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March 18, 2013

The Fifteen Minute Workday

There is a problem unique to D&D, called the “fifteen minute workday” problem.  The system gives player characters a set of abilities, some of which are powerful daily resources.  The PCs enter combat, and use their most potent abilities, leaving them “dry” of daily resources.  Then they rest. 

I'm about to make the point that while the fifteen minute workday causes problems for some styles of play, it is not a problem, in and of itself.  

Editions 1-3 of D&D had it particularly bad because only some classes had daily resources, and they were balanced against other classes who had more powerful at-will abilities, but nothing close to the power of a wizard or cleric spell.  The fifteen minute workday caused severe balance problems.  Smart DMs made the fifteen minute workday their enemy and found ways around it (see below!).

4e intended to solve the problem of the fifteen minute workday by giving every class a mix of daily and encounter resources, and making them fully refreshed between battles (instead of requiring the cleric to use daily resources to do this for the party). 

The Angry DMcomplains that this did not meet the stated objective, and in fact caused a new problem.  He’s right on both counts, but I think he misses the point.  First, let me explain how he’s right.

The Angry DM points out that the 4e system motivates players to kill the enemies they encounter as fast as possible, heedless of danger, in order to speed things along.  After all, unless someone dies in a battle, the only thing lost, battle-to-battle, are daily powers.  He also points out that this motivates players to burn up daily powers quickly, and then rest. I agree on both counts. 

The heroes, beset by monsters, exhaust themselves trying to win the fight as fast as they can, never holding back, using their most powerful attacks.  If there is no time pressure, they run through every trick they know, then retreat to rest before making their next foray into the dungeon.

Now read that again.  As human behavior and tactical combat goes, doesn’t that sound pretty reasonable to you?  

Let’s imagine you’ve got a gun with 6 bullets in it.  You get attacked by a bear.  Do you only shoot one or two bullets at it, because you somehow know that you’re expected to fight four or five bears in a day?  Do you save your bullets, and try to take the bear on with only your hunting knife, because you want to save your resources?  No!  That would be irrational.

That’s real life, but D&D is fantasy!  Fantasy characters really do fight lots of things!

Wait...  No, they don’t...  

How many battles does the Fellowship of the Ring get into per day?  Start a count for any popular fantasy series.  Count the number of fights per day, for all days the heroes have at least one fight.  What's the average?  Harry Dresden probably tops the list with an average of two or three.  If you break the Battle of Helm's Deep and the Siege of Gondor into different "encounters" it's still just three or four (and the party is split, so it hardly counts -- I still owe you a splitting the party post BTW!), and most other combat-days the Fellowship has just one encounter.

What the Angry DM wants and what the 4e designers tried to do are different.  

The 4e designers wanted to fix the problem of the fifteen minute workday:  That it causes party imbalance.  If you only had one or two fights a day, magical classes were significantly more powerful than martial classes.  I think they succeeded.  I think the Angry DM agrees on that count, more or less.

The Angry DM wants a fix for what he sees as the problem of the fifteen minute workday:  That it exists.  Unless you put time pressure on adventurers, they don’t go into a fight wounded and exhausted if they can help it.  I think that this is not a system problem, but a problem of expectations.

Angry likes the idea of heroes fighting four or five battles, gradually weakening over the course of those battles, carrying their mistakes as marks on their flesh from one fight to the next, heedless and bold.  I can dig it!  He’s a smart guy, so he has actually thought out two proposed fixes:

1.      Place a restriction on how many healing surges a PC can spend outside of encounters. For instance, a PC can only spend two healing surges at the end of a short rest and they cannot take another short rest until they’ve had another encounter first.
 2.      In order to use their best abilities, the PCs need to build adrenaline or momentum or whatever you want to call it. Mechanically, it works like this: after an extended rest, a player only has access to one daily attack power – the lowest level one. After each encounter, during a short rest, he gains access to the next highest levelone. If he has two powers of the same level, he can choose which one becomes available. The players can horde these powers or use them as they become available.

I have not tried these solutions, and they’re not entirely my style, so I probably won’t.  But just reading them, with my experience as a 4e DM, I would wager that they would work pretty well.  So if you read those and thought "I like that!" you should click the link and read more.

