Thursday, May 28, 2009

The weight of encumberance

One thing that used to bug the hell out of me was the fact that D&D used to measure how much you could carry in coins. Not only that, the equipment list didn't even list things in kilos, only coins! I thought it was unrealistic and focused the game only on grabbing money, which I thought was a baser form of enticement for adventuring. Pretentiousness in its base form, really.

Now I've realized that this is a design feature. The fact that you get experience for gold, actually emphasize the fact that you're better of fooling monsters out of their treasure than slaughtering them.

In the Swedish RPG Drakar & Demoner [Dragons & Demons, original, eh?] which I grew up playing, the curious invention of Encumbrance points saw the light of day. They were supposed to include not only the weight, but also the volume of things. Naturally, some of these numbers felt seriously wonky.

So, when I started my present campaign I decided to toss all kinds of encumbrance. In T&T there are something called weight units which one tenth of a pound. Why on earth invent a new unit if it's just a bunch of kilos/pounds with a new name?

What kind of campaign will benefit from encumbrance rules? I've been thinking about that a bit, and realized that the only kind of game that I intuitively feel would benefit from it is a post-apocalyptic one. In such a game where resources are scarce and where barter for high tech might be reasons for adventuring, I can fully see the need for a system that keeps track of stuff. Traditionally games about plunder, i.e. classic dungeon crawls, seem to be candidates for that, but now I'm not so sure.

In my last 3rd edition campaign (which I'll probably write more about at a later date) I once put in a pile of loot, with the idea that encumbrance would stop them from hauling it all home. Since there was a table in the DMG that told me what amount of treasure a party of a specific level "should have", the game suddenly ground to a halt when one of my players was inventive enough to figure out a way to haul it all home! Now what I do? Let them have it, or curb the invention? The mother of this dilemma of course the idea that I did the stupid thing of showing them all the stuff they couldn't have, and teasing them. That is not only cruel, it's bad manners and bad game mastering. Let's just silently sidestep the crazy idea that there are a level of treasure a PC "should have", and focus on good game mastering.

Good game mastering is about facilitating fun, and letting the players do what they want to test their wits and stretch the resources of their virtual personas. Counting on rules for encumbrance to limit the players is just laziness. Give the players meaningful challenges and they will surprise you with their inventiveness. It will be fun! In my game now, we all ignore weight and how much the characters can haul about. Will it break the design feature that it was intended to support? No, I don't think so. I have begun to like the idea of giving experience for gold, but since I'm not using that rule I think the best thing you can do about those "weight" entries in the equipment lists is to toss them out. If someone finds a dragon hoard and defeats a dragon, then they probably deserve to bring it back to town. No matter how unrealistic it is.


  1. I don't directly give XP for gold in my current dungeoneering game, but I will let characters buy training that will grant them XP. They can also buy training that will improve their stats, or teach them new spells.

    The biggest difference between the two approaches is that I can easily throttle how much gold gets turned into improvements by limiting what kind of training is available and how long it takes. "There isn't anybody in this little village who's a better swordsman than you to train you, but if you want to go to the Big City..."

  2. T&T weight units are actually the same as D&D coins. I.e. one weight unit equals one gold coin (5th ed. section 1.5).

    The treasure that is impossible to transport is actually one of the older traditions in D&D gaming and might lead to some really interesting play and problem solving, not to mention greed induced deaths in the party. If your players were clever enough to figure out a way to move the treasure they should get it.

  3. We still play old 1 ed AD&D and it is extremely silly with the weight of the gold. You really need a wagon to go shopping!

  4. The ability to buy training is an inspired idea! I will definitely take a moment to think about that one.

  5. WU and "coins" are the same? Not surprising I guess. I haven't even thought about comparing them!

    The problem with treasure that is impossible to transport was that I used encumbrance to discourage player inventiveness. At least for me, it had been better without such a limit. Rules can influence and direct play, both by the players and the DM and both in a bad and good way. System matters, as Ron Edwards say.

    If my players were smart, they definitely should get the treasure!!

  6. Oddly, I discovered your blog through Whitehall ParaIndustries' somewhat mean-spirited post attacking your views on Call of Cthulhu.
    I'd be intrigued by a game in which coins were not only a unit of weight-measure, but a unit of character efficacy.
    To whit: you rob me, and you're stealing my power!
    This could be a fun, quirky way to "explain" that old rules-idea; turning it on its head by making it explicitly for-real in the setting!

  7. Well, that reply on WPI is to be expected. It was a bit mean, but it annoyed me more that he was sloppy and didn't understand what I was trying to say, and then publicly slammed me. But, maybe I shouldn't bet on having careful readers. I'm glad you found me, and hope you'll hang around!

    Using coins as a unit of character efficacy sounds gloriously fun!

    I have been toying with a game system where you have different dice pools, and bid them to influence the game, or save them to be more powerful in a re-active way. Jolly good fun to toy with things like that. Not really the same, but a case of player and character resources flow together.

  8. I think there were a few reasons they used coins to measure encumberance:
    - it is just as easy to use for people who use metric as imperial weights. I am in Australia where we use kilograms and grams. I find pounds very hard to use. I am sure other people would find the opposite.

    - the unit measures how encumbering an item is, not how much it weighs. Using a made up unit helps with this distinction. Otherwise you get people trying to weigh things and arguing over real world weight etc.

    - one of the main times this would come up is when characters are trying to carry as much treasure as possible. This makes it really easy to determine how many coins they can carry. If I leave my shield here, how many more coins can I carry? How about three torches?



  9. Well, I am pretty sure nobody in Lake Geneva gave a rats ass about how hard it would be for anyone in the metric world, really.

    I think it's fairly obvious really when you look at the award model of the game to having coins as a measure of weight, yes.


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