I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Rule of Three - Easy outdoor survival rules for 5e, BD&D and DotD

A while ago, I explained why I dislike 5e’s rules for starvation and dehydration, and proposed something close to the original rules, while advocating using the same rules for both scenarios.

This time, I'll explain how I use the same rules for starvation, dehydration, suffocation, exposure, sleep deprivation and all kinds of hazards in my own game (Days of the Damned), and how you can use it in D&D to deal with this hazards without having to check your books.

The rule of three is a mnemonic device for outdoor survival that says one usually cannot live for more than 3 minutes without air, 3 hours without shelter, 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food. It is a very rough estimate and it varies from person to person in real life, but works well for gaming

In Days of the Damned, where damage means physical stress, this is quite easy to do: damage from this situations is 5 for the first third of this period, 10 for the second and 15 for the whole period - enough to kill most characters. If the character somehow survives, this keeps going: 20 for the fourth day without water, then 25, and so on.

Or you can just use the method I describe below.

If you assume (like I do in my games), that most 1st level characters should survive a day or two without water, but even a level 12 fighter cannot survive for more than 10 days without drinking, using HPs for this purpose (as Delta suggests for OD&D) might not be the optimal solution, specially in 5e, in which most high level characters are little better than ordinary people in most situations they aren't specialized in, but get lots of HP all the same.

Fortunately, 5e has a system that bypasses HP altogether: exhaustion, which is perfect for our purposes. It also has a different system to deal with skills that improve with level, but less dramatically than HPs: saving throws. Here is the simple rule for 5e:

Characters who spend more than one week without food. one day without water, one hour under extreme weather (heat or cold) without adequate clothing, or one minute without air suffer the effects of exhaustion (see appendix A). After each of this periods, she suffers two levels of exhaustion (but a DC 15 Constitution saving throw will halve this effect).
Exhaustion caused by lack of food or water can’t be removed until the character spends a day eating (or drinking) the full required amount.

This way, every character has a good chance of surviving a bit more than one would expect, specially the ones proficient in Constitutions saves, keeping the "heroic" tone of the game.

BD&D has no "exhaustion" system by default, but you can use something similar: Constitution damage. It affects total hit points and can cause death regardless of level. I would allow a save for half damage in order to let high level characters have a better chance of survival. 1d6 per period works well, but if you want to make it progressively harder to survive, start with 1d4, then 1d6, 1d8, 1d10, 1d12 and 1d20. You can use this pattern if you prefer hit point loss to Constitution loss, too: it will spare most characters in the first period, but even high level characters are unlikely to survive after a while. And you only need one set of dice.

In any case, the recovery rate should depend of the situation. In my games (unlike real life), lack of air causes no lasting effects if it doesn’t kill the character, so he could recover in a few minutes, while other kinds of damage could be cured in about one day per level of exhaustion or per period.

But why stop there? As you know, I like using the same rule for multiple purposes, and this is a good example. Here are some additional ways to use it.

Falling damage. Not the rule of three, but just picking up more damage dice for every 10 feet: 1d4 first, than add 1d6, 1d8, 1d10, 1d12 and 1d20. Falling from 50 feet would cause 1d4 + 1d6 + 1d8 +, 1d10 + 1d12 damage. You can cap the damage if you want to give better chances of survival on great falls; maybe 1d4 + 1d6 + 1d8 +, 1d10 + 1d12 plus 1d12 per additional 10 feet, save for half damage. Of course, iy you want to keep 1d6 per 10 feet fallen you can go directly to Con damage... few characters will survive a great fall.

Sleep deprivation. You can use a 3-day pattern for sleep deprivation, but six levels of exhaustion may cause fainting instead of death.

Poison and disease. The "running against time" sensation caused by growing danger can be simulated by this rules, with one difference: if a character survives three periods (minutes, hours, days, weeks, depends on the poison or disease), he starts to heal and gets no further damage. The best part, of course, is watching the characters run desperately for a cure!

So, there you have it. This is the rule I use for antibodies in D&D, if you ever need one!

Update: want to download this rule in PDF form for using in your game? Check this out.


  1. ah this I what I needed when writing our books. I kind of went with the old 3.5 system with some mods, but it was still missing something; I agree that the simplified condition summary/track is a great idea. For a lot of wilderness stuff I went with the idea it is a encounter thus gave it a challenge rating ala Pathfinder, and treated them as encounters.

    1. Thanks! Glad you found it useful!

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  2. Thanks for writing these tips, this is something my friend Jacob Carlson will find helpful on his next mountain hike! :)

    1. Thanks for commenting, and you're welcome! Remember those are only rough guidelines.

  3. Wow this tip is so easy to remember, and these information is backed up by confirmed facts. Tips and guides are really handy especially when your primary aim is to survive. I would like to share another set of tips on how to survive and survive well: http://backpackingmastery.com/skills/how-to-survive-being-lost-in-the-woods.html

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  6. Hey, am I too late? I notice two errors in the PDF document. You say adventurers need a quart of water a day and that this weighs 8 pounds. The first error is that a quart of water weighs about 2 pounds. The second error is that most people will need about a gallon of water per day of strenuous activity (e.g. adventuring), which what most backpackers carry on a trip in my experience.

    1. Ah, yes - you're completely right! I am no longer using that PDF since I compiled everything into my Dark Fantasy Basic book.
      Fortunately, I've fixed that there - water for one day weights "1 unit" , or 2 units "under very hot weather".
      "One unit" weights about 3 pounds - 4 would be better, but it is an approximation.

  7. 3 hours to shelter? Really? What do you mean by shelter? I've gone more than 24 hours without shelter and I wasn't much worse for wear (gear for the temperature, careful with water, take short rests).

    I'm ex-infantry reserve and I happened to become friends with soldiers and SF who operated in Haiti, Philipines, Panama, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and others. We talked a lot about gear, travel, and how that applies in games.

    I know the operators had gone 48-72 years and in one case, in a place with no overhead cover, with little or no gear at all (and people looking for them). You had to find ways to stay warm, to get water, and to deal with environmental challenges (heat, cold, sun).

    I sort of assume the adventurers are close to these folk, at least experienced adventurers.

    I find Doug Niles' AD&D era Wilderness Survival Guide as a good reference on climbing, who can see you and who you can see in many situations, a system for dealing with infravision and ultravision (and for how much it sucks when you are the human in a night fight....), all sorts of movement including boats, a lot of info on food and water needs, etc.

    What's often missed but is a really serious concern in travel in the Temperate zones is: Bacterium and parasites. Water is almost always not clean enough to drink without boiling. And parasites can also be obtained from passage through swampy areas or even in long grass. Ticks are a minor scourge, but the lime disease is not trivial. Spider bits are also things of concern. Snakes also have awful bites.

    Navigation is really hard in the Canadian shield - up, down, every low space a pond or slough, every non-water area can make a claim on thick trees (we think they aren't that thick, but that's because we've cut so much down from where it started). Try to even imagine how you'd get A to B when its really hard to climb a tree to see beyond the canopy even on higher areas and if you aren't in a grown up area, you have sharp drops and swampy, sometimes very deep, lakes or ponds. And mosquitos who also could carry many diseases. Navigating is a best guess from the sun... if you don't get a lot of cloud cover which happens.

    Travel is hard now in the 20th... doing it as an adventurer into new lands... it should almost be more of a challenge than the critters and tombs one worries about....

    1. The 3-hours shelter thing is an approximation; it assumes you die in 3 hour under extreme climates if you don't have shelter.

      You make a lot of cool observations there... I definitely agree that traveling should be more challenging.

      Snakes are well represented, but the danger of bugs is downplayed in D&D.