As with many game mechanics, the short rest, when taken too literally, can make a game table a slave to mechanics. In the Player’s Handbook, a short rest is described as being “about 5 minutes long.” I’m afraid that many game tables are shackled by this description. I don’t think “about” goes far enough. Certainly some game mechanics, such as magic items that key off of short rests, need a relatively precise amount of time. When it comes to the time spent to regain encounter powers and spend healing surges, I say let the narrative of the story dictate the duration of a rest.
If every short rest is about five minutes, a dungeon delve can feel a little like a skipping record. The battles are the music and the short rests are a disturbance in the rhythm and the melody. Short rests should be a function of the DM’s narrative. If a DM wants a series of battles without short rests to create tension, then he or should should bend the mechanics to that desire. Short rests were designed to be a control to keep PCs from using unlimited encounter powers and healing. The intent was to create value for encounter powers, especially those that heal. If a character has unlimited healing, a combat encounter lacks tension. The short rest gives the characters something to strive for—the players know that if they can just kill one monster, or survive another round, they’ll have an opportunity to recuperate.
But it’s all a LIE! This is another one of the DM’s dirty little secrets (like how monsters always seem to be just as hard, no matter how much you optimize). A DM doesn’t need to feel beholden to the “about 5 minute” short rest. If you want your characters to face a series of challenges without grinding them down to at-wills, then let them regain their encounter powers and action points whenever there’s a lull in combat. A lull might only be a few seconds. If you feel like you need to supply the players with a story reason for the regeneration of their encounter powers, call it a rush of adrenaline, or create some other MacGuffin—a surge of arcane energy, a boon from the gods, whatever.
I know why a short rest is about 5 minutes. It gives the DM liberty to shorten or length the rest as necessary, making it either 1-4 minutes or 6-10 minutes. We don’t want characters trying to take short rests during combat encounters. But combat encounters are only a few rounds. What the “about 5 minutes” really says is that you, the DM, should decide how long a short rest is. In a way, the length of the short rest shouldn’t even be described to the players. The short rest should be described to the players as a pause in combat—sure, it’s a chance to catch your breath or stretch your muscles. But the player characters are heroes; they’re badass. They can catch their breath in a few seconds when they need to.
So the next time you’re trying to run a series of successive encounters, don’t force the PCs to use only their at-wills, and don’t force yourself to find a story reason for there to be a 5 minute lull. Instead, just give the characters what you want them to have. It might be actions points, encounter powers, daily powers, healing surges—whatever. You’re not going to break the game by giving the players a chance to have fun and still enjoy the drama of the narrative.