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.
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?