NetHack Inspired D&D 5e Hunger Mechanics

So my regular group is in the middle of the final chapter of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and we’re on a brief hiatus as one of our players is unavailable this month.

So I’m running two of my players through a random dungeon crawl on Roll20.

Because I needs my TTRPG fix. I needs it.

And since I became obsessed with the insanely hard rouge-like that is NetHack I was inspired to find fun ways to convert a NetHack inspired mentality into a playable D&D 5e dungeon crawl.

One thing I’ve always struggled with as a DM is a good way to track time in a dungeon. I’ve tried keeping track of turns and having players move one turn at a time. I’ve tried tracking time in terms of Travel Pace (300 ft per minute for a normal pace, 200 ft for slow pace, 400 ft for a fast pace). I’ve tried hand-waving it and simply summarizing (“Ok it takes you a minute or two to walk down the long corridor.” or “It takes you about 30 minutes to carefully search every nook and cranny of this room.”) But no matter how I try to track time it always seems unsatisfying. Now I only care about tracking time if a trap or a spell effect requires me to do so. But this is also unsatisfying to me because most of the time I want to run a gritty game that has a sense of danger and urgency.

NetHack, and many survival games since NetHack, have fixed this problem with an elegant solution. Hunger. You can’t just wander around a dungeon aimlessly because you will fucking starve to death. You need food on your person so you don’t have yet another stupid death. Every step and every action in NetHack requires you to keep in the back of your mind “I’m going to need to eat soon. It’s been a while.” I love these types of mechanics in games because everything feels more urgent when you always need to keep an eye on a continually depleting resource.

Running  D&D 5e, my players rarely ever bother mentioning they’e eating. Of course I’m partly to blame, but the system is also at fault. D&D 5e (and I believe any edition) lacks any real mechanical reasons to eat. Sure short rests and Long rests are always on players minds because that’s how they get back all their cool abilities. Outside of sleeping or just sitting for an hour nobody gives a fuck about food and water because there’s no tangible mechanical benefits for keeping track of that shit or real mechanical consequences for not eating or drinking. Sure the rules says any character needs a gallon of water and a pound of food every day but it turns into “ok just assume I’m doing that every long rest.” It ends up feeling like Skyrim where you run around punching dragons to death and your health just magically refills and you never need to eat or sleep or worry about any of the things mortal creatures need to do to just not fucking die.

Here’s what 5e has to say about Food & Water:

Characters who don’t eat or drink suffer the effects of exhaustion. Exhaustion caused by lack of food or water can’t be removed until the character eats and drinks the full required amount.

Food

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.

Water

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.

It’s simple rules that are easy to remember but I think they’re too simple. It ends up being forgotten and hand-waved constantly. A PC with 10 Constitution (+0 Modifier) can adventure for 3 days without eating with no problems whatsoever. What the fuck is that shit? Have you ever tried not eating for a whole 24 hours? Have you ever not eaten for 24 hours and then also carried 20lbs of coin, 30lbs of armor, a longsword, and ran around fighting goblinoids? That’s gotta fucking suck. Sure I want heroism. Sure I want a group of badasses kicking ass and chewing bubblegum. But if they’re immune to worrying about basic survival what’s the point? Where’s the drama? Where’s the suspense? Why the fuck should anyone care about a Ranger foraging food or the spell Create Food & Water? The rules presented in 5e are suitable if you want to Skyrim level worries, but I want to run a game with NetHack level worries.

So I designed Hunger Die Mechanics to sate my appetite for something more substantial.

The Hunger Die

Your Hunger Die is an indicator of how hungry you are and if you don’t eat when you’re low you will become Exhausted and eventually starve to death.

Your Hunger Die is equal to your Hit Die. It starts out at as the highest number and incrementally goes down with strenuous activity. Your Hunger Die increases when you eat, drink, or quaff a health potion. Below is a list of activities that will affect your Hunger Die. If your Hunger Die would ever go negative as the result of your actions or lack of actions you die. No Death Saves. You’re fucking dead.

After Combat                                  DC 15 Con Save

Athletics/Acrobatics                      DC 10 Con Save

Half or Less HP                              DC 15 Con Save

(Con Saves: Success=No change, Failure= -1 Hunger, Natural 1= -2 Hunger)

0 HP                                                 -2 Hunger

Short Rest                                       -1 Hunger

Long Rest                                        -2 Hunger

Eating & Drinking                         +2 Hunger

Eating/Drinking                             +1 Hunger

Eating/Drinking Poor Quality     Roll 1d6. 4-6: +1, 1-3: No Change

Eating raw corpse                         Roll 1d6. 5 or 6: +1 Hunger, 2-4: No change, 1: -1 Hunger

Eating cooked corpse                   Roll 1d6. 4-6: +1 Hunger, 2 or 3 No Change, 1: -1 Hunger

Magical Bland Food                      Roll 1d6. 4-6: +1 Hunger, 1-3: No Change

Magical Good Food                       +2 Hunger

Potion of…                                       Healing:+2, Greater:+4, Superior: +8, Supreme:+12

(If your HP Maximum is halved as a result of Exhaustion from hunger you do not make another Half HP Con Save)

Hunger Die Exhaustion Effects
D6 –          1    0    -1
Exh. Lv.  3    5    Death
D8 –           2    1    0    -1
Exh. Lv.   3    4    5    Death
D10 –         3    2    1    0    -1
Exh. Lv.   2    3    4    5    Death
D12 –        4    3    2    1    0    -1
Exh. Lv.  1    2    3    4    5    Death

With these additional mechanics I feel it maintains an heroic feel while also adding a sense of gritty realism. When you’re just exploring a dungeon and searching through ruins you still don’t need to worry about hunger. But every time you end combat, you might be a little more hungry. Every time you lose half your health you get a little hungrier. And if you go through 3 combat encounters, take a short rest, and heave open a door with brute strength, you’re probably going to need to start to worry about those dry rations sitting in your backpack. And, of course, if you ignore the consequences of your heroic actions completely, you WILL fucking starve to death. Yet another stupid death.

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