Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Gritty Realism: Adventuring in Weeks, Not Days

Because apparently this is a 5E blog now, I'm going to talk about the Gritty Realism variant rule suggested in the DMG on page 267. But wait! Don't go! You know me better than that. Of course I'll find a way to make it relevant to you and your rules-lite artpunk post apocalyptic furry heartbreaker as well, since I know you don't play D&D 5E.

So there's a type of adventure scenario I like to call a "Die Hard plot." It's not a good name, but it's what I always think of. In the movie Die Hard, the whole ordeal takes place within a single evening. The movie almost happens in real time! It's a really jam-packed day. See also:
  1. The Warriors
  2. The Avengers (well, like 90% of it)
  3. Night of the Living Dead
  4. Clue
  5. Dredd
  6. The Goonies
  7. Escape From New York
  8. 24 (the TV show)
...and plenty of others. Now of course, lots of movies take place entirely within 1 day. But these ones here are specifically all movies that are a great model for D&D ADVENTURE! Sure, My Dinner With Andre takes place in one day, but that's because it's just a dinner conversation. These movies are set within a single day in spite of how much crazy shit happens within them.

Every movie on that list is great (and 24 is okay I guess), and you should steal from them occasionally. But the main appeal of Gritty Realism is that it affirms a simple truth: you can't run an entire campaign of just Die Hard plots. Or rather, I think you probably shouldn't.

I'd like to talk about this at length and help us all to appreciate this better.

Rough Table of Contents
  1. An overview of the concept of the "adventuring day," which most people who know a good amount about 5E's design could probably skip if they wanted to.
  2. It doesn't work!
  3. Why it doesn't work
  4. What ideal pacing in D&D looks like
  5. Gritty Realism explanation
  6. Proposed tweaks to Gritty Realism
  7. This can be relevant to you and your game, too

The "Adventuring Day"

This is gunna be a bit tedious but I'm going to start by reviewing the basic outline of HP in 5E D&D and how it works. Trust me, it'll be helpful that I spell a lot of this out now.

I like games that are about working within constraints and optimizing the usage of limited supplies or time. This is very broad of course, ranging anywhere from equipment-heavy games like Knave to games all about spending metacurrency, like bennies in Savage Worlds or flashbacks in Blades in the Dark. It's not the only way to design a game, or even the best way, but I like when games have an innate source of challenge built into the rules themselves. I understand that for many people, it's enough just to be able to simulate worlds or storytelling experiences and all that in a fun way. But I like problem-solving, and you can't always just keep coming up with more and more novel, open-ended puzzles for the players. Sometimes it's nice to have a constant problem to deal with that never truly goes away, and having PCs rely on a limited resource is a great way to do that.

In D&D 5E, they decided to try designing the game all around a limited daily supply of Hit Points (HP) as the main resource you draw on when facing challenges. However, instead of just getting one big pool to last you through the day, you also have a reserve supply of "Hit Dice" that you can spend throughout the day during 1-hour short rests to get back a bit more health. So, hypothetically, if you take lots of short rests throughout the day then you can extend your daily HP supply to about twice its default size. However, this requires that you do indeed find opportunities to take those short rests. The nice thing is that there's no limit to how many you can take or how often. You have to judge for yourself when the circumstances are best to burn an hour, which I think is fantastic. Greatly preferable to the "forced, meaningless rests" in the B/X D&D dungeoncrawl rules.

On top of that, they made lots and lots of other miscellaneous features then get tied to short rests and long rests as well. Magic spells also follow this scheme, magic-like abilities (like Druid wildshaping) use it, and various things which are difficult to diegetically rationalize as being "limited supplies" use it as well (such as Barbarian rages and Fighter maneuvers). It's a bit rough, but it's a neat system. I generally enjoy thinking about pacing my adventuring on the basis of short rests and long rests, thinking about the next opportunity I'll have to catch my breath and how far I can stretch my limits and all that. And of course, the resource cycle resets each day. Any limited feature you have will reset after an 8-hour long rest, including all of your HP. As long as you can make it to the next long rest, you're in the clear. Tomorrow morning you'll be good as new.

Of course, 5E D&D is a game that also encourages the DM to curate their challenges to be fairly balanced, using a complicated system of calculation involving XP and Challenge Rating and all that. The details aren't important for my point, and to be honest, the game plays just fine if you ignore that stuff or even abuse it. By which I mean, I think my own DM intentionally calculates all of our combat encounters to fall within the "Deadly" range instead of ever making them "Medium" difficulty, and it's still pretty fun and cool.

Despite some pretty good ideas going on here, the execution has quite a bit of jank.

For example, the game encourages the DM to give XP for any kind of challenge they see fit, not just combat. But the only type of challenge that they offer advice on calculating XP for is combat anyway. By itself, that's not the worst thing ever. But it's revealing. After all, the basic rationale for how much XP any combat encounter is worth is "how much of your resources did it drain?" And while you could conceivably create non-combat challenges that drain an equivalent amount of resources from the PCs (e.g. traps, skill challenges, crisis situations, etc.)... it's really hard. Downright unrealistic, in fact.

See, it's extremely popular to give this piece of advice in the 5E community: "an encounter can just be something that drains the PCs' resources. Try things other than combat!" And while I strongly support non-combat challenges, the people saying this... clearly have not thought it through.

