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"A shrill howl echoes around you as you continue your trek up the steep mountainside. The bitter winds buffet against your skin and three straight days of travel have left you weary. You feel your knees wobble underneath you with each step forward, threatening to give out at any moment."
Exhaustion in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition is a brutal mechanic once you get into it. But, it comes with a few complications that make it a bit confusing for newer Game Masters and players.
What is Exhaustion? How does it work? What causes it? How do you cure it?
This article covers everything beginner players need to know about D&D 5e’s Exhaustion rules.
Let’s start things off by explaining what Exhaustion is in D&D 5e.
5e Exhaustion Explained
Exhaustion is a special condition in D&D 5e. It represents the physical toll of adventuring or magical effects on your player character.
Basically, when your character exerts themself too much or they suffer a strange, magical effect, they become exhausted.
Page 291 of the Player’s Handbook describes Exhaustion:
Exhaustion is a fun mechanic. But, it often gets overlooked for being a bit complicated and it can sometimes prove difficult to track.
For easy reference, the Exhaustion rules in D&D 5e break down into three elements:
- Exhaustion Levels
- What Causes Exhaustion
- How to Fix Exhaustion
Let’s get to the more mechanically solid aspect first; Exhaustion levels.
Levels of Exhaustion in 5e
Exhaustion in 5e breaks down into six increasingly detrimental levels. Each one imposes some new hinderance on a creature on top of the previous. So, the more exhausted a character becomes, the less capable they get until they eventually succumb to their exhaustion.
See, Exhaustion in D&D isn’t a "one-and-done" condition like the others. With most other conditions in 5e, you either suffer the condition or you don’t. For example, you either suffer the Grappled condition or you don’t.
Exhaustion gets progressively worse if your character doesn’t address it.
But, what are the different levels of Exhaustion in D&D?
Like I said, D&D has six levels of Exhaustion. Each one makes adventuring harder and harder until the final level when your character dies.
Here’s a handy Exhaustion table for your reference.
|D&D 5e Exhaustion Table|
|Exhaustion Level||Exhaustion Effect|
|1||Disadvantage on Ability Checks|
|2||Movement Speed is Halved|
|3||Disadvantage on Attack Rolls & Saving Throws|
|4||Hit Point Maximum is Halved|
|5||Movement Speed Reduced to Zero|
Let’s break each of these down so you see how it affects your character.
Exhaustion Level 1: Ability Checks
The first level of Exhaustion in D&D imposes disadvantage on all your Ability Checks.
This level affects mostly out-of-combat rolls as it doesn’t have an effect on your Attack rolls or saving throws. So, you make any and all skill checks at disadvantage while suffering from level one Exhaustion.
Need to make a Strength (Athletics) check to climb a cliff? Disadvantage. Trying to recall information about an esoteric tome your party found with an Intelligence (Arcana) check? Also disadvantage. You volunteered to keep watch despite your Exhaustion and your GM asks for a Wisdom (Perception) check? Disadvantage, disadvantage, disadvantage.
That said, if you’re attempting a Grapple or to escape a grappling effect and the ability doesn’t call out a saving throw, you make those at disadvantage. So, level one Exhaustion can play a part in combat in specific scenarios.
Exhaustion Level 2: Halved Movement Speed
The second level of Exhaustion in 5e halves your total movement speed.
Having two levels of Exhaustion means you move slower. While this will most likely be the most annoying in combat. But, it also affects how fast your party moves while traveling.
If you’re moving at half your total speed, you’re slowing the party down. If you need to get somewhere fast, you become a burden.
Not saying that to make it sound unfun. But, it presents a unique challenge to your group.
Second level Exhaustion probably affects melee combatants the most though. If they can’t move fast enough to engage with their enemies, they become much less effective.
Exhaustion Level 3: Attack Rolls & Saving Throws
The third level of Exhaustion imposes disadvantage on Attack rolls and Saving Throws.
This level of Exhaustion basically makes every roll your character makes much more difficult.
At this point, your character becomes so worn down that they operate at a much lesser capacity while in combat or out adventuring. Any and all attacks (even spell attack rolls) get rolled at disadvantage. And, if they become subjected to an ability, spell, or trap that forces a saving throw, that roll also gets rolled with disadvantage.
