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Tearing 4E a New One: Short Rests and Encounter Resources

February 22, 2011

Are Short Rests Changing Your Game

Ground rules. In case the title didn’t tip you off, this article is not going to pull any punches. I’ve got some not-nice things to say about 4E. Why? Because despite the fact that I’m not currently playing it, I still like the game. A lot. And I like the people who play it. And the thing is, you only truly hurt the things you love.

Thing is, there are people out there pointing out a lot of problems with 4E. And these aren’t just the people who were determined to hate it from the get go and never played the damn thing. These are people who, like me, played it from the day it came out, and now are starting to think about how to improve things, streamline things, and just generally give the thing a tune-up.

Is combat too long? Is the encounter construction system flawed? Is the skill system working as intended? Are there too many options? Do solo monsters work? Do minions? Some of these topics have been discussed over and over. Others are starting to gain momentum. But where are they coming from? Why are people saying these things? What are my problems with the system? Can they be fixed?

But I’m not just here to tear things apart or spout hate-filled, unsupported opinions. Honestly, I’m not that interested in discussing whether combat really is too long or not. What I’m more concerned about is what is happening inside the system that is making some people feel that way.

Recently, I was reminded by a Twitter buddy of a quote by E. Gary Gygax. In the AD&D Dungeon Masters’ Guide, he encouraged people to make the system their own and to make whatever changes they wished, but first, to make sure they really understood the system they were changing and what it was trying to do.

So, don your rubber gloves and grab your flashlight, because we’re going to take a look at some of the mechanics of 4E and figure out whether they are doing what they were meant to do and what unintended side-effects are cropping up. And then, when we find those nasty side effects, we’ll talk about ways to fix them.

Some caveats though. First, I’m not going to waste a lot of time reminding people that I like the game, nor am I always going to be polite to it. If you can’t fathom how someone can both like and criticize a game at the same time, you need to leave. Likewise, if you can’t stand to hear suggestions that there might be some warts inside the system, you should also leave.

That’s not to say I think the system is broken, flawed, or poorly built. On the whole, I think it’s very well put together. And just because I don’t personally like part of the system, that doesn’t mean it’s broken, bad, or flawed. But there are some bugs. Unintended bugs. And we know they’re bugs because they make the system do things the designers didn’t intend the system to do.

So, fair warnings out of the way. Still with me? Good. Let’s talk short rests.

Short Rests and Encounter Resources: A Quick Review

One of the new features that 4E introduced was the idea of encounter resources. Basically, these are things the PCs can access once (or a fixed number of times) during an encounter. At the end of the encounter, all expended encounter resources are refreshed and the party can use them all again in the next encounter. Encounter attack and utility powers are encounter resources. So is the Second Wind action. Action Points are an encounter resource too, even though they recharged every second encounter. And, effectively, so are hit points.

Because hit points as an encounter resource are going to be a large part of the discussion, we should take a minute to be very clear about them. Technically, you do have a pool of hit points that recharges on a daily basis in the form of healing surges. And those healing surges do technically limit the number of hit points you can recover during encounters and at the end of the encounter, but hit points are effectively an encounter resource just the same.

Why? Because, at the end of each encounter, if the party does not have enough healing surges to fully recover themselves and to power all of their various healing options (powers, potions, etc.) during the next encounter, they are going to take an extended rest. This is just the smart thing to do. This assumes, of course, that the party has the choice. But we’re looking at the rules themselves, not what the DM does to screw it all up. A PCs pool of hit points is effectively an encounter resource.

The short rest is actually just a tiny little mechanic that makes it easy to determine exactly when the party can do their end of encounter recovery and recharge. Whenever the party has about five minutes during which nothing is chewing on their faces, they can take a short rest.

Actually, when you get down to it, most of the resources a PC has in 4E are either at-will resources or encounter resources. Action points are encounter resources on a slow recharge. Healing surges aren’t really a resource so much as they are a limit on the day. And that just leaves daily attack and utility powers and magic item powers. That means that at the start of every encounter, a PC is pretty much guaranteed to have access to every resource except the daily attack, utility, and magic item powers (and every other encounter, they won’t have an action point). This shouldn’t be news to anyone. What might be news, though, is what this does to the game – both the intended benefits and the side effects. But first, a little historical perspective.

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