Remember, the main resource that PCs have to track is their HP. Few things can reliably drain HP like violence, you know? And the secondary resources that PCs track are almost always combat abilities. How often does a Barbarian use their rage outside of a fight? Or a Fighter and their maneuvers? Let's not kid ourselves: the resource management cycle this game is built around was designed with the assumption that it's combat that'll be draining your resources by default. It's not like social encounters are going to have the same effect, you know? It's easy to follow this advice in other resource-based games like ones focusing on equipment or money or social capital or something, but 5E's resources are specifically combat resources.

Okay, so what? Big deal, I just pointed out that D&D is an action game. But here's the important thing: if you want...
  1. the game to be about resource management,
  2. and to give the DM the tools to reliably present a thrilling challenge,
  3. and your only way of reliably serving both of the two above needs is through combat,
...then you kinda need to answer the question of, "how much combat can PCs handle in a single resource cycle?" After all, the main way to present a thrilling challenge in a resource management game is to push the resource management to its absolute limits. In many ways, the most exciting moment is when you're about to run out of juice, the climax near the end of the resource cycle.

So Wizards of the Coast says that the answer is, "about 6 to 8 combats per day." And despite how sloppy the 5E math is in a lot of places, this claim seems to check out pretty well. However...

...Holy shit is that a terrible, terrible target number to have attempted to balance the game around.

Surprise: People Aren't Running Die Hard-only Campaigns

It is a well-documented fact of 5E D&D that almost nobody in the entire fucking world who's been polled on the matter has ever actually had 6-8 combats in a single adventuring day. It's practically a meme at this point. In reality, the majority of people who run 5E seem to average 0-3 combats per in-game day. I've been playing 5E since 2014 with many groups, both as DM and player, in everything from published adventure paths to homebrew campaigns, ranging all the way from level 1 up to level 19, and this tracks perfectly with my experience in every single game. 0-3 combats per day is the actual, true average. Yes, even in the "combat obsessed" editions, nobody actually wants to do that much combat.

I'll back this up with some proof:
I'm sure there's overlap in the people responding to those but they all tell the same story. In fact, the most convincing evidence I think there is to back up my claim is literally to just search "encounters per day" in any 5E D&D forum on the internet and see what people say. Warning: if you do this, you'll see a lot of the same, shitty, hollow points brought up again and again and again that don't actually resolve the problem here at all. "Encounter doesn't necessarily mean combat," "'adventuring day' isn't the same as 'real life day'," "don't count days with 0 combats," "just give more XP per encounter," etc. All of these miss the point entirely. And they all ignore my deep and unabiding need to put a goddamn PC at risk of dying for Pete's sake.

When you've just completed your 7th
combat of the day and you're both ready
to just call it a truce.

Art credit: N.C. Wyeth
The worst advice of all is people saying, "6 to 8 encounters is the maximum. It's a ceiling. You don't have to push your players to their limits every day!" And I hate this because I want to push my players to their limits goddammit. Worse yet, I don't even want to push them to their limits every day. I just want to do it once, but the only way to get them to that point is by throwing a Die Hard day at them. They reset every single in-game day, so there's no way to "wear them down" over time. If you wanna drain those resources, you have 24 hours to do it.

Okay, let's take a step back. In reality, this isn't actually that big of a deal. Jeremy Crawford says so. The design doesn't work out exactly as intended, but so what? People are having plenty of fun anyway.

But the problem is that my idea of fun is when the PCs are in serious danger. Both as a DM and as a player. I don't really get anything out of combat scenarios where the dramatic question isn't "will someone die?" or where victory is a foregone conclusion. And because PCs have so much fucking HP and resources to get them through the day, they're never really in serious danger until you've put in the work to drain them of all of that. It takes about 6 to 8 combats in a row, with only a couple short rests, to really work a 5E PC to the point where they're genuinely at risk of maybe dying.* So if that's what you want out of the game, then you kinda have to take this "resource management cycle" stuff seriously. Again, that's why my DM only throws Deadly combats at us. It's the only way combat can come close to having real consequences.

Side Note 1: Why This Matters

Christ, this is a lot of thought and energy put into wanting a janky system to work instead of just playing something simpler or more robust, isn't it? The only reason this resting-based system is getting this much attention is because it's name-brand D&D. But I really do think it has potential.

I recently wrote a post talking about why I think many criticisms of 5E are unfair. There's lots of great reasons to dislike it (this article here is a good one!), but I think most of the anti-D&D consensus has been built from a lot of malarkey. I suggest that more of us should be willing to give this game a lot of credit for its strengths, even as many of us know that it isn't our kind of game and we don't want to play it.

I also recently wrote a post titled "Iterative Design." In it, I champion a specific philosophy of game design that seems to have resonated with people. But in many ways, I was pandering to my audience. Something important to understand is that, just as we can revisit older editions of D&D and other ancient games to discover forgotten wisdom, so too should we be iterating on the modern developments introduced to the hobby recently.

Which is just to say, you should steal every good idea, even if you personally resent 5E's popularity. I've seen quite a few OSR/NSR games adopting something resembling 5E's resting system and that's exciting to me. I think we can use it better than D&D is, in fact. Iron out all the jank. And even without resting mechanics, I think much of what I'm about to get into is useful for anyone thinking about "pacing" as a game element.