Also, if your character gets knocked unconscious and starts making death saves, guess what? You also make death saving throws at disadvantage while suffering from level three Exhaustion.
Exhaustion Level 4: Halved Maximum Hit Points
The fourth level of Exhaustion halves your Hit Point Maximum.
This level of Exhaustion doesn’t simply reduce your total hit points by half. Oh no, it’s much worse than that.
Reducing your maximum hit points by half means your character can only ever heal up to half of their total. This is a huge blow to the survivability of any character. Having half of your total possible health means every hit is that much more dangerous.
Let’s look at an example. Even if you have a 4th level Barbarian with an 18 in Constitution and you miraculously rolled max hit points, you’d have a Hit Point Maximum of 63. With four levels of Exhaustion, that gets cut to 31. For a 4th level front-line, combat-focused class, that’s an enormous detriment. Even with the Barbarian’s damage resistances with their Rage feature.
Exhaustion Level 5: Zero Movement Speed
The fifth level of Exhaustion reduces your character’s speed to zero.
If you’ve put off recovering from your levels of Exhaustion this far, you lose the ability to even move. Your character becomes so tired and, well, exhausted that they lose any ability to move on their own.
Obviously, this is a major issue for any character. Doesn’t matter the class. And, it’s the make-or-break moment as the last level of Exhaustion is the end.
Exhaustion Level 6: Death
The sixth level of Exhaustion results in a creature’s death.
That’s the end of it.
No saving throw to stop it. No death saves. No healing.
Once your character reaches six levels of Exhaustion, they just outright die. The only option for recovery at this point is resurrection magic.
Now remember; each level of Exhaustion compounds on the previous. If you have two levels of Exhaustion, you have disadvantage on all Ability Checks and you move at half speed.
With all this in mind, you might wonder how you even get levels of Exhaustion in D&D 5e. So, let’s look at many of the ways your character may suffer Exhaustion.
What Causes Exhaustion in D&D 5e?
Exhaustion in 5e rarely results from a spell or feature. Instead, most causes of Exhaustion come from a creature exerting themself beyond what is healthy.
Unlike some of the other conditions, Exhaustion doesn’t often come from a direct attack on a creature. Yes, spells and features exist that impose a level of Exhaustion on a creature. But, the most frequent cause of Exhaustion happens during exploration or travel.
That said, situations that add levels of Exhaustion fall into three general categories:
- Monster Abilities
We’ll start with the most common cause of Exhaustion; adventuring.
Exhaustion Causes: Adventuring
Exploration and travel in a D&D world poses more hazards than monsters and traps. Extreme climates, lack of food or water, and failing to find adequate rest all case Exhaustion.
The most common causes of Exhaustion in D&D 5e happen outside of combat while adventuring or travelling.
The funny thing about this mechanic is it’s really up to your Game Master as to what causes Exhaustion. If they feel that a certain decision or venture into an area would cause Exhaustion or force a saving throw at the very least, that’s up to them.
That said, there are several causes of Exhaustion outlined in the various D&D sourcebooks.
- Not Resting
- If your character doesn’t take a long rest, they need to make a Constitution saving throw or take a level of Exhaustion.
- Lack of Food &/or Water
- If your character fails to eat anything in a time equal to 3 + their Constitution modifier, they suffer a level of Exhaustion. Related, your character needs to drink one gallon of water per day (two gallons while in hot weather). If they drink only half that, you roll a Constitution save. If they drink less than half of a gallon, they automatically take a level of Exhaustion.
- Traveling Non-Stop for More Than Eight Hours
- If your character doesn’t take a break and continues traveling for eight hours straight, they must roll a Constitution saving throw for each hour past the initial eight and take a level of Exhaustion on a fail.
- If your character exerts themself beyond their usual capabilities during a chase, they gain a level of Exhaustion. Per page 252 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, a creature may use the Dash action a number of times equal to 3 + their Constitution modifier during a chase. But, each time they do so, they need to succeed a Constitution save or take one level of Exhaustion.
