Alternatives to the Daily Refresh

Posted on 19 May 2021

In a TTRPG like Dungeons & Dragons, different sorts of abilities can be used with different levels of frequency. The most obvious example of this is “once per day.” A Rogue might be able to use a certain trick or stunt once per day. A Wizard can cast a certain number of spells per day. A certain magic item might only work once per day. These restrictions have been there since the earliest days of the game and have become a standard feature of D&D-adjacent games.

But “once per day”, while a pretty straightforward limitation, lends itself to certain styles of adventure and story. To put it simply, it creates the expectation that adventurers will face a series of challenges, whether it be traps, monsters, or other danger, multiple times in the day. The most obvious example is the classic dungeon crawl. Sure, you could cast your Fireball spell now, in a battle with goblins, but maybe you will need it later when fighting something even more dangerous in the next room! It’s a cross of resource management and power-balancing. These once per day abilities are more powerful, but you get to use them less frequently; knowing when to best take advantage of them is part of the experience.

While this style of resource management works for situations like the dungeon crawl, there are plenty of cases where the game tempo is very different and facing more than one or two battles or challenges in a single day doesn’t make as much sense. For example, a group of investigators in a major city (such as Faerûn’s Waterdeep or Golarion’s Absalom may face only one or two challenges a day as they hunt down an urban menace. A caravan traveling Eberron’s Talenta Plains or the Great Alluvial Sand Wastes in Tyr’s Tablelands may be accosted by dangers several times over its weeklong journey, but rarely more than one in a single day. In scenarios like that, the classic “once per day” system might result in battles that don’t quite feel right or players feeling unsatisfied.

For situations like that, it may be worth trying something different to the “once per day” long or extended rest.

An Advance Disclaimer

Before I really get going, I am going to start by saying that this post features some ideas that some people consider controversial. I say that because about 10 years ago, while playing D&D 4E, the DM suggested exactly what I’m suggesting in this article and I, as a player, was appalled. I argued about it for nearly ten to fifteen minutes, even suggesting that the DM was ruining the spirit of the game by suggesting this. I was that player.

I expect that some people won’t like this, and that’s fine. If you don’t like it, it’s not for you! But, for people who experience the same problems I tend to experience, maybe some of these ideas will help.

Alternatives to the Day

While there are undoubtedly a lot of different ways to determine when a long rest is warranted, I’m going to mention only a few: refresh after a specific duration; refresh after a fixed number of encounters; and refresh every play session. While reviewing them, it’s important to remember that they often have best application to different situations. With that in mind, it’s always worthwhile to experiment to see what works best for you and your game!

Refresh after a Specific Duration

Consider this example: A brave group of adventurers has to deliver an important document from the Open Lord of Waterdeep, Laeral Silverhand, to Lord Protector Dagult Neverember in Neverwinter. That’s a trip of 250 to 350 miles (depending on which map of the Sword Coast you use), a trip that will easily take one to two weeks. This is a perfect opportunity to shift the period of refresh! The heroes rest and regain all of their abilities at the commencement of the journey but don’t get a long rest until they arrive at their destination.

Handling refresh in this way allows the GM to challenge the players across the entire sequence of play. Players will need to be more conservative with their abilities because the opportunity for a long rest is limited. As a GM, this means that not every encounter has to be a Severe or Deadly one to pose a challenge. Several easier encounters can be interspersed in the journey without feeling like a waste of time. Furthermore, narrative and skill based challenges can be added to provide interesting distractions and dangers.

This does raise a question: what if something goes awry and they wind up needing a long or extended rest in the middle of the journey? Maybe that pack of wolves was far more deadly than you expected, leaving the heroes hovering near death only halfway to their destination. There are two solutions to this problem: allow them a mid-journey long rest or curtail the sequence early. Maybe they have to change course and stop at an out-of-the-way village to recuperate, resulting in an extended delay to their mission and some penalty. Perhaps a contingent of knights finds them, escorting them the rest of the way but for a cost. The idea is that they either get an opportunity to take a long rest or they are able to complete the journey sooner than intended. But, in either case, this should come with a cost, whether it be a mechanical one (loss of treasure or other resources) or a narrative one (the Lords of Waterdeep lose confidence in their abilities).

