Game Mastery

Rethinking encumbrance with an alternative abstraction

by on Aug.31, 2012, under homebrew, NoDice

So I’ve had this idea for a different way to do encumbrance kicking around in the old noggin for a while.  Then I read What’s in your backpack?  A healthy dose of reality and started thinking about it again.

What it comes down to is this.  I don’t like weight as an abstraction for how encumbered you are.  It should be a factor for sure, but you shouldn’t be able to carry a dozen 10 foot poles without issue just because they’re light weight.

What I do like as an inventory system is the grid based inventory CRPGs use.  I think the first one I saw was in Diablo.  Long items took up more space.  And that axe head protrudes down from the rest of the axe.  And you get to sort all that stuff to make it fit.

Well, that’s great for computer games but not so great in pen and paper.  As a general rule, I’d like my mechanics to simplify things.  Fitting stuff in a grid simplifies nothing.  I haven’t found a way to satisfy the shape element of the grid inventory.  Instead, lets use the size part.  Different items take up different amounts of space.  You have a limited number of slots to store things…

Why not treat a line of text as a slot?  You get one item per line.  And you have a number of lines equal to the size of your backpack.  Let’s just call a backpack 10 items.  Write backpack on your sheet, draw a box around the next 10 lines.  Done.

Well, not quite.  Items need some level of size.  I don’t think D&D’s approach of weighing each item is any good.  Too much math for anyone to want to recalculate it.  But I also don’t want a backpack full of chainmail to encumber you the same as a backpack full of feathers.

So items will need some sort of size.  Let’s go with small, medium and large.  Instead of item weights, you’ll just use their encumbrance value.  This is an abstraction of weight, size, unwieldiness, etc.

Now let’s go back to the backpack.  Instead of holding any 10 items, let’s say it’s a container that holds 10 medium items.  The backpack itself would have to be large.  Maybe one of the medium items is a first aid kid, which itself is a container of small items.

Basically you’re getting a number of slots to fill in with items of varying sizes.  This doesn’t seem as obnoxious as tallying object weights and looking up an encumbrance chart.

But what about actually carrying these things?  Well, I think the way to do that is to give the body itself slots for carrying.  If a person has 3 large slots, that’s a backpack, armor, and weapon.  To give a bit of realism, lets make that number of slots a variable.  In D&D parlance, we’ll use the strength modifier.  Give each PC a number of large item slots equal to his strength mod plus one (with a minimum of one, or else the weaklings can’t carry anything).  Packs and weapons occupy large slots.  I imagine donning armor would occupy a slot as well (maybe more than one for certain types of armor?  If so, this would be the first system I saw that made you take off your backpack because it didn’t fit around your armor).  I might even introduce more types of containers, just so the strong characters get to carry more.  ie, the backpack  carries 10 medium items and occupies 1 large slot, but the hiking frame carries 16 medium items at the cost of 2 large slots.

On paper this would look something like

Body (L)
Backpack (M)
Medkit (S)

I know I’m biased, but this seems a lot simpler than keeping track of the weights of all your items. It would automatically keep you from carrying stupidly unwieldy things by factoring size as well as weight. The container business might be a little over-engineered, but it was the best I came up with. (The alternative was to say that large items took up more slots. Saying a greataxe is worth three swords is fine, but I don’t really want to know how many eyes of newt correspond to a single tower shield.)

Anyway, if you find this usable please let me know. I’ve gone a year without RPGs and that’s not likely to change. Someone else will have to beta test this one for me.

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