- Extreme Climates
- Creatures unacclimated to extreme climates (frozen tundras, heat-drenched deserts, sky-scraping mountains, etc) could suffer Exhaustion just by staying in these locations for too long. That said, if your character has a specific resistance to the natural climate, then this wouldn’t affect them. For instance, tieflings wouldn’t be as affected by the heat of a desert (unless the heat is especially oppressive) due to their fire damage resistance or goliath wouldn’t suffer from the high altitudes of tower mountains thanks to their Mountain Born trait.
- Swimming for More Than One Hour
- If your character swims for more than one hour, they roll a Constitution save and take a level of Exhaustion on a fail. The time increases to eight hours if a creature has a swim speed. Furthermore, swimming at a depth of 200 feet counts as four hours.
- Rowing a Boat for More Than Eight Hours
- Like travelling non-stop, if your character rows a boat for longer than eight hours straight, they need to succeed on a Constitution save or take one level of Exhaustion.
- Freezing Water
- Falling into frigid waters could impose Exhaustion on your character. Now, the caveat is this would only affect creatures without resistance or immunity to cold damage.
- Environmental Effects
- Some environments have unnatural effects that may drain the vitality out of your character. Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything has a whole mess of supernatural environmental effects including haunted areas that drain the literal energy from creatures and incomplete demi-planes that cause a psychic dissonance. Both of these environmental effects may cause a creature to take on a level of Exhaustion.
- Trapped Under Debris
- Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything introduced a specific environmental hazard in avalanches. Getting caught up and trapped beneath an avalanche eventually results in a creature suffering levels of Exhaustion as they run out of oxygen. This idea could applies to becoming trapped under any form of debris for a long enough period of time.
Exhaustion Causes: Spells
There aren’t that many spells that cause Exhaustion in 5e. But, you do have a couple options to magically force Exhaustion onto a creature.
You might think that there are spells to impose Exhaustion on a target. But, that’s actually not the case at all. In fact, only four spells that cause Exhaustion in 5e.
Even then, only three outright state Exhaustion as either an effect or side-effect of their casting. The fourth is more of an inference.
I think this is due to two reasons.
First off, Exhaustion is only so useful. It really only benefits you if your enemy suffers from several levels of Exhaustion. Imposing only the first level doesn’t do much for you. So, you’d need to put the time into casting a spell repeatedly to really make it worth it.
Secondly, if you managed to impose multiple levels of Exhaustion in a short amount of time, it becomes way overpowered. Once you put three levels of Exhaustion on a creature, they have disadvantage on all their rolls and move at half their maximum speed. That’s a huge detriment. So, it can’t be too easy to cause Exhaustion with a spell. Otherwise it makes the mechanic way too strong.
With this in mind, you can see why there aren’t that many spells that cause Exhaustion. But, that isn’t to say they don’t exist.
The four spells in D&D 5e that may cause Exhaustion include:
- Sickening Radiance (XGtE)
- Tenser’s Transformation (XGtE)
Now, two of these come from D&D’s Basic Rules and the other two from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. So, let’s go over each of these in as much detail as I can.
- The dream spell is one of the most direct ways of forcing Exhaustion on another creature. The spell basically lets you manipulate a target creature’s dreams while they sleep. How it can force Exhaustion is through denying the target creature a full night’s rest by turning their dream into a horrible, horrible nightmare. Since a creature needs to take a long rest every 24 hours or starting rolling Constitution saves against Exhaustion, the dream spell is one of the easier ways to cause Exhaustion outside of combat.
- Sickening Radiance
- Sickening radiance comes from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Basically, this spell covers an radius of effect. A creature within the area of effect must save on a Constitution saving throw to take radiant damage and prevent taking a level of Exhaustion. This spell is one of the few ways available to players to cause Exhaustion while in combat.
- Tenser’s Transformation
- This spell doesn’t so much as cause Exhaustion as it gives a level to the caster. Tenser’s transformation comes from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything . This spell pretty much allows a caster to improve their martial prowess; granting them additional hit points, giving them proficiency in a bunch of weapons and armors, and making their weapon attacks more potent. The drawback is, once the spell ends, you need to succeed on a Constitution save or take a level of Exhaustion.
- The wish spell doesn’t explicitly state you can impose Exhaustion on another creature. But, since the wording of the spell is intentionally open-ended and in fact encourages creative uses, it’s not too far outside the realm of possibility you could use it to cause Exhaustion.
