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Nerdarchy > Dungeons & Dragons  > Exhaustion Saving Throws in 5E D&D

Exhaustion Saving Throws in 5E D&D

There is one rule in most roleplaying games that is especially true in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. There’s a check or saving throw for everything. Does a character want to jump across the chasm? Athletics check, please. Does a character want to avoid falling over a cliff? Dexterity saving throw, please. This applies to special abilities or spells characters or monsters may have as well. in 5E D&D conditions generated by these spells or abilities have ability checks or saving throws attached to them.

5E D&D exhaustion saving throw

“Y’all ready to hoof it to that mountain over yonder? Looks pretty exhausting. Thank goodness we can make that saving throw to shrug off the condition a little bit,” said no 5E D&D player ever. Until now!

Don’t let exhaustion bring you down in 5E D&D

Monsters or characters that want to grapple have some sort of d20 roll under consideration. If a ghoul surprises a wizard and hit them, there’s a saving throw to avoid being paralyzed. If a sea hag’s gaze falls upon an unfortunate rogue there’s a saving throw against being frightened. Conditions of all kinds have ability checks or saving throws involved to make the 5E D&D system fair. 

All conditions, that is, save one. Exhaustion. Exhaustion occurs for several reasons, be it severe cold, hunger or other effects. In some cases there is a saving throw for this condition. In other case it’s automatic. That’s where I have a problem. 

Heroic characters dodge rooms filled with fire, shrug off the mental abilities of mind flayers, steel themselves against poison and resist Possession by ghosts, often without any harmful results at all. However, there are arbitrary exhaustion effects. They are activated like a binary light switch — either off or on. Worse yet these exhaustion effects are the product of a class feature or test of endurance. 

This is punitive especially in the case of the Path of the Berserker Primal Path for barbarians. There’s a reason the vast majority of players choose the Path of the Totem Warrior. Let’s face it, the reason is the Bear Totem Spirit in the vast majority of cases. The Berserker’s Frenzy feature rarely gets used as it inflicts exhaustion without so much as a saving throw. A simple Constitution saving throw would at least give this (supposedly) resilient class a chance to resist at least the initial stages of exhaustion. Currently it does not. 

Hunger is another case. Hunger is a devastating effect in a game where survival can be the core dynamic to a setting. In this case if creatures don’t get proper food within a period of time, exhaustion immediately kicks in. In a gritty setting where this sort of realism is desired, it may be appropriate. However, if the setting still includes rogues dodging fireballs for no damage, realism takes a hit as a valid argument. A level playing field for expectations is always a consideration. 

Therefore, I would like to offer an exhaustion mechanic used at my table with some success. It means Berserkers were finally played at my table, and the players involved felt the mechanic was fair while still offering challenges to risking Frenzy. It means characters who were less than successful at Survival still had a fighting chance to come back from the death spiral of exhaustion. 

The simple explanation is this: use the exhaustion level as the base, with each level of exhaustion a progressively harder Constitution saving throw. For characters proficient in Constitution saving throws, achieving success in at least the first two levels are plausible. It’s no guarantee, but the concept of a barbarian or fighter walking longer than others isn’t only plausible, it’s expected. 

A more complicated explanation is the following formula: a Constitution saving throw versus a base of 10 + 5/exhaustion level. So for 1 level of exhaustion the saving throw is DC 15, 2 levels is DC 20 and so on. On a success a character either avoids suffering 1 level of exhaustion or avoids progressing to the next level. Since the saving throw DC gets progressively harder, so there’s still the desired spiral, but at least there’s a chance. Furthermore, having proficiency in such saving throws means there is an actual numerical value to the ability with regard to exhaustion. If you’re already exhausted by failing a saving throw then you have a measure of how hard it will be to avoid the next. 

The numbers seem staggering until you realize a capstone barbarian could have +11 on a Constitution saving throw. A creature with a Constitution of 30 gets +10 before CR is considered. Would these creatures suffer exhaustion the same as Bill the simple bartender? I think not. 

Such a mechanic gives heroic characters a fighting chance like they would get with any other condition, spell or effect. It allows for heroic deeds and takes the brakes off the Berserker. It allows characters to have cinematic moments where they walk through the night without food to save a loved one. It imbues the characters with at least the chance to ward off the last condition that seemed arbitrary. 

Essentially, it makes the game fair to the last. And isn’t that what we all want?

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Mike Gould

I fell into gaming in the oddest of ways. Coming out of a bad divorce, my mom tried a lot of different things to keep my brother and I busy and out of trouble. It didn't always work. One thing that I didn't really want to do, but did because my mom asked, was enroll in Venturers. As an older Scout-type movement, I wasn't really really for the whole camping-out thing. Canoe trips and clean language were not my forte. Drag racing, BMX and foul language were. What surprised me though was one change of pace our Scout leader tried. He DMed a game of the original D&D that came out after Chainmail (and even preceedd the Red Box). All the weapons just did 1d6 damage, and the three main demi-humans (Elf, Dwarf and Halfling) were not only races, but classes. There were three alignments (Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic). It was very basic. I played all the way through high school and met a lot of new people through gaming. My expected awkwardness around the opposite sex disappeared when I had one game that was seven girls playing. They, too, never thought that they would do this, and it was a great experiement. But it got me hooked. I loved gaming, and my passion for it became infectious. Despite hanging with a very rough crowd who typically spent Fridays scoring drugs, getting into fights, and whatnot, I got them all equally hooked on my polyhedral addiction. I DMed guys around my table that had been involved in the fast-living/die young street culture of the 80s, yet they took to D&D like it was second nature. They still talk to me about those days, even when one wore a rival patch on his back to the one I was wearing. We just talked D&D. It was our language. Dungeons and Dragons opened up a whole new world too. I met lots off oddballs along with some great people. I played games like Star Frontiers, Gamma World, Car Wars, Battletech, lots of GURPS products, Cyberpunk, Shadowrun, Twilight 2000, Rolemaster, Champions, Marvel Superheroes, Earth Dawn...the list goes on. There was even a time while I was risiding with a patch on my back and I would show up for Mechwarrior (the clix kind) tournaments. I was the odd man out there. Gaming lead to me attending a D&D tournament at a local convention, which lead to being introduced to my paintball team, called Black Company (named after the book), which lead to meeting my wife. She was the sister of my 2iC (Second in Command), and I fell in love at first sight. Gaming lead to me meeting my best friend, who was my best man at my wedding and is the godfather of my youngest daughter. Life being what it is, there was some drama with my paintball team/D&D group, and we parted ways for a number of years. In that time I tried out two LARP systems, which taught me a lot about public speaking, improvisation, and confidence. There was a silver lining. I didn't play D&D again for a very long time, though. Then 5E came out. I discovered the Adventurer's League, and made a whole new group of friends. I discovered Acquisitions Incorporated, Dwarven Tavern, and Nerdarchy. I was hooked again. And now my daughter is playing. I introduced her to 5E and my style of DMing, and we talk in "gamer speak" a lot to each other (much to the shagrin of my wife/her mother...who still doesn't "get it"). It's my hope that one day she'll be behind the screen DMing her kids through an amazing adventure. Time will tell.

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