I know, I know – everyone hates encumbrance.  Even so, the simulationist in me hates that the party carries around entire vaults on their back while they climb sheer cliffs, swim through inky black waters, and do battle with the various gremlins of the underdark.

The only way to use encumbrance, I think, is to simplify it so that there’s really nothing to it.  Without a computer, nobody (that I know) wants to calculate the weight of all the gear they’re carrying, and adjust it every time they pick up or drop something.  In addition, you have size to worry about.  Something might be bulky, but not particularly heavy.  I don’t know about the games you play in, but trying to sort through equipment size and weight would quickly throttle the fun for my gaming group.  Because d&d and pathfinder both use this weight system for encumbrance, it tends to just be hand-waved away.

I think my favorite view on how to handle encumbrance is based on Telecanter’s Simple Encumbrance, which I think in turn is based on James Raggi’s Lamentations of the Flame Princess.  The idea is that the lines on your equipment list (which you were using anyway to record your equipment) can simulate encumbrance for you in a simplistic manner.  It’s an abstraction, but it’s an abstraction that gets you quite a bit without working very hard – using those equipment lines, the rules can limit you in what you can carry.

Ok, so let’s say your character sheet has 10 lines on it, and you can write one piece of equipment on each line, your character sheet might look something like:

  1. Mace
  2. Leather Armor
  3. Crossbow
  4. 20 Bolts
  5. 18 gold coins
  6. Waterskin (3 days water)
  7. Rations (5 days)

You could say a character that has less than half of the lines filled is unencumbered, and a character that has more than 5 filled is encumbered, and a character with a full pack is heavily encumbered.  Let’s take a step back then.  First, 10 lines is probably not the right number.  Second, this doesn’t take into account the size or weight of objects.  Third, it doesn’t take into account the carrying capacity (strength) of the character.

The more we try to take into account here, the further this solution moves from being “so easy it takes care of itself.”  Any additions/changes at this point would need to be high value from a simulation standpoint, and low cost in book keeping to avoid making encumbrance too clunky.  My initial thought, which was probably already obvious, is to give each character a base set of lines, and then give an additional line for each point of strength, allowing high strength characters to carry additional equipment.  This makes tracking equipment almost as easy as before, but clearly differentiates stronger characters, allowing them to carry more.

Next, we could have different size categories for items.  A “Big” item may take up two lines, and a “Small” item may allow you to have multiple listed per line (such as rations or coins above).  You could go with a range of sizes (again, the numbers could be very far off at this point):

  • Tiny – (coins) 20 / line
  • Small – (potions) 5 / line
  • Medium (mace) 1 / line
  • Big – (chainmail)  1 / 5 lines
  • Huge – (canoe) 1 / 20 lines

This may already be more work than I want to put into encumbrance, but it’s worth considering.  I think Huge items would only be carried on rare occasions.  One issue I see with this is how you would differentiate leather armor from full plate, which would certainly impact your encumbrance and speed in different ways.  I think we could probably get away with saying the leather armor is medium and the full plate is big.  Another route would be to say that, while worn, armor counts as a medium item, and give full plate a special rule that says it always counts as big, even while worn.

So then what about coins?  If I mandate 20 coins per line and you get 10 lines + your strength (let’s assume a strength of 4) you have 14 lines * 20 coins = 280 coins, max, that you can carry.  While 280 coins would be heavy, they aren’t that heavy.  I’m thinking that every character would, in addition to lines on the character sheet, have a coin pouch.  That coin pouch would be in addition to the lines on the character sheet, and could hold a fixed number of coins (before the coins have to spill out into your inventory).  Let’s say that the coin pouch can hold 250 coins (ancient coins weighed about 16 grams, making about 27 coins per pound) – so 250 coins plus the pouch would weigh about 10 pounds – a pretty heavy coin pouch (there’s a reason we switched to paper and plastic!).

Still, a lot of d&d characters carry around a lot more than 250 coins.  If you make coins start spilling into their inventory, I think players will start paying attention to relative values of things, and small items will gain a more realistic (higher!) value.  I’d probably need to develop similar rules for pack animals and henchman, since the use for these things also becomes clearer when you’ve got even a basic encumbrance system in place.

