Observation gets a lot of confusion and hate on the boards due to some fluff text in the beginning. Still, what’s going on with Perception and other perception-based skills? When should each be used?


As far as I can tell, this one is simply sensory acuity, with a small side-order of data processing. One can make a pretty good argument that any Vision roll higher than 12 for humans is processing, rather than native resolution, which turns this on its head and suggests that while the first 10 points in Per is sensory acuity, anything beyond that is interpretive skill. That would make +2 Per a legit thing from a purely “my equipment is better,” but after that, a GM would be within his rights to treat further levels as a Talent, at 10 points/level, maximum 4 levels!

That last point isn’t a recommendation or a “do it this way!” or complaint about the price of Perception. I’ve not seen it break any games or even cause WTF moments. It’s just that for realistic/biomechanically accurate humans, there are actual hard limits that seem to correspond well to about two levels of natural ability, and then beyond that, the “wow, this guy’s really good at this” factor kicks in from processing and interpretation, which seems really a lot like the Reaction bonuses Talent gives you.

Per-based Skills

So, checking out the skills list, which skills are based off of Perception? What is the primary purpose of each skill?

  • Blind Fighting (Per/VH): Allows one roll per turn to be able to make an attack or defense in darkness.
  • Body Language (Per/A): Can use it like Empathy (p. B51) or Detect Lies (p. B187).
  • Detect Lies (Per/H): Gives a yes/no on whether the subject is lying to you.
  • Esoteric Medicine (Per/H): Somewhere between First Aid and super-healing. Interesting that this is a Per skill, but Diagnosis is not. 
  • Fishing (Per/E): Ability to catch fish.
  • Lip Reading (Per/A): See what others are saying within 7 yards.
  • Observation (Per/A): Obtain details that are tactically significant when contemplating dangerous or “interesting” action. May require another roll to put it all together.
  • Scrounging (Per/E): Find, salvage, or improvise needed equipment.
  • Search (Per/A): The ability to perform a hands-on or electronically assisted search for items concealed on a person, vehicle, bag, etc.
  • Survival (Per/A): The Per-based utility of this skill is to find water, food, shelter, and avoid hazards. Best direction to travel to find (or avoid) particular terrain features.
  • Tracking (Per/A): Follow a man or animal by its tracks
  • Urban Survival (Per/A): The physical part of staying alive in a city. Find (rain)water, manholes, building exits and entrances, find a warm place to sleep, and a host of other things.

Per-default Skills
Fishing (Mythos) (Per/VH)

As opposed to those with Per as a base, which skills can also default from Perception. These are ordered by difficulty of the defaults.

Easy Skills
Fishing (Per-4)
Scrounging (Per-4)

Average Skills
Observation (Per-5)
Search (Per-5)
Survival (Per-5)
Tracking (Per-5)

Some furies are blinder than others

Hard Skills
Detect Lies (Per-6)
Esoteric Medicine (Per-6)

Average Skill with Strangely Huge Default Penalty
Lip Reading (Per-10)

No-default (you can’t use them without training)
Blind Fighting (Per/VH) – no default.
Body Language (Per/A) – defaults to other trained skills, not Perception.

Type of Skill

Looking at this same list, what is it that is in common with each Perception skill? Let’s break ’em down, but I’m definitely pre-judging my description here to make a point.

  • Blind Fighting (Per/VH): Interpretation of sensory inputs to give a location of a foe, as well as whether he’s attacking you.
  • Body Language (Per/A): Interpretation of sensory cues to determine whether subject is intentionally giving false information or acting in a way known to be out of character for him.
  • Detect Lies (Per/H): Interpretation of sensory cues to determine whether subject is intentionally giving false information.
  • Esoteric Medicine (Per/H): Interpretation of physiological and semi-mystical cues to heal. Plus actually healing someone.
  • Fishing (Per/E): Interpretation of environmental cues to locate the best place where fish are. Also the act of physically catching fish, knowing what lures/bait to use, etc.
  • Lip Reading (Per/A): Interpretation of physiological speech patterns to determine spoken message without hearing it.
  • Observation (Per/A): Interpretation of visual information, but with a very particular slant – that of understanding how to approach safely or stealthily, plus a notion of the tactical situation. 
  • Scrounging (Per/E): Knowing where to look for something, what can be usefully substituted, and getting it, if it can be gotten without undue effort.
  • Search (Per/A): Interpreting visual and touch-based clues to determine if someone’s hiding something. Also performing the actual search.
  • Survival (Per/A): Interpreting the local environmental cues to find basic necessities. Plus a strong side-order of knowing what to look for and how to get it.
  • Tracking (Per/A): Knowing how to interpret disturbances in the environment in order to track a man or beast.
  • Urban Survival (Per/A): Interpretation of location and environmental information in a city to ensure access to food, water, shelter, and safety.

