The Seven-Sided Die

Lightweight generic encumbrance system

Posted Saturday August 15, 2009 at 05:42 AM

In preparation for a new sandbox campaign I've been pondering encumbrance systems. Encumbrance systems are usually more trouble than they're worth when you just want to get on with the plot or figure out whether you have a -1 or a -2 penalty in a fight. But, in a sandbox there is no overriding plot, and a player who has got their character into such a dicey situation that a 1 point difference matters will need to know which it is.

The trouble with encumbrance systems is that they all seem to involve too much bookkeeping. Even if your group is fine with totalling pounds carried at the beginning of an adventure, it becomes a real pain to manage just as the adventure goes into full swing. Once their characters have collected some coins, used up some oil flasks, lost their collapsible ladder, and decided to lug around that life-sized stone head that they found knocked off a statue six rooms back[1. True story.], most groups either quietly let encumbrance tracking drop or they start grumbling about having to count coins just to swing a sword.

These things really matter in a sandbox, though. How much stuff you choose to lug into the wilderness is just one of many meaningful decisions that can make or break an expedition, and sandbox games thrive on a good ecosystem of meaningful choices for the players to make. I don't want to ditch encumbrance entirely, but I also don't want the dead weight of a pile of finicky rules that make only a small (yet meaningful) difference after a lot of work.

A lightweight encumbrance system

As an alternative to counting pounds, I'm going to use this alternative system that reduces encumbrance calculations to a judgment call, a die roll, and a handful of special cases.

1. Players note their gear as usual. Players can expend a bit more effort and note how each piece of gear is carried (such as in the sack, belt pouch #2, hanging from their belt, etc). They don't have to, but it will give them a psychological advantage in the next step and is often just a good idea for exploration-focused games.

2. The GM looks over the character's load and tries to picture the character hauling all this stuff. Determine whether they're carrying a modest load (a reasonable amount of stuff to carry around), or a heavy load (a lot of stuff). There's no middle category, so err on whichever side is appropriate for the style of game you're running (and be up-front about what that is), or err on the side of modest if they have their gear well-organised. This step is all judgment call, so just go with your gut. Of course, if they're carrying a negligible load such as nothing but a walking stick, a pouch of acorns, and the clothes on their back, then you can just skip the whole thing and say they're totally unencumbered. (In that case: Done!)

(This is where the system interfaces with your game of choice, so I'll be a little vague. I'll use Savage Worlds and D&D as the example systems for what my vague terms mean to me, but if you're decently familiar with your system of choice you should have no trouble figuring out how to handle the roll.)

3. The GM has the player make a roll to test a skill or stat related to raw power.[3. I'm not using Constitution or Endurance–type stats here deliberately. This is about how much you can carry comfortably in general, not about how far or for how long. You can tack on exhaustion and fatigue for lengthy marches orthogonally to this system.] Make the roll routine or of modest difficulty for modest loads and hard or of high difficulty for heavy loads. Stats like Strength or Power are good choices; skills like Soldiering, Sherpa, or Lifting Heavy Stuff are good choices. Whatever it is, be consistent and true to your system. In Savage Worlds I'm going to use a straight Power test, and modest loads will have a Target Number of 4, while heavy loads will be at TN 6. If I were using a WotC variety of Dungeons & Dragons I would have players make a d20 roll, adding their Strength modifier, against a DC of 12 or 18.

4a. If they pass the test, their load is well-packed and they can manœuver under its weight just fine. They are unencumbered so long as their load remains reasonably unchanged. Picking up a fallen purse is fine. Throwing a sack of potatoes over their shoulder is a change in load.

