21 February 2014

Simple Fatigue Rule

I've been struggling with fatigue rules that aren't just some lousy modifier to keep track of, and this is what I've come up with. I'm trying it currently in my game, and it seems to be working - it's simple to understand, and fairly severe in its implications.

When exhausted, lose all levels, and move as if fully encumbered. If already fully encumbered, you movement is at a shuffle (essentially 0 for overland travel).

Thus class skills are no longer accessible - Burglars can't free-run or climb, Magicians can't cast spells, Fighters get no attack/defense bonuses.

You're just a slow, normal human when exhausted.


  1. A little harsh but it certainly points out why resting is a good idea.
    Can players use wolfpack tactics. To exhaust foes? If so does an Ogre, Giant, or Dragon ever get exhausted?

    1. They would, but it would take a lot. How much cockroach chasing would it take to get you exhausted? :)

  2. So what causes a person to become exhausted, or advance toward exhaustion, in your rules?

    1. What causes people to become exhausted in real life?

  3. Obviously I know the answer to that question: exertion, mental or physical. Let me be more specific.

    How is exhaustion measured: do things add to an exhaustion score, or do those real-life things simply flip a switch, from fine to exhausted? If it's some kind of score or tally, how do the things that cause exhaustion add to that? Are they all equally exhausting? How does resting (of any kind: massage, nap, eating) figure into exhaustion: does it reduce the exhaust score or prevent it from increasing, does it flip the switch back to "fine," etc.

    Are there intermediate steps between "OK" and "exhausted? Say, "tired," taking away half your levels?

    If you're going to tell me "real life" then I expect the rest of it to work something like real life too.

    1. I think the idea I had when I wrote this was to keep it absolutely, completely simple.

      You just make a call - would this push you over the line?

      It's a negotiated thing between DM and player - I imagined the DM saying something like "You've been marching and fighting all day - one more fight and you'll be exhausted." or "After climbing that wall, you're pretty tired - if you don't get a good rest and a bite to eat soon, you'll be exhausted."

      The idea is to make fatigue simple and understandable, to offer a meaningful choice, and to rely on common sense, real-life experience, and the maturity of the DM and the players to come up with reasonable applications in-game.

      So yes - it does just flip a switch in this conception, but it shouldn't come as a surprise. There's no score or tally - that's a lot of boring bookkeeping that's just going to eventually amount to the same thing. No intermediate steps.

      It's not "realistic" in the sense that it's an accurate simulation of depleted glucose stores, mental stamina, accumulated lactic acid, sleep deprivation, etc. etc. etc.

      It's realistic in the sense that it can flexibly take into account an infinitude of factors and delivers tough in-game results for pushing your character too far.

    2. I would recommend you check out my post on Realism vs Detail, as it sounds like you're making that error - conflating a highly detailed system with a highly realistic one.

      I deny that adding a bunch of modifiers to this and that and tracking that thing and the other thing meticulously is going to lead to a result that's any different in terms of realism.

      Link to the post:


  4. From your link:

    "Now let's look at the contrary scenario - the DM is some kind of hyper-computer that has an atom-perfect simulation of the game world. Everything action has perfectly realistic results (realistic as defined by the game world - there can still be magic and dragons and stuff). All outcomes are computed instantly and relayed back to the player.

    In this scenario, all of the character's life experience will be useful. They can make informed choices without worrying about the "rules", because their actions will have the same effect they would have in the real world. They simply need to role-play - the ruleset, despite being totally realistic, just gets out of the way and lets them play."

    (Note: for the record I think "lose all your levels" is a fine abstraction of exhaustion and something I might use. That's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about getting TO exhaustion, and building off the "warning signs" you gave as quotes in your reply. In addition: part of the game is trusting the DM's judgment to be based on sound principles and I think that's easier when the DM is bound by procedures. The trick is making the procedures satisfying to all parties, DM and player. Shitty complex rules, like Pathfinder, do nothing to satisfy. The supercomputer scenario is satisfying to the players because it represents the real world in a convincing way.)

