Friday, November 18, 2022

No Fun Friday

In my last post, Jacob72 commented (in part):
Logistics and encumbrance are proper fun killers for a lot of folks and I think that it is no accident that a lot of modern games and even OSR house rules lighten the burden of it by moving to a slots or item system. Even the Appendix N source material was vague about these aspects for Fafhrd & Gray Mouser or Cugel.
He also mentioned Prince of Nothing's somewhat recent blogpost on the subject. That's a fairly good one, but I'd also draw folks attention to his earlier post on the subject, especially the comments thread and some of my comments, which included nice pertinent links.

My own feelings on encumbrance were addressed back in 2020 (though I peg 2019 about the time those feelings "crystalized"), when I rather large letters:

You can NOT have a meaningful campaign if strict encumbrance records are not kept.

"Strict" is pretty harsh. I'm not calling for rigid, rigorous bean counting in play; as I wrote at the time:
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.
That's how I've been handling encumbrance for at least three years now.

I'm sorry if it sounds like a "fun-killer" for folks...math is hard, amIright? But let me tell you how it works in practice:
  1. Despite being a geezer, I handle a lot of my DM prep on Ye Old Laptop (duh), mostly in Excel spreadsheets. Calculating monsters, treasures, experience, etc.? All handled quickly and easily, even without creating auto-formulae (which I have done in the past). Opening up a spreadsheet, listing weights for items, and hitting "sum" takes Very Little Time and is part of my prep/cleanup either pre- or post-session. I do it. I keep the players' character sheets, after all (keeping all the game material together in one place...i.e. with the convenient for staying organized). 
  2. I don't write on or notate players' character sheets (while I retain sheets between sessions, their sheets are still their own). But when the next session starts, IF there has been a change in encumbrance level or movement (based on my calculations) I inform the player of this at the start of the session...just in case he/she wants to make a note (they usually do). Regardless, I take any new movement rates into account in terms of exploration (random encounters, resource expenditure, etc.), and mobility limitations (as per PHB p.101-102...inability to run, hustle, etc.). 
  3. Once players are aware of their limitations based on encumbrance, they are more inclined to self-police themselves...cutting down on unnecessary equipment, choosing lighter weight armor, etc. They also start to get a good sense of when to leave a dungeon environment based on the bulging sacks of treasure that they are accumulating (contrariwise, empty sacks push them to explore further even as they eye their dwindling supplies of torches, etc.). I'm also quick to point out that a party can't travel faster than their slowest member, so they tend to HELP each other (both in terms of critiquing load outs AND sharing burdens between party members).
  4. Between dungeon delves, encumbrance management provides an important logistical consideration for and what to hire, what animals are needed to pull wagons, do we charter/purchase a ship, etc. As you might imagine, it's far more fun (and entertaining) for players to organize their own caravan than to look for work as "caravan guards." That is work for broke-ass (or low level) adventurers...ignominious, thankless work requiring little skill and paying a pittance; far better to be caravan masters than caravan servants.
In practice this kind of game play actually works to engage the players' attention. It's not just an exercise in accounting; rather, it helps put the players in their characters headspace. Which is to say, it forces the PCs to worry about the same sort of things that a "real life adventurer" would be worrying about.

Let me drill down right here: I haven't played in a 5E game since the thing was first in public Beta testing. But I've since read the PHB and have heard many anecdotal accounts of gameplay. It appears that 5E mechanics engage players by focusing them on their character: its background, its abilities, certain choices that come up as the character rises in level. It is very inward looking...pushing players into their own imagination, from whence they (in theory) bring forth something to display at the table: their proficiency at "playing in character," their effectiveness in using their character's traits tactically, etc.

AD&D doesn't do this: after all, once you've rolled your abilities and chosen your race and class, there's not much more "introspection" that's needed. All paladins of a given level have the same abilities. There aren't any backgrounds. If you go buy the "racial preference" chart, every elf have a similar attitude towards dwarves and halflings as an any other.

Instead of focusing on yourself, you are forced to focus on...and engage with...the game and (presumably) the adventure at hand. Did anyone buy a rope? How many torches should we take with us? How much oil? The fighter's wearing heavy armor and has her hands full with sword and is she going to see to fight? Can the wizard carry a (full) large sack while maintaining the light spell?

Dealing with the "nitty-gritty" puts the players in the minds of their makes them feel like they're IN the adventure, rather than watching some show or reading/telling some story ABOUT an adventurer.  "Who cares whether I'm the illegitimate son of a the hell are we going to get this chest of gold out of the oubliette without a block and tackle? And even if we do, how are we going to carry it out of the dungeon before some hobgoblin war party catches up to us?"

