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I found an answer to this question for a custom 4e campaign, but was hoping to get some more answers specific to 5e.

Background: I'm running the 5e starter set campaign and my group is in the final dungeon. A difficulty we're facing is that the pace of the game is dwindling. After nearly every encounter the group feels like they are too low in health, hit dice, and/or spell slots to continue onward and they retreat to the relatively safe entrance of the dungeon to rest.

They're a lvl 4 wild shape druid (doing fine), lvl 4 sorcerer (doing ok other than slots), lvl 3 dwarven fighter (AC 19, never even gets hit), lvl 2 gnome bard (I know, I know, a low level gnome bard, but she's actually been really useful and isn't running into any troubles. Level 2 because dying has consequences).

I don't want to put constraints on their decisions, but both the players and myself feel that the pace is dragging with all the back and forth through the first rooms of the dungeon. I'm looking for features I could add to the dungeon to prevent the need to retreat and long rest (e.g. big box of health potions, or auto-fill the spell slots) or techniques I can use to speed up the retreats (e.g. upon hearing they want to retreat announce to them that their retreat and rest was successful without getting them to slink back through the dungeon). I'm a relatively new DM and to DnD itself, so I might be missing the obvious here.

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There are two techniques that can go 90% of the way to making playing-initiated retreats like this not boring or tedious.

"Time passes"

Use your role as DM to control the passage of time. Skip the uneventful parts. Do you know that nothing will inconvenience them on the way out of the dungeon? Narrate to skip ahead then.

You backtrack through the halls to your camp hidden outside the dungeon. Two hours of walking and resting later you're rested and ready to head back in. What do you want to do?

This is part of a family of techniques called scene framing, because you're skipping ahead and then reframing the situation the players are to make decisions in. There's no need to have them decide and describe their every twist and turn as they backtrack out of the dungeon; "we leave the dungeon" is plenty. (Having them walk square-by-square on a battlemat would definitely be unnecessary and tedious!)

No need, of course, unless there is

The world doesn't always stand still

Sometimes, skipping right back to camp can itself be boring. There's nothing more of an adventure-mood killer than knowing you can traipse around completely safely. And what's more, there's never any justification for acting like dungeons and wilderness are completely safe — they never are.

So ask yourself, "Does anything happen meanwhile?" Think offscreen, and think about what the dungeon denizens are up to while the PCs are letting off the pressure. Are they regrouping? Retrenching? Reinforcing? Wandering? Sometimes they'll be sitting tight and cowering, or be unaware of the breach of their outer defenses, so "Hm, no, nothing happens meanwhile" is a totally valid answer. But don't let it be the only answer you ever give. Make things happen that are logical consequences of the larger situation while the PCs are choosing to not push forward. The dungeon becomes a living, breathing place that changes in smaller and larger ways while the PCs are away.

Sometimes, these happenings will find the PCs too, and then their "rest" becomes very much not boring. Players who know that they need to keep an eye out, and watch their backs, make for smarter PCs that are better at surviving than PCs run by players who think they can let their guard down because they "paused" the adventure. There is no pause button!

You can use this naturally in combination with the pacing advice above — when nothing happens, skip to the next point of decision for the players, but when something else does happen, skip right to that event's location and time and start describing the PCs' situation to the players.

It's all about time

So make sure that you skip the time where nothing happens, and make sure that when things happen isn't 100% predictable by the players. These two techniques — one a narrative techniques, the other a structural technique — go a very long way to making rests non-tedious.

Critically, this combination of techniques remove the tedium without preventing the players from thinking smart like they have been. Even better than not preventing them, it actually gives them more things to think strategically about, making the game more nuanced and engaging for strategically-minded players like it seems you have.

