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Extended Rests, Or: Where I offer discourse on a topic eight months out of date.

Recently (and by that I mean not that recently) a hot topic among the game designers/game masters of the blogosphere was definitely that of the short and extended rest (for the grammar nazis among you: I’m treating the two rests as a singular topic, hence the lack of pluralized state of being verb). It all started over at the AngryDM’s blog, where he  ran an article titled Tearing 4e a New One: Short Rests and Encounter Resources. Over the following months there were numerous other posts dealing with the topic of resting PCs and how to deal with them.

This discussion piqued my interest when I realized that the game, 4th edition in this case, wasn’t precisely designed to take full advantage of the “hero arrives at the boss battered and bloodied and must overcome insane long odds to achieve victory” schematic it claimed to promote.

However, before we delve in depth into what I think some potential solutions may be, there is definitely one topic we need to cover first: the death of the wandering monster.

If you don’t want to go read all of the above links then I’ll summarize – basically, a lot of D&D’s great independent minds have noted some issues with the “we shoot all our daily powers and now we take a nap” problem, also known as the 5, 10, or 15 minute workday (or by various other low increments of time). The reason this has historically been a problem started to become obvious (though as the AngryDM notes it originated earlier than that) back in 3rd edition, so far as I can tell, precisely with the death of the wandering monster table and other methods by which PCs could now achieve relative safety while catching a several hour long siesta to recharge their spellbooks. As the article from The Alexandrian covers so well, basically players began to achieve tempo control. This isn’t a bad thing by any means – controlling the tempo of encounters is a hallmark of the players having control over the pace of the game. Unfortunately, a side effect of this is that players are resting whenever they please and thereby able to hit every encounter totally fresh, which means only a drastically overlevelled encounter will grant them a true challenge.

So, there’s the history. What do we have to work with right now? Well, a few things.

First of all, PC healing is now much easier between encounters. You can take a shorter rest and gain fewer benefits (no dailies recharged and no action point reset), but you do regain your encounter powers and your health bar thanks to healing surges. This definitely helps to create longevity between periods of extended rest, but also causes some more issues as we’ll see later.

Second of all, milestones were invented as a way to encourage PCs to press on despite the advantages that (extended) resting might bring. Every two(ish) encounters you’d get an action point as well as a daily item usage. Some other benefits can be related to milestones (like some rings) but they’re fairly rare and far between.

These are good starts on the so-called 15 minute workday problem – a milestone gives a PC a benefit for pressing on without rest, and the healing surge/short rest mechanic ensures that a PC is never without reasonably powerful special abilities and a full health bar for quite some time.

So, let’s break down what each of these two benefits results in, behavior-wise:

The Milestone –

The milestone gives you two primary benefits and one fringe benefit. The use of another daily item power is a concept that isn’t terribly up to date, but it is pretty nice on its own. You can’t blow all six of your item daily powers in the first encounter because, hey, you need some time to ramp up. That helps to discourage 15 minute workdays because, simply put, if you can’t blow all your spike damage immediately then you have no incentive to rest as you have some of your “big guns” left. It’s like if the BFG-9000 had 5 shots but you could only shoot one each time you got into an encounter with a few bad guys – you’d go “well, I still have 4 left, I may as well keep going because that’s not so bad.”

The fringe benefit is a bit specious since it relies a lot on class features or very specific magic item types, namely rings.

The action point is a bit redundant. If I go take an extended rest right now I can get an action point after only one encounter, not two. Resting is mechanically superior at getting action points compared to milestones (in a vacuum where time is not of the essence).

Of these three mechanics, it’s pretty clear that the action point needs the most work. Frankly you can get an action point by just taking a nap, which is faster (in real time, not game time), less dangerous, and provides other superior benefits like refreshing all of your daily powers and healing surges. Fringe benefits like ring milestone bonuses are nice, but too rare to be reliable (especially in heroic tier where possessing magic rings of milestone based class features is very uncommon indeed!), and finally the daily item power idea seems to be the most solid. It forces you to continue if you want to keep using all of your magic items as efficiently as possible, but even then you could always just take a nap and start the day with, you guessed it, a magic item daily power use – just like the action point!

What, therefore, is the problem? Milestones do not provide any useful benefits that extended rests do not.

But why is that a problem? Well, it has a lot to do with making meaningful choices. That link leads to another article by The Alexandrian, notably on what makes a choice a choice. It’s a good read, I recommend you check it out.

If you are unfortunately too busy to read what makes choice meaningful at length, here’s the short version: if it is impossible, within a reasonable time limit, to tell which choice is going to be better, logically, in the long and/or short run, then those are meaningful choices.

The problem, of course, is the cost:benefit of an extended rest against a milestone is obvious. Let’s go over it comparatively –

Milestone – Once every 2 encounters, 1 action point, 1 daily item use, fringe benefits mainly in paragon tier and up

Extended Rest – Once every 18* hour period, sets action points to 1, sets daily item use to 1 (though that depends on the tier), sets healing surges to full, refreshes daily powers

*This isn’t necessarily the case for things like elves.

