encumbrance

Like many, as far as I can tell, I’ve long struggled with making encumbrance and movement rate calculation realistic AND playable at the same time. Many times over the years I’ve put my foot down and decided that we’re going to do it by the book come hades or high water only to abandon it ten minutes after rolling up PCs.

What I see as ideal is a coarsely-granular system which:

  1. Is simple enough to use and update during play
  2. Takes strength into account (stronger characters can carry more)
  3. Has at least a passing similarity to the real world weight and bulk of gear
  4. Gives results approximately the same as the by the book systems

Here is my (very alpha) stab at such a system. It uses a lot of inspiration from Delta’s stone system, Erin Smale’s gear pack system, Telecanter’s House Rules system, and Jim Raggi’s Weird Fantasy RGP system, plus, I’m sure, tidbits from countless other systems and forum discussions.

Most medium-sized items have an encumbrance (ENC) value of 1. Small items have no ENC value. Larger and/or heavier items such as large weapons and armor have ENC values of 2 or higher. Yes, a sword weighs more than a hand axe which weighs more than a club, but for our purposes all three have roughly the same effect upon a character’s movement rate and ability to carry gear; they all have an ENC of 1. Two-handed swords or lances, however, are significantly larger/heavier/bulkier and have a greater impact upon movement, so they have an ENC of 2. Heavy suits of armor have even higher ENC values.

Most small items which are usually carried in pouches or backpacks don’t have an ENC value, but the backpack or pouch does. This eliminates the detailed tracking of all sorts of small, light items. If it fits in the pouch, it doesn’t add to the encumbrance of a character. This applies to coins, too, so getting treasure out of the dungeon is manageable if you’ve got the capacity. But if you have to take a sack out of the backpack and start putting gold in it, you start paying ENC for the sack (1 for small, 2 for large, 3 for Santa-sized.)

Every character gets one free ENC “slot.” Beyond that, they can carry 1/3 of their STR and still move at full rate (120), up to 2/3 of their STR and move at 90, their full STR and move at 60, and 1/3 over their STR and stagger along at 30. What I like about this base concept is that the numbers are small (almost always lower than 20, usually much lower) and readily-evident (they’re equal to the first ability score.)

The key is to get the ENC values of gear right, particularly armor. We’ve still got some tweaking of the numbers to do, but initial results look workable.

Take a fighter with the following gear: Chainmail, Shield, Helmet, Sword, Bow, Quiver, and Backpack (full of stuff). Pretty standard.

In B/X/LL, this guy moves at 60 and using my simple encumbrance system, he moves at 90 if his STR is 12 or greater (as long as his money is in his backpack.) He moves 60 if his STR is 8 through 11.

Here’s another example: Character with leather armor, short sword, dagger, and pouch. Moves 120 in both systems, unless his STR is under 9, in which case he moves at 90 in my system. Both of these examples use the 80 pounds for misc clothing and items rule for B/X.

Regarding the dagger in the second example, and the lack of a dagger in the first, I’ve come up with this: Some small lightweight items do not have an ENC number but they have a dagger symbol ‘†.’ Besides the dagger, other “dagger items” include holy symbols, wands, and vials (potions or holy water). Each character has an additional “Dagger Slot” which can be used for one ‘†’ item. Dagger items beyond the first count as normal 1 ENC items unless carried in pouches or packs, in which case they are treated as no-ENC items.

This means that the first example can carry a back-up dagger without affecting his move rate in my system and the second example can have a STR as low as 6 and still move at 120 in my system.

There are still a few details to tweak, but I will probably have a full write-up available soon. Any feedback on the base idea would be greatly appreciated.

UPDATE: Based on some of the feedback (thanks!) and further discussion with my son, I think we’re going to simplify this a bit by removing the concept of basing the number of slots on a percentage of STR and using a flat number for each movement rate and adding (or removing) slots based on high or low STR instead. That will simplify it a bit (vital) and also resolves some issues I was having with making the encumbrance values for armor work for both normal and high-STR characters.

13 Comments to “Encumbrance and Move Rate”

  1. Erin says:

    Passes the sniff test. I like the effect of STR, but for easier bookkeeping, have you considered making the number of “free” ENC slots equal to the STR attribute adjustment (i.e., in B/X +3 for STR 18, +2 for STR 16-17, +1 for STR 13-15, etc.)?

    Another bit to consider (which only recently occurred to me) is the role of DEX. Encumbrance is supposed to represent weight and bulk. STR definitely figures for the weight part, but I think DEX could reasonably account for the bulk part (e.g., who’s better at carrying three plates of nachos to the pool–the strong guy or the agile dude?).

    You don’t want to start differentiating between what’s heavy and what’s bulky. But you could average out STR and DEX and apply the corresponding ability adjustment as “free” ENC slots. Or you could assign your free slots based on size, using the logic that creatures with larger frames can better distribute the weight and bulk of items carried. Like Small = ENC -0, Medium = ENC +1, Large = ENC +2.

