Wednesday, July 8, 2020


I've been meaning to write this post for at least a year.

As my new campaign setting and "mega-dungeon" (man, I dislike that term) aren't quite ready to kick off, I'm running my kids through White Plume Mountain in order to assuage their lust for play. Yes, once again I fall back on Old Faithful for cheap dungeoneering thrills, though I did convert the thing to OD&D to work with my (current) preferred system.

Of course, a one-off dungeon like S2 requires higher level characters than what the kids have, so we had to artificially advance some dudes to the requisite 5th-10th range. This is incredibly easy in OD&D as it simply involves rolling a few more dice for hit points, a moderate increase in spell selection, and me seeding each character with a couple-four appropriate magic items. Starting gold isn't anything we worry about in this case: I set the number of characters (including hench-folk) that are going on the expedition, and the players can choose any standard equipment off the list presuming they had plenty of gold (or a stipend from their wealthy employers) with which to "gear up."

And normally that's not a problem, but while going over the characters I noticed that my son's retainer, Richard the Valiant, was carrying five hand axes, a compound bow, quiver of arrows, battle axe, a mace, a sword, and multiple daggers in addition to his armor and miscellaneous equipment. It would appear Diego decided that (since his character's speed was already reduced by his plate armor) to max out his carrying capacity with useful armaments. We ended up having a discussion over just where the character would be strapping all this gear to his body, and how he would be maneuvering with all this metal strapped to his belt and banging against his legs. Just how does he intend to protect his master (a magic-user) and does he plan on hauling treasure in addition to enough weapons to outfit The Seven Samurai?

After a little thought, he ended up adjusting his gear in a way that was both reasonable and him as well as me. 

Encumbrance...the accounting of weight/bulk carried by a absolutely imperative to running the D&D game. Imperative, as in of vital importance. Hell, it's downright necessary. Gygax wrote in the DMG (rather infamously) that


in his patented "yelling-at-the-reader" style. I won't say I disagree with the sentiment, but he should have used the same capital lettering to emphasize the importance of encumbrance to the game. If you'll allow me the indulgence of my own DMG addendum:


It really can't be overstated. Encumbrance is the third dimension that provides depth to an otherwise two dimensional game that only accounts for "cost" versus "utility."

Throughout our history, humans have been limited by what we could carry. The invention of the wheel is not celebrated because it allowed us the creation of roller skates and motor scooters. It's celebrated because it allowed us to move "stuff" (equipment, goods, food, building supplies, people) far in excess of what our fragile bodies are able to carry. Prior to the building of the Erie Canal, the American midwest was just a resource rich territory isolated from the thriving manufacturing centers of the coast. After the canal was built...and goods could be exchanged/carried on floating barges both directions instead of via horseback over harsh overland conditions...the area became as populated as any on the coast, and the frontier was pushed westward. Canals, railroads, steamships, air travel...all these things have increased humans' ability to move and carry goods...the goods we need to survive and thrive.

Anyone who's gone on an extensive hike or camping trip that required considerable overland walking knows the importance of encumbrance to the human condition. Do you wear a pair of lightweight sneakers or the heavy, rugged hiking boots that provide your feet with protection and support? What do you pack in terms of extra clothing? What do you pack in terms of food? How much weight can you (literally) shoulder when it comes to "conveniences" like tents, sleeping bags, foam mats, camp stoves, propane, lanterns, batteries, shovels, etc? If you plan on hunting or fishing are you carrying rifles, ammunition, rods, and tackle boxes? How many miles do you have to cover from your parked car to your designated camp site? 

Don't forget you'll need to bring your own drinking water...depending on how many days you plan on "roughing it" those ten gallon tanks are a pain to lug down the trail. But it beats the risk of contacting "beaver fever."

All laughable, of course...most folks' idea of camping these days doesn't involve even this much "inconvenience." We drive our car (or SUV) to a rented camp site and unpack the trunk and set up camp. Often there are bathrooms, pre-built fire pits, sometimes even showers for use. Bundles of wood can be purchased at the site's entrance, or picked up on the road from a nearby service station that caters to campers who forgot the marshmallows back on the kitchen table. We are hardly the "pioneer folk" of our ancestors.

And yet the D&D wilderness is supposed to be far more unsettled and unsettling than the "real world" ever was.  Lewis & Clark never had to contend with a dragon or a pack of trolls when scouting the Oregon Trail. Their rifles were fine (barely) against the occasional grizzly, but how would they have fared versus a lich or vampire? 

Even so their journey was still perilous...despite having horses and using three boats (including a specially built 55' shallow draft keelboat) to carry their provisions, books, medicine, ammunition, and equipment. Burdened as they were, diligent in their mapping and surveying, the L&C expedition made about 15 miles per day, and probably wouldn't have survived the Rockies without the help of indigenous peoples encountered along the way (part of the party's "encumbrance" were gifts brought specifically to placate and make peace with tribes encountered).

