Rest and Non-Magical Recovery in D&D 5th Edition

By the Book

In the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook, hit dice have the following characteristics:

  • D6, D8, D10, or D12 dependent on class.
  • Characters begin with one hit die and gain one of the appropriate type per level.
  • At the end of a short rest, players may choose to “spend” hit dice. The appropriate dice are rolled, and hit points are regained accordingly. The risk here is that any hit dice expended during a short rest are unavailable until the character completes a long rest.
  • At the end of a long rest, all hit points are regained, and roughly half a character’s available hit dice are regained (a minimum of 1).

Short and long rests have the following characteristics:

  • A short rest is deemed to be one hour in duration, a long rest is eight hours (the classic “make camp for the night”).
  • Some minor class features and magical abilities are replenished after a short rest; powerful class features and spell slots recharge after a long rest.

By the Book: Day One

In a 1st-level scenario, a party of four typical characters may all sustain damage and expend features or spell slots within 1 to 3 encounters. Perhaps the fighter is bruised and battered and the cleric had to bail her out. The wizard stepped out of cover and blasted the foes, depleting his magical energy, while the rogue caught a crossbow bolt in her knee during a failed sneak attack.

In this scenario, all players would likely elect to expend their 1 hit die during one hour’s rest. The results are unpredictable; at first level you may regain nearly all your HP (in the case of high Constitution characters) or even all of it (in the case of characters who did not receive a Con bonus to starting HP). Over time, you’ll probably even out, but rolling a “1” could be disastrous during that first day.

What next? With spell slots and major features already expended, the risk in any subsequent encounter only rises steeply if the players rolled poorly for hit dice during the short rest. If everyone is at near-full HP with some features or spells remaining, only the most conservative players would shy away from an encounter at level 1 (these are nearly always winnable, if following encounter rules as written).

By the Book: Making Camp

I’m going to guess that a typical 1st-level party would risk 1 to 3 more encounters before the depletion of HP, class features, spells, and ultimately hit dice, creates the urgency for a night’s rest. Although not intrinsically linked to a day/night cycle, I have always found the idea of making camp for the night to be a useful way of applying pressure to certain resource levers (light, food, water) as well as incrementing certain in-game timers the party may not be aware of (e.g. each 72 hours, a specific monster may leave its lair and search for prey). In 5th Edition, a 1st-level party will recover everything at the end of a night’s rest. All features, spells, hit points, and hit dice (which in this case is 1).

At levels 2 and 3, characters still only regain 1 hit die per long rest but gain other features which might end conflicts faster. Healers will also have more available spell slots and this reduces the pressure on hit dice as a healing mechanic. For 2nd- and 3rd-level characters, the danger posed by spending a second or third day in the dungeon only rises if the DM scales the difficulty of encounters on the fly to stay ahead of the hit die curve. The result here would be an interesting mid-game where characters can dish out more damage and receive more magical healing, but still need to be careful about the next encounter after a short rest. Ultimately, I can’t imagine myself or anyone I know refactoring encounter tables in this manner. At 2nd and 3rd level, the characters can already move from day to day with confidence and survivability. A night’s rest is enough to shake it off and venture forth.

By the Book: Who is It For?

It strikes me that this system of rest and recovery is designed to get new players (or players of earlier overpowered editions) into 5th edition without much grief.

Although this system has been vehemently decried by friends of mine, I believe it also serves experienced players reasonably well in the following contexts:

  1. At 1st level, any time after a short rest on which a party’s hit dice are mostly expended, the decision to risk an encounter becomes more worthy of consideration.
  2. At higher levels, recovering only half of all available hit dice could be challenging if, during the day following a long rest, the time it would take to travel to a safe location is proportionately exceeded by the danger in traveling there. Note that this depends on the DM being able and willing to scale encounter difficulty and also apply pressure on the safety of parties at rest. Imagine a brutally hazardous cavern system where the party is continually forced to camp in unsafe conditions.

By the Book: What Do We Think?

Ultimately, the preposterous, “health bar”-like automatic regeneration of this system will never see use in my group. We all agree, as experienced players, that D&D ought to be gritty. Wounds should be horrible and not easily forgotten, the creatures that inflicted them not easily forgiven. Characters might need to spend several sunless days white knuckle camping until everyone is healthy, but those are often the tensest and most rewarding moments of play.

Variant Rules: "Gritty Realism" and "Healer’s Kit Dependency"

We have opted for these variant rules, found in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, for the upcoming launch of our 5th Edition campaign (DMed by yours truly).

"Gritty Realism" turns short rests into overnight rests (8 hours), and effectively turns long rests into downtime (7 days).

Gritty Realism: Day One and Making Camp

After an opening day in which 1st level characters fought 1 to 3 encounters and are in need of a rest, they must now find a safe place to camp. (Cue ration and water depletion, roll for random encounter, advance the villain toward his objective). In the morning, the party will be refreshed and will have recovered some hit points, but hit dice will likely have been expended, and perhaps class features that require a long rest as well as spell slots (the wizard’s Arcane Recovery feature notwithstanding). Parties more than a day’s travel away from someplace extremely safe will need to think carefully, and the DM can apply pressure in many more ways than a system of play in which one hour of rest regains anything at all for the party.

Gritty Realism: Who is It For?

Among my group, one of the most controversial aspects of recent D&D editions has been how much MMO-like power has emerged in low-level spellcasters. There is an element of nerfed nostalgia to our position, but we all agree that playing a low-level spellcaster is supposed to be more a test of the player than other classes; an exercise in prudence, table manners, and good timing. "Gritty Realism" introduces a nice compromise: spellcasters can continue to use their cantrips and other class features, but recovery of leveled spells will actually be harder than 2nd Edition. You must leave the dungeon, roughly speaking, and spend some time on magical study, before venturing forth again. The wizard, who has fewer class features, is nicely counterbalanced with a long spell list, many cantrips, and the ability to recover spell slots like hit dice (1 per short rest at 1st level, thereby emulating the single 1st-level spell you could memorize after a night’s rest in 2nd Edition).

Other than sheer difficulty, the side-effects of "Gritty Realism" are twofold:

  1. The DM does not have to work as hard to scale encounter difficulty
  2. The long rest becomes an “adventure-level” break in the action. I like to think that the seven-day rest is pleasingly realistic: head back to town, get sewn up, consult one’s deity, do magical research, and celebrate small victories over tankards of ale.

Healer's Kit Dependency

"Healer’s Kit Dependency" is a less dramatic variant, but we’re going with it as well since it enhances the realism of non-magical recovery. In order to expend hit dice to recover HP during a night’s rest, anyone must expend one use of a Healer’s Kit (bandages, alcohol, herbs, presumably). The Healer’s Kit is worth 5gp and has ten uses, which could also be used to improve the likelihood of stabilizing a character that is at 0 HP. With this rule, bleeding, concussed characters won’t just spontaneously heal by sleeping unless you, y’know, actually treat their wounds.

Final Thoughts

Why are we so obsessed with the realistic depiction of the physical frailities of adventuring humans (our games are always very human-centric) in a game world full of magic and monsters? “It’s more difficult and fun,” is the short answer, but it’s more likely that we chafe at the superheroic implication of recent D&D editions: you are special, you are exceptional, you are the hero. In my game worlds, the life of an adventurer is the exact opposite: you are exceptional only insofar as you are still alive when the odds are stacked against you. You’re smart, you’re resourceful, and sometimes you’re just plain lucky.