Given those benefits, assuming you had the option to fight another encounter and get a milestone or rest immediately and get the benefits of an extended rest, which would you pick? I know which one 99% of all people would pick in a vacuum, and that’s the extended rest. It gives you the same action point, it gives you the same daily item use, it gives you full healing surges and all of your daily powers back! In heroic tier the choice is even more appealing to take a nap instead of, well, being heroic!

In other words: milestones are not a meaningful choice because they are strictly inferior to extended rests. Without even thinking about it taking an extended rest is going to be way, way better. Therefore, how do we resolve the problem of people choosing to rest all the time? Do we “nerf” resting? Or do we “buff” milestones?

Personally, my preferred approach is that Blizzard supposedly uses to balance their games – don’t nerf awesome things, buff weak things. The fact that you can take an extended rest and get topped off to a “full tank” like that is great – it allows adventurers to start any adventure feeling pretty much ready to roll complete with all their powers, surges, a daily item use and an action point! After all, if you just got up from a good night’s sleep you’d feel pretty good, too, right?

But, what can we do to make milestones more appealing?

Let’s start with the thing that needs the most work – the action point. The single most obvious change that could be made? Adventurers don’t start their day with an action point. As you “warm up” you start doing more impressive stuff, hence the action point. Extra actions help to make up for the daily resources you’ve probably expended – it makes pretty good sense. You can even do some more things to action points like giving them other things they can do (I’m a fan of “spend an action point when it’s not your turn to use an action as though you had readied it, or the old version of an action point, add a d6 to any roll). Still, “nerfing” extended rests is not the optimal solution, I think.

How about the daily item use benefit? Simply put – milestones should have a greater effect than extended rests if you want to discourage extended rests. If you fight two encounters, now you can use two daily item powers in the next one, whereas if you rested you’d only get one. That’s at least parity, and that’s something.

Finally, how about milestone fringe benefits? I think that these could be expanded a lot. If your items and powers got riders based on the number of milestones you’ve had today, suddenly people would have a choice to make – do I use the milestones to build up my “momentum meter” (per se) and start doing wicked damage and such, or do I take the safe way out and stop being so battered with an extended rest? Similarly to how monsters are supposed to become more dangerous as they become bloodied, so, too, should heroes become more powerful as they become more bloodied. If you get stronger in way X by pressing on, and get stronger in way Y by stopping for a rest, and ways X and Y have no overlap, then the choice is no longer really mechanically comparable. Once we reach that stage, I think, we can truly fix the “15 minute workday” forever by giving players a meaningful choice about whether to press on or not.

What are some other possible solutions?

Well, I’d say simply “use your imagination” but I’d be a pretty crappy game designer in that case. The next thought that came to my mind is something based on an action point, but more potent. It’d have a similar “ramping up” effect and could be added to a milestone. It’d be the thing that gives you an action, and +2 to any roll in that action, and you can do it blindfolded with one arm tied behind your back, etc. The specific things this “hero point” (a name I’ll give it so we don’t get confused) can do are pretty inconsequential for the scope of this article. The simple point being made here is, as above, a milestone is a great idea – as you press on you get benefits to help make up for the fact that you aren’t taking a siesta. The problem is the original milestone doesn’t achieve that strongly enough to be considered a choice – the extended rest is still, simply, “more powerful”. By giving the milestone more power, and making those powers unique to the milestone, we can instead create a meaningful choice – do we keep going despite our dwindling surges and daily powers because of the bolstering of milestones, or do we just really have to rest or we’ll end up dead or worse? In an ideal world, that question wouldn’t have a “right” answer.

Now, that was all from a strictly mechanical standpoint, of course. There are other ways to avoid the 15 minute workday, like reinstating wandering monsters, or else putting your story based campaign on a timeline – if you don’t reach the lowest level of the dungeon by tonight the princess will be sacrificed to Lolth! However, my goal here is more to provide a “general fix” than it is to give you DMing advice. The beauty of tabletop roleplaying games is, like Gygax did, we can and should tweak them in order to provide the best possible play experience on a personal level. That being said, one would hope in an ideal world that the system in place is perfect already and requires no tweaking – hence my thoughts.

Short Rests –

This topic segues nicely into the other part of resting – short rests. Extended rests are supposed to be counteracted by milestones, right? But what, then, is the mechanic for counteracting short rests?

Well… uh… there really isn’t one. You always take a short rest between encounters, generally speaking, with a very rare exception like wanting to keep temporary hitpoints rather than recharge an encounter power.

But, why is that a problem? Is it a problem at all?

The AngryDM, as I linked to at the beginning of this article, seems to think so. Why? Because, simply put, hitpoints are no longer a daily resource. Well, they are, but their significance has been stretched very, very thin through the use of healing surges. Now, at the end of every encounter, you can recover your hitpoints to full. Most characters can get from zero to full hitpoints around two to three times at level 1, which makes it much more akin to an encounter resource than to a daily resource – once per encounter (or in this case, before it) you can regain your hitpoints to full from 0. Limit 2-3-ish times.