But I'm digressing (as usual): I understand that there are folks who don't bother with (or actively spurn) encumbrance in their games. I understand there are folks who feel complex "bean-counting" takes away from...or distracts from...the real "meat" of the game. I'll freely admit that one of the main reasons I preferred B/X to AD&D for many years was the more abstract version of calculating encumbrance (listed as OPTIONAL in the B/X rule book!). Yes, yes, I could have simply imported B/X's encumbrance rules into AD&D; however, I've always attempted to play games 'by the book,' and what's the point of using an "advanced" system if you're not embracing the complexity and crunch?

[I think my aversion to AD&D encumbrance first came about when I saw the list in Appendix O of my DMG and noted that iron rations by themselves weighed damn near as much as ALL "miscellaneous equipment" in B/X...and standard rations weigh two-and-a-half times as much!]

*ahem* So, yeah, I get where folks are coming from when they say they dislike calculating encumbrance. You know what? Encumbrance IS damn real life as well as the game. 

Tough shit.

Locally (here in Seattle...well, Edmonds specifically) we have this "travel guru" by the name of Rick Steves. I've met him, gone to some of his free seminars, bought some of his books. He's a nice, personable guy. He likes to say that a traveler only gets to choose two of the following three options: travel easily (i.e. comfortably), travel cheaply, travel heavy. You can travel heavy and easily, but it won't be cheap. You can travel heavy and cheaply, but it won't be comfortable. Or you can pack light and your trip will be, relatively speaking, both inexpensive and comfortable. 

I always try to travel as light as possible.

Assuming your enjoyment of D&D is based on immersive, experiential play then the game must have encumbrance in order to reach its maximum potential. Without encumbrance rules the game lacks the extra dimension that adds depth to the immersion. Doing a cost-benefit analysis between wearing a shield or using a two-handed weapon is an easy brain exercise. Factoring in how much in costs your character in terms of movement (maneuverability) and carrying capacity is a whole extra level of mental agility. Losing a hireling to a goblin arrow doesn't just represent the removal of a "meat shield" from the party; it's a diminished capacity to haul treasure chests and golden idols!

I'd guess most of the grumbling about the inconvenience of calculating encumbrance stems from not from the math (adding and subtracting is pretty easy for most of us), but from a perceived need for "attention to detail." Oh, I have to look up a short sword's weight. Oh, where's that table that shows the bulk for tiaras? Ugh, if every 50' length of rope is 2#, how much do I need to discard to fit these coins in my backpack? Nit-picky-ness. But I don't think it needs to be so exacting as to be burdensome. 

In real life, we only bother with our nice, neat packing when we have ample time to prepare...say before setting off on a journey. However, what happens when you wake up late and need to stuff everything in your bag just in time to check out and make your plane connection? Stuff still "fits" (even those extra souvenirs and books you picked up while sight-seeing) it's just that your bags are over-stretched, bumpy, and straining at the zippers. Kept in a such a state, they will eventually wear out, burst their seams and fastenings, cause straps to break, etc. but for the short-term, they'll make it just fine.

Treat your D&D encumbrance like that. Players can (and should be) exacting prior to game play (i.e. when preparing for their expedition). During play, don't sweat the small stuff too much. Packs and bags don't necessarily carry the exact weight listed. D&D encumbrance is a measure of bulk as well as weight. And different items made in different styles may encumber at different rates from "standard." Eyeball amounts. Have a rough idea of what each character can carry before movement decreases (that's part of your prep, O Great And Powerful DM). When the treasure carried (or goblin swords being looted for Lord knows why) start hitting...or coming the break points in your notes, inform the players and ask them if there's any vital equipment they're willing to discard prior to being reduced to a crawl. Make them sweat the situation, without making them pull out their calculator app at the table.

Time enough for the exact count, in between sessions...presumably when the characters have made it back to town.

Exacting or not, you need some kind of encumbrance in your D&D game if you want any sort of depth or feeling of reality in it. Note: I said "feeling" of reality, not "reality." It's still a game, still abstract. But if you fail to include encumbrance, your campaign will eventually wind up feeling shallow and superficial, no matter how much magic and "wonder" you put into it. It requires that attention to the consequences of reality, in order to provide the game with order to place magic and wonderment in context, a grounding in what we know and perceive of the real world, so that we can better enjoy the immersive experience it gives us.

I didn't always feel like this. I do now.


  1. I think the easiest is just slot-based. I do "BURDEN" is equal to CON score (carry endurance) + WIS bonus (experience in packing).

    Slots: Weapons (1-3) Armor (2-6) Torches (1/3) rations (1/6) jewelry (1/3) Coins/gems (1/100)

    1. That's not bad, Warren. I think I'd still like STR to be a part of the equation, though.