The game assumes multiple encounters per day. However, sandboxes or megadungeons give players a lot of control about how far and how long they want to push each day. Sure, factions can also act independently and send ambushers, but for the most part it is up to the players to explore new areas and trigger encounters.

If there is no time pressure, this can lead to the "five minute adventuring day", the player characters move in at full strength, blow their high-end daily powers on whatever poor monsters happen to meet them, and get back out to rest and repeat.

The common way to prevent this it to have a "clock", something bad that is going to happen if the players take too much time. World's gonna end if you cannot find the gizmo and close the gate to hell in time. Lord Evil is going to take the throne if you cannot free the rightful prince from the bottom of his megadungeon by year's end.

However, always being under a strict clock can turn the game into a slog. You never can take a day off, never can have fun downtime frolics, never can go onto side adventures in other settings. You always have to get back to your duties the next morning. Remember, the world's gonna end if you don't. Waste no time. So day after day gutting that dungeon. This monotony in purpose and play can make the campaign feel more like work, than like fun and entertaining adventures.

What successful ways have you used to allow variety of play while having a clock to drive players on?

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ IMX, "multiple encounters per day" is often just not feasible. First off, it's unpleasant from a storytelling perspective unless you are very firmly in the dungeon-crawling niche. But also logistically in terms of running the adventure, unless you are comfortable with your sessions representing only one in-game day (or a portion thereof!). Combat inexorably slows the game down, no matter how good the system is; players don't want to keep rolling initiative for easy combats (of the sort you can survive multiple of without a long rest), because it's boring; and other stuff happens in between. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 11, 2022 at 20:45

5 Answers 5


Adventure pieces larger than the encounter

The 5 minute adventuring day is caused by the "unit" of D&D being the encounter. You finish a unit of D&D, then you are at loose ends until the next unit.

And laying down in the middle of an encounter and having a long or short rest is an obviously bad plan.

If your "pieces" of adventure that the PCs interact with are larger than a single encounter, then laying down in the middle of that piece should also be an obviously bad plan.

The Scene

The Scene is what I call a bundle of encounters "between short rests". For whatever reason, once you start a Scene, taking a short rest somehow causes the Scene to "fail".

This can be because the Scene engaged with the PCs (and doesn't let them disengage), or it could be because the PCs learned about a problem and have not much more than an hour to solve it, or because the Scene reacts to being interacted with, and an hour break means that the Scene's reaction makes the situation worse for the PCs in whatever way.

Guards could set off alarms, or be noticed as missing. A group could respond to being attacked by picking up and moving away.

An easy, natural way to have a Scene is a relatively living dungeon, each room relatively isolated from each other, but in an hour period intrusion is noticed. Another is a running battle in the wilderness against allied foes, or in an environment where short rests are not plausible.

The breaks between encounters can be as short as 1-5 minutes in a Scene, or as long as 59 minutes. They can even be longer than an hour if short rests are otherwise implausible, like on a ship in a storm.

A good Scene budget is 2-5 medium encounters (For other difficulties Easy as 0.5, Hard as 1.5 and Deadly as 2.0). An Easy scene has 2 Medium, a Deadly scene has 5+. But adjust based on your PCs capabilities.

The Chapter

The Chapter is what I call a set of Scenes that would "fail" if you took a long rest before finishing them.

Chapters should have 2-5 Medium difficulty Scenes in them. (Easy count as 0.5, Hard 1.5, Deadly as 2.0), with again an Easy chapter is 2 Medium Scenes, Medium has 3, Hard has 4 medium scenes, and Deadly has 5+ medium Scenes.

This can be a clock (your PCs learn they have 24 hours to save the world!), the enemy responding to contact, or a difficulty in doing a long rest given the environment the Chapter is in.

From the DMG

"Chapter" and "Scene" above roughly mimics the "adventuring day" advice in the DMG, with ~2 short rests (hence ~3 scenes) and 7-9 medium encounters per day (I rounded up to 3 medium encounters per scene). It just divides it up slightly differently, and instead of using "total XP" builds things using pieces based on narrative structure. And as "sum of XP" is abstract, while "these encounters chain together" isn't, it can help build things.

