Biblyon the Great

This zine is dedicated to articles about the fantasy role-playing game Gods & Monsters, and other random musings.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

Watches in Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition

Jerry Stratton, April 21, 2021

Eight-character watches: Eight-character watches in D&D 5e.; Dungeons & Dragons; Dungeons and Dragons; watches; rests, sleep

I’m in a couple of D&D 5e groups; it’s great to see the resurgence in D&D’s popularity. One thing I’ve noticed is that people seem to be much more accepting of unprotected sleep periods—that is, not putting up a watch. Reading this answer to the question about how to have a watch with only three characters I can understand why. The answer is correct, but also very complicated.

Back in AD&D, we not only used to always have a watch, we tried very hard to have double watches, preferably staggered watches. Having two eyes and ears available for every encounter instead of one vastly decreases the chance of being surprised. However, AD&D had a much more freeform definition of resting, so we could pretty much design our watches as we wanted within reason.

Resting is described on page 186 of the Players Handbook. Excepting Elves,

  1. Characters need eight hours of rest.
  2. Within that eight hours, characters must get six hours of sleep. This means no more than two hours of non-sleep during that eight hours.
  3. Within that eight hours, there must be less than one hour of strenuous activity, if any.

D&D 5E’s very strict definition has a couple of important implications for intelligent watches.

As long as you have four or more characters, individual watches are pretty easy. Divide the number of characters into eight hours, and everyone has at least six hours of sleep over a total of an eight hour rest with no more than two hours not sleeping; as long as you don’t get into a fight or flight lasting an hour, Bob’s your uncle.1

Three watches, you’ll probably want to drop down to two watches, either by letting someone sleep all they want or having one watch of two people and one watch of one person. Because in order for everyone to have six hours of sleep in an eight hour period in an uncomplicated manner, you’ll need three different eight hour periods. They’ll overlap some, but it’ll still mean a rest period of eighteen hours. With two watches, you’re down to only twelve hours.

But the reason I’m looking at this is because I don’t like individual watches. They mean a greater risk of someone falling asleep, and even if each individual stays awake, there’s a greater risk that they miss something important until it blunders into camp. I prefer having two people on watch throughout the rest period.

One of the implications of the 5e definition of rest is that there’s pretty much no reason to do a simple double watch. You really need eight people to do a double watch, and if you have eight people you can do a staggered watch. Seven people on a double watch means 18 hours of total watch, which is most of the day (you can do a staggered watch in only 14 hours, which is still too long).

It’ll make more sense to just put half your party on a six-hour watch, and then the other half on a six-hour watch. Each gets six hours of rest in an eight-hour period, and the total watch period is only twelve hours.2

With eight people, however, you can do staggered or double watches in an eight-hour rest. The critical change at eight or more people is that the staggered watches become one hour long; on a staggered watch each person has two watches, overlapping with a person before them and a person after them. Two one-hour watches means only two hours, and that’s okay within the eight-hour rest period.

Elves, because of their four-hour trance, are very useful people to have in a party. You’ll want to put them in the middle watches to make the best use of them, because it’s the people in the middle watches most at risk of not getting six hours of sleep.

Since I’m the author of 42 Astounding Scripts the hammer that solves every problem for me is a script. I have a script now that, given a number of people available for watch duty provides the watch period, the sleep time for each individual, and the total rest period.

  • $ ~/bin/watches 4

4 individual watches

Sleep time06:00
Rest period08:00

You can also provide names in the order of their watch period, and the script will provide a list of names and when in the rest period their watch starts:

  • $ ~/bin/watches Yaezgeh Acoyus Umeroy Eusen Pacex Atva Teye Luboys

8 individual watches

Sleep time07:00
Rest period08:00
watch 1Yaezgeh00:00
watch 2Acoyus01:00
watch 3Umeroy02:00
watch 4Eusen03:00
watch 5Pacex04:00
watch 6Atva05:00
watch 7Teye06:00
watch 8Luboys07:00

8 staggered watches

Full watch02:00
Sleep time06:00
Rest period08:00
watch 1Yaezgeh/Acoyus00:00
watch 2Acoyus/Umeroy01:00
watch 3Umeroy/Eusen02:00
watch 4Eusen/Pacex03:00
watch 5Pacex/Atva04:00
watch 6Atva/Teye05:00
watch 7Teye/Luboys06:00
watch 8Luboys/Yaezgeh07:00

4 double watches

Sleep time06:00
Rest period08:00
watch 1Yaezgeh/Acoyus00:00
watch 2Umeroy/Eusen02:00
watch 3Pacex/Atva04:00
watch 4Teye/Luboys06:00

If a character can survive on only four hours of sleep, as Elves can, put a single dash in front of their name. For example, normally if you only have six characters staggered watches would require an eighteen-hour total rest using uncomplicated watches. But if, say, the middle two are Elves, then it drops to twelve hours:

  • ~/bin/watches Yaezgeh Acoyus -Umeroy -Atva Teye Luboys

6 staggered watches

Full watch04:00
Sleep time08:00
Rest period12:00
watch 1Yaezgeh/Acoyus00:00
watch 2Acoyus/Umeroy02:00
watch 3Umeroy/Atva04:00
watch 4Atva/Teye06:00
watch 5Teye/Luboys08:00
watch 6Luboys/Yaezgeh10:00

In a 12-hour watch, you may want to put wizards, paladins, clerics, druids, and anyone else needing time to memorize spells, up front, so that they can regain their spells in the morning after their own personal six hours is completed. Everyone else also has free time outside their own personal rest and/or sleep period.

Elves are a bit more complicated than the script suggests. It’s easiest (and probably safest, depending on your DM) to treat their four-hour trance as a sleep period. The PHB does not as far as I can tell define the condition of semiconsciousness that Elven trance induces, so it’s pretty much up to the DM how much awareness an Elf has in trance. But remember in extremis that Elves may be able to get a Perception check of some sort even when they’re in trance.

Setting up staggered watches has already saved us in one of the games I’m in. It’s like having advantage on rest-time surprise rolls.

Watch generator for 5E rests (Zip file, 2.2 KB)

  1. Be careful about how your DM rolls for encounters. I’ve seen some roll per watch rather than per some unit of time. If you notice your DM doing that, you’ll want to keep the number of watches to a minimum, unless you want more encounters.

  2. The one period where a double watch beats a staggered watch is with five people, and it beats it because it’s doing basically that: two “double” watches, where one of the watches might have three people.

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