    Or something. Just food for thought, but this is good–I’m all for simplifying this kind of game stuff.

    • Kilgore says:

      Hmm. Good thoughts.

      have you considered making the number of “free” ENC slots equal to the STR attribute adjustment (i.e., in B/X +3 for STR 18, +2 for STR 16-17, +1 for STR 13-15, etc.)?

      I take it you mean to use that idea INSTEAD of tying slots directly to the STR score? Otherwise you just increase the differences between high and low STR. Interesting thought. Very interesting.

      One thing that occurred to me as I read your comment about the large and small frame creatures is that our game we’re working where I intend to try this out initially is humans-only (as far as PCs go) and I haven’t even considered other size characters.

      • Erin says:

        Yes, correct. The STR adjustment only:

        STR 3: -3
        STR 4-5: -2
        STR 6-8: -1
        STR 9-12: 0
        STR 13-15: +1
        STR 16-17: +2
        STR 18: +3

        Which has the added benefit of giving Gauntlets of Ogre Power or Girdles of Giant Strength value outside of melee combat.

        The only reason I mention the small v. large is because it’s bound to come up–if you don’t have halfling PCs, then someone will ask about how much stuff they can stack on top of a mount.

        Let us know how the first playtest session goes!

        • Kilgore says:

          Well, now I’m going to have to think on this a bit. Part of the problem I’ve been running into when trying to finalize the numbers is that when it works “right” for mid-STR characters, the high and low STR characters are out of whack. If I pump things up a bit to keep the high-STR characters in line, the mid-STR characters aren’t able to carry enough even though they’re going to be the most common (we use 3d6 in order with one 3d6 swap roll) and the low-STR characters can barely manage a sword.

          Using those pluses or even a new carry adjustment column of numbers (like AD&D) would allow the differences between low-, mid-, and high-STR capacities to be smaller, with the advantages or disadvantages to high or low STR to be less significant. Which is what we’re going for.

          • Erin says:

            Didn’t mean to throw a spanner in the works.

            What might help sort this is seeing a few examples with numbers and math.

  2. Philo Pharynx says:

    Erin mentions that it passes the snif test, but there’s another test that each individual group needs to answer for themselves. Does it pass the fun test? Does the time spent figuring out the encumbrance for every character and every item make the game more enjoyable for the group? I’ve played with different systems and what tripped me up most often were the things that didn’t agree on the bulk/mass scale. Armor is heavy, but well-fitted armor moves with you very easily. It’s easier to wear amor of a certain weight than to carry an object of the same weight. Likewise, a 10′ pole isn’t that heavy. But it’s a big pain in the ass to move around with one. I finally decided just to wing it.

    • Kilgore says:

      Does the time spent figuring out the encumbrance for every character and every item make the game more enjoyable for the group?

      This is an attempt at an encumbrance system that does not require that. Doing all of that has never been fun, but I also think that “winging” encumbrance is not all that much fun, either. So that’s why I”m trying to come up with something that is semi-realistic, easy enough to not be a bother, and adds to the fun.

      I’ve played with different systems and what tripped me up most often were the things that didn’t agree on the bulk/mass scale. Armor is heavy, but well-fitted armor moves with you very easily. It’s easier to wear amor of a certain weight than to carry an object of the same weight.

      I haven’t published the numbers yet for this idea because they’re still in flux, but the ENC values go from 1 (most weapons, leather armor, and studded armor) to 5 (plate mail). So the granularity is very coarse. A few of the biggest/heaviest weapons and items (including the 10′ pole) rate a 2. I’m guessing a treasure chest would rate a 3 or 4 depending on the size.

      Winging it is what we always do, but I’d like a workable system. Nobody complains about having to calculate armor class or argues that the DM should just “wing” how many spells of each level clerics can cast, so if we can get a system that takes about that much work to understand and implement, we’ll have what we want.

      I think the idea that Erin noted about using a static number of slots and basing “bonus” slots on STR modifier is a great one and I’m working on that right now…should make it even easier to know and use.

  3. Jack Colby says:

    Luckily, I have players who are good about carrying stuff only if it seems reasonable. This does seem like a simple system though… I personally would not even worry about the difficulties of carrying things unless someone tries taking spare suits of armor, or finds a big treasure hoard.

    On a side note, has anyone noticed that many computer RPGs, which could reasonably track realistic encumbrance very easily unlike we poor humans, often have the most unrealistic sort of systems, with characters able to carry tons of stuff to the point that it makes no sense? I find that odd, myself.

    • Kilgore says:

      I don’t play computer RPGs, so I guess I hadn’t noticed that they don’t do this well. Seems to me that they’d be perfect at it not matter how complex the system was.

      As far as “not even worrying about” tracking encumbrance, our current system is leather or studded armor = 120, plate = 60, any other armor = 90. Doesn’t matter what else you carry unless the DM finds out you’re hauling thousands of coins or something. It’s decent and gets the job done, but I’d like something a bit more.