I don’t think they’re very “D&D” though.  Having spells "charge" over the course of the day is more "un-D&D" than anything 4e did.  And Angry seems to forget that after level two or so, the PCs were able to heal up to full between encounters in every previous edition, costing them only daily cleric spells, which are at least on par with the daily healing surges limit in 4e.  So allow me to restate and redefine the problem, and then propose several different ideas that a DM can use to deal with the fifteen minute workday.  Some of my suggestions are for taking advantage of the 4e fix; and others are for encouraging reckless grit in your players.  

First, let me restate the problem.

D&D is a unique game with a unique subgenre of heroic fantasy.  In the D&D subgenre, heroes are expected to fight multiple groups of foes before resting.  The system was always designed to require some (or all) players to do resource management, holding back on the expectation that they would have more encounters each day.  

In each edition, this was poorly implemented, and in 1st through 3rd edition, it led to a growing power imbalance between martial and magical classes.  

While 4th edition fixed the imbalance, it did not solve the problem that, absent time pressure, the rational choice is to fight as hard as you can without putting much consideration toward conserving resources, and rest more often. 

The problem of players resting too frequently is an artificial problem.  It’s only a problem if you expect the PCs to press on through 4-5 combat encounters per day, without a story reason for time pressure. 

However, there is some value to a game where the PCs are reckless and brave, daring each other to press on despite exhaustion, cracked bones, and gaping wounds.  That’s a particular style of play, and not all DMs want it.  For those that do, I have a few rule fixes that don't take away dailies.  For those who want to use story fixes, I've got some of those, too.

Some solutions

Story Fix:  Time Pressure, Perfected by 3rd Edition and Pathfinder DMs

The natural solution to player characters resting too frequently is to put time pressure on them. 

Originally in older editions of D&D, spatial boundaries were used to enforce a longer work day.  Wandering monsters were used to scare PCs out of camping in dangerous areas.  However, all they accomplished was to make PCs rest sooner to ensure that they had enough resources left to fight off a night ambush.  A better solution was to use time boundaries.

Time boundaries or time pressure is a plot device used to set the goal of the adventure.  The goal is to do something within a limited amount of time, or for something to continually get worse as time passes, motivating the PCs to take risks to avoid running out the clock. 

Typical examples include rescuing hostages before they are sacrificed for a dark ritual, killing the undead in a crypt by nightfall before they emerge to attack a sleepy village, stopping an evil curse that is blighting a few miles more of countryside each day, finding the treasure before your rivals do, exploring the sunken ruin that is revealed only at low tide, or tracking down the vampire lord as fast as possible, because one more townsperson is turned into one of his undead servants every night. 

Because 3rd edition’s balance issues were particularly bad if the PCs only had one or two fights per day, smart DMs came up with a host of time pressure plots.  You can find advice on these everywhere.  Time pressure plots are more dramatic to begin with, so they make for excellent stories.  But if you use them every time, it gets a little tedious and the time pressure loses its drama.

Story Fix: Now Available in 4th Edition

A one-encounter day in Pathfinder is an opportunity to rain fireballs on the enemy every turn, for the wizard; but the fighter has no such opportunity.  A one-encounter day in 4th edition D&D is a chance for everyone to fling daily attacks with abandon.  The DM may need to make sure it’s a tough fight (level +2, maybe more) but PCs of different classes will perform approximately equally well.

As a result, a one-encounter (or two or three encounter) day is a viable adventure design for 4e.  On the other hand, DMs can’t throw several fights at the PCs to “soften them up” for a boss battle.  A combat that has the sole raison d’etre of softening the PCs up has little value in 4e, because PCs refresh all their Encounter powers and hit points between fights, and even Action Points refresh as well, at half speed. 

Designing an adventure without time pressure in 4e, assume that the PCs will not be “softened up” at the start of any given encounter.  Assume also that the PCs can’t be “softened up”; so you may as well leave those encounters out.  Instead, only include encounters where the outcome is important either for story reasons (because it’s what the adventure is all about – e.g. “kill the lich king” or “steal the dragon’s treasure”) or for game reasons.  What’s the difference, you ask?

Story Fix:  Chance to Fail and Consequences of Failure

By “game reasons” I mean, “can the PCs fail, and if so what is the cost of failure?”  Naturally any fight carries the risk that the PCs will die.  That’s not what I mean.  I mean “why are you even having this fight?  Is that a purpose that can succeed or fail regardless of whether you all survive?”