One other thought on encumbrance.  I like the visual representation of your inventory lines being your “adventuring pack” and assume that everyone has an adventuring pack (unless they don’t want those lines of inventory).  The addition of a “Coin Pouch” starts to imply that you could carry other “containers” that provide inventory.  I’m thinking each character can have up to two sheathes on their belt in which to place a weapon, a slot for clothing worn and a slot for armor worn (additional clothes would have to go in your pack).

I like to try and leave these posts with a quasi-decision if I can (I didn’t on my core mechanic post, unfortunately).  So here’s my draft encumbrance system:

Coin Pouch (Maximum 250 coins)

  • Slot 1:


Belt (up to one big and one medium item):

  • Slot 1
  • Slot 2
  • Slot 3
  • Slot 4

Armor (up to one big item):

  • Slot 1
  • Slot 2
  • Slot 3

Shield (up to one big item):

  • Slot 1
  • Slot 2
  • Slot 3

Pack (Standard):

  • Slot 1
  • Slot 2
  • Slot 3
  • Slot 4
  • Slot 5

Pack (Strength):

  • Slot 6
  • Slot 7
  • Slot 8
  • Slot 9
  • Slot 10
  • Slot 11
  • Slot 12
  • Slot 13
  • Slot 14
  • Slot 15

Items on your belt can be drawn quickly (think, move action).  Items in your pack require a full round to obtain. Big Items take up 3 slots and small items can be listed 3 per line.  Tiny items can be recorded as 25 per line.  Huge items will use 8 lines, meaning you must have at least 3 strength to carry them at all. As long as you have 8 lines available, you are lightly encumbered.  If you have 4-7 lines available you are encumbered.  If you have less than 4 lines available, you are heavily encumbered.  Extremely heavy items (like Full Plate) will have the “Heavy” trait.  This trait will cause you to increase your level of encumbered.  If it would increase your encumbrance from heavy, you cannot wear it (or rather, you cannot move while wearing it).  Having 16 lines available makes you unencumbered (maybe a bonus to speed/dexterity?).  Big items include armor and large weapons.  Medium weapons (like a club) would be medium, and small weapons (like a dagger) would be small.  Ammunition would be considered tiny.

That might be too complicated.  Let me know what you think.

Art from estivador on deviantart.


17 thoughts on “Encumbrance

  1. Brian

    I know its important to track encumbrance, but we’re playing this game to have fun, think creatively, enjoy friends’ company – and encumbrance is boring and takes time away from the fun stuff. The least amount of time spent managing your load to keep the realism the better.

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      Yeah, my thought is that if you make encumbrance simple enough, you’re actually creating problem solving opportunities. For one, you have to figure out how to extract the most value out of the loot you find, and second (more importantly) you can’t carry around answers to every problem in a massive inventory without suffering a tradeoff for it.

      I agree, figuring out the weight of everything is awful, and maybe the solution I’ve proposed should still be simplified, but I think a very simple encumbrance system gives you more realism AND more problem solving for very little book keeping.

    1. Andy

      This draft looks good to me. The other good thing about encumbrance is that it requires you to care more about having a house or some place to put your excess stuff, which connects you with the world more, as you could hire a guy to guard it (a new NPC you wouldn’t have created before) otherwise someone could break into your house, or whatever. Helps give you a “place” in the world as opposed to being a spectator.

      This may still be too complicated but its worth trying. Again, if the theme is realism, I agree we shouldn’t allow unlimited storage.

      1. futuresheep

        I also enjoy the concept of encumbrance (Think DM’s are more interested in it) but the weight tracking is so cumbersome and doesn’t achieve the goals.

        When I think about characters carrying things I am concerned with 3 things.

        1. Storage – where you are putting things and retrieving them
        2. Volume – the physical practicality of what you are carrying
        3. Impact to Abilities – like swimming or acrobatics

        I think a system should address all 3 , but some can be a little more abstracted, so I’ll start with the simplest.

