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Handling Rests in D&D

by Mike on 15 February 2021

The frequency of rests, both long rests and short rests, is critical to the pacing of our D&D games. Too many rests and the characters enter every situation armed with the full force of their character at their disposal. Too few and players feel helpless and frustrated as they watch their characters dwindle down to their last remaining hit point.

It behooves DMs to recognize how and when we offer rests to the characters. It helps when we pay conscious attention to it and arm ourselves with the tools to manage rests and maintain the right exciting pacing of our D&D games.

Reviewing the Core Books

On any topic like this, it always helps to go back to the core books and see what they have to say on the topic. Chapter 8 of the Player's Handbook includes the basic descriptions of short and long rests. An interesting note, the default rules state that a character only regains half their maximum hit dice on a single long rest. That often gets omitted in play. The section is worth reviewing but offers no guidance for DMs on how best to offer or control such rests. Also worth noting is that a character can only benefit from one long rest in 24 hours.

Chapter 3 of the Dungeon Master's Guide describes the expectation that characters receive two short rests per adventuring day. Xanathar's Guide to Everything offers optional exhaustion rules should characters choose to forgo a long rest during a 24 hour period of time.

An oft-described and, in my opinion, misinterpreted description in the Dungeon Master's Guide states the following:

"Assuming typical adventuring conditions and average luck, most adventuring parties can handle about six to eight medium or hard encounters in a day."

This is often interpreted that characters should face six to eight encounters in an adventuring day. I disagree. Instead, characters should face as many encounters as makes sense given the situation and circumstances. More on this in a moment.

With all of their descriptions, the Dungeon Master's Guide and Xanathar's Guide don't offer much guidance on how best to handle rests in our D&D games to maintain the right pacing. Let's fix that now.

Rests and Combat Challenge

How well rested the characters are is a major factor in how challenging they find combat encounters. Well-rested characters, particularly at high levels, have many more resources at their disposal and can often succeed in very difficult battles, sometimes with ease. Characters that have faced a significant number of foes and expended many of their daily resources will have a much harder time when facing difficult encounters.

Ensuring the characters don't face a final battle fully prepared is one of the top suggested ways to ensure the characters don't destroy boss monsters too easily.

When designing a combat encounter intended to be challenging, it helps to burn down the characters' resources with previous battles and little chance to rest. This is why waves of monsters works particularly well in boss fights. Two waves of monsters before a final boss is a great way to ensure the boss doesn't face fully-rested characters ready to nuke them from orbit.

When to Offer Rests

The easiest way to manage rests is to let the story dictate when and where rests can take place. If the characters are on a long journey on a well-traveled road or exploring a safe city, it's likely they'll be able to take long rests without difficulty. If they're deep in a dungeon filled with terrible monsters and few safe rooms, it's unlikely the characters can stop in the middle of a four-way hallway and rest for eight hours undisturbed. Much of the time we can let the story dictate how often the characters can take short or long rests. Even then, we may need to be explicit in describing these opportunities to the players.

Explicitly Describe Opportunities for Rests or the Lack Thereof

Players don't understand what's going on about half the time. This is a common rule of mine to help me recognize that while the story and situation may be perfectly clear in my mind, it isn't necessarily as clear to my players. This is equally true with rests. It may not be clear to the players that their characters can take the opportunity for a short or long rest or what might happen if they do.

For this reason it's best to be explicit in describing the opportunities and risks for taking rests. If you know they've reached a chamber in a dungeon monsters avoid, you might mention to the players that they can take this opportunity for a short rest without risk. If they've cleared out a chamber likely safe for eight hours or more, you can mention that they have the opportunity for a long rest without risk.

Likewise, when they enter dangerous locations for the first time, mention to them that their opportunities for rests will be rare, or even non-existent, and that they should plan accordingly. Mention this up front so players know they must manage their resources accordingly. You may go a step further and mention that they may have only one or two opportunities for a short rest in such a place.

Managing Rests with Time Sensitive Quests

While dangerous locations ensure characters can't take a lot of rests, spells like Leomund's Tiny Hut can make even the most dangerous locations safe. The best way to threaten the characters here isn't with wandering monsters or random encounters but with time-sensitive quests. If the characters are trying to stop a villain from completing a ritual, you can mention that the villains will certainly be done with the ritual before the characters can complete a long rest. Likewise, if they're chasing a particular villain, that villain may escape or move on if the characters wait too long. As the DM you can keep your hand on this dial, informing the players that they do not have time for a long rest if they want to successfully complete their quest but may have time for a short rest.

Running time-sensitive quests is one of the most effective ways to manage rests in your D&D games.

Rest Interrupters

If rests come too quickly and easily, you may need to inject environmental effects or situations that prevent the characters from resting too often. Here are ten examples of effects or situations that prevent the characters from taking either a short or long rest (your choice).

  1. Spectral wailing
  2. A character's disease will overtake them
  3. Planar instability
  4. Hostile environments (too cold, too hot)
  5. Psychic resonance
  6. Tectonic shifts
  7. The drive of an intelligent item
  8. A lifedraining effect
  9. Horrible nightmares
  10. Continual loud noises

Characters can only take rests in areas conducive to such rests. Many circumstances may continually interrupt the characters in ways they cannot control. Spells like Leomand's Tiny Hut, however, will likely bypass such difficulties.

If you need to better control the rests the characters can take, tailor one or more of the effects above to prevent the characters from taking short or long rests too easily.

Restful Opportunities

The flip side of this is dropping opportunities for rests, short or long, when it may not seem like such an opportunity would be available. Here are ten ways to drop opportunities to rest in the middle of hostile locations, like dungeons. Many of these can restore the characters as though they had taken a short or long rest without actually requiring the time. This helps offer rests even when time is tight.

  1. A secret door leads to a lost healing font
  2. The characters find potions that offer the equivalent of a rest
  3. The villain's plans have been set back, offering time for a rest
  4. A trapped celestial entity offers to restore the characters
  5. A forgotten passage leads to a hidden room safe for rests
  6. The characters find a magic item with a single use of Leomund's tiny hut
  7. The characters enter a dream state that offers them a rest in shorter time
  8. A divine caster's god or patron bestows a restful blessing upon the party
  9. Infighting between hostile factions draws attention away from the characters
  10. Invigorated by their recent victories, the characters earn the equivalent of a short rest

Control Rests and Control the Pacing of your Games

By taking an active hand in managing how and when short and long rests become available, you have a better hand in controlling the pacing of your game. Players feel powerful and optimistic when rested, and vulnerable and cautious when they haven't rested in some time. Most of the time you can let the story dictate when the characters can rest. Other times, however, you'll want to carefully plan how and when the characters can take rests, both short and long, and describe this to your players so they know how to manage their resources up front. Use rests as a dial to manage the upward beats, downward beats, and pacing of your D&D games.

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