Exhaustion Causes: Monster Abilities
Some monsters in D&D 5e have abilities that cause Exhaustion on another creature.
Like spells, there aren’t that many monsters in D&D with Exhaustion effects. Furthermore, none of these creatures come from the Basic Rules or Monster Manual, so you’ll need to go looking for additional sourcebooks if you want access to them.
That said, even though these creatures have the ability to cause Exhaustion, they operate much like the few spells that do the same thing. They usually involve a roll of some sort and they have a limited number of uses. So, running these creatures as a method of giving levels of Exhaustion to player characters is still a bit tough.
Anyway. Without further ado, here are the five creatures in D&D 5e that can cause Exhaustion:
- Gingwatzim (Candlekeep Mysteries (CKM))
- Jade Tigress (CKM)
- Soul Monger (Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes (MToF))
- Sibriex (MToF)
- Kalaraq Quori (Eberron: Rising from the Last War)
Each of these creatures has an ability that either directly imposes a level of Exhaustion or has a long-term effect that adds more levels over time.
How to Remove Exhaustion in 5e
Alright. Now you know what Exhaustion in D&D is and what causes it. But, how do you fix Exhaustion?
While their are quite a few ways of gaining Exhaustion, there aren’t that many methods of curing it. Often, your character needs to stop and rest to start feeling like their old selves. But, there are a few quicker ways of fixing Exhaustion.
There are three basic ways of removing Exhaustion in 5e:
- Magic Items
Even then, these three options for curing the Exhausted condition are pretty limited.
That said, let’s break each of these down starting with the most traditional method; taking a long nap.
Removing Exhaustion: Resting
Completing a long rest in D&D 5e, provided you have enough food and water available, removes one level of Exhaustion.
It’s as easy as that.
All you need to do is have a nice dinner, drink a bit of water, get at least six hours of sleep, and you lose a single level of Exhaustion. Finishing a long rest is the least resource-taxing method of fixing Exhaustion. But, it does take a bit longer if you have multiple levels of Exhaustion.
See, rules as written, you can only ever finish one long rest for every 24 hours. Meaning you can’t knock out several long rests over the course of a day. You need to split them up.
So, if your character has three or four levels of Exhaustion, that means you’ll wait several days before they’re back to normal.
Now, this is all assuming you play with the standard rules for long rests. If you use the optional variant Epic Heroism, a long rest only takes an hour. This means you can finish several long rests over the span of a day with each one removing one level of exhaustion.
Removing Exhaustion: Spells
There are a couple spells that cure Exhaustion. But, that’s a literal "couple" of spells. Greater restoration and wish can cure one level of Exhaustion when cast.
Yeah, those are your only options to remove Exhaustion with a spell.
The greater restoration spell explicitly states "You can reduce the target’s exhaustion level by one…." so it’s actually pretty straightforward. But, like a long rest, it’s only the single level.
Then, there’s the wish spell. The most powerful spell in the D&D 5e actually pushes things a bit further stating "You allow up to twenty creatures that you can see to regain all hit points, and you end all effects on them described in the greater restoration spell." Now, to me that reads as "You can reduce up to twenty creatures that you can see Exhaustion levels by one" along with all the other stuff. Which is actually pretty powerful all things considered. But, this is a situation that falls on your GM to decide how that works.
But, that’s it.
You either need to have access to greater restoration, a 5th level spell available to 17th level Artificers or 9the level Bards, Clerics, Druids, and Celestial Warlocks, or the wish spell, a 9level spell available to 17th level Sorcerers, Genie Warlocks, and Wizards.
Removing Exhaustion: Magic Items
There is exactly one magic item that cures Exhaustion; the Potion of Vitality.
Yep. If you want to use a magic item to remove your Exhaustion, you have one option. A very rare potion, at that.
That said, the Potion of Vitality is the single most effective way to fix Exhaustion in D&D 5e.
The Potion of Vitality reads as follows:
See, the Potion of Vitality removes ALL levels of Exhaustion when consumed. Not one level at a time.
So, if you have multiple levels of Exhaustion and are lucky enough to have a Potion of Vitality on-hand, you better gulp that sucker down.
Exhaustion Immunity in 5e
There aren’t really any general ways for a player character to gain immunity against the Exhaustion condition. But, some of 5e’s creature types and specific monsters are immune to it…which means a character might gain that immunity if only temporarily.
