that your character's passive Perception/Investigation scores are always "better than the active ones", as the die roll could be 16-20, which would take you above your passive score, but the bonus only applies to passive checks for the reasons given. Of course, you could also roll lower, but even without the Observant feat, it is possible to roll better, worse or the same as your passive Perception/Investigation, and the feat just raises the bar of your passive scores.