Revisiting Stamina Systems

I had someone on the gg no re twitter ask me a question in light of this ancient post (which you probably need to read in order to understand this one): what stamina systems have worked for y’all?

Answer: none.

I did make this post about a stamina system, and I probably forced it on my players once or twice, but it’s had no lasting impact.

And that’s because adding systems to rules that everyone knows already and is comfortable with tends to be perceived as a burden. Additionally, because this system in particular makes the PCs weaker, players are not going to be jumping at the chance to come up with a new stat that governs how close they are to failing in new and exciting ways.

However, I do like the idea of stamina systems, and they already exist in certain forms within game currently, whether the oldest of old school or 5e. If you want to implement a stamina system (and I believe I do this, but on a case by case basis and without calling it that and announcing it to the players), I’d recommend silently using one of these, all of which I either have used or currently use.

Old School: Use the 1-in-6 Rest Rule

B/X (and maybe OD&D, too lazy to check) has an implicit stamina system:

RESTING: After moving for 5 turns, the party must rest for 1 turn. One turn in 6 (one each hour of the adventure) must be spent resting. If characters do not rest, they have a penalty of -1 on all “to hit” and damage rolls until they do rest.
Moldvay Basic (B19)

We can conceive of this rule in another way:

  • PCs start with 6 stamina
  • PCs lose 1 stamina at the beginning of each turn
  • At 0 stamina, PCs suffer a penalty (-1 to attacks and damage)
  • Resting for a turn restores 6 stamina

Or another way:

  • PCs start with 0 fatigue
  • At the start of each turn, PCs gain 1 fatigue
  • At 6 fatigue, PCs suffer a penalty
  • Resting for a turn reduces fatigue by 6

Either way, you can see how this implicit system can now be modified. Navigating particularly nasty terrain (“tiring” or “fatiguing” or “stressful” or whatever) can grant additional fatigue or reduce stamina, depending on the model you prefer.

You could also introduce checks here: before an encounter, roll a d6 vs your current stress or fatigue, trying to roll under or over, depending on your model. If you fail, you’re treated as tired for the purpose of the encounter.

Or tiring terrain, instead of (or isntead of only) granting bad points, could force these checks.

Food and water could give a buffer against fatigue or a bonus on fatigue checks.

You could continue to track stamina into the negatives or fatigue above 6, perhaps doubling the penalty at doubled values (e.g., at 12 fatigue or -6 stamina).

Players do not even need to be aware of this, since they usually take rests and explore together, meaning you can make all this happen behind the scenes and just let them know when they’ll need to rest to avoid penalty.

New School: Exhaustion

The 5e rules for exhaustion:

1Disadvantage on ability checks
2Speed halved
3Disadvantage on attack rolls and saving throws
4Hit point maximum halved
5Speed reduced to 0

When navigating tiring terrain, you could call for a Constitution save or Athletics or Acrobatics check, perhaps even Survival, in order to avoid taking a level of exhaustion.

A problem is that these effects, by the book, are relieved only on a long rest rather than a short rest, which might really mess with the intuitive pacing of the delve. You might rule that one level of exhaustion can be removed with a short rest per long rest. Or you might introduce the concept of “temporary exhaustion,” analogous to temporary hit points. That’s probably the most elegant solution.

Pan-Editional Approaches

While you can of course use the old school system in 5e and the 5e system in B/X, there are some other approaches that will work in either mode that are not specific to either:

Ability Damage

Navigating nasty terrain could reduce ability scores temporarily until a rest.

Max HP Reduction

Temporarily reducing max hp until rest is another method that also ensures the druid can’t just goodberry his way out of hauling a gilded piano up a cliff for an hour. This also tends to make the martial types (barbarians, fighters) into hardier explorers, which makes sense.

However, at low levels, magic bois are going to be very (and perhaps annoyingly) sensitive to the dangers of exploration: having your 3 max hp reduced to 2 because you had to climb a hill? It does make sense but may foment mutiny. And at high levels, losing 1 hp is nothing. So the temporary loss of max hp should be proportional to the total amount of hp, maybe a fourth.

Check Penalties

This can be combined with the old school method. Call for checks to avoid fatigue. On a failure, you get the fatigue penalty to your checks. The check to avoid fatigue in the first place could have a penalty equal to the number of turns it’s been since you rested.

Recommended Method

I would (and do) use the implicit old school method:

  • silently track fatigue points for the group
  • +1 fatigue at the start of each turn
  • 6 fatigue means you get the tired condition (-1 to attacks and damage) or, in 5e, one level of temporary exhaustion
  • short rest remove 6 fatigue
  • nasty terrain either (a) adds fatigue and/or (b) forces to a check to avoid fatigue

I like this method because I’m already tracking turns for time and light already; so it’s minimal mental overhead. It’s also on the d6 scale with so many other things in le ancien regime.

If I were running a game that was not a turn-tracking dungeon crawl, I’d just rely on checks to avoid fatigue penalties when the players hit nasty spots and, when things seemed right, say “you’ll need to rest if you don’t want to get tired.” If it makes sense fictionally, I doubt you’d get pushback.

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