Ask Angry: Resting in D&D 5E and Why It’s Not Broken

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Do you have a question for The Angry GM! Well, because people can’t get it right, I had to set up a separate page with instructions. About how to send a f$&%ing e-mail. Ready How to Ask Angry to learn how to submit a question.

Cupcake McSprinkles Asks:

Hey Angry, there was recently a great post on the HappyJacks RPG forum talking about Resting in 5th Edition. It talks about how the rules (in the authors opinion) feel like they work against the purpose of story-flow and encounter balance. It also suggests a few variations and their pros and cons. A Reddit thread popped up around it with some more interesting discussion. My question is: How do you treat Resting in D&D 5e? Do you use the RaW or have you come up with a homebrewed solution? Why?

Guess what! SOMEONE forgot to explicitly tell me how to credit them. So, I used a holiday “What’s My Elf Name” thing and rolled randomly. Thanks for question, Cupcake McSprinkles.

Okay, first and foremost Cupcake, don’t EVER f$&%ing do this. This was f$&%ing homework is what it was. Holy crap. That thing on the Happy Jacks RPG Forum was just painful. Look at all that mathy analysis. At least the Reddit thing was short and to the point. If I wanted to read something wordy and overwrought, I’d read one of my long, rambling, bulls$&% posts.

Let me summarize the two posts so that no one else has to slog through those posts. To be fair, I didn’t read much of the discussion. I only read the original posts.

Here’s the deal. The HJRPG post uses a hell of a lot of unnecessary math to prove that the basic structure of D&D is that it is primarily challenging by attrition. In order to put the PCs in mortal peril, the PCs must face multiple deadly encounters without the opportunity to rest. In other words, the PCs won’t find their lives endangered by combat encounters unless they five four to six of them in a day.

Don’t go read it. I mean, you can if you want to. But it’s sort of like reading a three page treatise on Keppler’s Laws of Planetary Motion, Newton’s Law of Gravitation, and some light General Relativity to prove the sun will rise tomorrow. In short, the poster takes a hell of a lot of time to reach a conclusion that should surprise absolutely no one because the f$&%ing D&D books just go ahead and admit that s$&% right out.

That’s what D&D is. D&D is a game wherein a group of heroes face a whole bunch of obstacles that stand between them and a goal, and each obstacle chips away at their resources. Often, these obstacles are found inside some sort of enclosed underground environment. A dungeon, if you will. And some of those obstacles are dragons.

The PROBLEM that the poster has is that he doesn’t like Dungeons & Dragons. I’m sorry, but there it is. The poster should be playing or running a different game. One like Savage Worlds.

But, there’s another problem. This is a f$&%ing endemic problem. It’s like a goddamned plague. Every GM has it in their head that challenge equals nearly killing the party. There’s this f$&%ed up belief that because all or most of the combats in a day don’t push the party within an inch of death, the party isn’t being challenged. And that’s kind of a big problem. Because when your baseline for difficulty is “almost deadly,” the margin for error is really small. A couple of bad die rolls, one poor tactical decision, and one or more of the heroes is just f$&%ing dead. It’s like every game has to be Dark Souls or I Wanna Be the Guy.

Challenge is about creating obstacles and empowering the heroes to overcome those obstacles. And the better they overcome those obstacles, the less danger there should be. Now, you can complain that D&D makes it too easy to overcome obstacles because the heroes are too powerful, but considering D&D gives you a huge number of tools to tweak the difficulty, that’s sort of inexcusable anyway. If your players routinely trounce encounters that the book says should be deadly, maybe it’s time to adjust the difficulty knobs on your own. The difficulty settings in D&D are set for the average, the middle-of-the-road party. Skilled players with well-built characters will find that too easy. Just like inexperienced players with less expertly built characters will find them too hard. The GM should ALWAYS be tweaking encounter difficulty to suit their tastes and the taste of the group.

I think what bothers me most about the HJRPG post though is that the poster keeps coming back to this idea that the game is forcing a narrative structure on him and he wants a different narrative structure. But when it comes down to it, all of the analysis that’s been done is about knock-down, beat-up combats and how deadly they are. There’s no mention of any form of challenge, any form of risk, any part of the game other than getting into six fights a day or one big fight in a day. The only risk mentioned is “win the fight or die.” Honestly, if I am building a “narrative-focused game,” I kind of need stakes somewhere below “… or die.” If nothing else, that’s terrible pacing. Tension should rise and fall, not ramp up to “oh gods we’re going to die” and stay there.