The XP ratios of encounters in the DMG are 1:2:3:4 for easy:medium:hard:deadly (or pretty close). This lines up with 0.5:1:1.5:2 medium encounters ratio (I used the "medium" encounter as my unit).

Example: Raiders

An encampment of raiders. This is a Medium Chapter. It has 2 Easy and 2 Deadly scenes.

  • Scene 1 is a scout patrol. (Easy Scene)

    • An Easy vanguard Encounter (0.5)
    • Hard main patrol Encounter (1.5).
  • Scene 2 is a heavy raiding party sent out in response to the missing scout patrol. (Easy Scene)

    • A single Deadly Encounter.
  • Scene 3 is the actual camp. (Deadly Scene)

    • Hard Cavalry Encounter (1.5)
    • Hard Infantry Encounter (1.5)
    • Deadly Boss fight Encounter (2.0)

The area has an outer ring of scout patrols, an inner ring of heavy raiders, and the camp itself. Much of the force is actually out raiding or patrolling.

In response to enemy contact they'll start getting reinforcements from raiders further out, from their home base, and eventually pull out with their treasure.

Any treasure reward is in the main camp.

Example: Travel

An eternal storm exists in a region the PCs want to cross. Crossing it requires a week of travel. There is an oasis half way. Short rests require 8 hours and require difficult checks to avoid exhaustion, and long rests are impossible.

Chapter 1:

  • Scene 1: Land sharks! Because everyone hates loves land sharks.

  • Scene 2: Fey pranks on the wind

  • Scene 3: Find an Oasis. It is defended by hostiles. (LONG REST is your reward)

Note that additional hostiles will approach the Oasis if they PCs stick around. The PCs do get a day's grace.

Chapter 2:

  • Scene 1: Trolls under a Bridge (and maybe some billy goats)

In the event of a retreat, another hostile power could occupy the bridge, and the Oasis is again occupied by reinforcements.

  • Scene 2: The Destination. Some encounter they get as they leave the storm.

Set the difficulties to taste; this is just a narrative structure.

The key here is that "5 minute adventuring day" doesn't work; the PCs would have to withdraw out of the storm, losing possibly days.

"Gritty" can make it easy for you

Use "gritty rests". In it, short rests are always overnight, and long rests require a week rest (in a safe spot).

Scenes/Chapters are tied together by plot. And plot-wise, it is far easier to justify "you fail" a Scene when you wait a day than if you wait an hour, and a Chapter "you fail" if the PCs go back to base and wait a week.

(I'd allow downtime style activities to take place during long rests).

As a bonus, this causes wall-clock time to pass, allowing the world to evolve and downtime to occur naturally. A Chapter takes 3-7 days of adventuring and 7 days of rest (10-14 days). If it takes 3 Chapters to earn enough XP to gain a level, that is a bit more than 1 month per level.

So even without a narrative break or extra downtime, it now takes about 1.5 years to reach level 20, instead of a few weeks. You can now take your sandbox and plot out events that will happen (barring PCs preventing them) on an in-game wall calendar.

Stick "T2" scale events PC can respond to ~6 months after game start, "T3" ~1 year, and "T4" ~18 months out. Have foreshadowing of these events coming before they happen (ie, if the T2 event is an overthrow of a Kingdom, hints it is happening can be dropped in month 1-5). This is a bit of a meta-clock, sort of like "Star Control 2".

This may require calibrating your encounter difficulty; Scenes now contain entire adventuring days. And single issues that are larger than a Chapter can end up taking a narrative month or more to resolve.


Don't build your adventure (or sandbox content!) in "encounter" pieces. Build it in larger pieces. Tie the encounters within the larger piece together.

PCs are expected to defeat the larger pieces "in detail". If they don't, they are screwed.

