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Spot and Search checks
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Thread: Spot and Search checks

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    ronpyatt's Avatar
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    Spot and Search checks

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    I'm a little confused about spot and search checks. At first it seems fairly straightforward. Use spot to spot things and use search to search for things. However, this is not the case.

    I read on the Wizards website where someone had asked a question about the difference between spot and search. When one of the responses was a crack about the questioner being serious, I thought it was sad that the responder never actually answered the question, but others did. According to their posts, DMs appear to use spot and search more often than they should and in the wrong places for the wrong things.

    Search is perhaps the easiest, but it seems to have gotten muddled for some DMs. I see some DMs use search as a haphazard active spot, which has given me the impression that a search check can set off traps.

    However, my take on a search check is a little different. Search is generally an active process (except for elves and hidden doors) that involves either carefully scanning with the senses, moving around to locate, or moving things around during the search.

    Spot is the harder one. I'm not sure how correct I am in this one, but according to the rules a spot lets you notice hidden people and monsters. It's generally a passive skill to notice these creatures, but it's an active skill when trying to read lips. I see a lot of DMs use spot as a quick search skill, which, correct me if I'm wrong, I think goes beyond what was intended for spot.

    So, "search check" is for noticing things, not creatures (or their lips), and "spot check" is for noticing people (and their lips) and monsters, not things.

    Can you shed some light on the search and spot? Also, is there anything that might be referenced to clarify the purpose of these skills?

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    Hm, I think you have it mostly right. Spot (and Listen) are mostly passive tests of your visual (or auditory) accuracy and attentiveness. Search, on the other hand, is actively poking and prodding in an area to find something. Search, therefore, could trigger a trap, but Spot would not. Search would also take time, while Spot would be mostly instantaneous.

    You could use Spot for Search only if the DM decides that the item in question is "hiding in plain sight", or very inexpertly hidden. You could use Search for Spot only if you had the luxury of poking around in the bushes or in closets for an ambush.

    By the way, I bring up Listen because the difference between Spot and Listen is intuitively clear to me, although others might disagree. Spot is used for something that could be seen; Listen is for something that makes a noise.

    If I were DM I'd either give two chances or use the higher of the two in many circumstances. Sometimes, though, I might rule that the character can only Spot (e.g. a magically silenced assassin, or too much loud noise), or only Listen (e.g. an invisible assassin, or something sneaking up right behind him, or pitch dark, or blinding light, or the character is explicitly watching only in one direction). Someone who chooses to be keen-eyed (or sharp-eared) might end up disadvantaged if the other sense is required ... but such is life.

    But, all that aside, I can imagine a character with sharp eyes who doesn't really know how to search, or a fairly average bloke who's trained to think deviously when searching. So in this case the two skills can be justified.
    "On two occasions I have been asked [by members of Parliament], 'Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?' I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question."
    - Charles Babbage (1791 - 1871)

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    Good points.

    Quote Originally Posted by fmitchell View Post
    Spot is used for something that could be seen; Listen is for something that makes a noise.
    Quite right, but Spot allows you to become aware of an invisible creature even if the invisible creature is quiet (even with magical silence).

    Listen is both passive and active, both a search and a spot for the ears.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ronpyatt View Post
    Quite right, but Spot allows you to become aware of an invisible creature even if the invisible creature is quiet (even with magical silence).
    Nani?

    I guess if the rules assume an invisible creature leaves some visual trace (distortion in the air, footprints), it makes sense ... but I wish they'd make that explicit.
    "On two occasions I have been asked [by members of Parliament], 'Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?' I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question."
    - Charles Babbage (1791 - 1871)

