Another encumbrance system

Image from Wikipedia

Back in March, Papers & Pencils posted a point based encumbrance system. It is similar to the LotFP slot-based encumbrance system and the less abstract encumbrance by stone system, but it bases how much you can carry on your strength score.

Encumbrance is measured relative to strength points, with most items being worth one point of strength (insignificant items do not count at all, and bulky items cost two strength points). An encumbrance of less than or equal to the strength score is considered unencumbered, with greater encumbrance being calculated by multiples of strength. So, for example, a character with strength 12 who was carrying 17 encumbrance points worth of equipment would be considered lightly encumbered. Each tier has associated penalties like you might expect (decreased speed, penalties to physical actions).

It’s a good system. Like the LotFP way of doing things, it’s a huge improvement over counting exact poundages (Third Edition) or coin-equivalent weights (TSR editions of D&D). However, I feel like it still requires a decent amount of calculation overhead, and this is especially difficult to coordinate for games played by videoconference (which is where I am doing most of my gaming these days). There have been a number of other blog posts about more visual slot based systems where players essentially fill out worksheets. I also feel like those are too much work to be easily adopted and maintained.

My current OD&D game is “officially” using this backpack-based encumbrance system I drafted back in July, but in practice it’s been more of a “keep it reasonable” kind of thing. The party as a whole does move slower since some of the PCs are wearing plate (and party speed is determined by the slowest members). It would be important if someone was in a drowning situation. But honestly, I don’t feel like it has made much difference.

The problem, I think, is that the movement penalty is not salient where movement happens entirely in a shared imaginary space. Ultimately, there are really two things that an encumbrance system should accomplish, in my opinion. The first is a sense of verisimilitude and realism (that’s right, I just used two trigger words). The second is that encumbrance should make choices of what to bring an interesting trade-off. In a perfect world, I would like the fighter’s choice of what weapon to bring along to be just as interesting as the magic-user’s choice of what spell to prepare.

So here is my super simple proposal, inspired by the Papers & Pencils strength based system. Items are categorized as either significant (sword, dagger, scroll) or insignificant (fishhook, ring, coin). Characters can carry a number of significant items equal to their strength score with no penalties, and up to 100 insignificant items (I don’t expect that anyone would actually want to carry that many insignificant items, but it obviously can’t be truly unlimited). For every extra significant item carried, characters take a -1 penalty to all physical rolls. So, for example, 3 extra items results in a -3 penalty to attack rolls, saves, etc.

That may sound harsh, but the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that it is actually realistic. An unencumbered person is able to fight just as well and move just as quickly as a person who is carrying nothing at all (that’s literally what being unencumbered means according to the system). In my past job, during my commute I would usually be carrying a briefcase with a few items inside and a canvas bag with two lunches and 1.5 liters of water. I’m relatively in shape, and I felt encumbered. I’ve also been backpacking, and even if modern equipment is used and items are packed well, it’s still quite awkward and tiring. Verisimilitude is less important to me than a functional game system, but in this case I think both requirements are satisfied.

Having extra items in a backpack or sack that is easily dropped for combat is one way of avoiding some penalties while still carrying more gear, but note that saving throws made during standard exploration will be penalized by the extra encumbrance. Further, if you drop your backpack during combat and need to retreat, that backpack is getting left behind for the enemy.

The thing that I like about this is that the -1 penalty per extra item makes “just one more item” have immediate consequences. In most of the other systems I have seen, it is possible to add another sword and stay within lightly encumbered or whatever. I think that kind of structure fights against both a sense of immersion and meaningful choices.

Examples of encumbering items:

  • Sword
  • Shield
  • Torch
  • Wand
  • Suit of armor
  • Quiver of arrows
  • Staff
  • Dagger
  • Scroll
  • Book
  • Potion
  • Thieves’ tools
Examples of insignificant items:
  • Basic clothing worn
  • Pendant
  • Gem
  • Ring
  • Holy symbol
  • Belt pouch
  • Fishhook
  • Flint & steel
  • Coin

Rules of thumb:

  1. If the item has system weight (and is not a magic item), it is probably encumbering.
  2. If it is a magic item that can be crafted without extraordinary requirements (scrolls, maybe potions), then it is encumbering.
  3. Items made for helping to carry other things are insignificant in moderation (backpacks, belt pouches).

20 thoughts on “Another encumbrance system

  1. LS

    Hearing the arguments you present here, I find I like the system more than when we first discussed it.

    I still find myself leaning towards a slightly more complex, and more forgiving system than what you’ve described here. But when I do eventually reevaluate my encumbrance system (which I was planning to do sometime this month) I think I’ll be heavily influenced by some of your ideas. I am particularly struck by the logic of +1 item = -1 penalty.

    As an aside, the idea you brought up about the fighter’s choice of which weapon being as important as important as a magic user’s choice of spell is one which resonates with me. It’s part of why I wrote my post on weapon mechanics a few months back. I haven’t figured out specifics yet, but I would like to reach a point where mundane weapons function significantly differently from one another.

  2. Psychochild

    I used to dutifully count the weight of every item I carried in a game. Eventually, that just got to be too much bookkeeping especially as you gained and lost stuff.

    I’ve pretty much went to the opposite end now, with a “keep it reasonable” philosophy. You’re probably not carrying around a spare set of platemail unless you have a specific setup for it (in a cart, for example). I also make a few default assumptions that make life easier, such as any extra bulky stuff is probably quickly shed before combat and it’s assumed people pick stuff up afterwards. So, you’re not really carrying those sacks full of copper coins into combat.

    This system looks like a reasonable compromise. Although, I do worry that it would be a bit restrictive in letting people taking “color” items with them. Or, if you truly do want weapon choice to be for fighters what spell selections are for wizards, this might really restrict a fighter’s selection if they have to account for every weapon plus armor, etc.

