How to Make Your Short and Long Rests Count in 5e
Published on March 5, 2022, Last modified on April 14th, 2022
Rests aren’t just for healing and hit point – they help your story and encounters
Matt Stewart - Wizards of the Coast - Edgewall Innkeeper
Table of Contents
How Rests Make Your Game Better
It seems players in D&D only ever want three things from their DM: leveling up, magic items, and rests.
After every combat, at least one player will ask: “can we take a short rest?”, no matter how inconvenient or dangerous their surroundings may be.
When a rest does happen, players usually just roll hit dice and swap out some spells, while the actual downtime during a rest is usually just skipped over. With the snap of a finger, the players are back to exploring, adventuring, and fighting.
Rests have the potential to make the whole game better
Every rest is a chance for the party to slow down, reflect, and discuss whatever life-or-death situations they just experienced.
Admittedly, no one wants to roleplay every moment of a weeks-long voyage or roll to look under every rock. Part of the DM’s role is summarizing important moments to make a good story. We play out the combat, exploration, and roleplaying a lot of the time, and summarize some of the time.
And yet…I can’t imagine anyone enjoying a game where the DM hand-waves a large percentage of exploring a dungeon or defeating a lich.
But that is exactly what we do for nearly all of our rests: we refuse to slow down and see what happens.
We tend to reduce rests to a mechanical tool that can be skipped over, diminishing D&D to a game of pure numbers. This results in a less organic game, and ultimately a less compelling narrative.
There must be a better way to run short/long rests in D&D 5e. Can rest become a viable option in roleplaying and storytelling? And if so, how do we do that?
How Rest Became a Thing Players Choose
To new players, “taking a rest” is a fundamental aspect of the D&D experience. But, veterans know that it’s actually it’s a relatively recent addition.
In earlier editions, there were no rests. Players naturally regained 1 hit point per day, regardless of how active they were. You could of course choose to relax and lie down, but it came with no mechanical benefit.
D&D 3.5/Pathfinder added some beneficial mechanics to incentivize taking a rest. At the same time, they also introduced a plethora of magical healing options, so most healing was accomplished through spell casting.
Fourth edition added the short rest to include “Healing Surges” and compensate for certain abilities that could only be used once per encounter.
D&D 5e refined this idea by creating rules that made resting an everyday element of adventuring.
Notice two very important things here:
- Older editions that put less emphasis on storytelling had no rest mechanic.
- Rest went from passive, natural healing to something players actually DO.
This is very important. In 5e, when you skip a rest, you aren’t skipping ‘nothing’. Rest is something players have to do and choosing when and how to do it can be part of the adventure.
Resting is an action players take… and it’s FULL of potential.
The 5e Rest Rules
Let’s first look at the mechanics of resting in 5e.
Page 186 of the Player’s Handbook explains the standard rules for resting:
Short Rests: Last 1 hour, heal by rolling hit dice, and can’t do anything too strenuous (eating, drinking, reading, tending wounds, etc… is allowed).
Long Rests: Last 8 hours (6 of which must be sleeping), regain all your hit points, half your hit dice, and no strenuous activity is allowed. Any major interruption of the long rest requires starting over to gain its benefits.
Page 367 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide presents two rule variants:
Epic Heroism: Designed for high-paced play: a short rest is 5 minutes and a long rest is 1 hour.
Gritty Realism: A short rest is 8 hours and a long rest is 7 days.
The insignificant attention given to the 5e resting mechanic is so obvious that it has led to a wealth of homebrew resting rules.
Fair warning to those who would be reckless with homebrewing rest:
- Rest is THE critical mechanic for recharging spell slots and special race/class abilities, and any tinkering threatens balance among player characters.
- Health and abilities need to feel scarce, but not too scarce. If they are recharged too often, players will feel invincible. If recharged too slowly, they’ll never take risks… or die a lot.
The wrong rest mechanics could seriously impact how fun the game is or how compelling the narrative becomes. Make no mistake, rest is an essential part of any story.
How Rests Helps Storytelling
Chapter 8 of the Player’s Handbook opens by covering the basics of the adventuring life. Right after explicitly mentioning resting, it explains how a good story “follows a natural rhythm”.
This natural rhythm is ‘pacing’: the varying speed of a progressing story.
Pacing prevents a good story from becoming boring or exhausting. With good pacing, everyone stays present: nothing is missed and everything is appreciated.
Constant combat sounds fun, but it can actually ruin a story’s pacing. It doesn’t matter how interesting or exciting the encounters are. If your players are being constantly bombarded with combat encounter after combat encounter, they could lose interest.
Usually, combat is accompanied by the other two pillars of D&D 5e: exploration and roleplaying, both of which can still feel intense.
What is missing isn’t better encounters… but a pause.
Players need intentionally quiet moments to balance the intensity. Slowing down the pacing by taking a pause gives the players a chance to assess what happened and what it means going forward. Constant encounters or events can just be exhausting.
Thankfully, as a DM, you have a built-in game mechanic just sitting there, offering you a way to include roleplaying while also slowing down the pacing… RESTS!