I prefer orienting the players in this fashion. It's not about being an anal retentive, number crunching rules-monger. What I have found is that without this "accountability," the game becomes less-and-less about experiencing adventure in a fantasy world. Which is (for me) the point of play. 

"How JB? How is it about 'experiencing fantasy adventure?' What you describe just sounds like an exercise in number juggling!"

*sigh* Okay. There's two parts to this for each side of the screen:

For the Players: they're NOT seeing a lot of number crunching. As I said, they get the end result calculated from me (weight, movement, etc.)...the same way they get the final tally of calculated experience from me. They can then make choices. "How much am I over? Fifteen pounds? Okay, what can I drop that'll get my load down to a more manageable level?" 

It's not Papers&Paychecks here. Look, do you allow your players to buy their own equipment? Choose their own spells and weapon proficiencies? And does that 'shut down' the game by over-burdening the players with choices? In my experience: no. Instead, it makes them think and consider things like an adventurer. It contributes to experiential play.

For the Dungeon Master: sure, you've got more work to do...but it's not that hard. Far harder to come up with a "new, awesome" adventure (the concept, the map, the keying, the stocking, etc.). It sounds more daunting than what it actually is.

And what is gained is enormous. Not only am I rewarded with players who tend to be more engaged and cooperative, accounting like this forces me to up my game as a DM and world builder. Spending the time to figure out the ins and outs of nomadic desert life from a historic perspective is fun research for me, but it also makes it easier to craft a richer, deeper campaign world that I find entertaining and worth engaging with...and I'd hope my enthusiasm (at the very least) bleeds through as extra energy during any game session I'm running.

Yes. Just from worrying how much water you need to carry and how much it weighs.

I don't doubt that some people shake their heads in disbelief at these ideas. I was much the same mindset, just a few short years ago, all but unwilling to even give this stuff a try. Suffice is to say: I'm a changed man. Having taken a few baby steps...and then a few more, and a few more...well, now I see that my prior thinking was in error. 

Maybe, once upon a time (in that fabled time before laptops and spreadsheets and the internet) such "minutia" was too much effort for the pleasure gained. Now, though, with the ease by which all this is accomplished? Not doing the work is just laziness. 

Happy Friday!


  1. Real generals talk logistics.

    Real adventurers talk encumbrance.

    1. Not a bad aphorism.

      However, I am neither a real general, nor real adventurer. What is the adventurer-equivalent of the “armchair general?” That’s probably the label I need.
      ; )

    2. True, but in the context of trying to emulate 'real' adventurers it makes sense to focus on what they focus on. To the extent that fun and gamability permits.

      Encumbrance matters where it actually impacts the game - your method of dealing with it strikes me as capturing a lot of important essentials while skipping past some of the less workable bits.

      In my slow cobbling-together of a coherent OSR system for my own use, one of the things I noted about encumbrance rules is that ideally you shouldn't interact with them - you should not be loading your adventurers with so much crap they are a picked up bottle away from statistical ruin. Any set of encumbrance rules runs into problem because of players' natural tendency to load their characters like pack mules. To some extent I think the best encumbrance rules might just be the reminder to the players of the above. And good rules for managing their pack train. If it's good enough for the dwarves in The Hobbit, it's good enough for D&D.

    3. Sure. And there are a lot of ways to make it work.

      I suppose my main point is that it needs to be a consideration in the game…even a game that has magic and unicorns. The limitations of the human experience…and here I mean time, encumbrance, and their interaction (through speed)…drive the verisimilitude of the game, far more than the heroic elements of “hit points” or “saving throws.” And without that verisimilitude you have a less impactful experience.

  2. I hate when people complain that the game has "too much math." In 90% of cases, what they are upset about is the addition of single-digit numbers. If that is too much of an imposition, you have bigger problems than what game to play.

    1. Too much math, too much reading. Yeah.

      Next thing they'll be saying is the game requires too much thinking.

    2. Well, yeah man. Ain't I got enough trouble breathin'?

    3. Back in the day, our hobby* was for enthusiasts, but not that our hobby* is popular, a bunch of outsiders expecting to just lean back and be entertained has flooded our spaces!

      *: all hobbies

  3. I think I was fortunate in this at a relatively early point. When the Dark Sun setting first came out, I had the opportunity to sit and watch a session in a friend's basement. When I watched the players actively set aside gold (which didn't equal XP in 2E, as we know, so it wasn't a perfect lesson, but still) in favor of carrying water, I knew that I had witnessed something important about the game. Logistics became something I paid attention to, at least in certain sorts of game—the sort I tended to prefer as time went on.