Here’s an example.  Zombies are attacking the town.  The heroes find themselves at the edge of town, barricading the windows of the watermill where three families are holed up, when the sun sets and they hear the moaning of the undead horde approaching.  They must fight to keep zombies away from the windows that aren’t yet nailed shut, nail windows shut while zombies attack, keep the zombies from prying the boards off the windows that are nailed shut, and survive, themselves.  This requires them to spread their efforts instead of focusing fire, or else zombies will get inside and start eating helpless villagers.  The PCs can win the fight, but lose some villagers. 

4th edition, as presented, works well for this sort of encounter.  It can be the only combat in the adventuring day, or the sixth one.  It doesn’t matter.  The combat doesn’t need softening up; and it doesn’t need the PCs to be softened up for it. 

The chance that the PCs will lose a fight to the death, where the only “lose” condition is a total-party kill (TPK) is something around 1%, in a “killer DM” game.  Yes, 1% for a killer DM.  That means it’s expected to happen at least once sometime by mid-Paragon tier in 4e. 

Think about that.   If all your fights are existential threats to the PCs’ lives, even if you’re a killer DM, they have a 99% chance to win.  This is also true in 3rd edition D&D and Pathfinder, once the PCs get to second or third level.  There are minor failures – a single PC dies; or an expendable item is used. 

Even considering the minor failures players are trying to avoid, you need to mix in other win conditions to keep the players from becoming jaded by constant victory.  See my previous post on combat resolution.

System Fix:  Rest Penalties, Inspired by the Hallowed History of D&D

Tournament play is a competitive style of D&D, with multiple tables playing the same exact module with DMs who agreed to run the game in the same general style.  Players competed to earn the most experience points and treasure, have the fewest character deaths, and complete the module in the least real-world time.  Some tournament games did not allow resting overnight; but most simply penalized it by taking away XP or adding a time penalty.  I don’t suggest doing this at your table, exactly. 

Instead, I suggest you compel players with external rewards for bravery.  Fortune favors the bold!  Here’s two house rules that will cause players to conserve resources and try to fight as many battles as they can.  You can use either one or both together in any edition of D&D:
  1. The first two encounters in the day are worth 50% of their XP reward.  Each encounter after that is worth 150% XP.  If you manage four encounters, you break even.  If you manage 5 or more, you come out ahead.  If you rest right before fighting the boss encounter, to be sure you’re fresh, you lose out big time! 
  2. Tell the players that the dungeon has a level X+3 liquid cash loot pile (where X is the party level), in addition to everything else in there.  That is, this is a loot pile above and beyond the treasure expected for these encounters.  Tell them that each extended rest the party takes, the cash in the loot pile will be reduced by 1 level worth of reward (either diagetically because the monsters spent or lost it; or just as an OOC incentive!).  Add a level to the treasure pile’s starting value for every 5 encounters.

System Fix:  Metagame Risk-Reward, Inspired by newer Narrative Games

One problem the Angry DM has with 4e is that characters start every encounter fresh.  There is no mechanic for carrying wounds over from encounter to encounter.  This is a solution pulled from FATE, a game with a more narrative focus than D&D.  It gives players the chance to trade risk for reward:  Specifically, players get more spotlight time – actions in combat – in exchange for a risk – a lingering injury or penalty.

The FATE system gives players an incentive to accept setbacks for their characters.  GMs in FATE can offer or require players to accept a setback, giving them a “FATE point” in exchange.  FATE points are a kind of meta-game currency that gives characters a significant bonus, not unlike Action Points.  Every 4e character gets action points, and even Pathfinder has them, as an optional rule.  Players in FATE can also solicit the GM to give them FATE points by suggesting setbacks.  I don’t want to go that far into narrative game territory. 

Here’s a suggestion based on trading setbacks for metagame currency in 4e D&D or Pathfinder: 

Grit and Adrenaline:  In exchange for carrying an injury, curse, etc. from one fight to the next, a PC will get one bonus Action Point at the start of each encounter (on top of the usual one per two), and he can spend two per encounter, though only one per turn, as long as the injury continues.

