One of the coolest mechanics in Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is rolling the dice for just about everything. From determining the order of play – rolling initiative – to determining whether a random encounter happens, both players and Dungeon Masters (DMs) roll lots during each and every session of gameplay.
In the course of each campaign, there’s different information that player might want to know – or that the DM might want them to have. To that end, there are two main rolls which players can do to gain information: investigation checks and perception checks.
Even for the most experienced DM, there might be some confusion about which one a player should roll. Whether you’re a new DM, just considering a new scenario in your campaign and want to make sure you ask for the right roll, or are a player trying to understand why your DM might ask for one roll or another, this post will cover the basics of investigation vs perception checks and how to choose between them. As a new DM myself, I have struggled knowing which skill check to ask my players to make – but hopefully we’ll all be a little bit smarter after reading this resource.
Of course, as in all things in D&D, you as DM or you as DM+players might choose to adjust these definitions. It is your game after all, and my only goal is to provide you guidelines upon which to build your own fantastical world. Ready to understand the differences between insight checks and perception checks, and which one to roll?
🎲 Make an Insight Check: This resource is written for both players and DMs – it’s important for everyone at the table to understand and agree on how these different skill checks work within your game.
Investigation vs Perception, Defined
To begin, it’s helpful to define each of these different checks. Players will likely do all of them at some point, so it’s important for you and your DM to agree on how each is defined.
- Investigation checks are used to determine a character’s ability to gather information and uncover clues through careful observation and analysis. Investigation checks use your Intelligence modifier; this means that information gained is more related to the character’s academic inclination or intrinsic knowledge.
- Perception checks are used to determine a character’s ability to notice details in their environment and detect hidden objects, creatures, or dangers. A perception check uses your Wisdom modifier; this means the information gained might come more from the character’s experience or backstory
Admittedly, this still doesn’t clear things up much, does it?
Examples of Investigation Checks
Here’s are some examples from the Players Handbook of what at investigation check might reveal:
When you look around for clues and make deductions based on those clues, you make an Intelligence (Investigation) check. You might deduce the location of a hidden object, discern from the appearance of a wound what kind of weapon dealt it, or determine the weakest point in a tunnel that could cause it to collapse. Poring through ancient scrolls in search of a hidden fragment of knowledge might also call for an Intelligence (Investigation) check.Source: PHB
And here are are three examples of scenarios in which an investigation check might be useful:
- The party is searching a room in a dungeon for a hidden trap door that leads to the next level. They can make an investigation check to carefully examine the room for any clues or signs that may reveal the location of the trap door.
- The party is interviewing a witness who claims to have seen a mysterious figure lurking in the shadows. They can make an investigation check to ask detailed questions and observe the witness’s behavior, trying to determine if they are telling the truth or holding back information.
- The party discovers a cryptic message scrawled on a wall in an ancient temple. They can make an investigation check to study the message and determine if it contains any hidden meanings or codes that may reveal the location of a hidden treasure or secret passage.
From these examples, you can see that investigation is more about looking closely at a specific situation or environment to learn more.
Examples of Perception Checks
Here’s what the Players Handbook has to say about how perception checks work:
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.Source: PHB
And here are three more detailed examples of situations in which a perception check is the right check for your party or players to make:
- The party is exploring a dark and dank dungeon and they want to see if they can spot any hidden traps or dangers. They can make a perception check to search the area carefully and try to detect any signs of danger, such as a loose stone that might trigger a trap.
- The party is traveling through a dense forest and they want to see if they can spot any signs of a nearby predator. They can make a perception check to scan the area for any movement, listen for any unusual sounds, or sniff for any strange odors that might indicate the presence of a dangerous animal.
- The party is searching a cluttered room for a small, hidden object. They can make a perception check to carefully scan the room, looking for any signs that might give away the object’s location, such as a glint of light or a slight bulge in the fabric of a rug.
As you can tell, perception checks dive deeper than investigation; it’s all about looking for details and specific things.
What about Passive Checks?
In addition to having the ability to do an insight, intellegence, perception, or survival check or save using your wisdom or intellegence modifier, every player also has three passive scores: passive perception, passive investigation, and passive insight.
How does this play into how your characters discover information? As a DM, I always keep in mind the passive scores (especially ones higher than 15) as this may allow the character to discover information without doing a check in the first place.
- For example, a ranger with a high passive perception might notice tracks others do not – and then be asked to do a survival check if they want to try and follow those tracks.
- Similarly, a rogue with a high passive investigation might notice the signs of a trap door more easily than other players. They might then be asked to do an (active) investigation check to check for traps on that door.
In general, passive perception and investigation numbers are most helpful for a DM, who might choose to reveal more information based upon particularly high scores any particular player has.
What About Insight or Survival Checks
If you’re reading this and wondering: how do these skill checks differ from an insight survival check, I want to address that too.
- Insight checks are used to determine a character’s ability to read the intentions and motivations of other creatures based on their behavior, body language, and speech. Insight checks are all about getting information from other people.
- Survival checks are used to determine a character’s ability to navigate through wilderness areas, find food and water, track creatures or people, and avoid natural hazards. Survival checks are all about nature-specific information, and usually have to do with surviving in nature; this might include foraging for food, tracking an enemy, or looking for navigation clues.
So in some ways, Insight and Survival checks are context specific: you use an insight check when it’s dealing with other players or NPCs, and you use a survival check when you’re out in the wilderness.
Which Skill Check to Make
Hopefully this helps you whether you’re a player or a DM. Choosing between these investigation vs perception checks (or making the case to your DM for why you should do one compared with another) is an important part of gathering information during your D&D campaign, and it’s important to get it right; it’s the way your characters will gain the information they need to move forward in the campaign – or have a few adventures and learn from their poor rolls.
Have any other questions about choosing between investigation vs perception or which skill check to make? Let me know in the comments below!