Besides, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a single DM gripe about them.
Given all that, I was surprised to see a comprehensive makeover of the ‘Exhausted’ condition crop up in the One D&D playtest material released on D&D Beyond.
The latest One D&D playtest rules read:
While Exhausted (known in older books as Exhaustion), you experience the following effects:
Levels of Exhaustion. This Condition is cumulative. Each time you receive it, you gain 1 level of exhaustion. You die if your exhaustion level exceeds 10.
d20 Rolls Affected. When you make a d20 Test, you subtract your exhaustion level from the d20 roll.
Spell Save DCs Affected. Subtract your exhaustion level from the Spell save DC of any Spell you cast.
Ending the Condition. Finishing a Long Rest removes 1 of your levels of exhaustion. When your exhaustion level reaches 0, you are no longer Exhausted.
My immediate reaction when reading these new rules was to think… urgh, not lots of fiddly modifiers. Didn’t we all praise 5th edition precisely for getting rid of those? (For the most part replacing them with advantage or disadvantage). I also baulked at the idea of an entire 10 levels of exhaustion – well 11 technically! Dying of being exhausted sounds tediously exhausting in One D&D.
Those weren’t my only concerns. There’s no penalty to your movement speed at any point in the new system, which is kinda fundamental to my perception of what it means to be be exhausted; while a -1 modifier seems entirely trivial, as does gaining any additional level of exhaustion to the one you’re on (compare this with going from 4 to 5 levels of exhaustion in 5e, for example). The whole system is just way less scary than the 5th edition mechanics.
Finally, I’m pretty certain that anyone playing with pen and paper is just simply going to forget to apply these penalties half the time. (Sure, that can happen with the current system, but given how punitive exhaustion is in 5e, DMs and players tend to remember, for example, to apply disadvantage on all skills checks – much more easily than I suspect they will remember applying -1, -2 or -3 on d20 tests across the board).
Proponents of the One D&D playtest material, meanwhile, have mostly argued that the penalties in the new system are much easier to remember (although I find this a bit of a false argument, as if you invest 30 seconds to commit to memory that: 1 level of exhaustion = disadvantage on ability checks, 2 levels = half movement speed and 3 levels = disadvantage on attack rolls and saving throws, then you’ve just mastered the 5th edition rules… on the very rare occasion anyone gets to 4 or more levels, then you can look it up).
Other pros for One D&D playtest rules include that they affect spellcasting; while you could also argue, I suppose, that a steady rate of decline across all d20 tests is a cleaner, better system. However, I feel exactly the opposite. One of the main reasons I prefer the old rules is that they feel more organic and ‘real’. Gaining two levels of exhaustion and being so tired you can hardly move is something players ‘feel’, while a mathematical formula that mildly reduces your effectiveness over time just doesn’t feel threatening at all, and won’t affect the way a player thinks or approaches the game in the slightest. They will just behave exactly as they would otherwise, but with a slightly lower chance of achieving whatever they attempt.
Let’s line these up then.
Pros & Cons of One D&D’s Exhausted (vs. 5e)
- Easier to remember (although old rules not difficult)
- Affects spellcasting
- Less punitive (making it easier to hand out)
- Fiddly modifiers (this shouldn’t be a problem on VTTs however, which D&D is clearly keen to lean into after purchasing D&D Beyond)
- Doesn’t affect movement
- Likely to trivialise the condition
- While the penalties are easier to remember, I feel sure that DMs are more likely to forget to apply them (probably not an issue on VTTs).
For me, the existing rules are clear winners, as I only consider ‘affects spellcasting’ to be a significant pro of the new rules. As such, I might just add a ‘-2 penalty, per level of exhaustion, to your spell DC’ to incorporate the benefits of the new system into my 5e games.
Other Ways to ‘Fix’ Exhaustion
One thing that is not clear yet, is how One D&D proposes to give out exhaustion. Perhaps these minor, gradual penalties hint that more monster abilities will inflict the exhausted condition on players; or perhaps the designers will incorporate a common 5e house rule and hand out a level of exhaustion to anyone who is reduced to 0 hit points, or who fails a death saving throw. If so, the proposed changes would make more sense than they do currently.
Still, I would rather fix this issue using the 5e rules as a base, and I would rather propose inserting a milder first level of exhaustion, than rip up the playbook. Something along the lines of:
1 level of exhaustion. Disadvantage on mental skills checks (Int, Wis or Charisma)
2nd level of exhaustion. Disadvantage on physical skills checks (Str, Dex and Con… including initiative rolls, of course).
3rd level of exhaustion. Half movement speed.
4th level of exhaustion. Disadvantage on attack rolls and saving throws.
The main problem I have with exhaustion in my game is that I really want to hand it out more often, especially to players who are reduced to 0 hit points, but low level characters in particular are reduced to 0 hit points all the time, and consequently quickly gain cumulative penalties that render them useless.
Thinking about it, it might be cleaner to cut it this way.
1 level of exhaustion. Disadvantage on skills checks.
2nd level of exhaustion. Disadvantage on saving throws.
3rd level of exhaustion. Half movement speed.
4th level of exhaustion. Disadvantage on attack rolls.
This is easy to remember and protects players a bit more from the debilitating effects of halving one’s movement speed or gaining disadvantage on attack rolls, by pushing these penalties down one level.
Aside from reducing / slowing down the crippling effects accumulated levels of exhaustion, I think the game could also benefit from an easier way to get rid of exhaustion levels. Lesser Restoration feels like it should do this, and one of my DMs already house ruled that it does. I would allow that too.
I would probably also allow someone a Con check to remove a level of exhaustion after a short rest, restricting that mode of recovery to once a day, and only on the condition they have over half their hit points at the end of said rest.
I am also toying with introducing a new pre-Exhaustion mechanic called ‘Fatigued’. Being fatigued wouldn’t do anything in itself, but if you get an additional level of fatigue you get a level of exhaustion. The idea came to me in a recent wilderness adventure I ran… I wanted my players to feel the dangers of pushing their bodies hard in a difficult terrain, without dropping exhaustion penalties on them straight away. A new mechanic like Fatigue would enable players to understand their bodies are being tested and that they are on the edge of a mechanical penalty, without sticking them directly on the downward spiral, without warning.
Potentially, one could be Fatigued, instead of Exhausted, when falling to zero hit points (effectively giving them half a level of exhaustion, instead of a full one). Or maybe you could be Fatigued whenever you find yourself on less than half hit points (if you want to be more gritty), and then include a few more common ways you might get it… such as when suffering a critical hit. Meanwhile, players might have to roll a Con save to avoid Fatigue after a full day’s travel, or sleeping when exposed to the elements.
Where Do You Stand?
Let me know in the comments where you stand on the One D&D vs. 5e exhaustion mechanics and any pros and cons I forgot about!