5E How far away can a person make perception checks?

Stalker0

Adventurer
If we assume nice open conditions, good weather, pretty flat, at what range would you allow players to start making perception checks to notice things?

Example: An enemy orc is on the horizon, lets say at what distances would you allow a player to check to see if they see something, and can identify it as an Orc:

DC 30 (almost impossible)
DC 20 (tough but a fair amount of people could see it)
DC 10 (you would have to have diminished senses not to notice)

As a follow up to this, there are a few abilities that give some extraordinary sight ranges. For example, the Eagle Totem Warrior, Eyes of the Eagle magic item, and a wildshaped druid as an eagle. So if you go with the 1 mile as the "extreme distance" noted for the eagle totem specifically, would you use DC 30 to start at the 1 mile marker for these types, or a smaller DC?
 

jgsugden

Explorer
It is far from an exact science. The general answer is that I make sure that whatever things the PCs have devoted resources into having are rewarded, and that the game is fun. If the PC made a choice to have exceptional distance vision, they will need to feel the 'seeing of things' that nobody else can see.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I'm not really sure what's at stake in this example, so it's hard to say. In all likelihood, I'd just say the characters can see the orc in the distance appropriate to the scene I was trying to present without any need for an ability check.
 

coolAlias

Explorer
Eagles can purportedly spot a rabbit from 2 miles away [1]. I imagine they could see a human-sized object at 10+ miles fairly easily.

A human on completely "flat" ground on a sphere the size of the earth can see just under 3 miles before the curvature obstructs their view [2]; however, an elevated vantage point can drastically increase this range - the theoretical maximum from the top of Mt. Everest, for example, is 211 miles [2].

As for a normal human recognizing another human-like shape, we could extrapolate from the eagle (whose eyesight is 4 to 8 times better than a human [1] - let's go with 8 for easy math): we should be able to spot a rabbit at 1/4 mile, so we can extrapolate from that if we knew the size of the average (African or European?) rabbit used in the eagle example.

Not accounting for weather conditions, I'd say at least 1 mile easily, and probably close to 2 or even more if you have an elevated vantage point.

Note, however, that that's just to recognize it as a human-like shape, not to identify it as an orc. I'd probably reduce the ranges by 1/2 or even 1/4 before allowing that information, but I have no sources to base that on.

1. Eagle eye - Wikipedia

2. What is the maximum distance the human eye can see if unobstructed?
 
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R_J_K75

Explorer
I'm not really sure what's at stake in this example, so it's hard to say. In all likelihood, I'd just say the characters can see the orc in the distance appropriate to the scene I was trying to present without any need for an ability check.
Agreed. Very few times has this come into consideration except for short distances. For me it comes down to common sense and if I want the PCs to detect something or not, if I dont than I decide what check(s) are required.
 

Mistwell

Hero
If we assume nice open conditions, good weather, pretty flat, at what range would you allow players to start making perception checks to notice things?

Example: An enemy orc is on the horizon, lets say at what distances would you allow a player to check to see if they see something, and can identify it as an Orc:

DC 30 (almost impossible)
DC 20 (tough but a fair amount of people could see it)
DC 10 (you would have to have diminished senses not to notice)

As a follow up to this, there are a few abilities that give some extraordinary sight ranges. For example, the Eagle Totem Warrior, Eyes of the Eagle magic item, and a wildshaped druid as an eagle. So if you go with the 1 mile as the "extreme distance" noted for the eagle totem specifically, would you use DC 30 to start at the 1 mile marker for these types, or a smaller DC?
I don't understand the perception check thing. Perception is for hidden threats. Things which are obscured, concealed, hiding, or otherwise blocked from your vision. If it's out in the open and within your field of vision, then you see it. No check.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Agreed. Very few times has this come into consideration except for short distances. For me it comes down to common sense and if I want the PCs to detect something or not, if I dont than I decide what check(s) are required.
Right, and so far as I can tell in this situation, the players haven't even said what they are doing. So at best I can, as DM, determine surprise and check the orc's Stealth against their passive Perception, provided the PCs were keeping watch for danger? I can't just call for a check without an action declaration from the player, and one that has an uncertain outcome and meaningful consequence for failure.