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    Here is how I've always used the three:
    • Spot: Passive -- it works without a player having to declare it as an action. Visual in nature. Successful spot checks provide players with visual information.
    • Listen: Active & Passive.
      • As Passive: Not used to hear normal sounds, but to either pick up something that is barely audible, or to note something wrong with the sounds you do hear. Example: Hearing a rockslide two miles away that not everyone can hear. Successful listen checks tell the player that their character hears a soft rumbling in the distance.
      • As Active: Used to determine specific details about the sounds one can hear. Answers the question "Which way did that soft rumbling come from?" or questions like "When I tap the shield with my gauntlet, does it sound like gold plated steel, or solid gold?" or "About how many people do I think I hear marching around the corner? Two, ten? One Hundred?"
      Active listening is for details. Passive listening is to discern hard to hear elements that many may not hear at all.
    • Search: Active -- A player has to declare search as an action for their character. Uses all five senses. Visually scanning an area to see what's there. Touching/prodding (with a stick, etc.) items to see what's under/behind them. etc. Listening to the closed chest as you prod it with a stick to see if it clinks with the telltale sound of coins, or sounds hollow, etc. Smelling the old pile of laundry as you approach it, to note if it's moldy, etc. Tasting consumable elements of an area (reserved for crazy or bold adventurers only) to see if the beer in the ancient keg is still good perhaps.
    To bring that all together as an example of play.

    DM (to players):
    "As you step across the threshold of and into the main corridor of the temple, the chatter of the squirrels begins to quiet. The sunlight behind you illuminates a corridor that delves down into the foothill on a gradual slope. The walls, floor, and cieling of the corridor are all lined with well crafted bricks. A warm waft of air flows up and out of the corridor, causing your hair to ruffle lightly."

    DM rolls listen checks for everyone in the party. Anyone who meets the required DC can barely make out the sounds of chanting.

    DM rolls spot check for everyone in the party. There is a trap just ten feet ahead. Successful checks note that there are a dozen discolored circles in the bricks to the right hand side. There is a spear trap and the temple denizens plug the trap with clay that will punch out when the trap activates.

    One player succeeds with the listen check and then actively requests to listen and try to identify what language is being used, what is being said, by how many people, etc. Roll normal listen check and resolve based on results.

    Another player declares that he is going to search the area. Roll a search check to see if he can find the trap. He taps the floors, walls, cieling to see if any sound hollow/different (may note the 'chamber' that the trap mechanism is in?). He smells at the air coming up to see if any scents stand out with concentration. He wipes some of the condensation from the walls onto a cloth and then smells and tastes it to see if he can discover any strange mineral properties (may inadvertently discover the plugs by the taste of clay?). He puts his ears to the wall and floors to see what he can hear (perhaps the trap creaks just a little while it waits to spring?)

    Let's assume that they can't hear anything more distinct due to the distnace, and the search fails. The party moves forward and activates the trap.

    Roll a passive listen check and see if anyone hears the mechanics of the trap activating as someone steps on the wrong floor tile. If they succeed you tell them they hear a 'click' and the creaking sound of a rusty spring being released. (gives them a chance to warn everyone for a +2 circumstantal bonus on their reflex save perhaps).

    Then describe the clay plugs bursting and the streaks of spears from the right headed for the party. Perhaps, if you are a kind DM, give the players a passive spot check to see the plugs burst and individually respond for another circumstantial save modifier.

    Then resolve.
    --
    Grimwell

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    Very good explaination of the 3 skills Grimwell. That's my take on them as well!
    Skunk
    a.k.a. Johnprime



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    Quote Originally Posted by grimwell View Post
    Here is how I've always used the three:
    ...
    DM (to players):
    DM rolls spot check for everyone in the party. There is a trap just ten feet ahead. Successful checks note that there are a dozen discolored circles in the bricks to the right hand side. There is a spear trap and the temple denizens plug the trap with clay that will punch out when the trap activates.
    This appears right, but is there something you've read that leads you to use spot for picking out traps, or objects and other things? There is lies my difficulty with spot and search. Because I'm still stuck on Spot as being used for picking out hiding people and monsters, not objects. I can see using a casual search in this case, as the elf gets a casual hidden door search.

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    Because I'm still stuck on Spot as being used for picking out hiding people and monsters, not objects.
    You are well within the basic guidelines for Spot. Take a look at the d20SRD entry for Spot.

