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

  1. S'mon on April 15, 2011 at 2:43 am

    Extended rests:
    IMO if the PCs have the risk-free option of taking extended rests – 6 hour rests – after every encounter then they will do so. It’s logical, it’s what happens IRL. If the adventure doesn’t consider this possibility then it’s a poorly designed adventure. All the old traditions like wandering monsters, time-limited adventures, and such work perfectly fine here.

    Short Rests:
    I have had no problem at all with these. IME healing surges do function as a rapidly-attriting resource that does create tension and a need for tactically optimal play in many non-lethal encounters; if you take too much damage you won’t have enough healing surges left to complete the adventure. In the last adventure we played, we needed to rescue someone (so no extended rests) & our Fighter went into the last fight with 0 healing surges.

  2. S'mon on April 15, 2011 at 4:21 am

    If there is a problem, I think it’s in adventure design – published adventures from 3e on including a “This is what happens if the PCs take an extended rest” section. Usually it can be worked out from context – the PCs are ambushed by the goblins, the Necromancer completes his ritual, it’s ok if you find a safe place to hole up, the bandits abandon the area & take their captives – etc – and I’ve read the relevant section in the 1st edition AD&D DMG, so I know what to do. But not all DMs know what to do, and published adventures should help them. Taking an extended rest should not always mean Epic Fail, but the DM should be assisted in imposing logical consequences.

  3. kurmudgeon on April 20, 2011 at 12:05 am

    I recently came to the same conclusion and was working on something very similar to what you have worked out.

    PC’s start with one Daily attack power, and get another one each time they reach a milestone (they can use anyone that they want, depending on the situation and need, but they can’t use the same one twice in an encounter). They also receive 10 + 1/2 level in temporary HP each time they reach a milestone. Healing surges during a short rest are limited to 2 + CON modifier. This was done because defenders who have a high CON score usually take the most damage. This is usually enough for everyone to heal up, but not always. There is no limit to the amount of surges that can be spent in combat.

    I took things a little further and added a limit to the number of healing surges that players regain during an extended rest. This was done to make them really consider the risks and benefits of taking an extended rest in the middle of an adventure. For an extended rest they regain 1 + CON modifier healing surges per day of extended rest. They get back the maximum they are able to spend in a single short rest.

    On another note, I’ve always wondered how it was possible for five or six characters to get six hours of uninterrupted sleep when they all have to take turns keeping watch. Someone, or everyone should always end up getting the shaft during the extended rest, unless the time spent resting is increased significantly.

    - = one hour of rest
    x = one hour of watch

    x—–
    -x—-
    –x—
    —x–
    —-x-
    —–x

    See, no one gets a full six hours of uninterrupted sleep in a six hour extended rest when you add in guard duty. You need at least seven hours, and then only a few people might possibly get the benefit.

    A better way to do it might be to break down the number of healing surges regained per hour (on an individual basis) and then let the group take an hour or two to regain a few surges, then press on.

  4. kurmudgeon on April 20, 2011 at 12:07 am

    Maybe 1′s and 0′s will work better.

    011111
    101111
    110111
    111011
    111101

  5. David Pollard on May 3, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    Hello,

    This blog entry is almost three months old now, but I just read it and thought it was right on the money – one of those articles that expresses my opinion better than I could myself.

    I have two mechanics, one play-tested and one not, to run by my fellow blog-viewers (and AngryDM if he’s still following this thread).

    The first one I’ve used in my game very successfully. I’ll try to give you the succint version, because a lot if the mechanical stuff is tied into the way my D&D world works, which departs from “D&D by the rulebook” in many ways. It’s basically this: characters have both a current hit point and a maximum hit point score (rather than a “number of surges” score). Whenever they use a surge, their maximum hit points drops by an amount equal to its current tens digit. And that’s the crux of it.

    F’rinstance, Thrusty the Swordguy is a 1st level fighter with 32hp. He gets whacked for 15hp of damage leaving him on 17hp. He then gets healed for 14hp, which requires him to use a surge. His maximum hps drops to 29, so although the 14hp heal could have taken him to 31, the last 2 points are wasted. If he uses another surge, his maximum hps will drop from 29 to 27. And so on.