Or maybe the DM has described a silhouette on the horizon and a player says he or she tries to get a better look at what it is from a higher vantage point or something at which point I decide there's a roll? But without knowing what the meaningful consequence for failure is, I can't say if that's even a check either. It might just be a narrated success (or failure).
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
I don't understand the perception check thing. Perception is for hidden threats. Things which are obscured, concealed, hiding, or otherwise blocked from your vision. If it's out in the open and within your field of vision, then you see it. No check.
At a certain distance, something becomes so out of focus that you could say it was "obscured", thus generating the perception check. Then if the check succeeds, then the out-of-focus, obscured thing in the distance did something or moved in such a way, or the light hit it such that the person was able to deduce what it was they were looking at.

You weren't checking to see that it was there, necessarily... you were checking to see if you could figure out what it actually was.
 

Celebrim

Legend
An infinite distance away. After all, you can see mountains and the sun from quite a ways away.

The question really is, "When is it practical to start making checks?" or perhaps, "What sort of difficulty increase is involved with increasing distance?"

So lets start with the idea that seeing something human sized at close range that is making no effort to hide is like DC -5 or something. Under normal conditions, even the half-blind see that, although a confluence of factors might cause something like that to escape notice (poor perception, distraction, smaller size, poor lighting conditions, partial concealment, etc.)

So how far away would that orc have to be before making checks to notice it wasn't pointless?

In my own 3e game, I use the following table:

Spot DC Modifier*Condition
+0Up to 10’ away
+1Up to 20’ away
+2Up to 40’ away
+3Up to 60’ away
+4Up to 90’ away
+5Up to 140’ away
+6Up to 200’ away
+7Up to 300’ away
+8Up to 450’ away
+9Up to 700’ away
+10Up to 1000’ away
+11Up to 1500’ away
+12**Up to 2200’ away

Beyond 2200' has never come up in a situation where I would rather roll than use fiat, but it's +1 for each 2200' beyond that as a rough guideline.

Turns out that if there is nothing intervening our moving man sized figure can be seen about 4 miles away by just someone of average perceptiveness. This is so far out that as a practical matter it doesn't come up much, and so far away that it doesn't really matter much whether you see the person or see them a minute later. There is a potential for surprise to matter as in who sees who first, but as I've never run a game on the steppes or other area where encounter distances average in miles, I just haven't felt a need to roll for anything at those sort of distances. If I did, I might actually write a tiny computer application that figured out who had surprise and by how many rounds, to determine which side had a chance to hide or otherwise react first.

That is probably overkill for most purposes. Just use fiat at encounter ranges over a few hundred feet. Your instincts will be good enough.
 

coolAlias

Explorer
Agreed on there not being much of a need to roll Wisdom (Perception) checks at those distances unless a player decision hinges on having that information right now - they'll typically find out soon enough anyway.

I'd also like to point out that DC 20 is not really "tough but a fair amount of people could see it" in 5e - that would be more like DC 15, which a person with 14-16 in the relevant ability score and proficiency will likely only succeed on half the time.
 
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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
An infinite distance away. After all, you can see mountains and the sun from quite a ways away.
I mean, heck, we can see stars from lightyears away. The only reason there even appears to be black space between stars from our perspective is redshift due to the expansion of the universe.
 

Mistwell

Hero
I think I will try a different tactic here.

Let's say a party of orcs is in the distance, pursuing the party. The party will want to know when they can see them, so they know what direction they're coming from, whether the party has time for a short or long rest, whether setting up an ambush is practical, whether they can outrun them to the next town, time to lay a trap or cast a lengthy spell, etc..

So I guess the real question is for the DM: Do you want the party to be able to see them at that distance so they can do something lengthy in reaction, or not?

I don't think that's a silly question. If you want the party to be able to get in something lengthy before the encounter, then just let them. If you don't then don't. When an encounter "can" start is firmly in the DMs realm of control.

I am not really seeing what anyone gains from making this a random chance issue dependant on a die roll. I'd say just make the call rather than fretting over real-world science simulation issues with this one.
 

R_J_K75

Explorer
I don't think that's a silly question. If you want the party to be able to get in in something lengthy before the encounter, then just let them. If you don't then don't. When an encounter "can" start is firmly in the DMs realm of control.
Thats my opinion as well. Only time I can see this coming up, as yuo outlined above, is in a military setting when a war is being waged over long distances and from multiple directions.