Consider "gritty" rests to help with narrative pacing. Justifying taking a week off having no effect is harder than doing it

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is an excellent answer with very usable advice! Adventures in Middle-earth is structured in a similar fashion. \$\endgroup\$
    – Wyrmwood
    Commented May 11, 2022 at 16:56
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I find using the old 1E-2E rules for regaining hit points leads to better flow as fights take longer to recover from and lead to trying to complete sections. That the old default is now gritty speaks to how much campaigns have shrunk in length and leveling up has increased. In 1E-2E the highest level characters I DMd were 7th level. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 11, 2022 at 19:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ Nice examples, I am so stealing this! 😊 \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 11, 2022 at 20:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ Chunking is a good idea. You can also look at this from the other end as "adventure pieces smaller than the campaign", i.e. time pressure only applying to some sections of the adventure path, leaving space between to goof of, do side quests etc. Gritty rests sounds also interesting, although I think my players would not like that. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 12, 2022 at 10:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin Also, failure need not be "campaign over" with smaller time pressure. It could mean "everyone in village is killed", "treasure got away", "rival thieves stole our reward", "patron is unhappy". Don't punish with "you failed, here is more adventure" (more adventure is a given!), the "failure" is "the world changes in ways the PCs (and possibly players; but not needed: sometimes, players love the apocalypse, even if PCs don't) won't like, and it is clear the alternative was possible". \$\endgroup\$
    – Yakk
    Commented May 13, 2022 at 14:39

An axe over a head works almost as good as ticking clock

While true that it is quite difficult to make your players take risks of fighting without full strength when they can decide what to do and when to take rests, and usually saying "if you don't hurry, something bad will happen" helps this problem. As you pointed out, however, this wrecks pacing of the game if used too often, and sometimes is just tiresome for the player to always be under time pressure, some players can outright hate that way of "motivating" them to act swiftly.

But there are some ways to use other things as the carrot and stick here. Players can enter an area like a dungeon or territory under enemy control, where long rests are very dangerous, and are very likely to be interrupted by enemy attack. Only if they reach their goal they can reliably leave, for example searching for some documents, carried by errand boy, that moves from camp to camp, and if the players leave mid-investigation those lands, they will need to effectively start from the beginning.

Other ways include using environmental hazards to push the group forward. An icy blizzard in the open, without any real shelter can be fatal for the players, and "installing" dark clouds in right place, and their movement at right pace can make wonders with players newfound ability to push forward, rather than taking their sweet time to sleep. This is not a uncommon example; jungles of Chult have their madness-inducing mists - slow, but deadly to anyone not wise enough to move. Starting the dungeon from the bottom up (teleporter, pit, long shaft and water at the bottom or something, dunno) and clearing it as fast as possible, because the lowest level is close to magma, that slowly, but surely fill level after level - this can even be used by players in solving some of the rooms or helping with encounters, making entire experience more interesting, less railroady.

What is important, you do need to set the expectations of the "axe" right. This is deadly, this is dangerous, this will result in starting over - you need to clearly communicate that to your players. Because if you don't, sometimes you can see four or so great, valiant heroes charging through blizzard, dying in the process, because, quote: "We thought this wasn't THAT dangerous".

There exists different types of encounters

You can also opt to include quick but draining exploration encounters: chasm to cross, toxic vapors, squirrels, you name it. Not something as dangerous, but needed to be taken care of in one way or another. Spellslots, class abilities, items or luck in dice - something to expend to make the fights themselves more challenging, caused by the lack of resources. Those need to be just before the fight, or two in quick succession to not give the room to start baking marshmallows and rest again.

Once again, careful what you do - those must be possible to circumvent in ways party can do. No one likes "You step on a spike. Take d6 piercing damage" stupidities - because this is exactly what this is - a nonsensical hit point tax, which you need to pay. Those encounters need to be creative in ways of solving them, those are not traps, and should never be degraded to that level.


Sure, things should happen, but not always in a "The world is gonna end" way. E.g.

  • If you don't hurry back to town with this prisoner who knows valuable information but cannot speak because of how weak he is, he is gonna die. That's a setback, but not an unsolvable problem (if this isn't a single point of failure for the campaign)

  • If you do not clean out this dungeon in time, the rest of the occupying force will be back, making your escape harder/impossible.

  • If you cannot fetch X item by sundown, it will lose its useful magic.

The key here is to

a) communicate to your players that

  • something good or bad will happen (setting the stakes); you shouldn't necessarily tell everything to your players directly, but rather hint at things. For example, in the dungeon situation described above, say things like "you come upon a room with dozens of beds and several empty weapon racks. The beds look like they've been slept in recently, and there's signs of several people living here." Or you can have a wounded bandit return early from a raid with his buddy offhandedly talking about the others returning soon.
  • they can act on this information or ignore it, but then

b) there're in-game punishments and rewards, like missing out on information, items, gold, getting into potentially dangerous situations (and yes, PC deaths are absolutely part of this).

