Wednesday, May 06, 2020

House Rules: Tinkering With Encumbrance

I've been trying to organise some quarantine D&D for the near future, because everyone being at home with nothing to do seems to me like the perfect time for some gaming.  I've never played over video chat before, so I want to run something simple and quick, and the Tom Moldvay version of Basic D&D seemed to fit the bill.  Reading it over, though, there were a number of areas that I'm not entirely satisfied with, so the inevitable red pen came out and I started house-ruling.  So much for quick and simple...

One of those areas that I've been tinkering with since forever is encumbrance.  Tracking encumbrance by coins can result in some very fiddly addition, and using pounds isn't really much better.  I've never found a system that I can keep track of at the table, or that my players can be bothered with.  What I'd like is something that uses a less granular measure of weight, and that can be gauged with a quick look at a player's character sheet.  I was playing around with it again over the weekend, and I think I might have cracked it.

Rather than using exact weights, I'm going with a system that uses encumbrance "slots", kind of like some computer RPGs.  Each character begins with a base of 15 encumbrance slots, which is modified up or down based on their Strength modifier.  For characters created using Moldvay D&D, that gives a range from 12 to 18.

Every item takes up a number of slots.  Most items take up one slot, some take up two, and there are smaller items that take up a third of a slot.  Armour takes up a number of slots based on its bonus to AC.  I'm still tinkering with these numbers, but here's a summary of what I have so far:

  • 7 slots: Plate Mail Armour
  • 5 slots: Chain Mail Armour
  • 4 slots: Pole Arm
  • 3 slots: Leather Armour, Two-Handed Sword, 10' Pole
  • 2 slots: Battle Axe, Long Bow, Crossbow, Spear, Long Sword, Standard Rations
  • 1 slot: Shield, Hand Axe, Short Bow, Quiver, Quarrel Case, Club, Mace, Sling and Stones, Short Sword, War Hammer, Backpack, Crowbar, Grappling Hook, Hammer, 12 Iron Spikes, Lantern, Mirror, Iron Rations, Rope, Large Sack, Thieves Tools, Tinderbox, Torches (6), Waterskin
  • 1/3 slot: Dagger, Oil Flask, Holy Water, Small Sack

Very small items, such as rings, gems, cloves of garlic, etc. don't count towards encumbrance in this system.  Neither does clothing, or pretty much anything else a character is wearing aside from armour.

Backpacks are a special case: a backpack has six slots of its own, but only counts as 1 slot towards a character's encumbrance.  Obviously, only one backpack can be used in this way at a time.

Coins are also a special case.  Every 100 coins take up a slot, so theoretically an average character can carry up to 1,500 coins.  In practice, I assume that any character wearing clothes has enough pockets and pouches to hold 100 coins.  Beyond that, coins can't be carried unless you have a container, such as a sack or a backpack.  Coins placed in your primary backpack won't contribute to your encumbrance beyond the 1 slot for the backpack, but coins in sacks or a second backpack take up slots as normal - I figure dragging around a sack of coins will weigh someone down pretty quickly.  This allows me to properly try to run some logistical D&D; I really want to play one of those game where the players have to make hard decisions about what treasure they carry out of the dungeon.

(Sacks are one of the problem areas I'm still figuring out. I'm thinking of making them weigh nothing, or perhaps only having their weight count when there's nothing in them.)

The character's movement rate is based on the following chart:

Encumbrance Slots Movement Rate: 12 9 6 3 1
12 (Str 3) 1-3 4-6 7-9 10-11 12
13 (Str 4-5) 1-3 4-6 7-10 11-12 13
14 (Str 6-8) 1-3 4-7 8-10 11-13 14
15 (Str 9-12) 1-4 5-7 8-11 12-14 15
16 (Str 13-15) 1-4 5-8 9-12 13-15 16
17 (Str-16-17) 1-4 5-8 9-13 14-16 17
18 (Str 18) 1-4 5-9 10-13 14-17 18

The encumbrance slots are on the left, and movement rates are along the top.  The cross-referenced number show how many encumbrance slots span that movement rate.  For example, a character with a 13 Strength (a +1 modifier) would have 16 encumbrance slots.  Assuming their inventory is filled completely with items that weigh one slot, they have a movement rate of 12 when carrying 1-4 items, 9 when carrying 5-8 items, 6 when carrying 9-12 items, 3 when carrying 13-15 items, and 1 when carrying 16 items.

Writing out like this feels a little complicated, so let's take a sample character with an average Strength and buy some equipment.  Rothgar the fighter has a Strength of 11, which gives him 15 encumbrance slots.  With his 110gp, he buys the following gear: a longsword, chain mail armour, a shield, a backpack, a lantern, 3 flasks of oil, some rope, a week's worth of iron rations, a waterskin, some garlic, and a large sack.  That costs 101gp in total.  Written down, it would look something like this:

So by this system, a character with an average strength and a fairly standard equipment load would have a movement rate of 6 (or 60' per turn).  The coins would normally contribute to encumbrance, but there are so few that for now they're in the section for items of negligible weight.  Rothgar could carry 100 coins in clothes pockets and pouches, and another 600 in his sack, but doing so would reduce his movement rate to 1, which is probably not desirable.

As an option, I'm thinking of making magic armour weigh less, with each "plus" taking off one encumbrance slot.  That makes magic armour desirable for much more than its protective value.  Elven chain I will probably have take up a mere 1 slot.

This system might be a little complicated to set up at the start, but it looks as though it does everything I'm looking for,  The measurements are bigger, the character's Strength is a factor, it looks like it'll be easy to use at the table, and you can see what the character's movement rate is at a glance.  I'm looking forward to seeing how it plays over the weekend.


  1. You might take a look at this system - Similar concept. I admit I prefer "stone" to "slot" but that's just aesthetics.

    1. I agree aesthetically, and I've looked at Delta's system - I like most of what he comes up with. I'm playing tonight, so I'll be able to test what I came up with and see how it goes.

  2. I highly recommend checking out the encumbrance rules for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. They're really good. Some of the spell descriptions would really work for you too, at least to compare for ideas. Check out Detect Evil, for example