    Now there are lots of other details that I could go into (e.g. how quickly max hps are recovered – usually a few per day, how defenders lose fewer max hps when using a surge, how the “subtract the tens digit” maths probably falls down at higher levels), but that’s the core of it, and it’s worked really well for my game. What it essentially does is stop extended rests being a complete refresh. That means if there are any time constraints at all on the party, then they have to make difficult choices. “We really need a night to rest” is usually reasonable. “We really need a week to rest” – not so much. We even had one memorable session where two of the party members started a fight at “full” health, but their max hps was below half the full max, so they were simultaneously unwounded and bloodied.

    Of course, this doesn’t actually solve the 15 minute work day problem so eloquently spelt out in the blog – it just makes time constraints easier to work into your game. If you had a dungeon with static inhabitants waiting to be plundered, there’d be nothing preventing you resting a week after every encounter. This brings me to my second untested mechanic.

    I already treat Action Points as a once-an-encounter power, and I’ve noticed that in my game they are overwhelming used in first round alpha strikes (and yes, I do frequently throw curveballs like second waves of attackers and the party having to move onto a new fight without the benefit of a short rest). So, how about this for a system:
    First encounter after an extended rest: No action points
    Second encounter after an extended rest: One action point that can only be used when bloodied
    Third encounter after an extended rest: One action point that can be used any time
    All further encounters: Two action points, one of which can only be used while bloodied

    I like rules that are simple and elegant, and I think this fits the bill … assuming it actually works. I could imagine some cool trade-offs in which the characters are both severely depleted (no dailies, very low max hp), but have a crazy number of extra actions fuelled by adrenaline or however you want to justify it in-game.

    The sequence might need to be adjusted, but what do people think both of this basic concept and my tried-and-tested max hp idea? Pointing out glaring problems I might not have considered is especially appreciated!

    Discuss.

    Dave

  6. [...] as the Angry DM pointed out this approach has certain consequences. One of these being that when full healing is allowed after every encounter, every encounter must [...]

  7. Shimeran on July 8, 2011 at 12:20 am

    I just wanted to let you know I’ve posted up a couple rules tweak for dealing with these same issues in 4E (http://dancingchimera.wordpress.com/2011/07/07/4e-variant-no-rest-for-heroes/). There are some similarities to what you posted here, but I used action points as the lure to keep characters going. I also added some healing surge and power recovery mechanics so taking an extended rest is less of an advantage.

  8. [...] a second action point“. This approach was inspired by David Pollard’s comment in the Angry DM post on this topic. It has the upside of pushing extra actions to later in the encounter. That provides a potential [...]

  9. Zwets on July 18, 2011 at 9:05 am

    As a DM and player I have noticed this problem and while I love 4th Edition for its combat experience that is exciting both at low and high levels; I have come up with some changes for my own campaign and seen some stuff used by the 2 campaigns I play in.

    The coolest thing I’ve seen so far was last session where the DM tried something new and started handing out these ‘bad-stuff cards’ when players made bad decisions.
    They had mental conditions like ‘Paranoia’ on them, that gave penalties, I was handed a ‘Agoraphobia’ and told that the speed penalty was instead the result of a broken foot after I had made a particularly bad fall when I attempted to charge down a flight of stairs.
    With each ‘Wound’ that was handed out came an instruction on how to get rid of the ‘Wound’ which in my case was getting rid of the unholy presence that though allowing me to heal the damage from the fall prevented the wound from healing.

    Only 2 ‘Wound cards’ got handed out during 3 combats and an hour or 3 of roleplay, the DM noted that he was just testing some new idea he’d had. But I must say the prospect of being stuck with the wound for the remainder of that and the following combat did give me a sense of permanence to my decisions and pushed me to keep looking for something in the decrepit mansion even after we had concluded we had checked everywhere.

    The cards looked like official merchandise but it wasn’t those encounter cards. I forgot to ask the DM where he got the cards, last weekend. And I was unable to find what they where using google. It might be they are intended for some other system, or just that I fail at google.

  10. [...] “Tearing 4E a New One,” for example,  I was very critical of the encounter resource mechanic, but ultimately, I [...]

  11. [...] to use resources like healing surges and Daily and Item Powers. I know you talked about this in Tearing 4E a New One: Short Rests and Encounter Resources, but it’s still something I struggle with because the mechanics do not line up with the [...]

