August 17, 2015

The Best Solution to Players Resting Too Often

Let's say you think your players are resting too often in D&D (5th edition, Pathfinder, 4e - you name it).  There's an easy solution to this problem.  Skip to the end to read it.  But if you have this problem in the first place, it's because you're making a mistake.

I've invented a terrible metaphor about a man with a gun and a bear to explain to you why your ideas about limiting rests in D&D are wrong.

The problem of player characters resting too often is often called the "five minute workday" (5MWD) or the "fifteen minute workday."

Some GMs run into a lot of problems with the 5MWD.  Others never seem to have trouble with it.  What's the difference between those GMs?  Let's look at the problem and find out.

The Metaphor

There's a man with a revolver and a bear in a cave with a suitcase full of cash.  Why does the bear have that cash?  I don't know.  Maybe she just doesn't trust banks.

The man represents your player characters.  The bear is the monster.  The bear's cave is the dungeon.  The suitcase of cash is the treasure.  God is the GM.  Easy metaphor, right?

So with good health and a loaded gun, a man might be tempted to go into a bear's cave for money if he has a personal reason to really need that money.  Maybe he's just greedy.

That's the typical D&D formula.

Man vs. Bear, Round 1

Now, let's say the man goes into the cave, gets cut up by the bear's claws, sprains his ankle, and shoots five of his six bullets into that bear.  The bear is dead, the man is richer, but he's low on ammo and has moderate injuries.

And when he walks out, he sees another cave.  Another bear.  Another possible suitcase full of cash.  Here's where GMs get it wrong.

Stupid isn't Heroic

Is it heroic for that man to go walking into another bear cave, bleeding, limping, and low on ammunition?

No.  That's stupid.  He has no good reason to do that.  Why can't he go get more bullets?  Why can't he splint his ankle and bandage his wounds?  What a moron!

Is it exciting?  Yes!  Duh!  A man is fighting a bear!

Is it heroic?  No!  What is he risking his life for?  Nothing!

Cash Doesn't Decay

What if there might be another suitcase full of cash in the other cave?

No.  That's also stupid.  He can just take an hour to bandage his wounds, splint his ankle, and put some more cartridges in his gun.  After he's good and ready, he can go in that bear cave and get that cash.

Is there glory in rushing in to get the money hurt and low on ammo?  No!  The difference between rushing in like that and coming in armed and fresh is about an hour.  He's not risking his life for cash - he's risking his life to get that cash one hour earlier.  That's it.  One hour.

Cash doesn't decay.  Not in an hour or a day.

1d4 Bobcats

Source: xkcd
Surprise Bobcats is the name of my Def Leopard cover band
Image via

What if God calls down to the man and threatens him?  God tells him that if he takes an hour to reload his gun and bandage his wounds, there's a solid chance that 1d4 bobcats will attack him.  What'cha gonna do now, dude?

Boy, that's stupid.  Threatening the players with wandering monsters if they take a rest will only make them MORE conservative, not LESS.  Consider the man with the gun.  If resting one hour makes bobcats come out of nowhere, he has three options:

  1. Rest here, maybe be attacked by bobcats, if so, go back to safety to rest; if not, go fight the bear, then go back to safety to rest.
  2. Fight the bear wounded and low on ammo.  Then go back to safety to rest.  No sense in staying here to bandage up because bobcats.
  3. Go back to safety to rest, then come fight the bear fresh and well-armed.

All his options involve going back to safety to rest.  It's just a matter of what order it happens in and how likely the man is to die.  Option A involves two moderate chances to die and a waste of table time.  Option B involves one high chance to die.  Option C involves one fair chance to die.  He gets the same amount of cash no matter what, and takes a rest in town no matter what.

A "Realistic" Bear

You might be saying "forget the bobcats -- what if the bear comes out of the cave and attacks the man while he's bandaging his wounds?"

This is a common point people try to make in 5MWD discussions.  "The dungeon is alive!  The monsters will come looking for the PCs!"

Of course.  Of course they will.  And the players are not idiots.  You're just starting an arms race.

You have monsters attack them while they rest, so they hide while they rest.

You have monsters hunt them down and find them, so they use Rope Trick.

You have monsters who can find them in Rope Trick, so they use Teleport.

It just goes on and on, and it creates an adversarial relationship.

Eventually you're going to lose.  Eventually your attempt at "realism" is going to become unrealistic.  Not every dungeon can be full of skilled tracker monsters who can detect Rope Trick spells and prevent Teleportation.

Now, I'm not opposed to realism.  If the players are dumb enough to try to take a rest in the foyer of the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, they're bound to get clobbered ten minutes in.  But if they're smart enough to retreat somewhere safe (relative to the tracking skills of their foes), and there's no other reason why resting could hurt them, you have to give them a break.

An Even Stranger God

What if God calls down to the man and tells him that biology and physics no longer work like normal.  God is changing the rules.  Now, the man has to spend a week in a motel before he can recover from his wounds, and he cannot reload the gun unless he sleeps for at least six hours.

"Fine," says the man, "I guess I've gotta go spend a week in a motel."

"OK," says God, "How about this one?  If you don't go into that bear cave right now, I'm going to dock your experience points."