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My group was having this problem in a campaign. One of the more...assertive players kept badgering us into resting when it clearly wasn't necessary from the standpoint of a human being playing a game. We eventually collectively realized that this player was basically there to roleplay, and would behave in character even to the detriment of his own fun because that's just how he is. We eventually had to tell him in no uncertain terms that either the character had to change or he had to change characters because he was really bringing things down. He chose the latter, and his lawful-stupid paladin retired to become sheriff of a small town we'd passed through.

The point is, sometimes you need to recognize when it's time to solve a social problem socially. That may take the form of talking to the instigators of the problematic decision making, or the DM doing the RPG equivalent of putting a timer onscreen in a videogame--explicitly letting everyone no that there is actually a time limit, and the implied urgency isn't just setting the mood. Yeah it's not realistic, but at the end of the day there's a reason none of us are trusted to make life-or-death decisions in the real world.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "there's a reason none of us are trusted to make life-or-death decisions in the real world." We aren't? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 6 '15 at 16:30
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I too am a realitively new DM running the starter set. The one thing that strikes me is that your group is a little light on experience for the final chapter. The final chapter starts with the warning that it assumes the characters at this point were level 4. Half your party is below that and this could be why they are feeling so overwhelmed. I would recommend toning down some of the encounters, but also throw a few random encounters in their way as they are trying to leave to rest. Do not make them too tough but give themselves a chance to see that they have the ability to push themselves further then they thought. This also has the added benefit of additional experience that might get them the boost they need to complete the adventure.

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I don't know if this answer will be pertinent to your group and it doesn't strictly answer the question, but mine was once in a very similar situation and, as we learned to play the game (this was 2nd edition), we noticed that the problem eventually disappeared due to a slight change in our combat approach. We were somehow doing it "wrong", and it was entirely possible to survive encounters without spending all of our limited resources every fight without tweaking the rules.

It's not impossible that your players are bringing this upon themselves by trying to out-damage the opposition. If they can change their mindset and try to out-think the enemies instead, the fights will take only a few rounds longer (mere seconds or minutes), but they'll expend a lot less resources (which take hours to recuperate).

For instance, a wizard could be using a fireball to quickly deal with a group of goblins. This is common, yet mostly overkill. Indeed, goblins can commonly be one-shot by most melee or ranged attacks if you have decent stats (they have 7 hp). If you are getting swarmed by the goblins, however, using the fireball might be tempting, as they'll most likely all die. But you could also use sleep (a first level spell) or web (a second level spell) to take out a large number of enemies from the fight. This will allow your fighter and druid (the ones that are barely taking damage), to position themselves in a way that will force the remaining enemies to attack them, which will in turn allow your casters to keep their higher level spells for tougher enemies or more crucial fights. If the enemies ignore the front line and go after the casters, your melee characters' attack power will double, as they'll receive an additional attack for the round when the enemies leave their threat range, essentially doubling their attack power at low levels.

Spells like cloud of daggers, for instance, can be cast in a doorway to force every enemy that enters the room to take 4d4 slashing damage (no save!). When fighting low level enemies such as goblins, this mean that every creature that enters the room likely dies. That either means you have 1 minute to kill the ones that were already in the room before their reinforcements arrive or that you'll never have to fight the reinforcements because they foolishly tried to enter the room...

And then there are the fun combos when the other party members use their own abilities to force enemies into these concentration spells. While the wizard only casts one spell, a fighter with the shield master feat can attack and then shove a creature inside, essentially boosting the effectiveness of the spell while costing no additional resources. There are also a few spells that force enemy movement, which your 3 casters could use in combination to boost their overall damage while only using one spell each.