      I’ve always seen resource management as a big part of the game, but it’s tough to make it matter when how much you carry doesn’t matter all that much. Or when I suddenly find out that the fighter has been carrying a 2-handed sword, a long sword, a magic short sword, four daggers, a bow, 40 arrows, and a shield on his back for when he doesn’t use the 2-handed sword.

      Obviously that’s an extreme example, but somewhere in there it stopped mattering what decisions the player made. I think it should be tough to decide what to take on an expedition and I would like some easy to use rules to make it matter.

      • Erin says:

        The computer game model has helped me to simplify encumbrance somewhat. “Dungeon Siege” and “Diablo” used little blocks in your character’s inventory, and each character had a number of blocks to fill. A dagger might fill 1 block, while a suit of armour might be 6 blocks. Basically, when you ran out of blocks, you couldn’t carry any more. Other games improved this model a bit by giving you blocks on different locations plus a number of blocks in reserve. So you might have 4 blocks for your head, 6 for your body, 4 for each hand, 2 for your feet, and 24 blocks in your “backpack.” So if a suit of armour was 6 blocks, you could wear one, and carry 4 (but you’d have no more space in your backpack).

        Like your system, Chimera items each consume a certain amount of space–call them blocks or slots or whatever. In Chimera, each block reduces your movement rate by 1, so if you have MR 8 and wear mail (Enc 2), carry a sword (Enc 1), and have Enc 1 worth of stuff, your adjusted MR is 4. You get extra (free) slots based on Size.

        I agree with Philo in that it has to be fun and easy to calculate. And, it can be fun to add Encumbrance realism to the game (characters choosing what treasure to carry, what weapons to keep, what armour is best to wear). I think your system is headed in that direction–eager to see what you come up with.

    • Philo Pharynx says:

      Computer games can do lots of calculations, but they need good models. Encumbrance isn’t an easily calculated problem, because it’s multifaceted. It involves size, weight, how something is carried and the environment they’re in. For a real-world example, take a gamer’s backpack packed full of books, notebooks, paper, dice, etc. It can be pretty heavy, but it’s pretty easy to carry on your back. Now cut off all of the straps. It’s gotten a little lighter, but it’s encumbrance values have gone way up. It’s a major pain to carry in your arms. A suit of plate mail that’s fitted to the person isn’t that bad. It’s heavy but it’s designed to move naturally and the weight is distributed around your body. Compare that to carrying a set of plate mail. As I mentioned a 10′ pole isn’t that heavy. But if you’re trying to maneuver it in an enclosed area it will always be hitting things. Trying to get it through a corner in most hallways would be annoyingly difficult. But in an open field it’s not that hard. Dexterity is more important with more awkward loads, but less important with well-balanced loads.
      I’ve talked with encumbrance with one of my buddies who has been in the Army and in the SCA. As he mentioned, long term carrying capacity has much less to do with strength than most games figure. Low strength reduces your ability to carry, but once you get to a resonably fit person (say STR 12), then size and packing ability are more important. Strength would still matter to how much somebody could lift, push or drag. From his experiences patrolling in Iraq, constitution is at least as important as strength. How much a person can carry for one hour is less important than how much a person can carry for a full day and still be in shape to fight off a rabid owlbear.
      This is a lot of factors to keep track of. Programming a computer would be a pain in the ass to handle all of these. Simplifiying it means ignoring some of these factors or rolling multiple things into some sort of aggregate number. On the other hand, if you describe what somebody is carrying and how they are carrying it you immediately get a decent idea of how encumbered they are.

  4. Selkirk says:

    In my home-brew D&D system I’ve adopted a Small/Medium/Large backpack rule. Small packs can carry up to 6 items and 4 days food., Medium up to 9 items and 6 days food and Large up to 12 items and 8 days food.

    Encumberance is counted in ‘Burden’ points. A small pack has 0 burden. A medium pack has 1 burden and a large pack is 2 burden.

    Burden due to armor is equal is equal to its AC bonus(ascending AC system).

    Total burden is subtracted characters Str and Dex ability scores. This makes *everything* more difficult with a heavy burden. Total burden is also used as a penalty to Thieving abilities(using a d20 system). Mages can’t cast spells with more than 1 burden point. This lets me remove armor restrictions altogether. It takes care of itself!

    I calculate movement by taking the *minimum* of a characters Str and Dex bonus and applying that to the standard 4-grid squares per combat round movement. I use a maximum bonus/penalty for ability scores of +2/-2 so movement ranges from 2 squares per round to 6 squares per round.

    I allow Fighters to ignore 1 point of Burden per level for their strength and prowess. This has some really great effects. First, it keeps lower level fighters using Mid-grade armor longer. It reduces bonus inflation. It discourages non-fighters from wearing heavy armor on its own. It also makes the lightly armored skirmisher or barbarian type fighters perfectly viable design choices without the need to create a separate class.

    I’ve pushed together a lot of this from different sources but I really like how it’s come together in my game.

    • Erin says:

      I like the way you’re modifying based on encumbrance, especially the use of armour by fighters. Good effect on game mechanics and campaign development.