If a character becomes Bloodied in a fight (or, for Pathfinder, takes 50% of his hit points in damage), he can accept a Lingering Wound after the battle.  This Lingering Wound is a narrative injury like a bad cut, broken bone, vicious poison, awful curse, painful burn, etc.  The player gets to describe it based on damage he took in the fight. 
  •       Lingering Wound:  His maximum hit points are reduced by one quarter (his base healing surge value, in 4e) until he takes an extended rest.  This does not alter his Bloodied value or Surge value (in 4e) or hit dice (in Pathfinder).
  •       Debilitating Injury:  Instead of reduced max hit points, the character can choose another penalty:  Slowed (Fatigued in Pathfinder) or granting Combat Advantage (Flat-Footed in Pathfinder).  A “lingering wound” is a painful injury that cannot be healed without a full night of rest, even in a world with healing magic.  A “debilitating injury” is one that isn’t life threatening once treated with basic first aid or healing magic, but which causes lingering pain for the rest of the day, like a sprained ankle or cracked rib.
Either way, the player can have this “wound” go away any time he gets healed.  But that immediately ends the benefit, as well.

Naturally, players will feel that these rules make healing magic seem weaker.  Well, they do.  But they also highlight how powerful it really is, at the same time, if a character with a punctured lung or horrible burn can be fully recovered the next morning.  If it's still too awkward for your players, use this incentive:

  • Rushing On:  This is an incentive to be reckless and cocky when there's no plot reason for it.  If the whole party decides to skip a short rest and rush into the next encounter without regaining their Encounter abilities, and they had the chance to take the short rest but passed it up, reward them with 1 bonus Action Point each for that next encounter, and let them use two Action Points in that encounter, but only 1 per turn.  Note that this only works in 4e.  Because of buff spell duration and healing spells as a daily resource instead of encounter, it's actually safer to rush from encounter to encounter in earlier editions of D&D.


The problem with the fifteen minute workday is that some people have an unrealistic expectation that adventurers accept several fights in a day without rest to regroup and recover, against all rational thought.  

One fix is to make story reasons for the party to choose to keep fighting.  Another is to accept that in 4e, the fifteen minute workday doesn't produce balance problems, so you should trim out all the filler combats and focus on the meaty fights that have real story and game consequences.  I gave some advice on designing your combat to have win or lose conditions other than kill or be killed.

However, some troupes may want to have that reckless bravery as a core component of their play style.  They want rational reasons to choose to have their characters take the risk of pressing on while wounded or low on power.  I've introduced two system incentives for those.  

In one incentive, players need to have four encounters a day to get the full experience points for the day, and if they press on even longer, they can start to rack up big bonuses.  In another incentive, I gave players an option to get extra actions if they take the risk of going into fights wounded.


  1. Admittedly, this works best for 4E, but if you turned it around from "Daily" to "Adventure"? Admittedly, this is more "stick" than "carrot", it seems like the game is focused around the "adventure" so why isn't the resource management similarly focused around the "adventure". If you wanted a bit more flexibility - institute some sort of penalty/consequence for taking a long rest, either something like XP (cause you are making it easier), or some sort of in game consequence of starting, but not finishing the quest. You could break it down into milestones (to use a 4Eism) or something similar to allow for more frequently refreshing of abilities.

    1. Adventure-Refresh powers: That's a good idea. And it's not a revolutionary idea: The World of Darkness games had backgrounds and merits that had game session or adventure refresh back in the early 1990s! I wonder why D&D never thought to borrow those ideas?

      Game session refresh seems to incentivize the wrong things, but story-based refresh has a lot of value. I bet the reason D&D shied away was that there's a verisimilitude problem: WHY can't the wizard use his spell again until after the adventure is over? Did he only bring enough bat guano for one fireball? Why can't he just buy more bat guano for next time? On the other hand, if D&D's designers cared about verisimilitude, they would have done away with hit points and armor class...

      XP Penalty for resting: I suggested that in the part inspired by tournament play, except that my suggestion is both a stick and a carrot -- starts at 50% but jumps to 150% so you have an incentive to keep going and earn big bonus rewards.

      Resting before finishing a quest / milestones: I think it might be easier to build some time pressure into a plot than hacking a quest into segments. Players never seem to do stuff in the order I thought they would, so it would be hard for me to predict where the milestones should be set.