4b. If they failed the test, use the margin of failure to set the encumbrance penalty. In Savage Worlds I would use the difference between the TN and what was actually rolled as a direct penalty to combat rolls and other activities that would be hindered by being encumbered, such as swimming or running away from a hungry [[spinosaurus]]. Because of the TNs I set, this gives a penalty of -1 to -3 for modest loads (and the -3 is really unlikely), and a penalty of -1 to -5 for heavy loads. Also because the rolls are against fixed TNs, characters with higher Power are unlikely to get (much) of a penalty even for heavy loads while weak characters are likely to get a penalty for anything but negligible loads. In D&D I would use the margin of failure in 5-point chunks: within 5 points the penalty would be -2, within 10 points the penalty would be -4, and failure by more than 10 points would be -6 or -8. In an descriptive system the character may gain a condition such as Encumbered or Heavily Encumbered that can be mechanically exploited as usual.

5. The result holds until the situation changes. No re-rolls may be made before the party sets out. We've all had the experience of thinking we'll be fine carrying that load, until we get halfway to where we're going and our arms are falling off. The players may know the encumbrance penalty as soon as the roll is made, but there's nothing they can do about it, except to wait for a chance to repack their load (see below), or dramatically reduce their gear until they're in the next lower category (or completely unencumbered). The results remain even as rations are eaten and arrows are expended. Small, incremental reductions in weight won't make an appreciable difference until the character has a chance to stop and repack and take advantage of the space freed up by the used-up stuff.

On the flip side, they won't have to re-roll either. They can unload it and camp for the night and pack it back up without having to test again if conditions haven't changed. (If they have to repack in a hurry while under fire and in the dark, well, that's a change of conditions!) They can go for days on the same roll, so long as they don't add anything significant to their load (like a stone head).

6. A re-roll is made only when conditions change. Big changes will be obvious and will usually result in starting above from scratch, so I won't bother to cover that. (You may have noticed that the whole system runs on common sense.) There are three special cases for changing your load so that a player can or must make a re-roll.

Repacking the load. Players will want to get rid of those encumbrance penalties by re-rolling. They can only do this by repacking their load after carrying it for a while. "For a while" is left to the GM's discretion to define, but I'm thinking of things like a day's travel, or the experience of fighting, climbing, or balancing across a slippery, narrow stone bridge over a raging waterfall while under the load. (Essentially, either time sweating under the load or terrifying moments really feeling the danger of being encumbered.) If "a while" has passed such that the character (not the player) could reasonably be expected to know that their packing job is not working out for them and if they have a decent amount of time to fuss about with their gear (an hour or during camp—it shouldn't be a trivial amount of time), then they can re-roll their initial Strength test to get a new result. If the player likes, they can instead roll their Smarts (or equivalent, such as D&D's Intelligence) in order to come up with a clever fix for their packing problem. (The GM may want this clever fix described if it seems to matter.) Either way, the new result will give you a new encumbrance penalty, possibly zero. The better of the original and re-rolled encumbrance penalty becomes the new penalty.

Don't use repacking the load if the character is also adding non-trivial stuff to the load. In that case, start from the beginning.

Picking up stuff. Characters just love to pick up stuff and take it with them. Whether it's a huge sack of jewels or a the severed head of a magical stone statue, characters will often pick up large things that make the GM wonder if they should be able to carry that without penalty, but not so great that they've obviously got into kitchen-sink territory. When they do this they make an immediate re-roll as if they were repacking their load, but they may not use Smarts and must take the worse penalty of the new and original rolls. So, if the player rolls well there's no change, but if they roll poorly then the new item is the straw that broke the adventurer's back. However, unlike the original packing roll, once the player has seen the new penalty they may opt to "quit while ahead" and drop whatever it was that forced them to make a new roll. If they choose to leave without the huge sack of jewels because otherwise they'd get a -5 penalty on all rolls, that's a meaningful choice (and perhaps a wise one, given the dangers often near huge sacks of jewels) that the player can make.

Note that if the party sits down on the dead dragon's tail to carefully pack up its hoard, don't use the picking up stuff rule. This is for when they just grab something, stuff it somewhere, and keep going. If they're taking the time to pack up gear and loot fresh, start over by looking at what they're carrying and judging how heavy or modest the load looks. Don't forget to raise an eyebrow of skepticism if they're planning to haul twenty-thousand coins with only a single canvas sack between them! How and where they're packing things becomes much more important when there is a fantastic amount of treasure involved. Getting that kind of haul back is its own logistical challenge.

