Not so long ago I quoted exhaustion as being one of the 15 reasons I love 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons.
Given the often deranged mental gymnastics we have to do to make hit points make sense, it’s great to have a second, separate mechanic that measures life force, and moreover one that – unlike hit points – brings with it cumulative penalties as you head towards death.
The Player’s Handbook states that you can gain exhaustion from starvation, and prolonged exposure to hot or cold temperatures, while the mechanic crops up in certain other niche abilities, such as the spell sickening aura or the berserker’s frenzy ability (I remixed the berserker for you here by the way… it’s a lot more fun now!). I also recall that the official rules governing chases are effectively a contest in who gets exhausted last. In the latter instance, levels of exhaustion are temporary.
Generally speaking, however, exhaustion doesn’t crop up much in the core D&D rules. Given how clean and simple the mechanics are, I think they could be utilised to greater effect. Some ideas to get the ball rolling…
A long time ago, I proposed to one of the DMs in my group that being reduced to a 10th of your hit points should incur one level of exhaustion, and being on 1 hit point (‘Last Legs’ condition, you could call it) should come with two levels of exhaustion.
From that he created his own homebrew rule: when you are reduced to 0 hit points, you incur two levels of exhaustion. That’s pretty prohibitive (given that it takes a long rest to recover a level of exhaustion, and that folks who are reduced to 0 hit points are often reduced to 0 hit points twice… as they are very vulnerable), but I like the realism it produced – and the actual fear of death. He also made it slightly easier to get rid of exhaustion, by allowing the lesser restoration spell to remove one level (usually this requires greater restoration).
Today, it’s a very common house rule, in tables around the world, that being reduced to 0 hit points incurs one level of exhaustion, and I would definitely encourage DMs to build some kind of relationship between being knocked to 0 hit points, and being exhausted. It’s made our games much better (no more waiting for someone to be knocked unconscious before using your healing spells on them for example).
My current house rule would be, if you are brought back from 0 to 1 hit points you are ‘Seriously Wounded’ and have two levels of exhaustion. Once you are brought back to 2 hp or above you are ‘Wounded’ and have only one level of exhaustion, which you can remove in the usual way, i.e. via a long rest.
Or, for more realism, I might even make it three levels of exhaustion when on 1 hit point (F*cked condition), down to two levels as you get healed, and then I’d stipulate that a short rest is enough to remove one level of exhaustion sustained in combat.
Note: Another (even harsher) way of ensuring folks feel the effects of being reduced to 0 hit points is to roll on the Lingering Injuries table to see what blow took them down.
One of the locations I created for my ‘Inside the Great Library’ chapter of my Candlekeep Murders adventure was the Whispering Dome, part of the Hall of Momentous Deeds library. Anyone who meditates in the dome for 1 minute hears the inspiring words of a hero, echoing quietly in the chamber, urging them on to greatness of their own. One of the phrases a player might hear, spoken by Lavinia the wizard, is: “The Weave never runs dry… sometimes you just have to dig deep to use it.” A player who hears this phrase gains the following benefit: when they run out of spell slots, they may regain one spell slot of their highest level (maximum 5th). When they cast a spell using this regained slot they gain a level of exhaustion.
I always found it a bit weird that when a spellcaster runs out of spell slots they suddenly can’t cast a spell they know and have mastered… it’s like imagining a musician who’s unable to do an encore! Obviously as a game mechanic, it’s pretty much essential to limit spellcasting, but it’s another little niggle against realism (this is NOT your cue to comment that magic is not realistic!).
On the other hand, if we imagine that casting high level spells puts a strain on the body and mind perhaps we have another, more credible way of limiting casting. A system whereby spellcasters (re)gain slots by taking on levels of exhaustion feels like a good give and take, while those DMs that want to redress the oft-lamented imbalance between spellcasting and martial classes could even include exhaustion checks on using one’s allotted slots, so that spellcasters have to be more judicious about their high level casting.
Any homebrew here is going to be very controversial, but I leave the idea out there for discussion!
Sometimes a player decides to do something undeniably balls-to-the-wall heroic, like single-handedly holding the bridge while their buddies escape a rampaging horde of orcs. Having basically decided to commit suicide, their turn comes around and they attack the nearest orc, rolling a 3. The bards will sure sing beautifully and sorrowfully about that epic last stand!
Again, using the give and take principle, I plan to experiment with allowing players to take a level of exhaustion to gain an Action Surge. I might add that they need to have and use inspiration as well, to access this ability, and I may place some other restrictions on this ‘Heroic Surge’ – you can’t do this if you’re already exhausted already, for example (making this a once a long rest max. ability). Alternatively, I may offer a player a Heroic Surge when they propose something particularly heroic, as a kind of reward, and an insurance policy against anticlimactic results.
Giving powers away willy nilly can cheapen and unbalance the game… but when heroes attempt extraordinary feats, and are willing to pay a cost to do so, I’m happy to give them a helping hand. Now where’s my “Dungeon Master of the month” award?
Anyway, those are just a few thoughts on exhaustion and how else it could be leveraged as a mechanic on your D&D table, that I wanted to share.
As ever, please leave your thoughts on my thoughts in the comments section. And also do please share any examples of homebrew and house rules you have regarding exhaustion. I’d love to hear them!