In the end – and I just KNOW I’m going to get a lot of s$&% for saying this – but this is what D&D is. That’s how it’s designed. It’s designed as an obstacle course. If you don’t LIKE that style of game-play, D&D isn’t broken, you’re just playing the wrong game. Now, I’m all for people modifying the hell out of the game. I’m all for pacing and good story structure. I’m all for hacking the s$&% out of the rules. Obviously.

But, here’s where I think the problem lies. I listen to a LOT of GMs and a LOT of players. And GMs are always bitching about how D&D 5E isn’t deadly enough and how the players never feel threatened. But the players generally seem to be having a good time regardless. I think GMs need to drop the idea that challenge and deadliness are the same things. GMs should focus on building obstacles (not just combats) that are interesting, that are unusual, and that are intrinsically fun to play. I think GMs should focus on the consequences of both success and failure. I think GMs should worry less about how easily the players trash encounters. That stuff doesn’t matter to players as long as they are given interesting choices to make and interesting things to do.

And if that’s not enough for a GM? If a GM can’t somehow wrap their head around the fact that maybe the game doesn’t constantly have to threaten to kill the PCs to get a point across, then that GM has to stop building by the book. That GM has to work harder to get what they want. Like I do. You’ve seen the ways I espouse building combats. You’ve seen what I’m willing to do to get a climactic boss fight. Well, that’s the price of it.

But I will say this, I don’t think f$&%ing with the rest system is going to do anything to alleviate the “problem.” All it does is replace one artificial structure with another. Instead of having to have five combats every day, you’ll have to five combats every week.

My final analysis of this whole post could be summed up by the phrase “tempest in a teapot.”

Hope that helps McSprinkles.

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17 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Resting in D&D 5E and Why It’s Not Broken

  1. I think why this issue crops up so often is actually for a reason no one admits. For many DMs, having your monster get easily trounced in combat with no chance of winning is boring. Yeah, yeah we all get it, the DM can’t “win”. But the DM is not a computer mechanically processing what the monsters do. And so they get discouraged when the monsters never even stand a chance. And to get to that chance you have to slog through 5 combat encounters or whatever and then the players go and rest!

    • Which is sort of my point. GMs are equating the “ease with which a monster is beaten” with the “challenge” or the “fun,” which is not always how the players see it. I know that, at the heart of it is the feeling the GM is doing a bad job if every monster doesn’t push PCs near to death and no GM likes to feel like they are doing a bad job, but that’s rarely the point. One out of every four or five combats should really be deadly. One out of every four should be a complete pushover. The rest should be interesting and fun and only moderately dangerous unless they are handled poorly. That’s an excellent pace for the game.

    • If the GM requires his monsters to kill or nearly kill the party to have fun, he shouldn’t be a DM.

      Davin said, “For many DMs, having your monster get easily trounced in combat with no chance of winning is boring…. And so they get discouraged when the monsters never even stand a chance.”

      The win condition for the DM should never be the annihilation of the party. He needs to set the win conditions to a point which doesn’t end the campaign.
      The hero’s are attacking a cultist strong hold. They have to get to the end before they sacrifice the princess. — in that example each battle no matter how easy it is for the PC’s takes up time. So the monsters can get trounced, but the DM still wins if he can delay the party long enough that they don’t save the princess.

      The hero’s are sacking a city and overthrowing the evil king. Make a second group of adventures doing the same thing. Will the PC’s get the glory? Or will the other team kill the king for the titles and treasure.
      The PC’s will feel the hurt if they fail and after a multiple day storyline they are left with no treasure or glory, yet they are still alive to attempt something else.

      Lastly, force an NPC on them for the DM to rule as his own if he needs to feel victory. Let him share in the PC’s victories. Just make sure you have a predetermined personality for the NPC so he will make his decisions, which can be just as wrong as any players.

  2. This made me realize I over analyze way too much into the raw numbers of encounter balance when the real answer is less about objective data and more about fiddling with the balance and seeing what your players do or don’t do. I think newer GMs like me get caught up on the whole idea taking too much video game logic in tabletops, like MMO balance where encounters and bosses are so painstakingly in the numbers it requires a perfectly performing party for them to make it through. Or like Classic Castlevania or Dark Souls, where enemy placement and difficulty is expertly considered and calculated based on the main character’s abilities and expected growth we just want to be able to emulate that kind of game design in inspiration.