Another thing you can do to mitigate the "5-minute adventuring day" is to introduce some variation on Gritty Realism. Something I have done personally is to make Long Rests only available in "Safe Havens", i.e., towns, villages or inns that provide comfortable rest and also often need more than 1 night to complete. Short Rests are more prevalent then, and usually last at least an hour, but often more.

Alternatively, if you're deep in enemy territory there's a very real chance you are ambushed by a patrol or spied upon, which gives the enemy more time to prepare for you.

There's probably a lot more ideas that you can implement, but these are just my thoughts on the matter.


Three Pillars

Recall the "Three Pillars" of adventure: exploration, combat, and social interaction. The suggestion for the number of combats per day, each of appropriate challenge rating, is built around the combat pillar. That is, the DM and the players have an agreement, tacit or explicit, that the players want to be challenged in combat. The adventuring day structure in which each encounter uses a certain amount of combat resources is designed to present a certain level of challenge to players. Having only one encounter a day, one encounter in which the "characters move in at full strength, blow their high-end daily powers on whatever poor monsters happen to meet them, and get back out to rest and repeat" is only a problem to the extent that the players or DM think that they are operating under the paradigm of the combat pillar, in which the challenges will be that of combat.

On the other hand, if what the players are really after is social interaction, having one non-threatening combat per day is not a problem, because combat is not where they are looking to be challenged. Similarly if they are exploring, making sure they are consistently challenged in combat is not a concern. 'Sandbox play' is ultimately about exploration. Players decide where they want to explore, often initially just to see what is there, whether that is a wilderness hexcrawl or in a megadungenon. They may find a monster of an incredibly inappropriate combat level, and be forced to flee. This is not a failure within the combat pillar, it is success on the exploration pillar - now that they know the monster is there, they can avoid the area - at least until they are of a higher level. They may find easy monsters and stomp them. They may find reasonably challenging monsters, or monsters that have things they want, and decide to take them down - but carefully. They may find monsters with whom they wish to negotiate - this is not a failure of the combat pillar, but using their player choice to dally with the social interaction pillar. What you might see as a problem with the five-minute adventuring day is not a bug, it is a feature of sandbox play. The players get to decide how risky their behavior is. If they choose to interact with the world always 'fully loaded', they can. What if the players don't want to defeat a specific opponent? What if players are not interested in obtaining a MacGuffin? In a sandbox campaign, that's fine. If your question is, 'how can I run a sandbox and still push the players to fight when they don't want to?', then the facile answer is 'you can't, because if you did, it wouldn't be a sandbox'. Sandbox play is about player choice.

A combat-focused game

If, however, the challenges of the game are meant to be those of combat, then what you describe, players trying to 'rest to full' between each encounter, is a problem, because doing so sabotages the very challenge that pillar is supposed to be presenting. In considering how to address this, I think it is helpful to consider what the motivation of the characters (not the players) is. If they are not simply exploring, presumably they have a group goal. In encouraging them to continue to fight rather than rest, you need to make it clear that any pause in some way endangers their goal. The 'reason to not stop' should be a natural consequence of the goal itself, and is related to the source of conflict in the game.

Losing the MacGuffin

If the characters are focused on getting a 'thing' (plot object, piece of information, valuable treasure, magic item of power), make it clear that delays will make it less likely for them to get that thing. The defenders of that thing may decide to take it and relocate when it is threatened. They may call in reinforcements, so that the number of foes the party faces by waiting until later will be significantly more than if they pressed ahead now. Other groups, rivals of the characters, may have a chance to acquire it if the party hesitates to move in. If a magic thing, it may decay, transform, or be used. If the characters are trying to reach a certain magical location, that location may be available only for limited time, or under certain conditions that come and go.