    It gives very specific circumstances and mentions for countering a Hide check, finding someone who is invisible, reading lips, and seeing through a disguise. So where does my interperation come from?

    About 15 years of DM experience prior to 3E being released. Many times in the game, there are details that only a perceptive perrson would pick up on. Ever been walking with a group of friends and have one stop and say "Did you guys just see that?" and nobody else did? It's a bird that swooped down and grabbed a mouse in a field, or a hot girl in a car that went by at high speed, or something similar. That's a passive spot check in action.

    Some people just notice things out of the corner of their eyes. Or they have an eye for detail and immediately notice things out of order, without even trying. My mother had her garage drywalled this summer. I surveyed the final work and it looked great. My brother, who is a contractor, walked in and looked the completed work over. he then immediately pointed to a corner in the room and said "That's a bad line, you can see the tape still."

    Only when he showed me where to look did I see the tape. He made a spot check, and I made a search check.

    I can't point to a specific set of text and say "This is how I got there." for using Spot the way I do. It just makes sense to me. Common sense. Consider it a house rule.
    --
    Grimwell

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    Now, I think I understand how each skill was designed to work in the game. Search and spot have both active and passive modes. Your examples, grimwell, have given me the clues.

    Assuming that a "Search check" is not for people and "Spot check" is not for objects, I come to the following conclusions.

    When spotting the tape, it was actually a rapid search that your brother did due to his familiarity with the details, much like an elf and secret doors. If he had missed his initial search, he could spend some time looking for the details. The SRD sort of gives an example of this when it mentions "Notice a well-hidden door". The elf's subconscious mind searches for this kind of thing intuitively.

    Your spot examples were right on the money on how I see it working. Spot would also be used when searching for someone. For example, when searching a crowded room for a boyfriend, it's actually a Spot that is being performed and can be retried as often as necessary.

    I think that clears it up for me.

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    The SRD sort of gives an example of this when it mentions "Notice a well-hidden door". The elf's subconscious mind searches for this kind of thing intuitively.
    Perfection. It's that 'intuitive' factor that makes it 'passive' instead of 'active' -- the elf mind just works that way.
    --
    Grimwell

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    After bringing this same discussion to the boards at Wizards, it would seem that there is no such thing as a skill check for passively noticing objects. The confusion goes back many years, as this topic crops up with much conjecture.

    So, for someone to notice flaws in construction or a specific book on a shelf, it's either obvious to the character based on experience or it's not. No skill check applies unless the character actively searches for something within 10 feet.
    It is inaccurate to use spot checks to detect objects, traps, secret doors, patterns, mountains, etc.

    It is funny though that the DDO game has a dungeon crawl in it that makes for what I would call a passive search and others would call a spot object. I don't remember the exact wording, but it's the quest into the alchemists lab. A sort of detect danager goes off when your character gets too close to a particular area. I'm guessing that it wasn't a skill check at all. It's just something that every character notices.

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    DDO uses the spot check in that situation. I know the one you are talking about, and saw similar in many of their adventure areas (for low levels at least).

    "Spot, you notice something" but with game relevant text.

    Can you give the link to the wizards board for the thread in question? I'd like to see the responses.
    --
    Grimwell

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    I don't see anything in that thread that really clarifies it by the rules, just more people throwing in where they get their answers from suppliments, and good discourse.

    Thanks for sharing it, it's always good to see how others process the mechanics.
    --
    Grimwell

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    I found what I thought might be a clue. A GM test asked this question.
    Question: While traveling through the a forest a PC smells smoke. There is a forest fire ahead. From what distance may the PC spot the forest fire?
    Correct Answer: 2d6x100 feet if he succeeds at a Spot check; half the rolled distance automatically.
    Source: Dungeon Master's Guide v.3.5 page 87.
    I looked up the source, and indeed it does say that a Spot check is used to spot a forest fire, as it is treated as a Colossal creature. So, once again, if it's a creature you can spot it. I can see where a moving flame could be considered a creature.

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