“Exhaustion” is one of the most underutilized mechanics in Dungeons & Dragons (right behind Inspiration). Most DMs either don’t know enough about it to use it in an effective way and others simply don’t care. But exhaustion can be a great way to make your D&D campaign feel more like real life.Exhaustion in D&D 5e is a special condition that imposes disadvantages on a creature based on how exhausted the creature is. While the PHB doesn’t specifically define “exhaustion” you can think of it as real-life exhaustion.
Creatures can become exhausted because of spell effects, too little sleep, overexposure to the elements or grueling conditions without adequate rest. If one of these circumstances occurs, the creature takes one point of exhaustion.
Creatures and players can take multiple points of exhaustion, increasing the negative consequences with each new point.
If the player/creature does not recover from exhaustion before gaining a new point, then they move up a level and retain all the disadvantages of the previous levels.
Levels of Exhaustion
There are 6 levels of exhaustion that correspond to the number of exhaustion points a creature has:
Level 1: Disadvantage on ability checks
Creatures with one exhaustion point roll with disadvantage on all ability checks. This means you should have the player roll a d20 twice and take the lower number when rolling any ability check. If you are new to D&D and aren’t sure about when and how to roll, you can check out my complete guide on when to roll for a comprehensive explanation.
Level 2: Speed is halved
At two points of exhaustion, the creature moves at half speed when walking. This rule applies even to creatures who are in their favored terrain and normally would not have disadvantages to their walking speed.
Level 3: Disadvantage on attack rolls and saving throws
Three points of exhaustion require the players to roll with disadvantage on all attack rolls and saving throws. With the disadvantage to ability checks at level one, this means players will roll with a disadvantage at all times.
Level 4: Hit point maximum halved
Level four is where things start to get dire. Four exhaustion points lower a player’s maximum hit points by half. They cannot regain these hit points through magical means. This means the player is at half-life until they rest.
Level 5: Speed reduced to zero
Five points of exhaustion and the player/creature can no longer move at all. They will be forced to rely on the rest of the party to get them to safety.
Level 6: Death
If a player collects six exhaustion points at one time, then that player automatically dies. No death saves. However, this is extremely difficult to do and I have not killed a player because of exhaustion yet.
Thankfully for your party, exhaustion is extremely easy to cure. The player or creature simply needs to take one long rest to recover one point of exhaustion.
This means that if a player has five levels of exhaustion, then they will need five long rests before they are fully recovered. In addition, the long rest must also include the consumption of food and water.
Why Exhaustion is Effective
I find it is rare that players ever reach higher than the third level in exhaustion points. Perhaps this is due to the fact that most DMs don’t use the mechanic to its fullest potential. Or, perhaps, most players are smart enough to take a rest when they need it.
Exhaustion can be an extremely effective way to bring consequences to a hard adventuring lifestyle. Instead of viewing exhaustion as a punishment for players, DMs should start seeing it as another storytelling element, bringing grit and reality into the fantasy world of D&D.
Normal people cannot fight constantly without rest. Bodies cannot be beaten to the point of unconsciousness, revived and beaten again without some negative effects. Yes, the world has magic that can heal the body, but can it heal the mind?
With the exception of greater restoration, magic is not a holistic solution. The mind needs healing as much as the body does in these situations. This is why exhaustion is important. It is a cue that lets the party know their characters need a break.
Has the party been out adventuring for a week or two? A couple of points of exhaustion will remind them to visit a town, have a shopping day and relax. The benefit for the DM is a break from creating encounters and a chance to throw some more hooks the party’s way!
Exhaustion is a reminder that the characters are meant to act like real individuals. It is a gentle, and sometimes not so gentle, reminder that everyone needs rest. Even half-orc barbarians.
Creative Uses for Exhaustion
Here are some of my favorite ways to use exhaustion in Dungeons & Dragons 5e. Feel free to steal these or use them as inspiration!
(Speaking of Inspiration, that is another underutilized mechanic in D&D! If you want to know why you should be using inspiration and how to give it in a non-cheesy way, check out this post!)
Adventuring too Long
The elements are harsh and unforgiving. If the party stays in freezing or extremely hot temperatures for long periods of time, then give them a point of exhaustion per day of adventuring.
In addition, if the party explores for several weeks without adequate shelter (just a campfire and bedroll) give each member a point of exhaustion every few days after the first week or so.
Doing this will motivate players to seek shelter, stop at villages and towns along the way and spend some of that hard-earned gold.
Some of the things your party has seen cannot be easily forgotten. Some of them might even haunt their dreams. When the party takes a long rest, I have everyone who needs sleep roll percentile dice. This percentage roll is for nightmares.
If the party has seen more negative than good during the day, then the likelihood of nightmares is higher (30% chance). However, if the party has had more positive experiences, then the chance is much lower (10%). (Normally, with an average adventuring day and a mix of good and bad I keep the chance at 20%.)If a player has a nightmare that night, then they do not get a long rest and they receive one point of exhaustion. This adds a lot of flavor and role-playing to the campaign and makes the horrors of adventuring life feel real.
Night on the Town
Some parties like to…well…party. After a long adventure with their bag of holding full of gold, players just want to have a night on the town. This can be a lot of fun and be filled with role-playing and laughter, but the next morning is always a pain. Drinking, carousing and fighting all take their toll. If your party wants to live it up, then they should be prepared for the hangover. Or in this case, one or two points of exhaustion.
Insomnia and restlessness are common character flaws in real life, why not in fantasy life? If a player has witnessed or done something horrible, it might haunt them to the point of insomnia. Or, perhaps, an extremely intelligent character has a hard time “turning their brain off” and doesn’t sleep well regularly.
You as the DM can impose their character flaws or simply suggest them to your players. Most players love to have quirky flaws. Not sleeping and fighting exhausted constantly might be a great challenge for some players!
Exhaustion is a both fun and functional rule in D&D 5e. It can be used to punish foolish actions or to flavor role-play, it is up to you. But regardless of how you use it, I hope you use it more often in your games.
Until next time,
May your games have advantage, my friends!
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