Dropping the load. Players might have the good sense to have their characters drop their packs before wading into combat. (Technically this doesn't involve a re-roll, but this special case doesn't fit anywhere else.) Only a modestly loaded character may do this, since a heavy load isn't going to be located in a single, easily-dropped pack. This immediately drops their encumbrance penalty to zero, but at the risk that some of their stuff, left unattended, may be messed with.

If something untoward happens to the dropped portion of the load, the GM will have to decide exactly what gear is affected. If the player has noted what gear is stowed where this should be easy, but otherwise the GM can feel free to gleefully roll at random for the stuff in jeopardy, excepting things the character obviously wouldn't drop such as clothing and items used during combat. GMs should also keep in mind that when a character decides to pull out that stowed Wand of Firey Doom, apart from the time it takes to dig it out, it might also be in the dropped load if it hasn't been explicitly noted otherwise. Lots of other complications can be extrapolated from here, I'm sure. Don't be an evil GM, but don't make "I drop my pack" a meaningless choice, either.

(As a design note, dropping the load being limited to modest loads means that there is at least one good reason for very strong characters to not load themselves down like a pack mule.)

The point of the system

All that said, I haven't playtested this system. It looks good on paper, and there are a lot of nice synergies between the few moving parts that it has. Suggestions and criticisms are welcome, though keep in mind that the system's primary design goals are to be simple and fast to use, and to make encumbrance present meaningful choices and consequences that can be somewhat judged beforehand.

My intention is that players should be able to make meaningful choices about how much gear they want their characters to carry without having to slavishly tally every tenth of a pound carried. The system puts more emphasis on how and where something is carried than how many factions of a pound it weighs, which is an easier and more interesting thing for players to engage with, if they so choose.

The two (really three) major categories for encumbrance mean that a player can easily choose whether they will be dealing with the encumbrance system and how much it could potentially impact them. A player can have a restrained but decent load of gear and know what the worst penalty could be, as well as how likely they are to suffer such a penalty. The most significant dial in the system is in the players' hands. It does fall to the GM to judge exactly how a player have set that dial, but the coarse grain of the dial means that players should rarely have it set to a grey zone.

(For perspective, the average Power of d6 on a Savage Worlds character with a modest load means a 75% chance of no penalty, and only a 3% chance of the maximum -3 penalty. Not bad. However, with a heavy load it becomes a 69% chance of at least a -1 penalty, a 25% chance of at least a -3 penalty, and a 3% chance of the maximum -5 penalty. It should also be said that I didn't crunch any of these numbers until I needed them for this parenthetical aside. When I came up with my initial Target Numbers I only needed the basic system competency of knowing how to judge a Target Number.)

The system is fast. It may look like a lot of steps when it's broken down like this, but there's nothing to it really. The GM makes a judgment call, the player rolls a die, and you've got your encumbrance figured out just like that. The longest step is recording the initial pile of gear, which needs to be done anyway in the sort of game where you even care about encumbrance.

The system is also gives some pretty good results. Average characters with modest loads get modest penalties and with heavy loads get heavy penalties. Strong characters can more easily get away with carrying a lot of stuff without penalties, while weak ones almost certainly will suffer some penalties if they carry anything of significance. Note too that the penalties only apply to certain physical tasks, so an weakling apprentice mage might be carrying a heavy pack but they don't care since they're not about to swing a sword or go for a swim.

The system also makes encumbrance a significant consideration when choosing what to carry. Too much stuff and you might get away with it, but the risk of a penalty you'll be stuck with is enough to inspire caution. You only get one shot at the encumbrance roll, so you'd better be happy with what you've decided to pack. You have to commit to a certain set of gear and accept the encumbrance it comes with. No longer will the players be fudging a piton here or an iron ration there, because all the gear juggling is put on the characters' shoulders and abstracted away with a stat roll. The randomness of the penalty and the coarseness of the encumbrance categories means that there's very little gain in trying to game the system, which encourages the players to commit to their choice and move on.