  12. [...] via Tearing 4E a New One: Short Rests and Encounter Resources | The Angry DM: D&D Advice with Attitu…. [...]

  13. YronimosW on September 23, 2011 at 10:05 am

    Zwets,

    The cards you describe sound a LOT like the “Fear, Apathy, Madness” cards that came with the “Shadowfell” boxed set.

    I didn’t see an “Agoraphobia” card, but there was a “Sluggish” card that effected speed, and the “Paranoia” card was there.

    If used as intended, they add little penalties to games set in the Shadowfell when characters are exposed to something horrific, or when characters take extended rests in the Shadowfell, and last until the PCs find some way to overcome the effects or until the next extended rest. PCs that overcome the effects can flip the effect over and gain a little bonus. Of course, the Shadowfell boxed set also suggested using the cards in other ways, and it sounds like your DM has found a creative use for them.

    If these aren’t the same cards, then the Shadowfell “Fear, Apathy, Madness” cards seem like they would easily be used to accomplish the same thing as whatever your DM was using.

  14. Llathos on April 17, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    Perhaps it is a new rule addition, but you failed to mention the detail that you cannot take an extended rest until at least 12 hours has passed since your last one.

    So…yeah. If you’re dungeon crawling and you rest 6 hours, wake up, walk 30 feet and fight some critters….you’ll be standing around for another 11 hours and 58 minutes before you can rest again. Possible, sure, but really stupid. As a DM it would be irresponsible NOT to have them get attacked by a patrol..

  15. It Makes You Think | Sage Owl on April 19, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    [...] was reading an article on The Angry DM when I came across a line that really made me think.  It’s rare that I get a statement so [...]

  16. [...] The “all characters can heal themselves” mechanic, combined with actual healing powers being Minor Actions (that is, free compared to attacks) meant that healing was never an issue, so parties never felt in danger. Encounter powers, plus the option of restoring everything with “extended rest” perpetuated the 15-minute workday. The most viable tactic was for players to unload everything on the monsters, rest, rinse, repeat. Need your Daily power back? Just take a longer rest. More about this in detail: http://angrydm.com/2011/02/tearing-4e-a-new-one-short-rests-and-encounter-resources/ [...]

  17. Return of the Flumph on February 4, 2013 at 7:23 am

    Easy, easy, EASY fix for this problem? Give everyone fewer healing surges. Like, half as many.

    As for the PC’s spending an entire day and night on each encounter, I’d say an adventure that doesn’t put any time limits or pressure on the party and gives them a safe haven they can easily withdraw to at will is a boring one to begin with.

  18. TheAngryDM on February 4, 2013 at 9:22 am

    Flumph – Your easy fix doesn’t address what I see to be the first and largest problem: invalidating any need to handle the encounter well or poorly.

    Your second remark is just plain silly. It is like saying “any adventure that doesn’t involve rescuing a prisoner is boring” or “any adventure that doesn’t have an otyugh is boring.” Exploration is, by itself, an entire class of adventure that doesn’t involve any sort of a time constraint and, frankly, doesn’t need one.

    If the players can never easily retreat to a safe haven, how do they do so at the end of the day? Is the door only open when it is time to rest? What if the players take steps (such as building barricades, setting alarm spells, having a watch rotation, and using Dungeoneering and Survival to locate unoccupied and untraveled sections of the adventure site) to create a safe haven? Do you just tell them they aren’t allowed to do that? Do you contrive every adventure so that players just can’t accomplish these things?

    My point is that a DM should never be forced, by the system, to include elements in their adventure and to write excuses for them. If the system requires me to make every environment inescapable or confound any attempt to secure an area, then the system is railroading the DM into railroading the players. An RPG is supposed to be all about freedom.

  19. Return of the Flumph on February 4, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    The idea is that if an encounter goes poorly, you’ll need to burn healing surges. In the rules as written, everyone has enough surges to make running out of them only possible at the end of a very long and fighty adventuring day. Reduce everyone’s healing surges and they’ll be much less eager to spend them, and the risk of running out is higher.

    I did make my second point way to crassly. What I should have said is that – at least in my experience – its very, very rare for the PC’s to have an infinite amount of time to explore a dungeon. Being able to take the rest of the day off after every single battle is an incredible luxury.

    I’ll take it by your response that you like to run extremely laid back campaigns were the players can take their time exploring and do everything at their own pace. As such, I’ll stop arguing, since I’ve never played or DM’d in a game like this.