    1. A good anecdote. That makes me wonder whether an adventure or possibly even campaign could be built around xp for H2O, and whether the party might realise it?

    2. A dragon's hoard would be the underground lake it lives in. Interesting

  4. I'm struggling with this in my current Badlands campaign. Properly equipping a party for expeditions into a harsh and unforgiving climate requires careful thought, planning, and consideration of things like encumbrance and travel speed. These are things I *love* to track as a player, and I've baked those elements into my house rules. I believe the campaign setting should be as much of a threat as the monsters that live within it—maybe moreso because it is persistent.

    My players, on the other hand, don't much care for the survival rules, and often don't take them as seriously as they should. I'm frequently forced to scold them for not bringing the right gear along, for not tracking their encumbrance, and for not keeping an account of the resources they use from their equipment list (one character always seems to have 10 torches, no matter what). Like you, I have to audit everyone's character sheets between sessions (at least Roll20 tracks encumbrance, which makes it easier). It's been tough going, but because I've insisted that equipment and encumbrance are important, I think they're finally beginning to view them as part of the campaign's challenge (even if they still don't like it).

    The core 5e game is a lot of fun, but it needs help in certain areas to reinject a lot of the original game's strategy and risk aspects. I get the feeling the game is okay with simply assuming that characters have whatever they need—whenever they need it—for narrative purposes. The rules definitely hand-wave the equipping process by employing "Lifestyle Expenses," a flat fee which "...provide(s) you with a simple way to account for the cost of living in a fantasy world. They cover your accommodations, food and drink, and all your other necessities. Furthermore, expenses cover the cost of maintaining your equipment so you can be ready when adventure next calls."

    Simple and easy...but boring and unimaginative.

    1. When you start going down the road of "logistical verisimilitude," 5E probably isn't the best system of play.

      Let's say you want to play a halfling rogue, and you're just following the quick-build instructions, including taking the "charlatan" background as recommended. Here's a not-unreasonable-selection of starting equipment:

      shortsword, shortbow + quiver of 20 arrows, burglar's pack, leather armor, two daggers, thieves tools, a set of fine clothes, a disguise kit, a deck of marked cards, and a pouch containing 15 gp

      How much does this weigh?

      76.5 pounds.

      If the PC has a STR 10 (again, not unreasonable if one goes by the suggested ability distribution and gives the higher scores to DEX, INT, CON, and CHA) this means the PC is "heavily encumbered"...your stealthy, scout character. The guy is STAGGERING down the road (movement rate reduced to 5 feet) under the weight of his burden. Fortunately for him, 5E gives him a maximum carrying capacity of 150#, so he is not totally immobile.

      But even THIS is preposterous: a halfling is described as 3' tall and 40#. This average strength character is carrying...not lifting, bu shouldering and CARRYING more than 191% of his body weight! Power lifters at the HIGHEST LEVEL (think 18 strength + training) can LIFT (not carry) twice their body mass.

      An individual of average strength/fitness can carry 25% of their body mass without being excessively burdened. Stronger individuals can up that amount to 50% or 75% (you can draw your own demarcation based on ability score). But no...a 40# individual of flesh and blood cannot carry 150# (lift 300#!)...let alone 270#/540# (the weight limits of a halfling with STR 18). No. That is beyond the realms of believable biology. It's like saying an NFL linebacker could strap a VW bug to their back and still walk down the street.

      5E is for people who want to play cartoons.

    2. Doesn't this point (again) to a lack of thorough checking and QA in the organisation which wrote and produced 5e (ie WOTC?). Even on a slot system basis (your strength in slot numbers before you are encumbered) then that loadout isn't bad in the slightest. My conclusion is that the system didn't get even a sanity check.

    3. But we can't connect carrying capacity with body mass, because every player with a brain would play some Baron Harkonnen abomination with maximum racially allowed weight! :D

    4. The lack of real-world physics gets even worse with some of the new playtest changes. Rangers get a new class ability at 7th level called Roving, which increases their base Speed by 10 ft. and gives them both a Climb Speed and Swim Speed equal to their walking Speed. (Wood elves go even faster, as does using Haste or Longstrider.)

      So, a 7th-level human ranger who moves 30 now moves 40, whether they're walking, climbing, or swimming. Speed 40 moves 400 ft. per minute, or 24,000 ft. per hour = roughly 4.5 MPH. Creatures with a Climb or Swim speed don't need to make ability checks to move normally over vertical surfaces/in relatively calm water, meaning they can keep it for hours at a time (just like walking).