"Experience points?"  The man asks.

"Look," God replies, "this metaphor is already stretched to its limits.  Just roll with it."

"Fine," says the man, "so do I get to keep those points if I get killed by the bear?"

"Heck no!  You don't even get them in the first place if you fail to beat the bear."

"OK, then I'm headed back to the motel.  Need anything?"

"Christ on a crutch, fine.  Look, I will not even let you put any bullets in the gun, and your injuries just won't heal until after you go in that damned cave."

"OK, OK, I hear you."

So in the end, the man is forced into acting like a total moron by divine intervention.  The GM gets her wish and the players are frustrated.  Their characters look like idiots to any outside observer.

Nobody wins.

Why?  Why do you want to limit rests in the first place?


Problems lead to tension.  Tension leads to excitement.  Excitement leads to fun.

Walking into a bear cave low on ammo and bleeding is a bigger problem than walking in well-armed and hale.  The problem is that problems shouldn't come out of nowhere.  They're only fun if they come from the story.  Here's the formula for stakes, as you might recall from the Pacing Series:

Story -> Problems -> Tension -> Excitement -> Fun

Don't arbitrarily create tension with problems of system (modifying the rest mechanic) or threats that have nothing to do with the story (wandering monsters).  Use story.

Back to the Bear Cave

So what can we do to get that man to rush from one bear to the next without taking even an hour to bandage and reload?

We have to provide stakes worth risking his life for.

  • The second bear doesn't have a suitcase of cash.  She dragged a small child into the cave to feed her cubs.  It's a matter of life or death!
  • The second bear has a suitcase of cash, but there are other treasure-hunters in these woods, and they'll get that cash before you do if you don't hurry!
  • There is a forest fire sweeping through these woods.  The area is about to be engulfed in flames.  You probably have time to go into that cave, but not enough to bandage up first!
Plot that generates stakes that have an expiration date is called time pressure.

13th Age

Like Pathfinder, core D&D designers (Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo) broke away from the main branch of the family tree and made a d20 RPG based on D&D called 13th Age.  In 13th Age, there is no mechanical limit to resting, but there is a story limit.  Here are the rules:

A party should get a full heal-up after approximately 4 regular battles, 3 hard battles, or 2 regular battles and 1 very hard battle.  
For storytelling, try to sync full heal-ups with an appropriate event in the game world. 
If the PCs find some special source of healing when they don't deserve a full heal-up yet, allow them to get one or two recoveries back and to make some extra recharge rolls. 
If the party is able to rest and decides to heal-up ahead of time, they suffer a campaign loss. The story moves along, but the situation in the campaign gets noticeably worse for the party (at the GM's discretion).
A campaign loss is just a turn for the worse in the story.  It could be as bad as an entire town falling to a zombie plague or as light as a rival spreading lies about the PCs back in town while they're taking their time camping in the dungeon.

This changes the focus of a recovery from a tactical decision to a story decision.  The players can choose for their characters when they're willing to risk their life, and when it's just not worth it.  "Look, I know Rowan is probably back there at the tavern telling people we suck, but I'd rather have people think we suck and live, than die in that crypt because we went in unprepared."

There's no 1d4 bobcats threat; there's no mechanical limitation; and you don't have to have the Rope Trick arms race.  The PCs can take a rest and get a "full heal-up" any time resting is possible.  It's just that something happens when they do.

So 13th Age makes every plot a time pressure plot.

Back to the bear metaphor:  If the bear was a 13th Age bear, the man would get a "quick rest," but not a "full heal-up."  If he took a full heal-up, it's likely he'd return to find a "campaign loss" -- the bear dead, see the suitcase is gone, and notice the footprints of a rival treasure hunter.

Different GMs

At the beginning of this post, I said there are two types of GMs -- those who have problems with the five minute workday, and those that don't.

The types of GMs who have problems with the five minute workday are not bad GMs.  They're probably just trying to run a fantasy novel story in D&D, and wondering why the PCs are stopping to camp (or take short rests) all the time.  But, unlike fantasy novels, D&D requires steady use of time pressure to keep players from resting.

D&D PCs will have hundreds of battles in their career.  The resting mechanics actually serve to shorten the time the PCs spend resting to keep the story moving.

See, D&D is odd for an RPG in that it is a resource management game that runs on a daily cycle.  You get back all your cool stuff and heal up completely (or nearly so) after a day's rest; and in 5th edition, you get back some of your cool stuff after an hour's rest.  Mechanically, this is fine.  Encounters are robust enough to handle rested PCs or a moderately depleted PCs; and the players will choose to rest before they get so depleted they can't go on.  So the system is self-correcting, to a degree.  It's fine, as long as you don't care about the PCs taking a lot of rests.

The types of GMs who have no problem with the five minute workday have a small advantage:  They're probably used to D&D.  They probably use a lot of time pressure plot, and when they don't, they're not too concerned if the PCs rest a lot.  (If you're used to D&D and still bothered by the 5MWD, then I recommend you adopt the 13th Age rule that turns every plot into time pressure plot.)

The key takeaway here is that only time pressure plot can limit rests in D&D.