    I understand what you mean about the flexibility to "take into account an infinitude of factors" when warning of exhaustion, as in the examples you gave. The fact that it seems to be a sort of "warning system" is a good step and is probably the most important one. But what I would want to see is some ability on my part to compute *when* I should warn of exhaustion, and that requires a little bit of thinking about what makes a person tired. Note: perhaps the word "realistic" was wrong. When I say "realistic," I mean "having enough basis in my perception of reality to allow me to compute an in-game effect that makes sense." Your argument is that exhaustion, like many other topics, is caused by many factors, and ad-hoc is the best way to compute when to warn for exhaustion. I want something a little more nailed-down than that; not because I want to simulate varying degrees of tiredness or different types of exhaustion from different types of exertion, but because on some level I want the game to help run itself*, which means establishing details** about when exhaustion happens. This might require more detail in the operation that determines when exhaustion happens, but because I can program it into my computer and never think about the steps again, I might have a different standard for "detailed" than you, if you play solely with pencil/paper. I do it this way because it allows me to make steps toward the supercomputer scenario you describe. Make sense?

    *I believe that the ultimate form of D&D games requires a complex simulator run by computer, with the DM parsing the outputs and describing the situations. The computer handles all calculations, but the DM is responsible for the "tactical infinity" element of D&D games: he instructs the computer that everyone is flying and that a Moon Ghost has appeared, and the computer, spits out the rules for flying (for reference), computes changes in player movement speeds, and generates attacks/reaction rolls/etc for the Moon Ghost. Perhaps in light of this ideal my desire for complicated rules makes sense: I would, of course, never want complicated rules when playing with only analog lookup tables.

    **Note that the complexity need not all be revealed to the player. It is enough for me to say "getting in fights and skipping meals/sleep will make you exhausted, and being exhausted robs you of your levels" for them to get the point. Curious players can of course be shown the computation, since it is a rule that defines the game world.

    1. "think that's easier when the DM is bound by procedures. "

      Well, I disagree.

    2. Understand that I'm not saying the DM can't make considered ad-hoc rulings whenever they're necessary. The open-ended nature of D&D makes that a necessity. What I advocate for just means that rules stay the same and get followed all the time in all applicable situations. Or, in other words: the rules that are written down are followed. Ad-hoc rules point out the gaps, and show where new rules might need to be written.

      You've talked about trust between DM and player. Fixed rules set the base for that trust. The more they cover and the more well-thought-out they are, the stronger the trust is (and the opposites are true too.) From that trust comes the player's trust that the DM's ad-hoc rulings will not just be whimsical, but well-considered.

      Obviously ad-hoc rulings have their uses, because the game rules can't cover everything at once. Player wants to open a business and you don't have any rules for property-buying, or any way to estimate land prices, or who's selling, or whether there's a market for what he wants to sell? Sucks, but maybe you can ad-hoc something. If it works, figure out why and standardize it for next time. Best-case scenario, it's completely applicable to how non-player entities do stuff in the world. And if it didn't work? Scrap the results, apologize, build something better and use those. It's a process of refinement.

      I'm sure you don't make ad-hoc rulings for everything. You have characters with levels, and the process of going up in levels is codified. You have XP, and the numbers needed to advance levels is codified, as well as sources of XP. Spells are certainly codified: I've seen your recent blog posts. All I do is extend that kind of rigidity to other pieces of the game world whenever I can.

    3. "Fixed rules set the base for that trust."

      No. Fixed rules are irrelevant to that trust.

      "The more they cover and the more well-thought-out they are, the stronger the trust is (and the opposites are true too.)"

      Absolutely, unequivocally not the case.

      "From that trust comes the player's trust that the DM's ad-hoc rulings will not just be whimsical, but well-considered."

      Consider for a moment that the DM, even in a stringent ruleset like PF, can literally do whatever they want - ten balrogs in the second room of a first-level dungeon? Insta-death unescapable traps? Hunter-killer drones that secretly kill the characters in their sleep?