The system also really likes bell curves. The repacking and picking up rules will tend to emphasise the position on the bell curve that the character's Strength occupies relative to the load they're carrying. A character carrying more than their fair share will not only be more likely to get a bad penalty initially, but when repacking they're unlikely to get a better penalty, and when picking stuff up they're likely to get a worse penalty. If you're on the other side of the curve you're likely to keep on truckin' without encumbrance penalty unless you get really ambitious.

It also (in theory) nicely handles incremental changes in encumbrance: if you have a -1 penalty already and you're in the middle of the bell curve or on the favourable side, picking up more stuff is likely to either make your encumbrance no worse, or to only increase it slightly to -2 (all Savage Worlds numbers, here). That still leaves you room to pick up some more stuff and maybe get a -3, at least until you start getting into the grey zone and the GM wonders whether you should really be testing for a heavy load. This possibly needs tweaking to prevent a "portable hole" effect where you can just keep picking up huge sacks of jewels without having your encumbrance penalty increase, perhaps by increasing the TN by one for each prior time that you invoked the picking up rule. but I won't know if this situation will come up often enough to bother until the system has seen a good amount of playtesting.

Credit where credit's due

The encumbrance system I've brewed up was inspired by a number of systems. The Riddle of Steel introduced me to a revolutionary encumbrance system. Here's what I remember of it[2. My memory of the Riddle of Steel encumbrance system may be inaccurate. What I remember, and hence how it inspired my system, is really what matters.]: look at the gear carried and picture someone loaded up with all that. Compare it to a couple of pictures in the book ("moderately encumbered" has a guy with a moderate amount of stuff, well-packed and stowed; "heavily encumbered" is the stereotypical image of an over-loaded adventurer carrying everything but the kitchen sink and borne down by a bulging set of packs and bags), and then assign the character either the none, moderate, or heavy encumbrance penalty. From that I took the idea that you can just eyeball a character's gear and move on.

From the Burning Wheel I took the idea at the core of the Let It Ride mechanic, which forbids re-rolling a test until conditions have substantially changed. The essence is that you roll once to find out the results of the effort, and that result sticks so long as the character is trying to accomplish the same thing. The purpose of Let It Ride is first to keep the game moving, and second to keep the system fair—neither GM nor player can call for a re-rolls to try to get the failure or success that they want.

And finally, Savage Worlds inspired me in the first place to abstract encumbrance away with a single roll. The seed of the idea was planted when I re-read my post on Bookkeeping-free provisions and torches in AD&D, which was in turn inspired by a Rambling Bumblers post of Joshua's entitled Savage Bookkeeping. Doing bookkeeping in the spirit of Savage Worlds means getting the end result—a penalty or whatnot—without tediously counting arrows, torches, or pounds. Once you accept that you don't need to track everything to get the same effect, it becomes much simpler to make encumbrance matter without boring the players.

The short version

To recap, the Lightweight Generic Encumbrance System is:

Let me know what you think, what you would change, and especially what you think if you use this system yourself. Happy hauling!

Comments (6)


Saturday August 15, 2009 at 06:14 AM

Re. footnote #1: Man, I miss that game.


Sunday August 16, 2009 at 11:22 PM

That game was a lot of fun. That's what I'm hoping to recapture with the sandbox I'm preparing. There's little more satisfying than plopping a group down in a dungeon and seeing how they explore and interact with it and each other.


Tuesday August 25, 2009 at 04:08 PM

noice! yoink.

Andreas Davour

Sunday September 13, 2009 at 08:01 PM

Nice idea! Me like!


Sunday September 13, 2009 at 08:31 PM

Thanks! Let me know how it works (or doesn't) if you end up using it.

Andreas Davour

Sunday September 13, 2009 at 09:11 PM

I liked it so much I linked to it. Thanks!