Side Note 2: Don't Even Fucking Use the Word "Superheroic" At Me

"Play a different game" blablabla yeah I know, I play lots of games. And every game I play is mutable and there are lots of good reasons why I'm still playing 5E with my weekly group instead of switching to something else, so yes, it's worth tweaking a mostly good game here or there to get it closer to what I want. I try not to throw out babies when I'm dumping all my bath water, but that's just me.

While I do really, really like RPGs with zero combat in them at all, I also enjoy good tabletop combat. They're two different appeals. Sometimes I'm in the mood for one, sometimes I'm not. And I like 5E combat when the encounter is well designed and interesting and poses tricky problems to think through. But no part of this combat system requires that PCs are fucking indestructible. That's not actually core to its design, they just made lots of choices on top of the core that contribute to this. The underlying action system, initiative system, attack and spellcasting system, and so on are all great. The numbers they settled on for HP, damage, spell slots, and other daily resources... are not.

It's true, I like low-level, low-magic, gritty and gruesome "heroic fantasy" a lot. But I also like weird and spectacular high fantasy sometimes too. But too often it's used as a deflection of criticism at this combat system. "5E is built for playing as superheroes," as though superheroes are never in any peril?? The only reason superheroes die so rarely is because intellectual property is really valuable to the folks who own those characters. And even then, there's still more long-term consequences of battles in most superhero media than there is in 5E D&D and comparable systems.

Anyway, back to the point...

"Day" is Not a Great Unit For Adventure

One of the biggest reasons that you can't expect every day to be a Die Hard is just because it's unlikely. Yes, it's a lot of work and prep, yes it's exhausting to play out, yes it'll stretch a single in-game day across multiple real-life sessions (because nobody is gunna run 6-8 combats in one session), and so on. Those are all good reasons, sure. But also, just from a narrative or simulationist point of view, it's... rare that it would naturally occur on its own.

See, I've often heard people gravely misdiagnose the problem here. Another tired refrain on this subject is to bring up the "5 minute adventuring day" (also sometimes called the "15 minute adventuring day," although there's no distinction). For those unfamiliar, here's the general argument:
Imagine the party enters a dungeon. Early on, they get into a fight with some monsters. It wears them down a fair bit, so they want to rest. So they leave the dungeon and camp out for the night. The next morning, they return to the dungeon, push a little further, and get into another fight. Once again, they want to recover afterwards so they leave and camp. Rinse and repeat. It'll take them a month to clear the dungeon because they're doing it as optimally and safely as possible and there's no reason they can't. And you can't fault them, really. They're just playing smart. Players are thus incentivised towards a "5 minute adventuring day," and that's a bad/undesirable thing.
Then, lots of people give advice to fix this perceived problem:
  1. There's a time limit to complete the dungeon for some reason.
  2. The dungeon will refill with monsters every time the party leaves.
  3. They don't actually have anywhere safe to camp near the dungeon within, like, a whole day's journey.
  4. "Your PCs would get bored if they spent 1 hour of the day adventuring and 15 hours just chilling until nightfall. They decide to go back in because humans hate waiting."
  5. This is actually the reason short rests were invented! 5E went out of its way to combat this problem by giving an alternative to an 8-hour rest.
Some of these are better or worse than others, you can tell. But if you ask me, all of them are missing the point anyway.

I say that this is a misdiagnosis because it's misunderstanding why there's usually only 0-3 combats per in-game day. While the imaginary scenario described above is something that occasionally happens, it's honestly pretty rare. It's not just during dungeoncrawls that my party has a "5 minute adventuring day." We average 0-3 encounters every single in-game day. That's our average when we're hexcrawling, that's our average when we're urbancrawling, that's our average when sailing, that's our average during a heist, that's our average during politics, and so on. And in all the years I've played this game, it has never, ever, ever been that way because the players decided to abuse the rest cycle and go to bed earlier than the DM wanted.

The real reason we always have 0-3 combats per day is because there are very few naturally-occuring situations in which combat is going to happen more than that in a single day. There just aren't that many opportunities for combat! Even if we wanted to game the system and stretch the day's encounters out with many long rests, we can't because the day just doesn't have that many encounters in store for us. The DM can always cram them in if they want but whenever they do that, it's weirdly conspicuous in that Die Hard sort of way. The major exception are dungeons, which are often densely packed with room after room of challenge. But even then... shorter dungeons with less combats are a lot more popular in modern gaming for a reason. Every time my 5E group has done a dungeoncrawl, we haven't cheesed it. Those probably account for 100% of the "3 combat days" we've ever had, in fact. Because even the gnarliest dungeon only had, like, 3 combat encounters in it that we couldn't avoid.

I have found this to be true in published adventures, DM-written adventures that are fairly railroaded, and even PC-driven sandbox adventures. Even my current Brave group, who are all batshit murderhobos wreaking havoc on an entire kingdom, pretty much never have more than one fight per day. And they're looking for fights, a lot of the time.

Like I said, this generally holds true whether you are the kind of person who approaches the game in more of a dramatist, narrativist fashion or if you're just trying to run a strictly fair and consistent simulation that doesn't conform to drama at all. In either case, situations where violence breaks out just aren't common enough to maintain an expectation of 6-8 combats per day.

And you know what? Even if you rebuilt this system from the ground up so that "meaningful, resource-draining encounters" actually could be more than just combat, I still think that it would be unreasonable to then expect 6-8 of those per day. Even if the focus of the resource cycle were something other than HP, like "energy and exhaustion" or "light supply" or "battery life" or whatever, it's just silly to want that to be tested so much every in-game day of the PCs' lives.

