This will be the first of two posts about using using encumbrance and tracking supplies in an RPG in a way that is actually practical and not a complete annoyance that nobody ever wants to use. Encumbrance is possibly the most hated and most ignored rule in games like Dungeons & Dragons, simply because it’s way too much bookkeeping for usually no noticable gain. An Encumbrance system that people are actually going to use has to be so simple that it’s practically invisible when not doing anything, but immediately available when it becomes relevant. As a GM you never want to tell the players “please look up the weights for all the items in your inventory and calculate your modified travel speed because of Encumbrance”. You just wouldn’t do that.
Why have Encumbrance in the first place?
Because Encumbrance shows up so rarely in adventures and campaigns and the games work just fine without it, there’s the obvious question why to bother with it at all? The answer I have to that is that the effects of Encumbrance are actually a lot of fun and can lead to great encounters and even whole adventures. It all comes down to the players having to make decisions what things they want to carry with them and what things to leave behind. The more stuff you carry, the slower you move. In the older editions of Dungeons & Dragons this is hugely important. Characters get some experience points for defeating monsters and other enemies, but the majority of XP will be gained from bringing treasures back from their adventures. The most efficient way to become more powerful and not dying in the process is to steal treasure without fighting the onwer. And if you do get caught, it’s often the smartest way to run. The amount of experience you get depends on how much treasure you collect. The speed at which you run depends on how much tools and treasure you are carrying. This is a kind of conflict, and both in fiction and RPGs, conflicts are always great. That’s where things get interesting.
There are also the wandering monsters and random encounters. The longer you stay in a dungeon, the greater the chance of accidentally running into someone. Since wandering monsters generally don’t carry their treasure with them, they are a lot of danger for very little potential reward. The best way to get treasure out of a dungeon is to do it quick, and to be quick you need to be able to move fast. Do you really need that big bag of copper coins that are worth barely any XP? Would it perhaps be better to just ditch it? How much are you willing to risk for a few XP more?
When dealing with wilderness adventures where the characters are away from civilization for days and weeks, another element comes into play. Without places to simply buy food, you have to bring your own or be able to find some along the way. If you run out, you have a problem. This is especially important when traveling through deserts, where you might have to carry a great amount of supplies, which will slow you down a lot and make the whole trip significantly longer. And staying longer in the desert means greater risk of running into someone hostile. Unfortunately, most RPGs don’t bother with any rules for going without food and water and so this is something that almost never comes up. And say the party does run out of water? Is that going to be the totally anticlimactic end of the campaign? I’ll be going into this in the second post.
Tracking Encumbrance the easy way
A few years back there was a good article on the subject on Pencil and Paper, which I really like. It’s definitly the right idea, but the system I am using is even somewhat simpler. Last week I was going through the rules for Lamentations of the Flame Princess again to make a reference document with just the rules that are going to be used in my Old World campaign. This is always a lot easier for new players than having to remember which parts of a rulebook they can use and which ones don’t apply. And while looking for unnecessary items to remove from the Encumbrance tables, I realized that the system is actually more complicated than it needs to be. Some of the steps are unnecessary and only lead to having more tables involved than needed. So I’ve been stripping it down even further and ended up with this:
As in the LotFP rules, Encumbrance is not tracked by weight but simply by items. All characters can carry a certain number of items before they begin to be slowed down.
Exploration speed is the distance covered in a 10 minute turn when exploring caves or ruins. Even when being careful and methodical I think this is way too slow, so I probably make turns 5 minutes instead. But since this is how it’s done in most OSR games, I am sticking with the turn as a unit of time. Combat and Running speeds are per round. (While converting the distances to meters I increased the combat speed from 1/3 running speed to 1/2 running speed to avoid funky numbers.) As you can see, carrying capacity it not affected by the Strength score of the character. For my Old World campaign, I’ve given the big and strong kaas and yao a bonus of +5 items before they reach the next Encumbrance category. I like doing things in steps of 5, but if you want to you could also use the Strength score of the character as the maximum number of items for being unencumbred and then go up one category for every 5 items above that. Yes, it scales, or doesn’t scale, in strange ways, but the primary objective with this system is to keep it simple, not being realistic.
But don’t you still have to constantly count the numbers of items in your inventory and then check the Encumbrance table? With the right type of inventory sheet, you don’t. Most character sheets have a space for the inventory that just consists of a number of rows. Simply number each row at the left and then make sure you won’t have any empty spaces when you fill in your items that you are carrying. The number of the last row that holds and item is the number of items you carry. Since the amount of items you can carry never changes as the character advances, you can then simply use some kind of marker to make a clear line below row 10, row 15, row 20, and row 25. If you want to base the limits on the Strength score, make the lines below row 13, 18, 23, and 28 for a character with 13 Strength. Simple as that.
To the left of the list you can then simply make a small note for the movement speed your character has when the inventory is filled up to those marked lines. You will always be able to tell immediately what your current movement speed is whenever the GM wants to know it, and it doesn’t mean any extra work for the players. All they have to do is write all their items down on the inventory sheet.
Now in the Old World I am not using treasure at all, neither for XP nor as money. But most campaigns probably do. What you have to decide is how many coins are going to fit into “1 pouch of coins”. But I think 100 might be a good number. Fantasy coins tend to be pretty big things and are often made of gold, which is one of the heaviest materials in the universe, so even a relatively small number of coins is going to be pretty big.
Encumbrance for mounts and pack animals
One thing that RPGs (and fantasy in general) almost always gets wrong is how traveling with a horse works. On a short sprint, a horse will always beat a human easily. But when it comes to endurance running, the only creature on Earth that can keep up with humans are dogs. This is the big superpower of our two species and was the beginning of a wonderful fiendship (consisting mostly of killing other animals and eating them). All other animals need a lot of rest during the day and can’t keep marching all day. For humans and horses, the differences between speed and endurance are about canceling each other out and so you are not going to be any faster on a horse than on foot. That is, if you are not carrying any big loads.
If you have to not just get yourself from one point to another, but also a lot of other stuff, a horse can make a big difference, especially when you’re not riding it. Having a horse allows you to walk without having to carry anything, while your horse is slowed down only very little by what would be a really heavy load for yourself. And if you have two horses you can ride one while the other carries your stuff, and so you don’t have to walk. Because of this, the Encumbrance table for mounts looks somewhat different.
Obviously, the number of items a mount can carry before going to the next category is a lot higher. It’s simply multiplied by 5 here. Exploration speed and travel distance per day are adjusted to match that of characters while combat and running speed are the same as in LotFP. This table is for an animal similar to a horse. In the Old World, this is what I am using for a heor. For larger and smaller animals, simply adjust the number of items that can be carried while being unencumbred. For something small like an oget that number is reduced by 25, while for something big like a droha it’s increased by 25. And for the really big krats it’s plus 50.
This is all very heavily abstracted and not really based on any numbers that you’d find in reality. But so what? The main goal here is to have a system that is practical to use? What good is a realistic system that nobody ever wants to use?
Though you might be wondering why I am even bothering with Encumbrance at all if the Old World is not really using treasure? The answer to that is food and water, which I’ll be covering in the next post.
Part 2: Water and Rations