So far we have established:
- Too often DMs hand-wave rest
- D&D 5e mechanics include minimal rest rules
- Rest is an action players take
- Rest is an important tool for storytelling
Clearly we should be running our short and long rests better. Let’s start by looking at the real world for inspiration.
Proof for Rest
For people, rest is not optional.
Don’t believe me? Try going hours without sleep and see what happens (spoiler alert: you hallucinate). We need to intentionally power down and deactivate the flight-fight-freeze response in order to survive.
But rest is also necessary for people to thrive. Physically, rest repairs weary muscles, lowers stress, strengthens the immune system, and prevents injury. Mentally, it results in higher levels of focus, memory, and creativity.
These modern discoveries only affirm what ancient philosophies and religions have been stressing for eons: rest is essential for human flourishing in body, mind, and soul.
The Jewish Sabbath insisted on rest for the whole land: a day off for people, animals, crops… everything. The Roman poet Ovid suggested people rest like a field to live a life of bounty. And Christian mystics stress the need to be still in the presence of the divine (Psalm 46:10).
Most relevant to D&D, Buddhists encourage us to heal through peaceful rest. They notice that when a wounded animal is injured, they do not worry or rush to fix themselves, but merely lie down and rest.
In summary, science and religion agree that people adventure better when they take better rest.
So what does this mean for your campaign?
There is no heroic dragon-slaying or dungeon delving if there is no ‘heroic’ rest.
Part of being an adventurer is being aware of this and balancing out the high-intensity dungeon crawls with some much-needed tavern time.
So how can our adventurers ‘heroically’ rest? How can the short and long rest be a meaningful part of our game that we hand-wave a lot less?
Ideas For Better Rests
Rests are negative spaces just waiting to be filled, and I believe both DMs and players can work together to improve the player’s experience during short and long rests.
DM: Unique Encounters
Every DM worth their salt knows the value of using encounters to interrupt a party’s rest. Given everything previously discussed, there is more you can do than a goblin raid!
People have an awfully hard time getting good rest when it is too cold, hot, or noisy. If the environment is too oppressive, increase the amount of hours they need for a successful rest.
Better yet, provide a cost for resting outside of normal hours! Our bodies get better rest when we lie down at regular times. So when players break their circadian rhythm by trying to long rest in a dungeon at 11am, make sure it’s challenging! Have them make a WIS save to calm down, or a CON save where if they succeed they struggle to sleep.
Even small additions like this make the players consider rest even more as a part of the adventure.
When you rest, there ain’t much you can do, so why not talk to your fellow adventurers! Rest allows us to prioritize and strengthen our relationships with others. Or, alternatively, you can use the ‘captive audience’ as the perfect moment to address a concern or slight and confront a party member.
Furthermore, when your character rests, they rest from work! Unless you have a totalitarian view of labor and people, work is not an end to itself, so what hobbies, chores, or skills come up when they are not adventuring?
DM: Character Development
Use the rest as an opportunity to have the players look inward by asking your players good questions. Doing so will help your players shoulder the responsibility of storytelling and further develop their characters. Questions like…
- Following a near-death experience, what is your character grateful for?
- Is there anything or anyone your character really misses?
- What post-combat habits do they have, and are they following them?
- What about that encounter stuck out to your character? How do they feel about it?
- What is your character daydreaming about?
- Is your character wounded? How are they tending those wounds?
- Are they sleeping well, or are they restless? Why?
- What is the last thing your character thinks of before going to sleep?
I have personally found this to be especially helpful for new players or anyone that prefers to discover their character through gameplay.
Players: Exploring the Inner World
Nearly every day, a D&D hero faces death, suffers wounds, and is confronted by the foreign and unknown. All of these are inherently traumatic, and it takes a lot of inner work to keep those traumatic experiences from sabotaging their ability to function.
With that in mind, rests become indispensable for helping a hero remain a hero. Take time during the rest to consider how your character would bring their inner world back into balance. How would they integrate their experiences into their self-understanding? Consider their identity and values and how those might change or be reinforced.
Then again, your character might be bad at resting! In the real world, rest is a skill that can take a lifetime to develop. Personally, I suggest that if player characters never stop struggling on the inside they should eventually take a point of exhaustion or reduce their passive Perception.
Your questions will develop characters, but your narration will develop the plot. Use rests as bookends for really dangerous and important encounters.
Prior to a dangerous situation, build anticipation for what is to come. The night before a battle is infamous for its gut-wrenching mess of complex feelings. And following a battle or particularly enlightening encounter, sow seeds of curiosity: selectively reveal information as the players rest for them to pursue later. A little suspense goes a long way!
The narrative needs pauses, and it’s the DMs job to lead the table through those pauses. Slowing pacing before and after every quality combat encounter makes the whole campaign better.
Rest is a necessary and important part of the D&D 5e’s mechanics, story, and adventurer’s life. They are intentionally chosen, full of potential, and something we should skip a whole lot less. Better short and long rests make for better D&D sessions and campaigns.
Rather than skipping your party’s rest, allow yourself to slow down: slow the pacing, catch your breath, and add depth to your adventure.
To put it simply, just because the player characters are taking a break doesn’t mean the story should!