Somehow, this is not as realistic a concern as you
might expect.
Credit: 8-Bit Theater, by Brian Clevinger
One of the commonly criticized/joked about qualities of 5E's XP math is how quickly a character reaches full level. Here's one thread showing the math on this, here's another, you can find many others and even though they all calculate it differently, they each reach basically the same conclusion: if you play 5E D&D as it was designed, you would go from level 1 to level 20 in just over a month of in-game days.

That's fucking bananas. Level 1 is classic, low-fantasy, barely-above-a-peasant type of stuff, and level 20 is "can tussle with the gods themselves" kind of stuff.

Okay, but even if you change it from 6-8 encounters per day to 0-3, and assuming you have 4 PCs of equal level only fighting Medium difficulty encounters, then it should still only take you about 160 days of adventuring to reach level 20. Again, less than half a year is... a bit strange.

In Lord of the Rings, from the time when Frodo sets out to when the ring is destroyed is about 6 months. And I'm not sure if any of the characters (Gandalf's huge level jump aside) level up more than once or twice in that story. In fact, in most fantasy fiction where you get to watch a character progress from low power to high, it takes them a lifetime (warning: weirdly horny-and-heartwarming animation found within). And I think that's the idea that most of us are comfortable imagining as fair and reasonable. Because also, most of those 6 months of Frodo's journey were not spent as Die Hard days.

Leveling Up Aside, This Just Makes for a Bad Resource Cycle

I don't really care about the XP thing. I can give as much XP as a I want and I can set the level cap at 5 if I decide to. The actual point is about the pace the game assumes you'll be challenging the players at. The pace that they're regularly exhausting their resources and refilling them.

Not only do adventurers in fantasy fiction not have adventures every single day like this, but they tend to get worn down over time. One of the problems with having the resource cycle reset daily is that you can't really inflict consequences on the PCs that last beyond one day. Sure, you can always give them a rare, situational thing like a disease or a curse or something. But RAW, there aren't really injuries that make HP recovery take longer than a long rest, or easy ways to keep a spellcaster from getting all their magic back each morning, or a way to force Monks to preserve their ki a bit longer until they, I dunno, reach a sacred area to meditate or something. The major exception is exhaustion, which takes one long rest to recover per level you've been inflicted with. That would be a pretty good long-term consequence to inflict, except that the exhaustion rules in 5E are incredibly punishing. Each successive level adds a new penalty, and they stack. Not only that, but the first one is "disadvantage on all checks" which is ridiculously harsh in 5E D&D. It is straight up not worth attempting any adventuring as long as you have a single level of exhaustion.

I bring this up because it creates this frustrating situation where you are almost always going to be challenging the PCs at their full power and potential. Because they refresh every day, and they know that it's very unlikely they'll have a second combat after the first one you throw at them, they have no reason not to go all-out and absolutely nuke the monsters in that one fight. And even if they blow their load too early and you hit them with a second encounter... eh, they'll still probably have quite a bit leftover. Especially if they get a chance for a short rest after that first fight. You get so many daily resources, it's actually kind of hard to exhaust them all at once even if you're trying to.

Say, for example, you want to introduce some wilderness travel gameplay into your 5E campaign. Great idea! You want some real Lord of the Rings shit. You've watched some YouTube videos about hexcrawls and you think they look cool. You got some software and made a big hexmap of your game's central kingdom. And you follow popular advice and decide to make it so the party can travel 1 hex per day. Thus, you can easily calculate distances and time travel and all that on the map by just counting the number of hexes between their destinations. And you want there to be some spicy activity along the way. There's lots of elements you can include. Getting lost, foraging for food, getting past wilderness obstacles, and so on. But come on. Let's be real. This is the time for random encounters, baby. This is what they're made for. Not that these fights are supposed to be huge, important, climactic battles or anything. But something to make the journey more challenging, you know? "Maybe let's not go through the mountain pass. Don't wanna get attacked by bandits." "Like we wanna get eaten by the swamp cyclops more? No thanks." This sounds great!

...Except it ain't gunna work. Not in 5E, buddy. Unless you wanna hit the PCs with 6-8 random encounters every single day of their journey, then don't count on a single one of those fights ever having a serious chance of actually impeding the PCs. Beyond wasting real-life time, there just won't be consequences on them since they'll be going into each fight at full strength, and immediately recharging all their resources right afterwards. Even if you hit them with some fucking crazy encounters like dragons and orc armies and stuff, smart players will either 1) avoid those entirely anyway, or 2) somehow manage to prevail against them. 5E PCs are unbelievably tough. I once saw a party of 5 level 3 PCs kill a CR 9 dragon without losing a single member, after they'd already had 3 combats beforehand. The dragon didn't pull its punches or anything, it's just fucking hard to kill PCs unless you've really, really drained them. So instead, none of your random encounters will have any impact. Shit.

Finally, Gritty Realism

First, the rule played straight. Then, exploring some potential tweaks.

I mean, I hate the name of the rule. Years and years of reading dumb comments of people on Reddit fantasizing about a "gritty and realistic remake of X movie" has ruined those two words for me. But the rule is a good one. It goes like this:
This variant uses a short rest of 8 hours and a long rest of 7 days. This puts the brakes on the campaign, requiring the players to carefully judge the benefits and drawbacks of combat. Characters can't afford to engage in too many battles in a row, and all adventuring requires careful planning. 