      Trust does not come from the rules. Period.

      Trust comes from the same things it always comes from - faith in human nature, personal experience of someone's character, past experiences, mutual maturity...

      Why do you trust your DM? The same reasons you trust your partner, your friend, your colleague.

      Rules are completely, utterly irrelevant. A good DM can apply a bad rule in a fair way, and a bad DM can apply a good rule in an unfair way.

  5. I'll tackle the examples first.

    "Ten balrogs in the second room of a first-level dungeon"

    If there are ten balrogs in a room, it's not a first-level room. How do I know that? The rules for Challenge Rating, checked against the level-one party.

    "Insta-death unescapable traps"

    And how exactly do those work? Of the many mechanical devices covered in the rules (e.g. crushing walls), I don't know of any that are instant death. There's black lotus poison, which if I recall correctly kills on a missed save. If the trap simply kills people just-because, then I might as well insist that my character's eyebrows kill people just-because.

    "Hunter-killer drones that secretly kill the characters in their sleep"

    I assume PF has rules for waking up upon taking damage, so that obviates any method in which damage is dealt over time until the characters are dead. Suppose it's a drone with some hypothetical magic gun that deals, say, 10000d6 damage, and thus can kill anyone instantly? Well, we have the rules for magic item creation and as far as I know that item would be quite expensive, so any such drone would spark an investigation: who has tons of money and wants to kill the PCs? If there's no such person with tons of money, then the rules have been incorrectly applied: money is required to create that magic gun, but no money was provided. (Obviously your game might require some other resource than gold to make items. Or your game might require no resources at all - but then what stops everyone from making magic guns? Finally, if the PCs need resources but other people don't: well, I'd call that an unfair rule. See below.)

    I don't believe a rule can be applied unfairly. A rule stands, period. If your PC is standing in Super Slime and the rule says "Super Slime kills with no save," your PC is dead, no save. There's no concept of fairness in reading the rules.

    On the other hand, there can be rules that are themselves bad (or "unfair" rules.) Here is an example of a bad rule: "Fighter-class characters begin play with a magic gun that kills any living creature on a 2 or higher on 1d20, no save." The application of that rule consists of reading it, nodding, and handing said magic gun to all freshly-rolled Fighters. Application is just, well, applying. The rule itself, of course, is bad/unfair. Presumably other characters will find the game unsatisfying when Fighters have their magic guns; presumably the goal of the rules is to provide a satisfying game framework.

    (Note that I would also say that a spreadsheet requiring six hours of work to calculate a single combat roll is a bad rule. But not for the same reasons, of course.)

    You mention good and bad DMs. I agree they exist. But I think a bad DM is someone who makes crappy rules and doesn't fix them (for whatever reason.) An improving DM fixes his crappy rules. A good DM knows how to begin with good rules.

    Anyone, even a computer, can read a rulebook and apply the rules within. But it's the ability to make the rules good in the first place that makes a good DM.

    Final thought:

    You say: "a bad DM can apply a good rule in an unfair way."

    As I've stated, I don't know how one can apply a rule in any way other than when it is called for. Perhaps you mean "applying a rule when it is not warranted" or "failing to apply the rule when it is warranted"? I call that an error if it's unintentional, and cheating if it's not. It is as if a player "forgets" that his magic cape protects him from fire, and tells the similarly-protected dwarf to go first into the secret cave, only to remember the fire protection when a dragon comes swooping by. What an asshole.

    1. I wrote out a point by point response to this, but I deleted it because there's not point in arguing with someone like you.

      So, I'll just say this: you've made your point, you are entirely wrong.

      Also, don't talk as if everyone plays Pathfinder. Pathfinder is a shockingly bad game, and I hope to never again be subjected to it.

      The depths of the idiocy of Pathfinder are truly staggering. No need to bring up Pathfinder around here anymore.

  6. @ Charles:

    Very nice blog, with lots of tasty bits. Look forward to seeing your game in a playable form.
    : )