  2. Angry's second idea and your FATE-inspired one both sound like they'd entice players to take on more encounters, but feel a little complicated (the former: "Okay, so I have which powers for this fight now?", the latter is yet another modifier to remember).

    A suggested simplification inspired by various video games: Get rid of rest-based limitations on powers and substitute a resource that's built up by using your "normal" powers, and spent on the fancy ones. In 4E for instance, say that an at-will or basic attack gives 2 "power points", an encounter costs 3 and a daily costs 7, or something like that. Let players either bank their points across encounters, or use unspent points outside combat for, say, extra healing surges or action points. Or if you want to simplify resource management even further, replace surges and action points with power point expenditures as well.

    If you want the narrative effects of FATE-style wounds (which I do like, depending on the style of game), they still fit easily on top of the "power point" system, in fact the bonus for carrying a wound could be extra gain, or reduced cost for powers that somehow relate to the wound. Example: The big tough fighter's leg was badly cut in that last fight. Until it heals she is slowed, but if she makes a melee attack without moving she gains 1 bonus point, or maybe her "turn to stone and become extra-tough" power costs 1 less.

    1. Point System: Love it. I can see how it would work, mathematically, too. The benefit is that players will try to build up points in easier fights, so the GM will have incentive to vary the challenge level.

      The drawback is that it's not very D&D, which is my complaint about Angry's daily rationing system. You need a setting that it fits for. If you built a Final Fantasy or Chrono Trigger tabletop RPG, you could totally use this. It's a little like the Penny Arcade Precipice of Darkness system where you gain MP each round and some powers generate MP, or cost 0; but big attacks cost more.

      It does create a metagame currency other than action points, which allows more metagame systems. I don't think D&D is the place to use a lot of metagame mechanics though. But a new fantasy game could do this.

    2. My educated guess at what you mean by "very D&D":
      1) There are many disparate metagame resources to manage, as opposed to a unified one. I.E. 4E has encounter powers, healing surges, action points, rechargeable and consumable items and those pesky daily powers. Other editions have only the latter three, but plenty of them.
      2) Those resources are readily available for use except when they've been used recently. I.E. I don't need to build up points before unleashing a daily.

      I suppose if you want to keep that D&D "I have a library of powers" flavor, you could pin the point system's rest-avoiding properties on top. Find whatever reason you want to award points: taking wounds, pulling off more-dramatic-than-usual acts, accomplishing story goals, running extra encounters, etc. Then put point prices on recharging dailies, and for 4E regaining surges, during a short rest.

      In 4E you could even use action points instead of adding a new number... keep the existing limitations (spend only one per encounter, reset to one after a long rest), but give them out more liberally and let players spend one or more per short rest on piecemeal recharges. I guess the real concept is to avoid the 15-minute day by spreading the effects of a long rest over the long day, and the points are just one way to track and balance the concept.

  3. A few thoughts:

    1) As someone who has played since 1st Ed., for me I don't really feel the imbalance, it just is the game, so some fixes, like the FATE one, are changing the game. Mind you, I like FATE/action points a lot. They just aren't D&D to me.

    2) Part of the genre, I think, is that it is suppose to be more dangerous out at night and it is good to be holed up somewhere and resting. Originally, and by that I mean before 1st Ed and before I was playing, the non-humans (which generally meant the monsters) were the ones with the ability to be effective at night. Yes, you could be a dwarf or elf, but that was a class in itself, which ruled out being a wizard also. But everyone wanted more, so that was gone by 1st Ed.

    3) One think which has gotten more prevalent, I think, is resting more often. My perception used to be that resting really meant sleeping (or whatever it is that elves do), not just being quiet and reading a book, so you could not get your spells back several times during the day. Actually, clerics in 3rd Ed have a mechanism for this in that they can only get spells back at a certain point in the day. You could easily house rule that resting means a solid amount of uninterrupted sleep. And you really can only do that so often.

    4) In first Ed, is was common to have critical hit and critical failure charts. By 3rd Ed, they have a weak built in version in that if you confirm a critical hit, you do more damage. You could give the players the option of giving one of your above described lingering/debilitating wounds instead. And that monsters would generally take that option.

  4. I have little to say here than to say I like this response to Angry's concerns, and this sort of encapsulates one of the many things that, as a DM, I like about 4e D&D.