This approach encourages the characters to spend time out of the dungeon. It's a good option for campaigns that emphasize intrigue, politics, and interactions among other NPCs, and in which combat is rare or something to be avoided rather than rushed into. 
This has an interesting effect on a lot of things. Most people immediately assume that this would severely punish classes that rely a lot on short rests, like Warlocks and Battlemaster Fighters. But counterintuitively, they actually get the biggest buff out of anyone when using this rule. How? Let's consider a few things.

Let's treat "the resource cycle" as something which exists independently of time. It can be stretched or squashed on any timescale, depending on how you set the numbers. But no matter what, your character can handle about 6 to 8 Medium difficulty encounters per resource cycle before needing to reset, assuming they can get 2 to 4 short rests in there along the way.

Now let's modify this by adding in those variables. Here's the diagram for how WotC wanted the game to be played using the "1 cycle = 1 day" model:

However, as we've discussed, here's the reality of how it actually gets played by most people:

The problem with the "1 cycle = 1 day" model is that you pretty much never get any short rests. After any fight where I'm feeling a bit tapped out, if I said "we should take a short rest!" then everyone else would just say, "why not a long rest?" and they'd be right because 9 times out of 10, we already know that we aren't going to have another combat that day.

Now, here's the diagram for what you could generally expect with Gritty Realism:

For the same reasons that the normal rules basically guarantee you won't get any short rests, this model guarantees that you'll get lots of them. Because you will almost always be guaranteed the chance to sleep every night, and you'll rarely have more than one encounter per in-game day, then that means that you'll usually get a rest after every battle. It's just that now those are short rests instead of long rests, so instead of fully recharging after every battle, you just get a little bit back. Thus, you have to spread your whole resource cycle (everything that recharges on a long rest) across something closer to 5-7 days.

Of course, this shows a cycle with 6 combats, but any one of those days could have had a second or third combat. Or zero! Plus, the difficulty of any of these combats could vary quite a bit, rather than all being Medium challenges. In fact, I think that the reality in play actually looks more like this:

This party managed to go 8 days of adventuring before needing a long rest. You can see that there are lots of days with 0 encounters and a couple days with 2 encounters, but it still averages out to them being able to do 6-8 encounters before needing that long rest.

Now let me explain how this buffs the short rest classes. Let's compare Fighters and Paladins as well as Warlocks and Wizards. On paper, each of these pairs are supposed to be pretty balanced. In reality, Paladins and Wizards firmly outclass Fighters and Warlocks, respectively. Here's why.

Fighters get these things back on a short rest:
  • Action Surge (their best ability)
  • Second Wind (main healing ability)
  • All their Superiority Dice for doing manuevers
Paladins get these things back on a long rest:
  • All their spell slots, and thus...
  • ...All their smites
  • Lay on Hands (main healing ability)
There's plenty of other stuff too but these abilities are the meat and potatoes. Now, ideally they should each get to use these about the same amount per resource cycle. If a paladin uses all of their spell slots to smite by default, then a 5th level paladin will get to make 6 smites per day. Across 6-8 encounters, that's an average of 1 smite per combat, maybe a bit lesss. Likewise, a fighter gets to action surge and do a few maneuvers once per short rest. If you short rest after every battle or two, then you get to action surge and throw around some maneuvers, on average, once per battle.

In reality, the paladin gets to blow their daily load all on one combat. They get to do 6 smites in one combat while the fighter only gets to action surge once. But check out that Gritty Realism diagram. Now the paladin can't afford to go nova anymore, since most of the party will want to adventure for at least 5 days before taking their next long rest.

You'll find largely the same thing with warlocks and wizards. A 5th level wizard gets 9 spells per long rest (plus cantrips), but a 5th level warlock gets only 2 spells per short rest (plus cantrips). The only way the warlock can match the wizard's spell output per day is if they can get at least 3 or 4 short rests in (i.e. 2 spells, short rest, 2 spells, short rest, 2 spells, short rest, 2 spells = 8 spells in one day, which is close to the wizard's output).

Oh, also the classes that don't rely on rests very much at all aren't quite as outclassed by the spellcasters anymore. Rogues, champion fighters, and (spells aside, since they're a pitiful amount anyway) rangers all get to shine a bit more next to their spellcasting buddies, who now behave a bit more restrained.

Now of course, it would be disingenuous to pretend that the only thing that changes here is the pacing and scale of things. This changes the pattern of adventure by quite a bit. For example, now it requires a lot more security to take a long rest. When a long rest is only 8 hours, most adventurers can find a way to manage that in the wilderness or even possibly within a dungeon as long as they have people keeping watch. But now that it's instead 7 days, that means you almost certainly need to return to civilization or a stronghold to fully recharge. This also forces you to do a lot more downtime stuff if you don't want those week-long rests to be boring. But like I've said before: my players (and seemingly most players) already trend closer to this flow of adventure than the Die Hard pacing, so these should be fairly comfortable adjustments to your normal pattern of activity.

For what it's worth, many folks agree that this is the simplest change you can make to 5E to achieve the vast majority of OSR playstyle ideals, which is (to me) some of the most elegant game design I've ever seen. No amount of houserules like "gold for XP," "halve HP and double damage," "slot-based encumbrance," skill tweaking, etc. manage to accomplish as much as this one rule that just changes the pacing of the core resource cycle. It's insane just how big of an impact this has on the entire experience. You'll start seeing OSR habits emerge naturally and unprompted from the players just as an inevitable consequence of the constraints they're now put into. Too squishy to take on big monsters like dragons? Prepare a big ambush and research their weaknesses. Can't blast all your spells? Negotiate with the enemies, then. Need to get through a dungeon in less than 3 days? Bring a bunch of hirelings and rely on "strength in numbers."