      The world swim speed record is 6 MPH, set by Michael Phelps in the 200m freestyle; this equates to 31,680 ft. per hour = 528 ft. per minute = 52.8 ft. per 6-second turn. But he can't keep that up for 8 hours straight like our human ranger can.

      The Empire State Building is a mere 1,250 ft. tall, meaning our human ranger can scale it (without having to roll an Athletics check even once, mind you!) in a breezy one-and-a-half minutes.

      Even the new rules for jumping bear no resemblance to an Earth-like world. Now, if you FAIL your Athletics check to jump, you ONLY clear a 5 ft. jump, horizontal or vertical(!)

      I looked up the world record vertical running leap, which stands at 5 ft., 11 in.; Michael Jordan’s best was 5 ft., 10 in. Congrats 5e players… you are all now world-class athletes on a failed Jump roll.

      I actually really like the core 5e engine and action economy. If they would just strip the classes down to a few essential abilities and quit with all these cascading superhero powers, they would have a solid and reasonable game on their hands. My players don't want to switch, and I'm happy to keep running my version of 5e, but I really struggle to understand what type of experience the 5e designers are trying to encourage with this sort of laziness. I loathe math and even I could see how messed up this was.

    5. Well, I think it's fairly clear the type of experience 5E designers are trying to create. It's just not one I'm very interested in.

      Regardless of that, more than any other design goal, I think the primary objective of the D&D license holder has been to generate profits. Most of the choices that have been made by WotC/Hasbro since circa 2002 have been with this aim in mind.

      [not that they didn't ALWAYS want to make money; but it doesn't appear to have been their PRIMARY objective]

      That's the nature of business. It is what it is.

      But to that end, the game has been hammered and changed to have broader and broader appeal, attracting more and more customers, generating more revenues. "Something for everyone," so long as you're willing to put cash in their pockets.

      Whatever...that's something I've been harping on since the earliest days of the blog. "One D&D" is no different...just another way to try milking the old cash cow a little more.

    6. To be fair, a lot of Appendix N material handwaves stuff in a pretty similar way. Conan very rarely calculated his daily living expenses. Barbarians of Lemuria does basically the same thing - have what you like and what makes sense, the DM can take it away if necessary (and a fancy villa isn't that useful when you're actually out adventuring).

      I think the disconnection from reality in the D&D rules that you describe is abominable, but I don't think it's a 'moving away from the source material' problem - classic D&D may have been rather obsessed with encumbrance, but it didn't really do so in a way that was realistic either. Third Edition certainly tried, but with its breakpoints for encumbrance I don't think it was exactly a great solution either.

    7. Oh, I don't think there's any problem with "moving away from source material" (as you put it). The D&D game is not designed to model or emulate the books in Appendix N. Those are sources of inspiration...that's it. There are tonal differences (at the minimum!) that make it impossible to emulate anything there. Instead, perhaps, consider Appendix N nothing more than an alternative fantasy reading list to those that include a prominence of tomes by Ms. J.K. Rowling or (Lord forbid) Weiss & Hickman.

      Having said THAT (i.e. that whether or not Howard writes about Conan displaying anxiety for encumbrance matters Not One Bit to the point of my essay)...having said that, NEITHER do I believe the lack of encumbrance accounting is "abominable," nor do I rail against modern systems (or lack thereof) because they miss out on the obsessive coin counting of old editions...which, to be clear, was never really the case (certainly wasn't an "obsession" for my old group, and in most editions you'll find the whole encumbrance thing listed as "optional;" even in AD&D Gygax writes a lot of "IF you decide to use" these rules rather than "when").

      MY point, my MAIN point has been that some consideration, some THOUGHT, must be given to encumbrance in one's campaign for one's campaign to be "meaningful." If you dispense with real world considerations (like encumbrance which includes FOOD since people need to eat to survive and historically, this was the bulk of a person's encumbrance since we stopped being "hunter-gatherer" types)...if you dispense with (i.e. hand-wave) such real world considerations, you lose the verisimilitude that adds depth, richness, and meaning to the D&D game.

      That's it. You can still play a game that's little more (and sometimes less!) than a video game in nature. You can still use the game as a basis for "pretend play" where players entertain each other with funny voices and act out soap opera dramas based on imagined backgrounds DM-created "story arcs"...though it is unclear the reason one needs the extensive rule books and mechanics of ANY edition of D&D for that type of play.

      But for longterm, satisfying play, I have found that the game must have "meaning" (i.e. be serious, have significance, be respectable, etc.) and it cannot fulfill that quality if one ignores encumbrance.

      Hope that makes sense.