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

Thursday, June 04, 2015

D&D 5e: Fixing food and water

The amounts of food and water required to keep a group of adventurers sustained is usually ignored by many groups. After all, we don't usually weight what we eat, and nor should fictional heroes, right? On the other hand, if you're playing a game that focuses on hiking, hex-crawling, survival and resource management, like some versions of D&D, this data might be useful.

D&D 5e has very interesting rules about food and water consumption. Let's take a look on what basic D&D says:

Food and Water
Characters who don’t eat or drink suffer the effects of exhaustion (see appendix A). Exhaustion caused by lack of food or water can’t be removed until the character eats and drinks the full required amount.
A character needs one pound of food per day and can make food last longer by subsisting on half rations. Eating half a pound of food in a day counts as half a day without food. A character can go without food for a number of days equal to 3 + his or her Constitution modifier (minimum 1). At the end of each day beyond that limit, a character automatically suffers one level of exhaustion.
A normal day of eating resets the count of days without food to zero.
A character needs one gallon of water per day, or two gallons per day if the weather is hot. A character who drinks only half that much water must succeed on a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or suffer one level of exhaustion at the end of the day. A character with access to even less water automatically suffers one level of exhaustion at the end of the day.
If the character already has one or more levels of exhaustion, the character takes two levels in either case.

Now, there are a few ideas here that are worth mentioning. 

Starvation and dehydration do not cause damage. Instead of losing HP, a character gets exhausted after a few days without food or water (although your max HP is halved after a while), which means 10th level characters are as likely to die of starvation as 1st level characters if they have the same Constitution. Hit Points - the usual gauge of survivability - aren't important.

Interestingly, the same isn't entirely true for water, as a character can survive longer with little water if he has a good Constitution saving throw - which might be affected by proficiency (which is determined by level).

The whole exhaustion mechanic is very cool, but I dislike the idea that starvation affects characters of all levels equally. At least it is somewhat "realistic", right?

Well, in fact, the numbers are a bit unreal. The numbers below (for the real world) aren't exact figures, either, but let me give you some rough examples of what I mean when I say D&D figures strike me as odd. This isn't particular to 5e. 3e has similar figures (with some extra issues I won't discuss for now).

An average american eats about 4 pounds of food per day (with little exercise) - an average D&D character needs about one pound of food every four days (with lots of exercise). Okay, I get it - we eat more than we need, too many carbs, etc. But one pound a day is too little for active characters (and if you're weighting your food in D&D, it is because you're travelling around and carrying stuff, not because you're on a diet). You can probably survive with a pound of food a day while active if you're eating lots of fat and protein, but a couple of pounds would be more reasonable.

The idea that after three days without food you can go "back to normal" by eating normally for a day is probably a mistake and, if you're weighting food at all, must be altered (or ignored) or there will be no reason to eat every day (unless "the full required amount" is meant to say the character must eat three days worth of food in day or something similar, which is doubtful). I would suggest removing the sentence and letting the GM deal with players that abuse the system.

The idea that you can spend 3+CON days without food also doesn't seem a good idea for gaming purposes, as characters will have to check for starvation in different days.

On the other hand, after about 10 days without food, most characters will die, which is excessively harsh, specially if you aren't very active (trapped in a cage, for example).

As for water, a gallon a day is a reasonable figure if you're walking all day. And the rules for water work better than the rules for food, in my opinion - I can see no reason to use two different sets of rules.

The good thing about "one pound food, one quart of water" is that it's easy to remember - provided that you're used to imperial units and knows how much a quarter of water weights (8.33 pounds) without checking - because encumbrance, if you're counting, is measured in pounds. My own mnemonic device is "10 pounds of food and water per person per day of travel".

In any case, here is my rewritten version to make things easier and a bit more reasonable.

Food and Water
Characters who don’t eat or drink suffer the effects of exhaustion (see appendix A). 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.
A character needs two pounds of food and eight pounds of water (about a gallon - double the amount of water if the weather is hot) per day. After every day without enough water or three days without enough food, she suffers one level of exhaustion and must make a DC 15 Constitution saving throw, or suffer two levels instead. Consuming at least half the required amount of food (or water) doubles the number of days before each saving throw.

And if you think high level characters should always get a better chance, you can add proficiency bonus to everybody, and double it for characters proficient in Constitution saving throws.

UPDATE: check out my new take on a similar rule.


  1. Did you notice, as I did, that the rules specify 1 gallon of water per day needed but a waterskin only holds half a gallon, and that all the starter packs only have 1 waterskin. This means that the party will be rolling for exhaustion every day unless they refill waterskins twice in a day.

    1. I didn't, in fact! Good catch! Sometimes I think those specific rules were written without much thought, as if nobody was expecting that they would actually be used.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I read the post more carefully, it seems both your houserules and 5E are more forgiving of starvation than dehydration.

    1. Yes, but so is the real world. It takes several weeks to actually starve to death. But without water you can die after a few days.

  4. The amount of food required on D&D is ludicrous. Aside of their base being the iron rations of the XX century, the weight of food needed every day by an adventurer is messed up. The characters are like professional athletes, and the actual value of calories they is near 3200 kcal if they are adventuring (lots of fighting, climbing, hiking, and exploring). 3 pounds of fresh meat are required to achieve such values. I would also double the amount of food in cold weather, as heat preservation consumes a lot of energy.
    I would change it for a more abstract value, the "ration", instead of a listed weight. The "ration" weight would vary by broad types of food (EG vegetables, fish, meat, cereals, bread, etc). I would also make a small table listing the weight, duration, prize and special features by food ration: eg: A ration of fresh meat weights 3 pounds, it's fresh for 2 days and costs 5 silver pieces.

    1. Yeah, you make some good points. I have recently been using 3-pounds units of weight. So, 1 day worth of food means 1-unit in my current method. Not as detailed as your system, but at least seems to make more sense than the D&D idea of 1-pound per day.

  5. I think when you talk rations you need to think more along the lines of Meal Ready-to-Eeat given a ration is not what I would think of as normal food. Each meal provide 1200 cals and one MRE weighs 510 to 740 grams (18 to 26 oz). However if we go with only dry foods 1 pound of Beef jerky has about 1440 cals. However if we go with Pemmican which has a whooping 4077 cals per pound we find a much better spot. Pemmican also has cases of people living off only of it for years because it is a complete food.

    1. Bit off on the pemmican cals 1 days supply of pemmican (~1.2 lb) supplies ~ – 0 calories from carbohydrates (0g) – 4050 calories from fat (450G) – 384 calories from protein (96g)
      Total calories = 4434

  6. I have a very finicky system involving calories. The end result is Half-Orcs and Dwarves eating twice as much as Elves, due to the differences in body weight. Technically accurate, but it gets a few complaints.

  7. The bigger problem is that characters only need to even have food along in case they get a level of exhaustion from something else. Assuming they have a good supply of water, after 3+CON days, they take a level of exhaustion, but if they take their long rest immediately after, the level of exhaustion goes away, leaving them fine 16 hours a day. Of course, if they get attacked at night, it could cause problems, but that doesn't change the underlying flawed mechanic.

    1. Yeah - the rule, as written, doesn't work too well. Of course, they shouldn't recover from exhaustion without recovering the lost calories, etc. I made this explicit in my latest rules compilation.


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