The text that is not in italics seems to basically be “interpretation of sensory data” to me. The italicised text is notable for having non-informational content to it. Fishing being Per-based would suggest “hey, that’s a great place to catch fish,” but it also seems to let you do it (which might be DX-based), as well as know how (which sounds IQ-based). Search has a fairly strong IQ and DX component to it, and Esoteric Medicine lets you do a lot based on Perception, since it’s at least as good as First Aid, and could be a lot better, depending on the campaign.

When To Use Each One?

In short, I suspect that defaulting to Perception rolls to do more than see, hear, or smell something is giving too much credit to what seems to be an ability based on detection, not analysis or interpretation. Generically, if you want to munge detection and analysis into one roll, you’ll want to consider the odds of first detecting what you want to do, and then successfully interpreting it. Based on the defaults above, that’s a Per roll, followed by something that’s going to feel like Per-5.

Can you do that simply? 

Absolutely. If you want to make an instant (one-second) check in combat time to detect and interpret something that you are skilled in, simply roll vs. Per-6 to get that done. If you can take 30 seconds to look, then you may roll vs. Per-2 instead.

Both of these numbers are based on the odds of making a Per roll, then a Per-5 roll, and converting that backwards to a single penalty.

If you have the relevant interpretation skill at Per+1 or Per+2, you may roll for a one-second “detect and interpret” at a -1 penalty to skill, and if you have the interpretation skill at Per+3 or higher, you can always roll raw skill to detect and interpret.

That will give you an informed but cursory impression, and taking extra time can be used to give a higher margin of success.

Parting Shot

In general, and especially in combat, rolls to get actionable information, as opposed to “I see an orc” should always be based on a skill, rather than raw Perception. In fact, I’d probably want to really start to limit the use of raw Per to give anything but yes/no answers, and require some significant margin of success on a roll to get game-useful detail.


Finally, Observation gets a lot of crap on the boards due to a lead-in sentence that could probably use some killin’. Here’s what it says:

This is the talent of observing dangerous or “interesting” situations without letting others know that  you are watching.

and here’s what it really means/should say:

This is the talent of observing dangerous or “interesting” situations.

If you can get over any interpretation based on the “letting others know that you are watching” thing, then your life as a player or GM will be much easier. In short, Observation is the skill of knowing what to look for in a tactical way about clusters of people, or architecture/landscape. What to do about it may be Tactics or Intelligence analysis. Observation lets you collect facts.

What facts? I’d hazard (but not limit) someone with Observation can tell by looking:

  • The militarily relevant count of a group of people (platoon strength, battalion strength)
  • The nature and pace of sentries
  • Good spots for security systems or traps, including minefields; a yes/no might not be available on their actual presence, but good places to put them will be revealed
  • Potential approach avenues for assaults or sneaky movement

To do this without being seen, you will need to make use of Stealth and Camouflage, and cannot just rely on a good Observation check. Or Acting. The one exception is if you’re using Observation to check out a person more or less in plain sight, I would not (on a success) have the svelte bodyguard come up and give you a beatdown for eyeballing her. You’d get that info “without letter her know you are watching.”

I’m nearly positive that bit of fluff text is there for that reason, and not to have Observation somehow act as a proxy for Stealth and/or Camouflage.

5 thoughts on “A Matter of Perception

  1. Fishing as a Per based skill is just odd to me. I've been sport fishing since I was a kid, and it always seemed more IQ based. The really good sport fishermen – the pros – and the professional commerical fishermen don't rely on spotting fish, or observing and processing signs. They're going based on prior experience, knowledge of the conditions and what that means, and so on. It's not "see the fish, catch the fish" but "know where the fish should be in these conditions, try to catch there."

    But what the hell, it's a game.

    1. I'd be especially interested in which particular sense(s) the authors believe apply to fishing. If a PC has Acute Vision, is their fishing better? Hearing? Taste/Smell?

    2. It might be motivated by the 'adventuring' bent of assuming you'll typically be fishing in a location where you've never fished before, so you cant get as much out of prior knowledge as real fishermen usually do.

      …Or by the desire to make necessary life skills for wild animals not be IQ-based.

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