This condition is evil. When a creature fails a saving throw against exhaustion, they gain one or more levels of exhaustion, depending on the effect. Here is the official description: (Source – Roll20)
Exhaustion occurs in stages, each with increasing levels of adverse effects. There are six stages in total:
- Disadvantage on ability checks
- Speed is Halved
- Disadvantage on attack rolls and saving throws
- Hitpoint maximum is halved
- Speed is reduced to 0
- Death. No saves, Just death.
To make matters worse, each stage is compounded on the last, which is to say, they stack. Stage 1 + stage 2 + stage 3 and so on.
Causes of Exhausted:
Exhaustion is one of, if not the most punishing conditions in 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons. It is relatively difficult to get stages of exhaustion if you get proper sleep each night, but there are situations where such luxuries are only in your dreams. For example, you could be out in a blizzard, and your fire goes out.
“You try to light the flames with your flint and tinder, but the wind snuffs out any attempt. You’re cold, and sleep calls for you, but you’re too afraid that you might not wake up if you sleep now. So you press on, your frostbitten fingers changing an ugly purple. Exhaustion begins to set in as the minutes turn to hours. If only you could light this fire, you could find some solace for your broken body against the biting frost. If only you hadn’t sold that scroll of firebolt to that merchant the other day, you could find some comfort against this loathsome storm.”
It can get pretty dark when you need to deal with exhaustion.
For some specific examples:
- Harsh Weather preventing sleep
- Extreme heat or cold environment with improper preparation
- 24 hours without long rest
- Falling into frigid water
- Swimming for more than 1 hour
- Traveling for more than 8 hours in a day
- Including rowing a boat
- Being chased, thus preventing rest on your party, and causing them to run at a fast pace
- Berserker Barbarian Frenzy
- Sickening Radience (4th level) [Xanathar’s Guide to Everything Pg 164]
- Dominate Person spell used to force the player/npc to exhaust themselves
How Exhaustion Can Be Used for Storytelling:
This condition is used to emphasize to your party that their character is tired and needs rest. If you have a group that blasts through your content faster than you can keep up, you can have them roll for an exhaustion saving throw to try and slow them down. However, I don’t recommend doing it often, especially with newer players, because it is a seriously harsh condition.
What Counters Exhaustion?
The main counter to exhaustion is to complete a long rest, with food and clean water available. However, a long rest can only remove one level of exhaustion, meaning that if you are at five levels of exhaustion, it takes five long rests to recover fully. It’ll never be more than five, though, because, well… there’s no waking up from six levels of exhaustion.
This excludes the few instances where exhaustion levels are specified as temporary, such as sickening radiance. Those expire under their own conditions.
The second way is through the use of the spell Greater Restoration. As that is a 5th level spell, don’t expect it to be available for a long time.
How Bad is the Exaustion Condition?
Considering that the exhaustion condition can directly kill your character off, I’d say that it is bad. However, the first two levels of exhaustion aren’t all that detrimental and are more of a warning to your players more than anything. It’s when you get to the third level and beyond where things start to get serious.
Exhaution level 1
Honestly, the first level of this condition is fairly easy to shrug off. It only really applies to social actions, though I suppose it could prove fatal in the wrong situation – Pitfall traps or something along those lines.
Exhaustion level 2
Half movement speed and disadvantage on ability checks still aren’t all that bad unless you are trying to run away from a pursuing force. Not all that bad, but it can be frustrating to deal with for melee characters in combat if someone is keeping you at range.
Exhaustion level 3
Disadvantage on saving and attack rolls are bad enough by themselves, but remember, exhaustion is stacked, so you get the second and first-level debuffs on top. At this point, you really should consider doing a long rest as soon as you can.
Exhaustion level 4
Hitpoints are halved, and everything else compounded on top. Get some rest already! Or don’t. You won’t like the next step.
Exhaution level 5
Well, you’re now immobile. Better hope your party likes you.
Yeah, so, if you get to this point, I hope you finished everything you wanted to do for that character because they are no longer with the living. On the bright side, it isn’t as bad as, like, a Mummy lord’s rotting fist – You can at least get resurrected! Or reincarnation could be an option, too.