        Storage – In the end I am not concerned whether you use a backpack or you tie a small chest on your dwarf’s back. I just want to know that you have a way to hold things.

        To cover this I think you should have slots (similar to magic item slots) that your character can have or not have. However having the item doesn’t provide you any bonuses, but rather not having them gives a penalty. Afterall whether you have 2 suitcases or 10 they are not the real limitation on how much you can store. I believe the limits of carrying should be defined more by strength, rather than how many bags you buy, but you should have at least one if you plan to store things.

        The storage slots:

        A. Backpack – your ability to generally store things
        B. Belt Pouch/Pockets – your ability to retrieve things quickly
        C. Sheathes/Straps – your ability to ready a weapon quickly
        D. Quivers – your ability to reload quickly

        The penalties:
        A. No backpack – you cannot carrying any big items (apart from weapons in sheathes, and worn items)
        B. No pouches – Increase item retrieval time by one step (the potion or spell components are not at hand) I do think this should impact casting time for spells with components
        C. Not having 1 sheathe/sling per weapon or shield – Increase that weapons ready time one step
        D. No quiver – Increase reload times by one step

        As a DM I am never concerned with the ability of a player to afford these very inexpensive pieces of gear, but more so I want them to have a concept of what they are using to store things. This gives a chance for roleplaying and flavor without any major rules. This also still allows for opportunities for bags to rip or to have these things removed (jail time) and have a quick and easy way to deal with those situations.

        I’ll talk about the other 2 topics in a later post.

  2. BJ


    1. Storage – where you are putting things and retrieving them
    2. Volume – the physical practicality of what you are carrying
    3. Impact to Abilities – like swimming or acrobatics

    Volume – This one really has all sorts of things to consider as you noted, big objects, oddly shaped…or just too many. When it comes to this I really consider a situation as either reasonable, exceptional, or impossible.

    I think this category is best served just by DM consideration, and only around odd circumstances. Reasonable covers the typical carrying of the average adventurer (1-2 Large weapons, 1 Ranged weapons, 1 shield). I think 90% of all players will normally fit in this category and no further consideration is needed. Exceptional covers any time you want to carry say 3 pole arms, or 2 shields, or haul back a bunch of armor to sell. If its abnormal in capacity, but realistic that they could carry it in some way then they receive an encumbrance penalty(generic to any system, speed decrease/etc.). You are encumbered as you try to move about with all this stuff. Impossible is just that, there is no realistic way that this single character could manage to hold the odd assortment of object.

    Every character knows when they are grabbing a bit too much (and most DM’s notice as well) so once they start grabbing the extra armor off of bodies to make a buck or carry around a whole arsenal of weapons have them explain how they think they are doing it and then determine if it’s impossible or just exceptional. This category would be the easiest to hand wave away and just say, when you get out of hand I’ll say it’s impossible to carry.

    Impact to Abilities- This is really the catch all and is where I lump all considerations with the basic idea of weight. I consider items as either Big (to be concerned with) or small (basically not of concern). You can have two rows of items on your sheet (most are already setup that way). Small items you just list out on the right side (potions, pens, food) and just need to know you have them and a place to store them. Should consider 10 of any small item as possibly being big (ask the DM). Big items are really the ones we are concerned with when we talk about encumbrance, so those are the ones we want to track. Borrowing from Brett’s concept you will have a certain number of slots on the left hand sized based on Strength, and not having penalties from not having a type of storage.

    Not sure what the right numbers will be but something along these lines.

    Basic (Str 10) Character gets:
    1 Big Slot – Armor worn
    3 Big slots – weapons/shield/gear

    So a total of 4 slots, one of which must be worn. This should allow for a basic kit for most players. Then you increase the number of slots by your STR Bonus. So a STR 18 Dwarf would have 8 total slots, and a weak STR 8 wizard only has 3 slots, and a STR 2 invalid can’t carry any big items.

