24 October 2016

The burden of encumbrance

If you were going to explore an underground cavern, what kit would you take with you? How about if you had to go on a long hike? Or doing some wild camping? Or going shopping in a new city where you don't really speak the language? Or fighting in a medieval tournament? Or undertaking a religious pilgrimage?

Different kit for different tasks, yes? Heck, I carry different stuff if I'm going to work or to the pub, never mind something more strenuous.

Random image search picture showing more or less what I normally have in my pockets

But what if you're doing all the things in that first list at the same time? In other words, what do you take with you if you're a dungeoneer in a fantasy roleplaying game? And how on earth do you carry it all while still being able to smite the ungodly(TM)?

One game approach is to handwave it all away - who wants to keep track, it's a game not an audit for a haulage company. Then all players look like this:

Go on, jump that chasm/climb that rope/crawl though that opening/run away/fight anything with all that gear on your back. I'll just sit here and roll you a new character to replace your dead one, shall I?

Another approach is that of Torchbearer, an RPG that gives the original Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay a run for its money in bringing about the deaths of its player characters in the most squalid and unedifying ways. Mostly, at lower levels anyway, dying of thirst or fainting of exhaustion and lack of food before being consumed by two elderly kobolds and their pet centipede, Gerald. In Torchbearer (which uses a version of the burning wheel mechanics), if you don't bring the right kit, you die, possibly from drinking foetid water as your flask runs dry.

I'd actually like to play in a Torchbearer game, but that's not part of today's post. No, this is more about how to GM a retroclone of early edition D&D (specifically Basic Fantasy RPG) so that encumbrance is a meaningful burden for the characters, but not burdensome for either GM or players. Furthermore, I want the parameters to be realistic have an internal logic that players can understand and make informed choices over, and consider bulk as well as weight. Easy, right?!

I decided to start in the real world to get an idea, then generalise, simplify, and round to the nearest whole number to get something workable. Here then, is the standard kit of a medieval foot slogger:

This photo is from a series of thirteen made by Thom Atkins that groups the kit carried by British soldiers between 1066 and recent deployments in Helmand Province. Aside from tiny but touching similarities (every picture contains a spoon), they give a good idea of battlefield essentials. More modern kits contain more of the survival type pieces a dungoneer might need, but the miniaturisation and stackability makes comparisons unhelpful. I'll have to think about backpacks for those bits.

Look at the picture for weapons, though, considering this is a man who has dressed specifically for battle - a dagger, a falchion, a bow. Yes he also has a knife for eating, and an axe for firewood or pointing archers' stakes, but he doesn't have ALL THE  WEPPUNZ!

Nope, I'm not having that in my games!

Why fuss about this now? Well, partly it's because I'm getting more comfortable in my role as DM so I can start to see points that I'd like to tweak (merely weight counting doesn't cut it for me), and partly because we're shifting to BFRPG from Swords & Wizardry so character sheets are being updated anyway. I gathered them in last session and one player looks like he'd happily end up like the figure above if I don't stop things soon (Yes, Jean, I'm looking at you with your spare weapons and lute).

Fortunately, there is the internet! And unsurprisingly I'm not the first person to ponder this. I found a link and two character sheets that were pretty close to my initial way of thinking so I'll be merging them into a monstrous hybrid that will be hard-wired into the character sheets I'm sketching out, hopefully in a way that is intuitive but fulfils my brief.

The link - Rottenpulp (Anti-hammerspace) by Matt Rundle

And the character sheet layouts popped out on an image search that lead me into Reddit. I passed my saving throw and escaped, fortunately!

So, experienced DMs, any other pointers you'd give me at this stage? I'm leaning towards images to place on the sheets (actual cut-outs) to speed things along, and may have a "hands" slot as well.



  1. We play Warhammer RPG 2e, so there's actually an encumbrance stat, and it's quite reasonnable. That's also why I love having a pony (I play an Halfling at the moment), as most of my "extra" weapons are a burden for the beast only.

    The RPG "Pendragon" had a great method for that; all knights have a squire, who deals with such trivial issues not worthy of a knight's time and efforts! ;-)

    1. I've got Pendragon and the "leave it to the squire" works beautifully for that specific genre - mechanic/realism/setting all in perfect alignment.

      I need something more thought-provoking for my increasingly competent murder-hobos, especially when I send them off on a river-cruise without their beasts of burden.

  2. A most interesting and thought provoking post.

    1. Thanks, TGM. As someone who has been aware of RPGs since I hit double digits, but never really played them until now, it's proving interesting to work through some of these problems as an experienced (geek and gamer) newbie (to RPGs). I suspect this won't be the last time I meander my way through "problems" in RPGs!

  3. Those character sheets are so helpful - thank you! For my part, I think encumbrance, sacrifice, preparation and over-preparation are a huge part of the fun of old-school roleplaying. Only in such a campaign does something like a Robe of Many Things make sense. And I only want to live in a world with Robes of Many Things.

    1. Hang on, I think I had a spare Robe of Many Things tucked inside my Bag of Holding...

      I'm glad the sheets are useful, and you're right - so many of the genre-locked magic items really only come into their own if encumbrance is a Thing.

  4. I have ordered torchbearer ,having read about it online. I am intrigued and will give it a whirl solo.

    1. Will you let us know how it goes? I'm always interested in play-reviews and how people manage solo games.

  5. In the last game I ran (quite some time ago now), I had various items take up "lines" of space on the character sheet, filling lines started to reduce movement.