To speed the game along Ive long since took the stance in any wilderness setting (or adventuring scenario for that matter) that my players are somewhat alert and keeping a semblance of a watch just to avoid minutia like this. Since the surprise rules in 5E are kind of arbitrary, unless a threat is taking pains to surprise the party or there are extenuating circumstances I dont feel this is necessary. I believe this was the designers goal of 5E, to not quantify every single possibility with a rule. Besides the rules for vision and light on pg 183 of the PHB only mention of line of sight I cold find with a quick search was the lamp and lantern entry on pg 152 of the PHB which is 20', 30' and 60'.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I think the "what makes sense for the story" is a cop out. That's always going to be the case. To me there are two issues. When can you see a humanoid sized figure, and when can you identify what kind of creature it is.

So there are many, many variables at play. If there's nothing to gauge distance, a giant might appear to be a normal size human. A halfling might appear to be a human much further away than they actually are. What kind of terrain are we talking about? What are the lighting and atmospheric conditions?

Under ideal situation you could see figures more than a mile away (3 miles or further if you have elevation). Having lived in the country I'd say the odds of picking out a lone individual at that range unless it was a dark figure on a snowy plain is nil. I'd personally set the max distance for normal vision somewhere around a mile and a half, but that's just my guesstimate and will vary widely. In many cases it will be less because the figure will blend into the background.

But what if we're talking about recognizing that the humanoid is an orc. After a quick google I found an article here that states "At about 150 feet, accurate face identification for people with normal vision drops to zero."

We aren't trying to identify a specific individual, just whether it's an orc or a person approaching. But unless the orcs are carrying a giant "We're orcs" banner I don't think it's going to increase that much. Let's say you could potentially tell the difference between an orc and a human at 200 feet.

So I'd adjust it from there. At 200 feet, the DC is 25, dropping as you deem appropriate. Maybe 20 at 150 feet, 15 at 125, 10 at 100, automatic after that.

Which of course will all be modified by whether the orcs are carrying that giant banner, have made any effort to disguise themselves with a hooded cloak, light conditions and so on.
 

aco175

Explorer
Was it the old Wilderness Survival Guide that had the picture of a PC standing on the rock outcropping high on the mountain looking out. The next picture was some orcs partway up the mountain pointing at him standing on the rock outcrop. Point being that perspective depends on a lot of things.

I typically let the PCs make a check before something is about to happen. If the PCs are looking for something behind them and they climb a tree or such, I may let them know they see the orcs, or make a roll to see the second group coming and give them the first.

If the PCs are walking along the road and about to walk into a trap I let them roll about 60ft away. This gives them a chance to act before they are in melee range, but not that far away to make the check with a penalty. I would not have them make a check at 1/4 mile away at -10 and another at 1/8th mile at -8 and so on since they are getting closer and the chance is greater to notice. Sooner or later they will just make a high roll and you should just skip rolling if that is what you plan on.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I do not like Perception checks to see what is in front of your face. I only use it to find stuff that has been concealed or people that are hiding from them.

Otherwise if you can see it you can see it.
 

R_J_K75

Explorer
I do not like Perception checks to see what is in front of your face. I only use it to find stuff that has been concealed or people that are hiding from them.

Otherwise if you can see it you can see it.
When 3E first came out I made my players make more than one unnecessary skill check until I realized not everything needs a check.
 

coolAlias

Explorer
I do not like Perception checks to see what is in front of your face. I only use it to find stuff that has been concealed or people that are hiding from them.

Otherwise if you can see it you can see it.
This is one of my biggest points of contention with 5e - I don't know why, but it seems more than one DM is all about having me roll to see what I can see... so I take Observant, thinking that will send the message. Nope, passive of 20+ isn't enough or doesn't apply because reasons, but maybe you'll roll well! Aaaaah, slay me now.
 

R_J_K75

Explorer
This is one of my biggest points of contention with 5e - I don't know why, but it seems more than one DM is all about having me roll to see what I can see... so I take Observant, thinking that will send the message. Nope, passive of 20+ isn't enough or doesn't apply because reasons, but maybe you'll roll well! Aaaaah, slay me now.
Doesnt help that the DC system is pretty arbitrary at best. I still have trouble picking a DCm while improvising.
 

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