    1. Brendan


      I believe color items are things that are interesting but don’t have system weight or value. Keepsakes and souvenirs. Three-horned helms, perhaps. (Psychochild can correct me if I am misunderstanding.)

      I am somewhat of the opinion that color items don’t exist in the same way that there is no real distinction between crunch and fluff in a certain kind of game (a color item could be given a great deal of significance in the proper context).

    2. Psychochild

      Yeah, Brendan is correct. It’s something that you’re not necessarily intending to use as a game implement.

      One time a friend brought along a caged songbird because it was listed on an equipment list. Was a cute bit of color for the character, but it never really came in handy in game terms. The cage fit within the weight restrictions for the character, but it was something that wouldn’t really be practical to carry around.

      Some DMs might not care that the system doesn’t allow for this type of thing. Just pointing out an issue I anticipated.

  3. 1d30

    It’s a lot like stone weight. I find that when you add up stone weight encumbrance lists, you just add up the 1/3 items, divide by 3, then add the whole digits. Generally the number is pretty small (like ability scores) and you ignore insignificants like your system.

    If you want to give a roll penalty, how about -1 per step of movement penalty (-1 to -4)?

    I just don’t see a lot different between this and a large-unit measurement like stone or encumbrance points.

    1. Brendan

      1d30 wrote: add up the 1/3 items, divide by 3, then add the whole digits.

      “1/3 items” being things like scrolls and daggers, presumably?

      That’s an interesting approach, though I am currently finding the extreme abstraction and simplicity of this system quite appealing. I mean, you can write down the rule in two (short) sentences:

      You can carry a number of items equal to your strength score (very small items like fishhooks don’t count, but things like daggers and scrolls do count). Every extra item carried imposes a -1 penalty on physical rolls.

      I like the idea of using the movement penalty as an action penalty in a more traditional encumbrance system.

  4. Alex Schroeder

    I like it better than stones. Maybe I should just introduce it whenever there’s a chase in the game: “OK, anybody who wants to run needs make sure they’re not carrying more items than their Strength score. Everything else will have to be dropped. OK, good to go?”

  5. Zzarchov

    I use a similar system with NGR (though items are small, medium, large so 1pt, 2pt,4pt)

    and I used to have all kinds of finicky -1,-2, -10 etc but it didn’t add much in play and just slowed things down.

    You might wish to think about switching to a more binary “encumbered/not encumbered” system. I use that once you are over your strength you are encumbered, you can go up to half your strength again and still be mobile.

  6. Edgar Johnson

    I like the idea, but what about armor? I don’t see it on your list, and it seems like it should count. I own a leather jacket, for example, and it’s pretty heavy. I can wear it just fine, but would not choose to go running in it.

    So, assuming that armor is encumbering, does any suit of armor count as only one item for encumbrance purposes, or is it on a sliding scale. For example, is Leather/Hide 1, Chain/Scale 2, and anything above that 3 or 4 “items” for encumbrance purposes?

    1. Brendan


      “Suit of armor” is on the list of significant items. For simplicity’s sake, I’m assuming that all suits of armor are the same (1 item) because I really want to avoid calculations about some items being worth more encumbrance than others (past the basic significant/insignificant split).

      Yes, this is an abstraction, but I think it balances out except in edge cases (like a character carrying 10 suits of armor or something). Such things can be handled on a case by case basis. I think that most characters will need a diversity of items to be effective in any case, so doing something like carrying 10 swords and nothing else will be naturally correcting.

    2. 1d30

      I’d hate to see a suit of chainmail count as 2 daggers worth of weight ;P

      Remember that while players don’t LIKE to be encumbered, armored people ARE encumbered. Anybody who has moved from one house to another knows how hard it would be to run with a liquor box full of books, which is about as heavy as a medium-weight mail shirt. Double that for the leggings, then add the sword and shield, and you’re not winning any foot-races.

    3. Brendan


      One dagger, actually. 🙂

      This system assumes that “slots” are not actually of exactly equal value (hence why there is no explicit unit attached to them), and that things will average out over all.

      Also, there is a further bit of rationalization that I didn’t mention in the article above, which is that the utility of slots is probably different per character and per class. A magic-user’s slot is probably worth “less” than a fighter’s, given that the magic-user is more interested in carrying things like wands, books, and scrolls.

      Remember, these are just guidelines to make the number of things being carried salient to the player, and to make carrying more things have consequences. Once you start comparing items too closely, you approach again the land of counting poundages, and lose the benefits of the abstraction. Let not the perfect be the enemy of the good!

      All that being said, the player still has to be able to answer the question where are you carrying that? in a reasonable way if asked.

  7. Hedgehobbit

    Do you realize that what you’ve described is 95% identical to the encumbrance rules from chaosium’s Runequest? That game give the -1 to not only to-hit rolls but also to movement (it uses a move score starting at 8 and going down) and to initiative.

    1. Hedgehobbit

      Here’s the mongoose Runequest SRD which has lots of eqipment listed as number of “things”. These numbers are somewhat higher than from chaosium’s values because mongoose lets characters carry more (Str+Size rather than just Str).

      I seem to recall that backpacks had some sort of mechanical advantage. Something like each 5 things in a backpack only counted as carrying one thing.

      I’ve been getting away from movement penalties for encumbrance for the reasons you mentioned. Rather I let characters that are encumbered or wearing heavy armor get tired more quickly. A lightly encumbered man can fight (or run) for a number of rounds equal to his Con whereas someone whose heavily encumbered can only fight for 1/2 Con rounds before exhausted (-4 to everything). This way encumbrance only matters sometimes (ie big battles) and has a significant penalty that’s more easy to keep track up, rather than lots of little penalties that can change from battle to battle.

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