Today I’m posting one of my more successful submissions to DnDBehindTheScreem. It shares the lessons of one of my more recent undertakings as a DM: Gritty Realism and how to make it work for you (imagine that as the title of the corny self-help book you just grabbed off the shelf).
Firstly let’s talk about what this guide is meant to help you achieve. DnD 5e is built off the idea of having 6-8 encounters per long rest, with roughly 2 short rests sprinkled somewhere in there. Many DMs find this to be something of a problem, as at its simplest level a long rest is roughly an overnight sleep and packing 6-8 encounters into a single day requires a hell of a lot of planning. And that’s all to say nothing of what impact that has on the pace of both your campaign as well as your individual sessions.
Even though “Encounter” does not necessarily equal “Combat”, even 2 combats out of your 6-8 encounter quota can suck up half of your session time if you’re like me and squeeze a 4 hour session in between 6-10pm on a weeknight. This guide is designed to help create a more robust way of handling the spacing of encounters by leaning on a number of systems and rule variants already extant in the game. This is, for all intents and purposes, my personal ‘mix and match’ solution, and I almost guarantee it will require some amount of tweaking to suit your campaign needs.
With that, let’s look at short and long rests in the PHB. This is strictly RAW. On page 186 of the Player’s Handbook you are told that a short rest is “a period of downtime, at least 1 hour long…”, and a long rest is “a period of extended downtime, at least 8 hours long”. With regards to this particular interpretation (time-wise) I describe this to my players as the difference between sitting down for lunch and setting up camp for the night if one were on a hiking trip. Conceptually, this way of handling rests makes a lot of in-universe sense, and as far as keeping a pace of current, motivated events goes it’s a great way to handle resting (more on this later).
One might notice though that if we remove the time element the only distinction between a short rest and a long rest is that one is ‘a period of downtime’ and the other is ‘a period of extended downtime’. What if instead of binding a specific timeframe to each of these modes we simply define the timeframes relatively in the same way that these descriptions do? A period of rest can only be ‘extended’ relative to a ‘normal’ period of rest. Herein lies your power as a DM.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide gives us two rest variants on page 267: Epic Heroism and Gritty Realism. In essence, both alter the specific lengths of short and long rests, but both more or less maintain the relative difference, in that one is our ‘light recovery’ and the other is our ‘extended recovery’. One is eating a sandwich, the other is sitting for dinner. One is taking a nap, the other is a good night’s sleep. One is a breather between plays, the other is halftime. One is the weekend, the other is a week’s vacation. You get the point.
Why stop there? Let’s run a campaign based on the idea of rest lengths being relative to one another rather than fixed lengths of time. Once we establish this as the way rests work, we can alter their specific lengths based on circumstance. This helps us circumvent the respective limitations of each rest variant. These limitations are, in broad brushstrokes, as follows:
- Epic Heroism allows players too much resource recovery in situations that aren’t held at breakneck pace
- Standard Resting makes hitting to 6-8 ‘encounters-per-long-rest’ mark needlessly challenging
- Gritty Realism makes dungeon delving in the traditional sense nigh impossible (why would the kobolds in the next room sit around and wait for you to finish sleeping so that your Warlock can get his spells back?)
A mixture of all these, plus an even wider range of relative timescales, is the easiest way to hit the 6-8 encounter mark without leaving holes in the pace of your campaign.
For reference, I personally run what is essentially the ‘gritty realism’ rules. This allows me to make the world dangerous in a sense, without making it absurdly difficult to navigate. It allows me to anchor the players to geographical hubs if I so choose (adventuring occurs more in a pattern of return loops and “there and back” patterns, which opens up the idea of ‘quest hub’ locations). It allows me to let the players explore their downtime. While the players are “long resting”, they can be spending gold to train under masters and study at schools so as to gain skill proficiencies and the like. Their opportunities for RP in downtime are massively expanded, and as far as pacing goes we can move from scene to scene, jumping about through time in the week in which the party is long resting.
This breaks down as soon as we start running the standard multi-room dungeon. However, in these instances I move in to what I call the “dungeon state”. In this state we use the standard rest rules. If players want a short rest during which they won’t be interrupted by the mobs one corridor down they will need to barricade themselves in a room for an hour (which provides a challenge in itself), after which they will be ready to take on the next threat in the dungeon. At the end of a long hard day of delving they can return to the dungeon’s entrance, set up camp, and have themselves a well-earned sleep (or, in the “dungeon state”, a long rest). After this, we return to our standard state of the Gritty Realism rules.
Some time later the players are high level, and it’s time for me to really put them through their paces. The end of the world is coming and this band of heroes are the only folks up to the task. Now we utilise our Epic Heroism rules as we throw the players into a harrowing boss rush. They can go all-out on every encounter, pushing themselves to the limit of their abilities both mechanically and tactically, knowing full well that they will be refreshed and reinvigorated in time for the next Archlich/Death Knight/Ancient Dragon to besiege their beleaguered castle, at which time they will enter another massive setpiece encounter.
In essence we can break this down into 3 different game states and the mechanics each is encouraging the player to engage with.
- First is the “Overworld State”, where players are encouraged to treat the world as dangerous and adventuring as arduous, and the main challenge is resource management and ensuring one is never too far from safety (i.e. a town with an inn) unless they are seriously prepared.
- Second is the “Dungeon State”, where players are encouraged to meter their resources somewhat without needing to be overly cautious, and the main challenge is managing their ability to balance resting with action.
- Third is the “Heroic State”, where players are encouraged to go all-out with resource expenditure, and the main challenge is solving the tactical puzzle of each individual encounter utilising their full repertoire.
It is important as a DM to differentiate between these states, and also to make it clear to your players exactly when you are in each state. If you are willing to do this, though, you will be rewarded with access to all the pacing possibilities that exist within DnD and can unlock a far greater breadth of gameplay options than can be accessed by utilising only one of these variants over the course of a campaign.
Naturally, you are also able to introduce further game states to suit the specific requirements of your campaign.
The limitations of this approach are that it is somewhat ‘gamified’, and if that isn’t what you want in your campaigns then this may not work for you. But if you don’t mind telling your players every once in a while “Since we’re in a dungeon, short rests are now 1 hour and long rests are an 8 hour sleep” then this approach to resting can really elevate your campaign and open up a number of possibilities.