Are Short Rests Changing Your Game
Short Rests and Encounter Resources: Where Did They Come From?
Based on preview material that came out between the announcement of 4E and the release date, we can guess at one reason why these things found their way into the game. A little bit of logic and some reading between the lines gives us the second reason.
First of all, before 4E was released (and while it was in development), there was a lot of talk in the gaming community about a problem dubbed the “fifteen minute workday.” If you followed the previews of 4E, you heard this phrase a lot. Specifically, 4E was going to “end the fifteen minute workday.”
The fifteen minute workday referred to a very common strategy in earlier editions of D&D. And not just 3rd Edition. It has actually been around for a long, long time. Basically, the idea was that the single most effective way to handle a string of combat encounters (say, like, a dungeon) was to enter the first encounter and expend all of your most powerful resources to blast it into component atoms. After that, the party healer would expend any remaining magic on healing the party (or break out a wand, depending on the edition). After that, the party would retreat, go to sleep, and recover all of their resources. Lather, rinse, repeat, kaboom!
It was extremely effective because a single encounter wasn’t designed to stand against your full complement of concentrated firepower. Each encounter was supposed to chip away at your resources so that you faced each challenge a little weaker than the last. You were supposed to ration your resources, to carefully manage them so that you could face later challenges.
Eventually, DMs figured out ways around the fifteen minute workday problem by limiting rests or creating incentives to keep going (such as time pressure). Wandering monsters would frequently interrupt rests if the DM felt the party was taking them too frequently. If the DM anticipated the party only tackling one encounter per day, he ramped up the difficulty so that it was deadly dangerous. But none of this changed the fact that the system had an optimal strategy built into it and the DM was forced to find ways to deny it to the party.
Meanwhile, DMs faced a second problem. Assuming you could work around the “fifteen minute workday” issue and get your party to push through several encounters, they would be whittled down appropriately and fights would become scarier as the day went on. Tension would rise just the way it was supposed to. Except that the DM had no idea what state the party would be at the start of any given encounter. If the party got very lucky in encounter number one and didn’t use up too many of their resources, encounter number two would be easier than intended. A string of well-handled encounters would leave the party very powerful when facing the big, climatic encounters planned for later on. On the other hand, a party that was unlucky (or stupid) in encounter one would burn too many resources and be weaker than anticipated in encounter two. A string of those bad luck encounters and the party would find the challenge level ratcheting up too much too quickly.
This became especially prevalent in 3rd Edition, which is really the first edition to try and introduce a system of rigorous encounter balance. The DMG offered all sorts of projections about how many encounters of what level a party should be able to deal with in a day and how many resources they would expend in each one. But those projections were ultimately useless because no party ever used exactly the right number of resources in every encounter. The luck of the dice and varying levels of tactical acumen created too much variance.
Introducing encounter resources and short rests and, most importantly, including hit points as an encounter resource addressed both problems. A DM in 4E knows that his party is going to be relatively fresh for every encounter. And the party doesn’t need to take extended rests after every battle if most of their resources are going to return at the end of the encounter. The few remaining daily resources, if managed properly, should be more than enough so that the party doesn’t feel the optimal strategy is to rest after every encounter.
In addition, they added a milestone mechanic. The more encounters you got through in a day, the more magical item powers you had access to. At higher levels, this was alluring. And, while action points are an encounter resource on a slow recharge, they were meant to balance out the effect of dwindling daily attack powers.
Did it work? On the encounter balance thing, it worked beautifully. Planning encounters is much less swingy because DMs know exactly what state their party is going to be in. Published adventures don’t have to worry about how skilled the players are at resource management or how lucky they get. The party faces every encounter on the same level playing field. It works great… almost.
As for the fifteen minute workday problem, the answer is a little less positive. The fact is, that it is still a very viable strategy to “go nova” (expend all of your most powerful resources) in every encounter and then go to sleep. Some DMs are still dealing with this very problem. Others remember the old days of writing around the problem and may not have even noticed it’s there because they are still using old habits. Meanwhile, other DMs are discovering that the encounter resource and short rest system is not a free lunch, but a trade off. I’m not going to try and point to too many other blogs, discussion boards, or Twitter feeds at this point. You’ve probably been exposed to a few of them anyway, so I’m just going to assume you can do your own research.