    With this most items like sword, tents, Shields, leather armor will simply be big. Very large or heavy items can take up multiple slots ( medium armor 2 slots, heavy armor 3 slots, 2 handed weapons 2 slots, etc.) BIG is an abstraction for both weight and size. Weather its heavy or large, it counts as BIG. Heavy and large 2 Big slots. You can weigh the number of slots based on what you see a typical character of that strength carrying.

    What I was thinking was STR 10 Humanoid Adventurer : Leather armor, 1 Sword, 1 Bow, 1 Shield (tent on your horse)
    STR 18 Humanoid: 3 Slots Plate armor, 1 sword, 1 Shield, 1 bow,1 tent, 1 random item

    If you are at or below you total slots you are not encumbered….you are heroes after all. For every big slot beyond your limit, can cause an encumbrance penalty (-1 to skills), and say every 3 slots beyond (decrease movement one step , minimum of 1 if beyond your limit). So this is where that dwarf decides to haul back another set of plate armor from the boss, and he is a bit slowed by it.

    The end result for player tracking is simply 4 storage slots where they describe how they envision storing things. (Backpack, belt pouches, Sheath, and Quiver), 1 Row of Big item slots, with their max limit highlighted, and space for encumbering big items. 1 row of small items to simply know what they have. You only ever have to know if an item is Big or Not, and if you are ever in an exceptional situation of carrying 6 weapons (even if your slots allow it) your DM can still say, “That doesn’t make sense to me , explain how you are possibly carrying all these items. No real math, just 4 + STR Bonus BIG slots.

    Thoughts? I like this idea of slots and Big items you came up with, certainly more than actual wieghts and heavy math and tracking.

    1. Andy

      I like where BJ is going with this. We’re most worried with encumbrance when someone is carrying a bunch of heavy stuff, not when they’re carrying 25 potions. I agree that the focus should be on the big items and the remaining small items should mostly just be checked for “reasonableness.” I’m good with the BIG = large OR heavy and heavy AND large = 2 slots. I think this makes sense and is even more simplified, which I like. I’d hate to be the wizard carrying around a staff and wearing a robe but worrying about encumbrance because mechanically I may have too many scrolls in my backpack. I just don’t think that’s worth spending time on.

    2. JackOfHearts Post author

      Storage: I agree with you about wanting some realism on how you carry everything around. I tried to simplify/standardize it with my standard equipment list having slots for: Backpack, coin pouch, belt, etc.

      Volume: The other aspect of this is weight, but yeah, volume & weight combine to determine how MUCH of something you can carry. Your numbers are quite different than mine, but we’re getting to essentially the same essence I think. If we can simplify encumbrance by just using the lines of the equipment list, then it becomes trivial to track. The hardest part is figuring out how weight/volume impact how many lines something uses in your bag.

      Impact to abilities: I haven’t start working out exactly what the impact would be. I think it would be pretty harsh, actually. I can’t stand that in pathfinder, knights in plate armor can pass swim checks, for example.

  3. crazydaze8

    I notice nobody ever mentioned a bag of holding, I haven’t played Pathfinder much, do you guys still use that? I always thought that idea was RIDICULOUS. A Mary Poppin bag to lug all your findings, very unrealistic.

    1. Andy

      Hah yeah we actually have a bag of holding AND a portable hole. Of course, in a setting where every other wizard is able to fly while invisible while summoning monsters and basically bombing the crap out of people with black tentacles, it doesn’t stretch my imagination much that there would also be a bag that can hold all your crap.

      Having said that, I like where Brett is going with the low magic and in a game like that I think encumbrance is much more important.

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      That’s an interesting thought, and since I’m abstracting HP into fatigue, it might make sense that the more you carry, the more fatigued you are. I’ll think about that a bit. The main issue is that I don’t want tracking this stuff to be difficult – I want it to practically take care of itself. The less book keeping the better here, so if I was going to have it reduce your fatigue pool, I’d have to think about how to simplify it.

    2. futuresheep

      Ooh I hear a new mechanic hear, LoR? Does that mean Lord of the Rings RPG? I have not seen this encumbrance affecting HP rule. That sounds intriguing, but certainly more on the side of extra tracking, but I am interested none the less.

  4. Pingback: Thingification | Lost Worlds

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