Monday, August 2, 2010

Simple Encumbrance

If you've followed my blog this summer, you know I've been struggling with the tangle that is movement rates/encumbrance. I came up with what I thought was a pretty streamlined system of checkboxes to keep track of these. But two things happened, 1) I realized that the whole idea of more weight slowing a person's pace is wrong and 2) James Raggi came up with a much more elegant way to track encumbrance.

Short Distances, Not Slow Speeds

So, 1 first. This is one of those things that seems so intuitive but just isn't right. First, yes, carrying weight can slow your pace, but the amount your pace slows is nowhere near that given in most rpg rules. Check out these world's strongest men carrying the Husafell stone:

That thing is 300 to 400 pounds. Notice how they are walking at about 3 mph, in other words, normal walking pace. You could do this experiment yourself: go to the local building supply store pick up an 80 pound bag of ready-mix concrete and carry it around the store. I'd wager, if you can pick it up, that your problem won't be how slow you're moving, but how far you can go before your tired muscles give out completely. At some point the weight we carry flips from "I don't really notice this" to "Just a few more steps, just a few more steps."
So I'm proposing a binary encumbrance model:
  • you carry it with no effect on your movement rate
  • or, it's so heavy you can only carry it a limited distance.
A Normal Load

First, we need to know what is the weight that flips us over to too heavy. In real life this has all kinds of influencing factors including body weight, height, and genetics but we'll keep it simple. We'll only vary it by the Strength attribute, 18's like the guys in the video will carry more than the rest of us. But to start let's hold strength steady at 10. What weight can be carried with no penalty?

If you go by Swords & Wizardry, the most a character can carry without suffering movement rate penalties is 75 pounds (5 stone). If you use my revised starting equipment pack, all characters will start with ~25 pounds of gear (1.5 stone). That would leave them with ~3.5 stone leeway.

To complicate things, I actually think the 75 pounds is much too high. My vague recollection of backpacking into the sierras is of having ~60-70 pound packs, and those were heavy, and those were modern packs made with aluminum frames, plastics, and designed to put weight on your hips. I'd be much happier if we lowered the default weight carried to ~45 pounds (3 stone). You could easily make this higher or lower. I would keep it multiples of 15 to make conversion to stones simple, say 30, or 60 pounds if those feel more right to you.

But, after the fast pack, that only leaves 20 pounds, you might think. But remember my fast pack is giving them almost everything they need going in to the adventure. If they find treasure they can always ditch some rations, oil, etc. Also, don't forget those lovely non-combatant hirelings, what do you think they are being paid for exactly?

Encumbrance as a Limited List

Okay, now 2. Anyone who has played crpgs has probably wished for an encumbrance system as simple. The packs in, say, Baldur's Gate had a certain amount of room and items took up a certain amount of that room. If you're a freaking pack rat like me, you would spend a lot of time in that game juggling gear, trying to decide what to throw out, learning what had the most value per weight/size. Encumbrance was a real part of the game experience. But how to translate that to the non-computer world where calculations get in the way of time spent making quips about portable holes? James Raggi proposed slots on a character's sheet. Each line could have one piece of equipment written on it. As these slots are filled characters pass predetermined encumbrance levels affecting their movement rate.

Now, first, this is a genius idea of abstracting levels of weight to lines on a sheet of paper. It, like most elegant solutions, is a matter of granularity; yes a sword weighs more than a potion, but that is not the level of detail we want to mess with if it requires us to do math every time we pick up new gear. An item takes a slot. That's it. (okay, you can actually fudge a little here, and I might, making oil bottles and ammo come in standard sized bundles in your world, to allow for say 3 bottles of oil on a line).

But, if you combine this with my idea above I think we can make this even simpler while still giving a feeling of verisimilitude, about things in our worlds having weight and people having limits. So, I would limit the lines available for gear to total our flipping point weight of 3 stones.

A sticky decision to make is, roughly, what weight should each line on the encumbrance record sheet represent. Again, you could vary this to your taste, but I think 7.5 pounds (1/2 stone) is a good middle position between a heavy mace and a lighter dagger, averaging things out in the end.

So, 45 pounds divided into 7.5 pound chunks would give us 6 slots. Players in my games would only have 3 slots left. We can round these numbers off and be a little sloppy, it's supposed to be an abstraction.

Strength Differences

But what about characters of different strength? The easist solution would be to give pcs more slots or more stones according to their strength attribute modifier. This could probably work for Labyrinth Lord or Osric, but S&W and oe have more limited bonuses. I want to keep this simple, how about add a new slot for ever two points of strength over 10, remove a slot going down the other way. So, someone with 18 strength would have 10 slots.

I propose hirelings, unless a trait noted otherwise would be average 10. You could make them weaker than average if you wanted. Here is a draft of what a record sheet using this system might look like:

Pdf is here. Hirelings on the bottom. You can see the players have 6 lines available with 4 additional dotted lines for those lucky enough to have exceptional strength.

I think I'll stop here and post tomorrow about what to do when the weight goes over the normal load.


  1. Maybe instead of changing movement rate, encumbrance should change how many turns you have to rest per hour?

  2. The rock carrying insight is good, but there's also a basic difference between weight carried on the body and weight carried in arms. It's the former that is more likely to slow you down. Maybe it would be more realistic to add fatigue rules and say that moving encumbered tires you, forcing you to rest, but I don't like things that add so much bookkeeping in tense situations. It might be better to treat rock carrying as a strength-based feat of its own.

    I should really post my quick start character sheet. It has a Raggi-esque list system on a number of lines, where the line you start from is determined by Strength, and then the lines near the ends tell you when your load slows you down depending on what armor you are wearing.

  3. I'm with anarchist; I think weight should be measured by forced rests in time rather than distance.

    And/or hit the PC's where it hurts the most: high encumbrance incurs to-hit penalties. the heavier and bulkier the load, the higher the penalty. After all, how easy can it be to fight with all that added inertia?

  4. Hi all, thanks for commenting!

    @anarchist/Dan: That certainly makes sense, but I think it just trades one kind of bookkeeping for another.

    I guess what I'm realizing is that there are two choices encumbrance typically forces on players if DM's don't handwave it away: 1) Is this stuff I want to carry important enough for me to put myself at risk and 2) I can't carry everything, so what should I choose.

    It looks like 2 is easier (rules-wise) to force players to make and, to me, it has more positive side effects (valuing porters, making expeditions into dungeons feel like expeditions).

    1, basically, is about "Now that you've survived and found treasure, how are you going to get it out of here?" But 2 does that as well and doesn't take as many rules to keep track of (different movement rates different combat penalties for different levels of encumbrance).

    @Roger: I think it's a matter of scale; you put enough weight on your back and you won't move very far.

    Hey, post it. That sounds very similar to what I'm after here. I was actually planning to post today my draft from this post incorporating my fast pack.

  5. The Tunnels & Trolls encumbrance system, in case anyone's interested, is that you can carry up to 100 x your Strength in coins. Carrying over half your weight possible, or having lost at least half your Con (hit points equivalent), slows you down. Fairies also can't fly if they're carrying half their weight possible or more.

  6. @Dan:

    Your idea would also be an easy way to have swashbuckler/barbarian lightly-armoured fighter types.

  7. I believe that from about Roman times (particularly Marius' reforms) onwards, a soldier carried about 70-75 pounds of gear -- certainly up through WWII. It may be a little less now but probably not much. I think 75 pounds is within reason for adventurers.

    But generally speaking I like where you're going with this.