So, why is that bad? As the AngryDM basically elaborates – it means that encounters have, really, only a couple outcomes. 1) Everybody continues on with a couple less healing surges, or 2) somebody is dead. Nobody enters a battle truly “beat up” anymore – you may have no action point, and you may not have any daily powers left, but the new short rest mechanic (when I say new I mean it about the same way I would mean me talking about this topic is “timely” – that is to say, it’s not new in the general sense, but new in the sense that it is specific to 4th edition) means that you’ll be there with full hitpoints, more likely than not, and a whole battery of encounter powers (definitely).

So, is that really such a big deal? Maybe, maybe not. Because the PCs will always be at about 70% max strength (arbitrary number, I have no idea what % of their strength daily resources actually make up) at the minimum it makes designing encounters really quite a breeze in terms of intended balance. That’s a great tool for DMs to have, knowing how powerful your battle is likely to be. The problem with that, though, is unfortunately it is pretty much impossible to make a battle “challenging enough”, rather than “pretty easy” or “somebody is dead”. The fights do chip away at a daily resource – healing surges – but being low on healing surges is very rarely a factor in an encounter. Where in previous editions you might enter an encounter with fewer than max hitpoints (which is a directly measurable impact to the way the encounter BEGINS, not how it plays out when you want to heal after two or three rounds), in this edition you rarely do. This means that all of that daily resource whittling is much, much less impactful than it used to be. Now, I’m not one to wax poetic over the glory days of older editions, but I have to admit this is a compelling argument coming from the AngryDM, and one I’m inclined to give a nod to, if not outright agree with. The battles where the PCs were DANGEROUSLY low on surges, even if they weren’t the most challenging encounters, have always seemed, to me, to be the most exciting. Think of how much more impactful that might be if they began the battle with fewer than maximum hitpoints to boot!

Do I have any “solutions” for this? Not very solid ones at the moment, at least not ones I’ve tested (unlike the ones I listed above for the Milestone). However, something similar to Angry’s mechanic of “you can only spend X healing surges between encounters without an extended rest” might be a place to start, as well as something like having monsters that cause damage to the PC’s healing surges more directly (that way you are attacking their daily resource in a direct way – you can only heal 9 times a day? Okay, now you can only heal one less time, rather than “now you have to heal 15 damage during one of the 9 times you heal”). Manipulating hitpoints as a daily resource is a lot harder to do in 4th edition because of the power of the short rest and healing surge mechanic, but I’d be willing to bet it’s possible with a little work. 

Closing Thoughts –

What are some other things that could be done? Well, there’s all sorts of ideas out there. Stuff like bringing wandering monsters back to frequently pester inappropriately sleeping PCs, adjusting encounters on the fly to cope with better rested PCs than intended, or, heck, rather than fixing milestones to be comparable to extended rests, simply removing extended rests entirely and assigning a proxy of their daily-resource-rejuvinating effects to milestones (last I heard it was something along the lines of “you regain some but not all of your powers and surges every 2 encounters”, though your mileage may vary). Really, if you find you have a problem with the resting mechanic being lopsided, like I did at times, then I’m sure there’s a plethora of other things you can try so long as you remember the key to good game design and balance in this regard – give the players a real choice to make. Resting needs to be an equally valid choice when compared to not-resting. As long as you remember that then you can really do no wrong (well, okay, maybe you can – run it by your players first).

Summary –

1) As a result of players controlling the pace of the game, extended resting has become of a bit of an issue since it is such a powerful mechanic.

2) Milestones were created to counterbalance this mechanic by providing an incentive for continuing without resting but failed because they were not an equally valid choice to make if you were given the option of “get a milestone” or “take an extended rest”, mostly because milestone benefits and extended rest benefits had such an extreme overlap.

3) In order to fix the perceived imbalance in the dynamics between pressing on heroically or resting because you judge you simply cannot press on any longer it was necessary to have milestones provide benefits that were distinct from, and mechanically as valid as, extended rests.

4) Since short rests are not balanced against anything like a milestone is against an extended rest, it is possible that the short rest mechanic may need some work, too (as a result of it not having a meaningful choice – very, very, very, VERY rarely will you not take a short rest if offered one), with its primary symptom being PCs who too infrequently feel the chipping effects of repeated encounters. They need to feel markedly weaker in one way (notably defenses and daily powers) to counteract the strengthening (usually offensive) that milestones give them, such that by the end of the adventuring day they are not the same as they were at the beginning by a discernable margin. Much like monsters, I feel that this should be the “more dangerous when bloodied” aspect, with the trade-off being their dwindling “ace up my sleeve” daily assets like surges/hitpoints, powers, and magic items.

5) There are a lot of ways to achieve these effects, pick the ones that work best for you. If you don’t think there’s even a problem after reading all of those other posts and this one, then good on you for having a brain of your own and not just taking our word for it. If we can offer critical analysis of a game mechanic then so can you!


-The Hydra Dm