Handling long rests this way can be applied in a variety of circumstances. For example, the heroes have a week to chase down a lead in a port city until their ship departs for further adventure. They can’t take a long rest until their ship departs. Or, maybe they have two weeks to investigate a gruesome murder before their friend, who is innocent, is executed. In both these cases, there’s a defined window before the characters get to restore their health, powers, and abilities. It provides bookends for the players to use their resources while not making those resources too prevalent.

Refresh after a Number of Encounters

Perhaps the least mechanically complicated method for handling refresh is to have it happen every set number of battles. It’s pretty simple: after some number of combat encounters, the heroes get a long/extended rest. The D&D-adjacent game 13th Age makes this the norm in a pretty straight-forward manner:

Roughly four battles: The GM determines when the party has earned a full heal-up. Canonically, fighting four average battles gets you a heal-up. If the battles are tougher, you get the heal-up after fewer of them, and weaker battles means more of them between heal-ups. This rule helps the party manage its resources, because you know about how much opposition you’re going to need to get through. (13A 171)

The benefit to this is that it’s simple and provides some consistency. Players have a good sense of knowing when they’ll get a refresh, so they can be more judicious with their use of spells, abilities, and powers. Knowing when you’ll get all of your abilities refreshed can be a nice change of pace for players (like me) who are likely to save their big spells or powers for “that next battle” that never actually comes.

Unfortunately, refreshing every fixed number of encounters can feel arbitrarily for a lot of folks. Furthermore, depending on your game and group, it may require some narrative lifting on the part of the Game Master to justify the refresh. What happens in the lives of the characters such that they warrant an extended rest after four battles? Why couldn’t they refresh earlier? Or is it just arbitrary?

Finally, refreshing abilities after a fixed number of battles or encounters can feel, to some, sort of antithetical to the D&D play experience. For some, pushing resources to the limit, whether it be spells or hit points or whatever, is an important part of the play experience. Having an arbitrary limit or goal like this just may not work for some.

Refresh every Session

Another way to think about character abilities is in reference to the actual session of play. Several TTRPGs have tied mechanics around the session. Fate Core has Fate Points. Star Trek Adventures has Momentum and Threat. Even Pathfinder 2E has Hero Points. It only makes sense to think about how a D&D-adjacent game might deal with session-based refreshes.

In the tail-end of D&D 4E, my ongoing game had relatively sporadic player attendance with a somewhat more sporadic schedule. Some people might show up every session, but some would show up every other session while others might only be there once every few months. In addition, for any number of reasons, showing up with a fresh print of the D&D 4E character sheet was relatively common. Because of that, the game evolved (or, perhaps, devolved) into one where hit points, powers, and abilities would be refreshed every session.

There is a lot of convenience to this method. As a tool of resource tracking, it begins and ends with the people who show up for that session. There isn’t a lot of worry about things like “was I at full health at the end of last session?” or “did I use my once per day ability already?” It also eliminates any concern if somebody showed up “halfway through the day” because they missed the first session. That can make it convenient for irregular attendance and “West Marches” style games.

The session refresh can be compelling if your play tends to be episodic in nature. Every session is like an episode of a television show or issue of a comic, with characters normally starting the issue from their full, rested state. The Spectaculars RPG does a remarkable job of capturing this style, with every adventure (or Issue) designed as a single session, with characters refreshing their associated abilities between each one.

There are some significant downsides to this method. One potential concern is: how long is a session? Some groups play for two hours at a time while others play for four (or more!). Suddenly, something as basic as “how long do you play each time” can fundamentally change the feeling of mechanical balance in the game. Allowing characters to refresh their abilities after a two hour session vs. a four hour session is like giving them twice the abilities, which may feel unfair to players with characters that rely less on these sort of “once per day” abilities.

Another significant downside to this method, in my experience, is that it can be difficult to fit a full “D&D work day” in a single session. Sometimes, you may have a single session that only features one or two combat encounters. This can result in things feeling somewhat unbalanced, as characters with a greater number of limited, once per day abilities will be able to use them more regularly than they might have otherwise, resulting in the potential for the play experience feeling unbalanced.

Other Methods to Handle It

There are likely many different ways that you can restructure the system for major character refreshes, the long or extended rest, to better suit your style of play. The three methods presented here are just a few that have come up in my own experience that I have found work well in specific circumstances.