    I, for sure definitely, wanted to make the game more like Dark Souls, Classic Castlevania, or a roguelike… but you just can’t do that in 5e. Plus, I don’t think it’s really what my players wanted after all.

    I’ve looked into some retroclones out of curiosity, in case I ever wanted to run a more deadly game. The idea of having to logistically manage your supplies and make smart decisions on who or what you encounter really appeals to me. You mentioned Savage Worlds, Angry, do you know of any other systems that would be more like it?

  3. I like how D&D’s attrition approach makes it easy to build flexible encounters. For example, if you get noticed while sneaking through the goblin camp, the goblins attack. If you try to trick the ogre, but say the wrong thing, he gets angry and attacks. So either the players manage to pull of something clever or risky and feel awesome, or there is combat (and combat is awesome).
    Without the attrition from combat this doesn’t work as nicely. Either there are so few goblins that the PCs will definitely beat them in combat, hence sneaking through the camp is pointless, or there are enough goblins so that the PCs might loose the fight, but then the GM has to make the sneaking almost impossible to fail, or your campaign will be a short one.

    What I find difficult about the attrition assumption is: 1) the GM has to always build something into the scenario to limit players ability to retreat and rest. 2) the GM has to find reasons why the challenges the party face don’t realise that they are appropriate challenges, i.e. stand no chance of actually winning but at best hindering the long term progress of the PCs.

    • I’ve always just assumed that the enemies in D&D (and really any rpg) aren’t used to dealing with Heroes, so they assume the party will be easy to deal with. PCs are, after all, a cut above the common man even at first level. Of course, once the monsters realize their terrible mistake, it’s usually far too late, but I suppose they can try to run…

      • That’s a good point. “The enemies underestimate the danger the heroes pose” probably works in most situations, especially once you are out of the low levels.
        I should probably play up on that idea sometimes with enemies openly mocking the PCs before a fight, then have their hubris turn to panic.

  4. While you make a point about resting and consumption of resources not being a huge issue, I think one thing to remember is that scenario building is about planning an evening of “awesome events.” You don’t want your party to die, you want them to look AWESOME by overcoming obstacles. Either an impressive number of them, or difficult, or combination thereof.

    When you find out that a given monster doesn’t last until a second round, it really sucks the wind out of the “difficult challenge” you put before them. Same for the “overwhelming number” when they don’t need to consume a single resource to fight them, then the worry “can I hold out for just a few more turns” ends up being “how many times do I need to roll this d20 until you just declare that I’ve won?”

  5. The problem as I see it is that a lack of danger is in direct contrast to challenge and dramatic tension. You can’t really make an encounter compelling emotionally without creating tension. It doesn’t much matter if the party kills the ogre or talks him down if either approach leads to more or less the same outcome. “Interesting” is only fine for the first few seconds, but it doesn’t create lasting drama through the encounter. Attrition has very much negatively impacted the connection between the players and the game space by making danger a predictable and avoidable circumstance.

    In 2e, it’s entirely possible to create a deadly encounter at any level. Chances are that I could roll a die to pick a monster what, if played well, will make the players cower in fear. Note that I said players, not characters. I have personally seen this emotionally affect my players in ways no edition since has been able to do. I got a lawful good fighter player so worked up that he killed a damsel accidentally out of fear for his life. One might say anybody could role play this, but only 2e could compel him to do so without him knowing. It is so because the math doesn’t cater to the player’s success. Playing 5e makes it blatantly clear what style of game you’re about to play, and who really has the time (or the experience) to properly rebalance a whole game to reclaim the tension? Might as well play a different game.

    I do agree that it is always up to the DM to make the game suit the whims of the party, but lets not pretend that 5e , by the book, caters heavily towards anybody but the pretzels and beer crowd. They could have used the same DM control argument and instead catered it to actual roleplaying, but they didn’t. That is telling to many people who are realizing that 5e is really a board game with roleplay fluff built into it. People can leave their game faces at home unless they are playing with a competent DM who intentionally bends every rule he can to create an immersive experience. It is incredibly tedious and time consuming to alter 5e to make it remotely engaging. It definitely reads like a Marvel: Fantasy Super Heroes comic.