For the most part (with only a couple exceptions), player characters won’t have the ability to gain immunity to Exhaustion. Several monsters are immune to the Exhausted condition, though.
Elementals, undead, and constructs all usually have an immunity against gaining levels of Exhaustion. Which makes sense since many of these creatures aren’t really "alive" or they aren’t anymore at the very least. So, they don’t suffer the effects of Exhaustion because they simply can’t become tired as their bodies don’t function like a living being’s does.
So, these creatures can’t even gain levels of Exhaustion let alone suffer their effects. But, what about those niche situations when a player character has an immunity to Exhaustion?
Well, it’s complicated.
Usually, the only times a player character gains immunity against Exhaustion is through shapechanging into a creature with an immunity.
So, the Druid’s Wild Shape feature (but only for Circle of the Moon and at a very high level) and spells like polymorph can grant immunity to the Exhausted condition through transforming into an appropriate creature.
High level Moon Druids may use their Wild Shape feature to transform into elementals. Since elementals are immune to Exhaustion, the Druid effectively has that immunity while transformed.
That last part is the important bit. A character that shapechanges into a creature with immunity to Exhaustion only has that immunity while transformed. And, this works in the same way for spells like polymorph or shapechange that let you turn into other creatures.
See, the thing is, none of these spells or features mention removing conditions. Once your Wild Shape or transformation spell ends, you revert to your original form with all your accumulated levels of Exhaustion.
So, many monsters in D&D 5e have an immunity to the Exhausted condition. But, it’s difficult for player characters to enjoy the same benefit.
D&D 5e Exhaustion FAQ
Does Exhaustion Carry Over to Polymorph?
Yes; Exhaustion carries over for creatures affected by the polymorph spell. Polymorph doesn’t explicitly say that it removes conditions, so rules as written, Exhaustion carries over even into the polymorphed form.
Now, if a creature polymorphs into a creature with an immunity to the Exhausted condition, then they won’t suffer the effects of Exhaustion while transformed. Once they revert to their original form, they retain their previous levels of Exhaustion since polymorph doesn’t explicitly say it cures conditions.
That said, this is a fairly GM-dependent ruling. So, ask your Game Master what their ruling is should the circumstance arise.
Do Short Rests Prevent Exhaustion?
In a sense, yes; short rests prevent Exhaustion. Since travelling for more than eight hours straight forces a Constitution saving throw, stopping for an hour to complete a short rest ensures you won’t need to save against Exhaustion while traveling. That said, short rests don’t remove levels of Exhaustion, so they don’t directly prevent it.
Does the Haste Spell Cause Exhaustion?
No; the haste spell doesn’t cause Exhaustion in D&D 5e.
I’ve seen quite a few people online claim that haste grants a level of Exhaustion on the target when the spell ends. But, that’s actually not true in the slightest. The spell doesn’t even mention Exhaustion at all, so it doesn’t cause it once it ends.
Summary of Exhaustion in D&D 5e
That’s about it for Exhaustion in 5e.
Exhaustion is a special condition that gets progressively worse by adding more and more levels to your character. As the condition worsens, your rolls get made at disadvantage, your movement speed gets reduced, your maximum hit points reduce, and your character eventually dies. Many things cause Exhaustion from travelling too long without rest to not eating or drinking enough to suffering the effects of a spell to the ability of a monster. And, there are only a few ways of removing Exhaustion and they’re often slow.
I highly encourage Game Masters to use Exhaustion in their games.
Often, the Exhausted condition is a side thought, rarely coming up to any great effect over the course of a campaign. But, think of the challenge it poses to adventurers.
By showing players that their characters suffer from these sorts of rather mundane conditions, they then need to consider how hard they’re pushing forward.
Furthermore, there’s a really fun and semi-brutal homebrew I’ve seen pop up a few times. Each time a character gets knocked unconscious, give them a level of Exhaustion when they recover.
Hitting zero hit points is sometimes frightening for players. But, it often becomes trivial if the party has a Cleric or other class filling the Healer role in D&D. If you include consequences beyond falling unconscious, it forces players think more carefully and makes them consider their actions more diligently.
Do you use Exhaustion in your game? Leave a comment below with your stories.
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