    • TheAngryDM on February 4, 2013 at 1:36 pm

      The problem is, as I’ve noted, running out of healing surges rarely has an impact inside of an encounter. It generally affects the decision to continue adventuring or retreat and rest. In the absence of a motive force, this is meaningless. The party will stop adventuring when their healing surges get too low and a DM who pushes them beyond them is pushing them to die because 4E assumes a very standardized amount of healing resources are available in every encounter. The number of healing surges the party has left does not matter inside an encounter as long as the party has the minimum they need to power their healing abilities. So there is no incentive to handle an encounter well or poorly. The slate is wiped clean after every battle.

      Sometimes, my adventures have a ticking clock. Sometimes, may players are exploring a site for the first. Sometimes they have a rescue to conduct. Sometimes they are searching for something with a time limit. Sometimes, there isn’t a time limit. Sometimes there is a benefit to working quickly. Sometimes slowly. None of my adventures is “laid back.” They just have different goals, depending on the adventure. Which, again, is my point. The adventure should dictate the goals, not the system.

      If I want to run a campaign themed around the players-as-treasure-hunting-archaeologists who go where they want, when they want, without any real impetus other than “to see what is out there and discover neat things,” then I should be able to do so without having to find a reason to cram a ticking clock into every adventure to keep the players from taking a nap.

      I am not going to deny that you are right to say “it all works if you build your adventures a certain way.” What I’m saying is that, if the system is going to constrain me to the one true way to build an adventure, I’m going to play a better-designed system instead.

  20. Stephen Baynham on April 24, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    The problem is that having a gradually-degrading pool of resources is bad news to begin with. The core of the problem cannot be modified by any rules change, because the problem is this:

    1. The only consequences for bad combat performance possible are death and something bad happening in the plot.
    2. If your method of punishing players with death is reducing a pool of resources that can be replenished by resting, players will respond by resting.
    3. You can’t always construct an adventure where bad combat performance is punished by something bad happening in the plot.

    My big concern with targeting the players’ dailies is that nobody, not me, not the players, wants to sit through a boss fight where nobody has their dailies because they fucked up. It’s a good “punishment” I guess, but man, I just don’t know. I think I’d almost rather start handing out XP multipliers or something for consecutive milestones.

  21. World War Z Online on July 1, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    Good post. I learn something new and challenging on websites I stumbleupon everyday.
    It will always be helpful to read through articles from other authors
    and practice a little something from other web sites.

  22. Bosmer on July 30, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    This is the second time I’ve read this article and the second time I agree. Even though this is over two years old, D&D 4e still has the same problem and now that they’ve moved onto D&D Next, there is unlikely to be any official supplements that address this problem. I’ve looked through the vast supply of homebrew solutions, and felt like sharing the one I’ve found works best:

    1. Wounds. When a hero is bloodied, he or she gets a minor wound based on the triggering attack. A minor wound inflicts a small penalty, which could be to attack, defense, speed, maximum hit points, or something more abstract, and can be fixed with a saving throw made during a short rest (only one saving throw against each wound can be made per rest), but they are cured fully during an extended rest. When a hero is knocked unconscious, he or she receives a major wound, which has a bigger penalty than a minor wound, can only be saved against during extended rests, and never go away automatically without a successful save. The result is that players are a lot more conscious about defense, and if an encounter is taking more than a few rounds, the second wind starts to really be worth a standard action, especially if the hero already has wounds from previous encounters.

    2. Extra uses of daily powers. I personally don’t like Angry’s second proposed solution, because 1) my players would never agree to having their powers limited, and 2) I don’t want to completely remove the nuke option, it might lead to interesting situations. Instead, I have milestones grant each hero a “hero point” which they can spend to use an expended daily power. This seems to balance out the wounds and is also really fun. To encourage them to continue without an extended rest, they lose all hero points upon taking one.

    I think these solutions help alleviate the problems that Angry talks about, and for my group seem to completely get rid of those problems without any additional workarounds. Thus, thought I’d share!

  23. Vinay on April 7, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    Awesome article, Angry! I quite enjoy 4E myself. We did implement your second rule (lowest level daily at start of day, regain next highest every short rest). Worked pretty well for us. Love your articles, keep it up!

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