    I also question how non combat in 5e is any more interesting. Like 4e and 3e, it suffers from the roll play syndrome even for out of combat activity. It’s less about what the player says he does and more about what the dice say he does. One of the most interesting aspects of early D&D was alignment. In 5e, it’s barely a feature with practically no impact. How then do you challenge a lawful good character to make meaningful decisions, or a chaotic good character to embrace his nature? The lack of these principles greatly diminishes the roleplay elements of the game.

    Before anybody says that I must lack imagination, or that my players ignore role playing in favor of min-maxing, ask yourselves why 5e has a number or a roll for everything. Then ask whether your players are really doing much more than picking the right button for the right job. Expecting them to act against their interest solely for the sake of role playing is terrible as is expecting a DM, experienced or otherwise, to have the time, skill, or dedication to rewrite a ruleset. It would be much better if the system itself gave a purpose to it so that the players can feel compelled and the DM can sigh in relief that he won’t have to wedge in some adhoc house rule to get players motivated to be their character.

    • Or you could attempt to just run a good role playing session?

      I’m not sure what your actual complaint is here? I’m not sure about you but I’ve created fun an interesting combat and non-combat encounters in every edition of D&D and RPG I’ve ever run a game session of. I’ve never felt any particular game/edition to require that much more effort for creating interesting encounters. I’ve found the mechanics of the game are generally irrelevant to making encounters that work well. It’s about terrain and the combination of enemies for a combat encounter, or the overall stakes of a tense negotiation. This is all stuff that exists almost completely outside the realms of the dice, the dice are just a tool to decide outcomes – they rarely serve as a way to make things interesting on their own.

      Sorry but you’re argument seems to boil down to ‘AD&D does this better, 5e is for casual people’.

      • The entire notion within this blog post is that it’s the DM’s job to make the game meaningful as if the system has no fault to itself. I don’t agree with this, and I used AD&D as an example since it is even more modular for the DM, but doesn’t create numerous barriers to getting the style of play that Angry is suggesting people go out of their way to acquire.

        I’m all for different playstyles, and I don’t hate on 5e for catering to its crowd, but let’s be honest here and acknowledge that the people he is counter posting have a point. 5e provides a very predictable framework that favors attrition and little else. It is more fair to suggest people who want a more dramatically tense experience go to another system rather than redesign 5e.

        Also, I already predicted your ” good role playing” comment. Read my last paragraph. If you like 5e the way it is, fine, but clearly not everyone agrees with you.

  6. I just stumbled upon this article after returning to DnD after a long hiatus (since early 3.5) and I really like 5e rules. I agree with what you say, Angry. For me as a DM there is no fun in challenging players with just combat or death. I do not want my players get exhausted of resources after two rooms of a dungeon or two wilderness encounters. DMs trying to kill their players as a challenge (maybe save for some specific encounters and bosses) need very specific players. With my group, they would not last one session. This is a roleplaying game and not Diablo or Dark Souls. This whole game would be worth playing if there is no combat at all. Any game (or session) that stands and falls with its combat system is for the pretzels and beer crowd. The best adventure we ever had was almost totally without combat and my players would confirm that they never got so much dramatic tension from combat encounters. The fun is in immersion and the challenge comes directly from that. But that does not mean just ambience. Bending the rules? Ofc! You are the DM. Fantasy in itself is bending or breaking the rules of our world to create fantastic and epic stories and do not even try to pretend that Lord of the Rings or whatever fantasy kicks you up does not grossly bend and break rules that we live by. Based on the technology level used in sessions DMs are either editors and writers or directors and producers. And as it is with books and movies – fight/combat based movies and books are just “B-class” at best.

    As for the combat itself – you only need the goal of the PCs to be different than just “kill the monsters”. Presenting them with strategic and tactical objectives that are more important than killing, creates a challenge better than the threat of death of the PC. Like “the imp must not get to the lever and pull it”, or simply just using the environment to deal with the encounter that would be threatening if met head on. I do threaten and kill my players ONLY if they are stupid, like in ship-to-ship abordage combat someone tries to run the plank in full plate? Ofc, they will try and most probably succeed tripping him into the water, which in full-plate means auto-death unless the PC has gills and resistance to extreme pressures.

