The Short Rest is a Lie

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.

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12 thoughts on “The Short Rest is a Lie

  1. Justifying the short rest has never come up in any of my games, but I have come up with some reasons for the extended rest to only take 5 minutes for story reasons. My favorite is an NPC knows a ritual that can make a 5 minute rest into an Extended rest but he only has the components to cast it once.

    1. I’ve used that same McGuffin a few times—the NPC knowing a way to help them take an extended rest. In my home game, it rarely matters how long a short rest is, but there are still some circumstances where it’s better to leave the amount of time nebulous. The last chapter in D&D encounters had a few examples, when the PCs were chasing Xeres through a series of rooms.

  2. This is probably also the solution to the solo fight that drags toward the end. My players just fought a beholder last session, and it was a great fight. However, I decided to end it early (the beholder still had about 100 hp), because they were down to at-wills and, while I thought they’d probably win without too much difficulty, it meant about a half hour of whittling down its hp so we could get to that point.

    In retrospect, there was a specific point in the fight where I should have said: you get a surge of adrenaline, which gives you the benefits of a short rest. If I had, they would have taken that beholder out pretty quickly, and it would have been a more satisfying conclusion to the fight (I had it fly away and escape).

    1. Yeah, having a sort of “mid-solo fight short rest” can be a useful tool. Definitely something you can build into terrain: A fissure of arcane energy explodes and reinvigorates you etc. etc.

  3. I agree- since the beginning of my 4e game, I’ve been just declaring that a short rest happens, and let players take the average of whatever ____ Word a party member has to all their surges, instead of the possibility of taking multiple short rests to optimize healing throughout the party. It would totally kill a story for me to be dungeon crawling and have the party try and wait a half an hour before moving on, or me having to come up with random rest-disrupting encounters to throw at them.

    However, in my next campaign, I’m thinking about just making the rule that you can’t take multiple short rests in a row without a significant encounter in-between.

    1. Interesting idea. I’ve definitely noticed that the ability to heal up completely after an encounter can remove tension. I wonder how the players would react to that kind of thing.

  4. I love successive fights and usually they make more sense than battles separated by 5-minute intervals. It’s hard to run a situation where the PCs are in the middle of a goblin warren and enforcing a strict 5-minute time limit. Once or twice when the PCs didn’t want to even take 30 seconds or RP-wise didn’t think it was reasonable for their characters to take 30-seconds to catch their breaths, we’ve used a -1 healing surge to regain powers as if you’ve taken a short rest while taking no rest at all. We rarely use up all surges anyway, so it’s not much of a hardship, rather losing a surge is a decent representation of the extra toil of not taking a few moments to catch their breaths.

  5. I agree with how the 5-minute short rest can seem like a skip in the record, but there is something to be said for scaling the power refresh down for a shorter rest.

    Letting the Characters only get one or two healing surges and maybe only half their encounter powers back during a very short lull in an ongoing battle would heighten the tension of the encounter without seeming to throw the short rest mechanics out the window.

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