When I first started DMing Dungeons and Dragons 5e (which wasn’t all that long ago, to be honest), I was very mechanical about a lot of things. I quickly learned that one of the reasons I enjoyed some of the actual play podcasts I was listening to was because they played things a little looser and favored narrative over progress.
This came across in a number of ways. I’ll briefly illustrate by way of comparison:
Me: I hit you and you take 3 damage.
Them: The goblin’s dagger finds a home in your side. Oh, max damage! He gives it a sharp twist with the blade still inside you dealing 6 damage.
Me: You walk into the bar and the barkeep asks, “What’ll you have?”
Them: The bar’s floor is covered in sawdust; presumably to make cleaning up the vomit a bit easier. A gnome bard is tuning his lute near the hearth. He must be the house talent as you see a couple of the patrons raise their glasses and shout, “You gonna play the one about the fella who ended up with the mast up his a@$ again tonight, Rollo?!”
Me: Alright, you guys roll any hit dice you want and gain back whatever you get during short rests while I go take a leak. BRB.
Them: What are your PCs thinking about the situation they’re in? What’s going on inside their minds in light of all this?
Its this last example I want to write on briefly today, as I’ve come to hand wave long and short rests less and less. Sure, there are times when we zip right through them at my table – functionally hitting fast forward and picking things right back up without missing hardly a beat. But other times I’ll hit pause and make that time a little more intentional. Here are the two main ways I do so.
Check In on the PCs
The Glass Cannon Podcast is exceptionally good about this. Troy will use rests or downtimes in the narrative to drop in on the PCs as a group and as individuals. These check-ins often result in one of two things (and sometimes both!):
- Table talk. I’m not talking about the bad kind necessarily. Instead, asking the PCs how they’re doing or what they’re thinking (especially about specific things when possible) gives everyone at the table a little behind the scenes glimpse at what’s going on in the minds of the other PCs. You’re not asking John how he’s doing, you’re asking him what Grunk thinks about the party’s decision to leave the orc children caged in the camp the party had discovered had been massacred by a pack of dire wolves instead of setting them free. It invites the players to reveal the inner workings of their characters in a way that might not otherwise come out in-game.
- In character conversations. Sometimes I’ll open this door expecting some table chatter only to be surprised when the player responds in character to another character. If you just zip right on through the rest and bounce from quest progress to quest progress with no time between, these conversations may never happen. Create that space and see what your players and their characters do with it. The temptation is to gloss over rests because they aren’t combat and don’t progress the narrative, but we need to remember that there is more than combat and conquest to each of the PCs represented around the table. They’ve got stories to tell and opinions to share. Give them room to do so!
Ask Them What They Do With the Time
Listen: When your PCs ask for a short or long rest, the HP gain and ability reset is assumed…but what else might they want to do with that time?
Some of my absolute favorite moments in the games I’m involved with right now have resulted from this question. In one, my character and another PC would routinely wrestle or box for free room and board ahead of rests at establishments. The DM called for a best-of-five contested Strength rolls or we’d do unarmed strikes vs AC until one of us knocked the other out. Regardless of the outcome, we’d save a few gold and in some instances the other PCs would make a few gold placing wagers with other folks in the tavern. It became something we routinely did not because we were broke but because it was fun! It sure beats just saying, “I go to bed.”
Others might spend some time crafting, transcribing a spell, or sharpening their gun (looking at you, Barron). I don’t know about you, but unless I’m sleeping my rest does involve some measure of activity. I’m not just sitting there all quiet and staring into space. I might be scrolling about the internet on my phone or writing an article or fiddling around on my guitar. Give your PCs a moment to consider if they do anything during that downtime. If they don’t, great! Move right along. But sometimes just prompting them with the question gets their gears a’turning and opens the door to conversations and activities that otherwise might not have happened.
Not every rest has to be more than a rest. Carefully pick the moments during which you open them up to the possibility of being something a little more. Maybe after a demoralizing defeat, a huge win, a plot twist, a surprise reveal, or just to insert a small break from constant mechanics. Let your players have fun with their characters outside of narrative progression and combat! This’ll give your players a chance to develop their characters a bit apart from the driving narrative.