Tracking Resources

According to Gary Gygax (Dungeon Masters Guide page 37, caps in the original):

One of the things stressed in the original game of D&D was the importance of recording game time with respect to each and every player character in a campaign. In AD&D it is emphasized even more: YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.

Tracking resources is hard, at least for me. Once events start getting complicated, resource tracking is generally the first thing to be jettisoned. It seems that other people have similar problems.

When it comes down to it, there are only a few core resources:

  • Time
  • Food
  • Water
  • Ammunition (arrows, quarrels, daggers)
  • Light (torches, lantern oil)
So here’s an idea. Use a stack of poker chips for each resource (regarding poker chips, see also: Lord KilgoreTelecanter, Lord Kilgore again). That way, there is a visual cue for the decreasing resource (as the stack gets shorter). Optimally, each character would have a stack for each resource, with the “time resource” belonging to the referee. One could also use other kinds of tokens or counters, but I like the visual representation of a stack (height is a very powerful metaphor that affects our thinking in many ways).

Proposed poker chip equivalences:

  • Yellow = oil (1 hour of light, 4 chips per flask)
  • Red = torch (1 hour of light, 1 chip per torch)
  • Blue = drinking water for 1 day
  • Green = rations for 1 day
  • White = ammunition (1 per arrow)
This could be modified in various ways depending on the precision desired. For example, for exact tracking, light units could be measured in turns. Thus, each torch carried would be represented by six red chips. A lit torch would result every turn in a red chip being transferred from the player’s torch stack to the referee’s time stack. To see how much time has passed, one need only look at the time stack. I’m not sure how this would work in play. It might be annoying to move a chip for every turn (on the other hand, it might make time more salient).
Exact tracking would require 24 chips per flask of oil though, which is probably too many (though one could have a stack representing flasks and another stack representing the active lantern). It might be more reasonable to store light in hour units (1 per torch, 4 per flask of oil). The referee would need a separate way of ticking off turns that pass behind the screen, but my guess is that such a method would work better. One could model time using two stacks: one for days and one for hours. Once the appropriate number of hour chips have accumulated, the players know it is time for the PCs to rest (or push on with exhaustion penalties). Alternatively, one could have a pile for the active torches or lanterns with one chip per turn of light and a separate pile for spare torches or flasks of oil. This also has the advantage of the players being able to watch their torches burn down turn by turn.

I really need to try this to see how convenient it is. My players are still down in The Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom, and I don’t want to introduce such a mechanic in the middle of a delve (I’m pretty sure none of them have rations written on their character sheets, for example, which I am magnanimously overlooking).
Tracking ammunition with this system seems straightforward. Secondary ammunition (like a PC that carries a crossbow and multiple throwing knives) could be represented by other chip colors. If a PC carries more than 20 shots of a particular kind of ammunition, just track the active quiver (like the active lantern example above). And really, unless you have a wagon or a retainer, I think it’s highly unlikely that one would carry more than 40 (or even 20) arrows, especially when carrying other gear. Arrows are bulky.
It seems like this system would work just as well for wilderness journeys, as the primary resources required for overland travel are food and water, which are usually measured in days. Passing days are then represented by every player decrementing their water and food piles by one, and the referee incrementing the days pile.

What I think is interesting about this approach is how it illustrates the action of a ledger: spent resources (light, food) are transformed into passing time. Various abilities can also more easily “cost time” using this approach. Traditionally, actions like searching for secret doors are supposed to cost time. For more on time as a resource, see JB’s post on the “automatic” thief.

Am I missing any resources that are important to track?

13 thoughts on “Tracking Resources

    1. Brendan

      Heh. I should have made it clear that I don’t agree with the strong form of that quote. I do think that tracking resources (of which time is just one) can make a campaign more meaningful though.

    2. Brendan

      Also, by meaningful I don’t think Gygax meant what many people took away. Not meaningful as in worthwhile or good. More like meaningful as in: making scrolls take N weeks is not meaningful if time records are not being kept. If you are handwaving time, that cost does not in fact mean anything (or it means less, if you are tracking time but not very strictly). I think he is approaching this from the perspective of a wargamer concerned about troop movements and logistics. He is making less of a value judgment and more of a technical point.

      In true Gary style, I think he is making an eminently reasonable point that is obscured by hyperbole.

  1. Anathemata

    I really like this idea, even if it uses more ‘stuff’ than I usually like. Let us know how it works out at the table. One of the immediate benefits I can see is that it will increase the ease of time tracking overall, since your tracking of rounds/turns will ‘reset’ periodically with the loss of certain resources. I definitely think that old school D&D is much more interested in resources and attrition, and thanks to systems like this and the LotFP encumbrance rules we are getting closer to making those factors easier to integrate into play.

  2. Lasgunpacker

    The “stuff” concern could be a serious one, in that one of the delights of early D&D is that it is materials light. You need some paper, pencil, and dice, and away you go. Adding in miniatures, or counters, or effect tokens can add to the experiance, but they also take away some of the freedom and flexibility. Just something to be aware of.

    Another thought is that HP are another resource, albeit one where the tracking is handed off to the players. It seems possible to pass light and food tracking off to the players as well, if you have a handy mechanisim for tracking that. Something like boxes on the character sheet that are checked off when you use them up, and when “full” the item is ended.

    1. Brendan

      I agree, especially regarding miniatures. I’ve been trying to streamline my play kit, so this does sort of go against that. Relying on the character sheet for light and food though has not seemed to work for me in the past. Once other things start happening, everyone (even the ref) usually forgets about the resources, at least in my experience. For whatever reason, tracking HP seems to be less onerous for players. Maybe it’s just habit, or maybe it’s something about combat (being less predictable or more immediate maybe).

    2. Lasgunpacker

      That is why you need to make it as easy as possible, so that who ever is doing the tracking is more likely to do it. It may be a sort of spreadsheet that gets checked off, or it may be poker chips.

      And there is a time for streamline DM kits, and a time for breaking out the 3d tiles and sets of miniatures. Not every game has to be one or the other.

  3. linkskywalker14

    A very fine post, my friend. And thank you for the link!

    I’ve considered the poker chip idea, but I’m not the biggest fan. There’s a lot of stuff on the table already without adding stacks of poker chips.

    But maybe I need to reconsider my thinking on this. I haven’t found a better way to track arrows, yet.

  4. Matthew James Stanham

    Dice are a great way to keep track of resources, and unlike chips you probably have a lot of them available and can turn them to represent different amounts. The downside is that they occasionally get accidentally rolled! Still, a six-sided die is great for tracking turns as they progress through an hour and so on.

  5. Peter D

    I’ve tried poker chips for resources before, but it never seemed to “take.” My player would tend to write down the total number of chips they have, worry they’d tossed in too many, get confused if they’d used one or not, and so on. So it never lasted.

    I did find poker chips made great “affected by (whatever)” counters for putting under minis. Blue is flying, red is on fire, etc.

    1. Peter D

      Also, I loved the BOLDED GYGAXIAN PRONOUNCEMENT. Not tracking exact time in your game? YOU AREN’T DOING IT RIGHT AND WILL FAIL. Heh. Nevermind tracking time overall in the game isn’t terribly important if everyone stays on the same time line. Did it take 7 or 8 days to get to town? Well, you all got there the same time and no one is going off on their own with their new elf chum, so who cares? 🙂

    2. Brendan

      Using poker chips under minis is a great idea for status conditions. Tracking Fourth Edition “marks” is the bane of my existence. I swear, the game designer that created that mechanic must have hated referees.


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