    I read the articles and some of the ensuing threads… Attrition? Stupid amount of encounters per day? Don’t make me laugh. In 5e it only takes ONE combat with even lower lvl NPCs utilizing their full potential and ambush the PCs to kill them all without them having any but marginal chance of survival. Monsters are weaker than NPCs. Why? Coz micromanagement. I dont want to manage bunch of monster NPCs every fight. Coz guess what – the fight itself is not important. I want to focus on making the combat interesting, not just hack-and-slash. Maneuvers, support, disengages, grapples, movements and magic has the power to make every encounter an interesting challenge. My orcs kick tables when PCs charge them to get the advantage, monsters don’t reveal themselves if they don’t sense the time is right, retreat to stand ground in greater numbers, lay traps and ambushes, etc. And THAT is where 5e rules excel. They free DM’s hands, while giving players enough to do during encounters managing only one PC. That is why PC mechanic HAS to be more complex and monsters “weaker”.

    Anyway, I love that over time, my group’s gameplay style evolved to somewhat spec-ops style. Always trying to get tactical advantage, creating confusions, distractions, ambushes, valuing spells like fly and invisibility more than fireballs, valuing gloves that can make items held invisible more than sword +2. And I reward them for that with (surprise) easier combat encounters. Or I should say that they are able to take on much greater challenges with this approach. They understand that the wounds that they don’t suffer do more than just leave them with more HP, but they don’t have to expend more resources to get them back up.

    I personally think that save for skill rules (which are kinda my obsession), 5e rules are the best edition of them all. Not by much. But compared to the complexity of 2E with “players options” and lots of our houserules we had for most of our roleplaying careers… Compared to the 3 and 3.5e munchkinness that went through the roof if you used all the supplements…

    But hey, to each his own. In retrospect on what I have said, it is possible that groups that play only few hours at a time in the evenings during workdays do enjoy less story – more action. We play only in full-weekend sessions – Friday evening till Sunday evening. Without immersion and packed with combat it would be seriously boring…

    • The article he is countering is being misrepresented. That’s the problem. They aren’t suggesting the game has to be “kill or be killed” ever minute, nor are they suggesting that the whole game is one long combat slog. They are merely saying that, in combat circumstances, the format of 5e is limiting and predictable in its challenge. Without considerable DM intervention into the mechanics, or reworking of the narrative scene, the actual risk is far too little. Tactics are irrelevant to the discussion because the same tactics can be used in any system. The original article is a specific discussion about the combat mechanics of 5e. It has nothing to do with kicking tables or chairs. All of that stuff is implied.

      It’s fine to want 5 combats before a boss fight, and it’s fine to not have any combats, but what of those who want something in between? If you want to challenge the party after 2 fights, you have to pull from well above the base challenge rating to do so. This may mean using NPC types or monster types that don’t fit the scene, or it may mean considerable rework on part of the DM. 5e heavily promotes a 5+ encounter structure when it comes to fighting. This is incredibly limiting from a narrative point of view, and it is easier to jump ship to another system than modify the hell out of 5e.

      Angry set his rebuttal up as one big straw man. He set out to say that they are player murdering psychopaths complaining about not being able to keep players at 1hp all the time. He then claimed that they weren’t doing their job properly by adjusting the details as if there could be more vague and common sense information. Finally he resorts to saying that less than 1 year worth of 5e invalidates the past 30+ years of D&D by suggesting they are playing the wrong game. I am sorry, but 5e does not reflect “D&D”.It merely reflects the 5th edition of D&D. Clearly, the authors are playing the wrong game, but generalizing the wrong game as D&D does a disservice to every edition before 4th which happens to also solve the problems posed by the original article, but that’s another topic.

      Given that Angry admitted that A LOT of people disagree with his position, it wouldn’t be a far stretch to say, perhaps, that he is playing the wrong game, or that he may not be right. I would say that any system I have to do numerous hours of extra work on is not the right system for me. I spend good money to play a game someone else made so that I don’t have to make it myself. The minute I find myself doing that, I will move on to a system that does what I need it to do. Both Angry and the original article authors should do the same. The system I play has no trouble with 1, 2 or 10 encounters per day/week/ month.

      • No. Angry did not set up his rebuttal as one big straw man. And your summary of what I wrote is incorrect and a gross oversimplification.

        Again, I’m GLAD you like different systems. But, at this point, you’re approaching Screaming Edition Warrior and that has no place on my site.

        I’m locking down further comments on this post because I don’t like where they (or you) are going. You made your point. It’s done.

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