Overcoming the Enemy

Rather than trying to obtain 'the thing', the characters may be trying to defeat a specific enemy. If they attack and withdraw, they give that enemy the chance to respond intelligently and specifically to the threat the characters represent. Make it clear that delay will either make the enemy stronger, or will increase the damage done to innocents. The enemy may simply leave, denying the players the victory they seek. They may call reinforcements and get stronger. They may dig in, fortifying their position with physical features designed to counter the abilities of the characters. They may send forces after the party, so that they cannot safely rest. They may send forces after 'soft targets' associated with the characters, taking the fight to them - killing or capturing family members, mentors, and followers, or destroying property and resources. If magical, they may attack from a distance, using the Dream spell, summoned familiars, and the like. If political, they may call greater forces to bear on the party, forcing the party to resolve the situation before king, country, or church orders them to stand down. If an existential threat to the characters' world, they may just continue to do collateral damage, killing and burning indiscriminately while the populace wonders why the heroes aren't saving them.

The Journey

Perhaps the players are involved in a long, complicated plot with elements of fetch quest, 'you tell him that I said', and such. There is no one 'thing' that they want, and no one enemy they must defeat, but a long chain of them. Why then not rest to full after each encounter? It could be that the overarching quest is on a time limit, but as you note this grows stale if used too often. Here I think it is better to use the environment as the challenge, as the enemy. Rather than a mundane world with isolated elements of challenge, the players are instead in a challenging world and running a gauntlet. They can stop, but they can't rest, except in specific areas designated by you. Make it clear that rest is simply not possible under normal circumstances. In previous editions of the game, 'wandering encounters' were a much bigger threat than in 5e. As part of a 'hostile environment', having to fight random encounters that drain resources but in no way advance the plot adds a real cost to resting.

Another way this can be achieved is by the encounters themselves permitting the rest. In a 'hostile environment' or survival scenario, the players may be short on things like food, water, fuel, and such. In order to rest, they need to initiate and win an encounter, and the treasure they earn in the encounter is the resource(s) that permit them to rest. Simply taking 'time off' is not enough to rest; to gain the benefits of rest, they must have succeeded at an appropriate number of encounters.

I am using both these processes for my current game, set in Avernus. The characters have been cursed so as to not be able to leave the Hells until they have completed a number of tasks for Bel, the plane's current ruler. Each task would be trivial if they were allowed to rest and attempt it at full power. But I string these tasks along, requiring the completion of a certain number of them, before the characters can return to the Wandering Emporium, the only place they can take a long rest. They can take short rests in their infernal machine, but the 'pervasive evil' and malign influence of the plane is such that they cannot long rest there, no matter how much time they spend. Thus rests are not defined by adventuring days, but by the completion of the budgeted encounters which they were designed for to begin with. Additionally, soul coins are used as the fuel for their infernal machine. A successful encounter generates (on average) just enough soul coins to power their vehicle to the next encounter. If the players try to rest too much, they will burn through their soul coins (which are consumed regardless of whether or not the vehicle is moving) and be 'dead in the water', unable to make it to the next encounter.


I don't generally run megadungeons, but in normal-sized dungeons it's generally understood that the players can leave if they want to and go get some rest, but if they do, the inhabitants don't just sit there and wait. They're going to come back to find cleared areas re-inhabited and reinforced, doors jammed or collapsed, traps set or reset, demons summoned, troops on alert, and all that jazz.

If the players had previously been semi-stealthy, then the patrols have been missed, the bodies found, the alarm raised. The PCs are going to have to redo some of the work they already did just to get back where they were last time.

If you're being nice, this redeployment takes NPCs away from further encounters. If you aren't, the reinforcements just kinda pop into existence while outside the PCs' line of sight because they don't KNOW how many monsters are down there to begin with.

But it also depends on the dungeon. Some dungeons are a series of distinct areas glued together, where it's sensible to clear one zone, then retreat and rest before hitting the next one. Some dungeons are just one big complex where it's too long to reasonably take on in a single day, but it's obvious that retreating and coming back will make your life harder. Others are more of just a funhouse with a series of challenges that don't really fit together into a coherent whole.

Your approach depends on which one you're dealing with. The "funhouse" dungeon is the most prone to five minute days, where there's little to force the PCs forward into the next bizarre puzzle room, and the hardest places to justify an artificial forward pressure. The single-complex is the easiest place to punish PCs who fail to keep up the pace, where deploying reinforcements is so obvious and easy that it should be written into the module. Zoned dungeons are more friendly to episodic adventuring, with obvious break-points that practically have a neon REST HERE sign.


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