TL;DR

By using their resources in an efficient rather than effective manner, your player will achieve the same results while spending fewer resources. Blasting everything works, but is costly. Controlling the battlefield allows the party to fight fewer enemies at a time, reducing the strain on their spell load. Fighting smarter means resting less.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a useful answer, especially pertinent to my group because hit dice and short rest can refuel hp, but spell slots seem to be the limiting factor to their exploration. I think that my players are trying to be efficient, but as it is our first ever campaign I'm sure there is room for improvement. \$\endgroup\$ – Besty Nov 22 '14 at 17:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Improvements will come naturally with experience, provided you do not make it easier for them to keep going as they do now. I remember my GM actually making the quests harder when these difficulties arose, in combination with limiting the time we had to complete the quest. For instance, once we exposed the bad guy's plan, he ran away with his elite troops, hoping to kill the local baron before we could stop him. We then had to fight our way through the dungeon filled with his cronies before giving chase. Stopping for the night wasn't an option, yet we knew we needed firepower for the boss! \$\endgroup\$ – Dungarth Nov 23 '14 at 3:27
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The problem you have encountered was once known as the 15-minute workday. Since health, spells, etc are all things that are regained over time, the safest strategy is usually to do one fight, then back off to a safe distance and regenerate to full power before tackling the next challenge. SevenSidedDie wisely suggests ensuring that the world does not wait for them; I am about to go one step further. You mention tedium as one problem, and the pace of the adventure as another. I wonder, is your adventure time-sensitive? (I have not read the adventure in question.) If not, is it possible to add one?

I would allow them to quickly move back to the entrance of the dungeon. Moving there strictly following turn order and redescribing every room sounds like a drag on the pacing indeed. Simply saying "We go back to the entrance room and rest for eight hours" should be sufficient. If doing so however, you need an incentive not to do this after every fight. Time-sensitive goals work very nicely at this, and move the pacing and tension in an interesting direction.

A party in my campaign recently entered a town to find that two children had been kidnapped by goblins and taken to the goblins lair near the town. One of the town elders knew the reason- every year, at dawn on the day three days from then, that tribe of goblins makes a sacrifice to their dark god. The elder suspects the children were taken to be the sacrifices. Knowing that they had a deadline, the party has had a choice after every fight on their way through the dungeon- press on hoping to reach the kids, or head back to the entrance to rest up. They could even go all the way back to town if they wanted, knowing that the hike will cost them six hours of travel to get there and back.

This means that I don't care a whit if they want to rest up after every single fight- the pacing of the action is in their hands, but they have a good reason for wanting to continue. Towards nightfall of the second day, they decided to enter a fight with all but one member of the party below half HP because the tension of the ticking clock (I had one of those plastic doohickeys you use to teach kids how clocks work, and made a big production of pushing the hands forward whenever they rested) was getting to them. Given that they were fighting packs of goblins and a handful of hobgoblins, I actually think the most emotion in the room happened after each fight when making the decision of whether to retreat or not.

Give them clear, known consequences of taking too much time. They'll set the pace.

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You have several major options depending on your desired playstyle.

  1. Easy Game Mode - Either level them up so they overwhelm the dungeon, or sprinkle in more magic (especially healing), or just change the rules so they can recover everything with a short rest. There are infinite variations on this. No death penalty! If you kill an enemy you regain your abilities! Bullets and medpacks!

  2. Medium Realism Mode - Why is going back out a grind? Just to say it out loud, dungeon rooms don't "reset" usually, unless there's a magical random monster generator in them. The players may need to pay a little more attention to clearing rooms they've gone through and establishing chokepoints so they can safely rest without monsters from deeper in the dungeon coming out to see what's going on. They could even rest in the dungeon if they have a place that can be locked or no one will come look in. They need to work a little to reduce the thread and grind. It's not really your problem to solve, empower them to solve it.

  3. Hard Gritty Mode - Resting right outside a dungeon is likely to get you killed (let alone inside, which is certain death), from wandering monsters and the irate denizens within who found their friends you hacked to death. Players have to get really smart and figure out how they plan to survive; pressing on rather than shrinking back can be more effective. Monsters don't like people showing up and killing them and they will be very proactive about going after the PCs, even sending a volunteer assassin if they retreat all the way to the nearest inn to recuperate. Tell your PCs "Nut up or shut up!" They'll learn the tricks of the trade the hard way like we all have. TPKs come with the job.

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