For those who get hung up on how weirdly quickly characters seem to level up in-universe, now you can take every daily resource cycle (6-8 encounters) and stretch them across about 7 days and then add in another week of downtime in between every resource cycle (for the long rests). So instead of reaching level 20 in 1 month, it should be about 30 weeks of adventure + 30 weeks of long rest downtime in between, or just over a year. Alright, still a bit quick, but fuckit. People wanna level up. You can either have lots more voluntary downtime or just go play Pendragon if you want to slow things down further.

Another interesting side effect of this rule: in the normal scheme, long rests are mostly guaranteed but short rests are discretionary. But in Gritty Realism, short rests are mostly guaranteed and now long rests are discretionary. I like that a lot.

Playing Around With This Rule

Small additions here and there. "You can't take more than one short rest per 24 hour period" is a fairly reasonable one, since that was already the rule for long rests in the normal version where they take 8 hours. Maybe allow a long rest to restore 100% of your HD instead of only 50%, since you are taking an entire week off, after all.

This person has some suggestions for how to modify spell durations. TL;DR: increase the duration of all spells as follows: 10 minutes to an hour, 1 hour to 8 hours, 8 hours to 7 days, and 24 hours to 2 weeks. You could probably also modify spell-like effects accordingly. Also any spell that you have to cast daily to make the effect permanent (e.g. Teleportation Circle or Private Sanctum) should become once weekly.

Some folks suggest that you allow wizards and clerics and those types to switch out their prepared spells on short rests, since asking them to plan a whole week into the future is a bit trickier than only asking them to plan for the next 24 hours. Not sure how this would work out but I'm willing to give it a shot.

[EDIT, adding some stuff from Discord discussions] Along the same lines, take a closer look at some of the spellcasters' rest abilities. I've been recommended that the Wizard should benefit from their Arcane Recovery feature once per long rest. It's one of the few weirdly-phrased abilities in 5E, since RAW it says "once per day when you finish a short rest," which is really just a shittier and more complicated way of saying "once per long rest." Also related to this: look at your magic item rules and see if they need adjusted to Gritty Realism or not. Something that gets X charges per day might need to be rebalanced to X charges per week, you know?

Oh, here's an important one: exhaustion is now even more punishing, since a long rest is an even bigger ask of the party if they want to recover a level of exhaustion. So change that rule so that you recover exhaustion on a short rest, AKA, still a night's sleep. With the new pacing scheme, this'll make exhaustion a lot more usable than it was before. Suffering a level of it after your second fight no longer forces you to cut your whole resource cycle short, because it'll just last the rest of your already-short day.

Art credit: Matt Stawicki
Probably the most commonly proposed tweak is to only change long rests, but leave short rests as 1 hour. The vast majority of the time that I've seen someone explain the logic behind this, it just reveals that they didn't really grasp most of what I just described. They make the (understandable) mistake of thinking fighters and warlocks and monks are getting nerfed. That said, some point out that this change keeps dungeoncrawls a bit more viable. After all, we've already established that dungeoncrawling is the one activity most likely to get you to 3 or more combats in a single day. I believe that's something worth preserving, so I don't think this tweak is the worst idea. Of course, your 8 hours of rest overnight would also qualify as a short rest. So in reality, this tweak would probably just make it so you can take more than one short rest per day if you need to, but because you'll rarely have more than one fight in a single day then you'll rarely need to! Thus, our Gritty Realism resource cycle chart will usually look exactly the same, except on those days with dungeoncrawling.

Of course, if you do keep short rests as 1 hour, then some of the previous tweaks I've mentioned might not work anymore. Maybe? It's hard to say. Modify to taste, I suppose.

A weird suggestion I've heard a few times is a sort of hybrid model. Resting would function like normal when the party is within civilization, but converts to Gritty Realism whenever they're in the wilderness or the Underdark or something. The details vary, but the basic idea is that you can fix the hexcrawl problem I described earlier without giving up "normal" gameplay during the days when the scenario seems a bit more Die Hard-like. I don't know if I care for this suggestion but hey, it's worth mentioning.

Since I plan to merge this with Matt Colville's Strongholds and Followers, I have to make a tweak specific to that book's contents. Matt introduces something called an "extended rest" that last a week. You take it at your stronghold to recharge your new super duper crazy abilities granted to you by the book's new player content. Well, it sounds to me like using this with Gritty Realism would require that we lengthen the duration of an "extended rest," since a week of downtime is already now assigned to long rests. How about a month? That'll definitely stretch the timeline and force lots of downtime projects and politics, which is perfect for a campaign that's about 50% domain level play. Why, that's long enough that I can begin incorporating stuff like seasons and long-term holidays and even aging, potentially.

What We Can Learn From This, Even Without Playing 5E

Like I said, this is mostly illustrative on the topic of pacing. When 5E came out, I fully bought into the theory of the "adventuring day" as a reasonable standard. In hindsight, I don't know why. Every session I play covers several days of time in-game, sometimes more than a week. That is the standard pace of adventure, and I think we should all start designing around that as the default, with other modes of pacing as the exceptions.

