In a discussion about henchmen and retainers I mentioned that oldschool D&D characters at higher levels would need to bring pack animals with them to get all their treasure back to civilization and gain XP from it, which means also people to care for and guard them while the PCs are going into dungeons. Not having played higher level games with XP for treasure myself yet, I got curious how many animals you’d actually should plan for.
In B/X, a mule can carry up to 4,000 coins of weight. Assuming that’s mostly gold and the rest is 1 platinum coin for every 10 silver coins, this is worth 4,000 XP. Which isn’t bad, but given the amounts of XP needed to advance at higher levels it’s actually not that much. People always say that that characters at higher levels advance really slowly, which I would take as perhaps something like 10 extended expeditions to a distant dungeon far out in the wilderness. To me, 30 sessions to level up would qualify as a snail’s pace. On average, characters from 8th level onward need 120,000 XP to reach the next level. Divided by 10 that’d be 12,000 XP per adventure or 3 mules. For every PC in the party!
What about bags of holding? While certainly useful inside a dungeon and to carry home treasure at lower levels, these no longer make any real difference at higher levels. 10,000 coins for the weight of 600 sounds really nice, but at these levels you’d need a dozen or so of them to stash all your loot from a single adventure. For every bag of holding you can reduce the needed number of mules by two, but whether you travel with 10 or 20 of them hardly makes any difference for the logistics involved.
I also calculated the average dragon hoard and came up with enough coins to load 15 mules. But potentially (and statistically almost impossible) it could be as much as 60 mule loads.
Then there’s also the interesting matter of food. Mentzer Expert gives us a weight of 70 coins for 1 week of rations. Which is virtually nothing compared to mail armor having a weight of 200 coins. One of the PCs can carry all the food needed by a 10 head party for a one week return trip all by himself and barely experience any encumbrance at all. Though you have to consider that this is the weight of 100 daggers. Perhaps it’s not the weights that are too low but the carrying capacity of characters that’s too high. But that’s another topic.
Let’s do the same calculations for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which uses a much simpler encumbrance system that I find highly preferable. It makes the common mistake of assuming that mounts walk twice as fast as people, while really they just can carry a lot more stuff at the same speed, but I’ll let this slide for now and go with severely encumbred mules traveling 12 miles per day: Under these conditions the animal can have an encumbrance rating of up to 25, which is 125 items. When packed by a professional animal handler this increases to 150 items. (As nice as the system is, the distinction between encumbrance rating and items carried is an unnecessary nuisance.) 100 coins are one item, which gives us a total of 15,000 coins or 15,000 XP. That is a lot more than in B/X, almost four times as much. But with 10 adventures to reach the next level, that’s still one mule for each party member.
It looks very different when you look at food. To feed 10 people for 7 days you’d need to carry 70 items and the maximum number for an armored character is 20 items. You’d really want to bring a pack animal for that and not haul it around yourself. Letting a mount carry 8 times as much stuff as a person at the same walking speed seems a bit much to me. I don’t think a group of heavily loaded soldiers will be moving much faster if they all put their backpacks on a single mule. I think for my own campaign I rather go with the average common pack goat carrying twice as much as a Strength 10 character, a riding deer three times as much, and a small hadrosaur ten times as much. Yes, you wouldn’t need a lot of these giant lizards to haul your loot, but on the other hand you can ride into town on a dinosaur.
But as you see, adventuring without retainers at higher levels is not just impractical but close to impossible. To gain meaningful amounts of XP from adventures, you have to approach them as large scale expeditions. In addition to animal handlers you’re also going to need guards and loyal henchmen who keep watch over them while the PCs are away from the camp. And once you have that whole gang together, there’s no need to not travel in sstyle. Get a bunch of servants and cooks as well.