Likewise, this is insightful for anyone who wants to make a heavily resource management-based game. Whatever the resource in question is, think critically about the "resource cycle" as something you can define as a series of draining moments and refreshing moments. In 5E they took the interesting route of having two types of refreshing moments, in order to break up the cycle a bit more than in previous editions. But there's lots of ways to toy around with this.

I've talked a bit before on this blog about my co-writer's Kung Fu RPG he has in development, Rivers & Lakes. We're not quite ready to present a public version yet, but I can talk about certain design choices nonetheless. It's a fairly rules-lite game with some OSR sensibilities, and the HP system (called "Qi" in this game) is inspired by 5E's rest system. But as you can probably guess, in the tradition of iterative design, we build further on it and think critically about what stuff to keep and what stuff could be changed.

The basic idea was inspired by this old post about "HP as exhaustion mechanics," taking the philosophy of "HP = stamina" further than you usually see it taken. If you're not familiar with the "grit vs flesh" debate in game design, check out this chart:

So Rivers & Lakes tries its best to commit to the idea that HP represents something more abstract than straight injury, and it's only once your HP runs out that you begin getting maimed (which there are rules covering, unlike D&D). But here's where the details get juicy:

What does this mean? What does it look like in practice? Okay, let's just say you have Rank 2 kung fu. That means you have a d6 for a kung fu die, which means your Qi dice are also all d6s. What these rules are saying is that, each morning after you've taken a long rest, you re-roll your max Qi by rolling 10 of your kung fu dice. You don't truly have a "max HP" in this game like you would in D&D. One day you wake up with 30 Qi to work with, the next day you wake up with 45, the next day with 37, etc. For our hypothetical character, the average they could expect to roll after a long rest would be 35 Qi. The max is 60 and the minimum is 10, of course.

But don't worry if you roll low. Because that's not really the amount you have to get you through the day. It's to get your through your first encounter. Whenever you want to, you can take a light rest and just re-roll how much Qi you have. If it's higher than your current amount, then you take that as your new amount. You can take lots and lots of light rests, probably after every encounter you have that day. Combat is the main thing, but because Qi represents exhaustion as well, this is also drained by wilderness travel, psychological pressure, chases, and all kinds of other encounters.

So unlike 5E, where your short rest Hit Dice extend your functional daily HP to about twice the base amount, this game's light rests let you extend your daily Qi to, like, ten times the base amount (if you keep taking light rests and resetting your Qi). But even though the total amount of Qi you'll have throughout the day adds up to a lot (average of 35 Qi times 10 rests would be 350 Qi used across the whole day), at any given time you only have a small pool to work with. 35 Qi runs out very quickly, so the game still has the lethality of an OSR game. Unlike 5E, you don't need 6-8 encounters to get close to death. You just need one. And yet... if you keep surviving them, then you can still have 6-8 encounters in one day!

Alright, if you can just keep resetting your Qi constantly throughout the day, then what forces the resource cycle to come to an end? Well, every time you take a light rest and re-roll your current Qi, you roll one less die. When you wake up from a long rest, it's 10d6. After your first light rest, it's 9d6. On your next light rest, it's 8d6, then 7d6, and so on. So eventually, the maximum amount you can hope to roll is a fraction of what you probably woke up with, and you might as well take a long rest.

And, taking a note from Gritty Realism, there's clearly some value in a form of rest that's more like "downtime," where you take a week off in the comforts of civilization. We call that a "full rest," and in this game that resets your Qi to the maximum amount possible (in this example, 60 Qi). That'll give the beginning of your next adventure a big boost for the first day or two. You could lose 25 Qi in your first day and only be at the amount which you can expect to wake up with every subsequent day. Neat, right?

There's plenty of other little fiddly bits, especially regarding ailments and stat damage and stuff, but that's the core of it. It's a resource management cycle centered on one unified resource, and it takes the pattern of "drain, refresh, drain, refresh, drain, refresh" from 5E's "adventuring day" and supercharges it.

And I'll let you in on a secret: I suspect that, before our playtesting is over, we'll probably find ourselves playing out an adventure pace closer to Avatar: the Last Airbender than Die Hard, and will probably change long rests to 1 week and light rests to 8 hours. Not for balance reasons (because this HP system actually achieves what 5E wanted to), but for narrative reasons. Will that be a big change? Maybe, but that's what iterative design is all about, baby.


*Assuming your players are pretty smart. Mine are, and I've only ever seen one in-combat PC death in all the years I've played 5E. Yes, even with my regular DM exclusively throwing Deadly combats at us. If you or your players somehow died in a 5E combat... well, I'll be polite and just say we must be playing the game very differently.


  1. I just want to tell you that I've been thinking about this article a lot, and it has led me down an exciting path for my own game. Thank you for writing this.

  2. This is the first article I've read on this topic that actually understands it which is such a breath of relief. I felt like I've been going a bit mad with 5E as there's so much advice, as you point out in this article, that doesn't really understand the problem.

    You're spot on about Gritty Realism, I've ran it and the short rest classes were fine but the long rest classes hated it as they felt hamstrung in the use of their abilities. Maybe some meta conversation would help here to explain that they're still only likely to face 3 or so combats over the period although I'm not sure that would help in practice. Likewise this was my only really problem with Gritty Realism, players do just hate it, they want their abilities because they're fun to use and restricting them in such a fashion causes a lot of frustration even if from the GM perspective it solves so many problems and allows you to actually run a hexcrawl in 5e without resorting to endless deadly encounters or somehow trying to squeeze 5 in a day in.

    Anyway thanks for the article, one of the best blogs I've stumbled upon in a long time overall!

  3. Thanks for the article, really enjoyed it. I've come to the conclusion that the standard rest mechanic is okay for oneshots (because you can run a single Die Hard day), but the Gritty Realism rules are my goto solution for 5e campaigns.
    For the resting in the dungeon thing, use a "Short rest in a bag" - a bulky satchel full of expensive tinctures. It's single use, and using it grants all the effects of a short rest in 15mins, instead of the usual 8hrs (uses up HD, doesn't grant extra ones). Basically adventurer marching powder. Allows for slightly more punchy dungeon crawls, and also links into existing resource mechanics.
    On a sociological note, I feel like I have to point out that our group (I'm a player not the GM) went hard the other way in response to the need for Diehard days. We usually do about 3-4 sessions to the in game day - a bit bonkers I know, but you get some weird outcomes from these weird balancing issues. A bit far from the "standard pace of adventure" =)

  4. (sorry for reviving a year old post but I really have some questions)
    First off: Really like your post on the 5e Rest mechanics. This is something I have bugged my players, and thought about in private, way too much about.

    Now to the Questions:
    1. I wonder if it would be too hard in dungeon crawls if you just keep the 8 hour short rests and 1 week long rests?
    Since I don't want to jump between "gritty" 1 week long rest mechanics and "normal" 1day long rest /1hour short rest mechanics whenever the party is exploring a Dungeon...
    Perhaps keeping the Short Rests to 8 hours (aka gritty mode) for dungeon crawls would open up some gameplay where the players have to choose to go down the same way they went the first day or week or choose a different entrance/corridor. Do you have any thoughts on this?

    2. What if you just keep the Spell Duration and other Magic items and such as is? 1 hour spells are 1 hour, 8 hour spells are 8 hours, etc. Does this break something? Maybe change some magic items like you said to regen on short rests instead of long rests. But other than that does it really matter if spells regen as "written" by the designers of 5e? I think since in their wisdom (lol) they added the gritty realism option without mentioning changing spell duration and other stuff it wouldnt really break much of the game. Or am I just too dumb to see the bigger picture?
    Any tips are greatly apreacited! Thanks

    1. No problem about "reviving a post," I'm just happy you enjoyed what you read and are engaged.

      Question 1: Well, like I said in the post, I could maybe be convinced by the compromise route of keeping short rests as 1 hour and long rests as 7 days, so that way you CAN get a lot done in one day if you REALLY need to, like in an intense dungeoncrawl. But as for actually committing to Gritty Realism? Yeah, honestly that IS kinda how I've seen it work when I run my Knaves through a megadungeon, since they're so fragile that they sometimes take the megadungeon one day at a time, slowly pushing several rooms further down one path. And yeah, I DO think it can be a viable playstyle provided that the DM is making sure to stock their dungeons with, like, 80% non-combat content so that way the rest system doesn't need to get in the way of players feeling like they can accomplish a lot.

      Question 2: I can only speculate of course, but I DO kinda get the impression from how it's presented in the DMG that WotC totally did just kinda slap this rule together without THAT much thought. But let's imagine what would happen if we DID keep spell duration the same. Well like I said in the post, I already advocate keeping all spells with duration of less than 10 minutes the same. Those are "combat spells" that should work just the same, because Gritty Realism doesn't change the pace of individual combat encounters. Just the space between them. So why do the ones of longer duration need to be stretched to keep up with the new resting schedule? Because otherwise it would be a pretty huge nerf to most of those spells. For example, let's look at Mage Armor. It's kind of a boring spell but it's really solid and sometimes a must-have for certain playstyles. It allows Sorcerers and Wizards to have decent AC for 8 hours, as long as they're willing to spend a 1st level spell slot on it that day, and in the greater scheme of things, a 1st level spell KNOWN on Mage Armor instead of something else they could have taken. It pays for itself because you're supposed to get a good 6-8 combats out of it. If its duration weren't stretched to match the new rest schedule, then you'd probably get MAYBE one combat out of it. But you might get zero! What if you cast Mage Armor at 8 AM and your one fight for the day ends up happening at 5 PM? Or, fuckit, what if you don't end up having a combat that day? At that point, why bother with this spell at all?

      The point is this: when I advocate for Gritty Realism, I don't actually want to change the balance of the game. I just want to change the pacing of the action, specifically so that it should now MATCH the intended balance.

    2. Thanks for the Reply!

      Yea I agree, Gritty Realism should make the adventuring day more "balanced" i.e not cram 6 combats in a single day.

      At the moment i`m running prewritten D&D Adventures (Gearing up for Tomb of Annihilation ^^) so i'm gonna stick to the normal rest rules since the books throws combats at the players pretty much every day (except for travel, which is fine)
      I think I`ll switch to Gritty Realism for my future Homebrew Campaign, since I dont want to plunge them into combat every day.
      Also I'm giving Pathfinder 2e a look, it seems much better balanced

  5. Very interesting read, I enjoyed your point of view and the inclusion of sources and references. I am thinking that keeping a 1 to 8 ratio it would make sense for my upcoming campaign to use a 6 hours short rest and 48 hours long rest. Looking forward to test it out!