When I am not writing here, I am the co-host of the Misdirected Mark podcast. On our last episode, my co-host challenged me to do a segment talking about how encumbrance is an interesting mechanic. I laughed, because I don’t think I have ever used encumbrance in any of my D&D campaigns. Then I thought about it, and took him up on the challenge. As I thought more about encumbrance, I came to realize that there are a number of interesting game play decisions around it. By the end of the segment I had a much greater respect for the rule, and it made me think about other rules I think were bad or boring, that might have more to them. (Go and take a listen to the episodeÂ to hear my thoughts on encumbrance.)
I Hated Cheese For 15 Years
When I was a toddler I loved cheese, and then one day around age 5 I stopped liking cheese, for reasons I do not recall. For 15 years, I avoided cheese in anything I ate. Then while in college at the age of 20 I had a cheeseburger, and from that point on I liked cheese again. What does this have to do with gaming?
Well, many of our preferences for rules, GMing style, and setting come from our early days of gaming. We tend to carry those preferences through our gaming lives. So if we take a dislike to a rule in our formative gaming years, it tends to stay with us. This was true for my dislike of encumbrance. The problem is that during those formative gaming years, we do not have the best understanding of what is going on in the game. So flat out dismissal of a rule is dangerous, because we may not understand what the rule is doing or why it’s part of the game.
In the same way that I returned to cheese after having a cheeseburger (seriously, what was I thinking?), the same may be true with rules that we thoughtÂ were stupid back when we were learning to play. Those rules could be their own kind of cheeseburger.
Rules Inform Play
The rules of the game tell you as much about how the game should be played, possibly more so, than the setting. Good game designers include rules in their games to create a certain experience during play. The combination of all those rules and the ways they interact help to enforce a certain type of play, when followed.
For example: in a game I am developing, The Fate of Elhal, the game is about heroic battles and special combat styles. One of the rules I created is call Momentum dice,Â which allows a player to build up to and then execute a special move during combat. That special move helps to enforce the feeling of those special combat styles.
There is a piece of advice in many RPG’s which states, if you are not enjoying a rule, drop it. It sounds so simple: “just don’t use it”. But that statement is misleading. Here’s how that advice should be given: If you don’t like a rule in the game, drop it, but beware of consequences for doing so. In pharmaceuticals this is called off-label use, which the drug company is very clear means that other things can happen if you don’t use the drug as it was prescribed.
Most rules in an RPG are either linked together or dependent on one another. So when you drop a rule, other rules are affected. Those effects can change the way the game plays at the table, and sometimes create more problems than just keeping the offending rule in the first place.
Quick example: I use to be pretty stingy about magic items in my D&D 3.0 game. I never gave them out, because I like low-fantasy more than the high-fantasy which D&D is designed to provide in play. Keeping magic weapons out of the players hands was fine until they encountered monsters with Damage Resistance, and nearly got killed. It was not until I was in a seminar held by WotC that they explained that they assume that at certain levels, characters have certain magical items and their associated bonuses. So by removing magic items from my game, it made using the published monsters and other materials more difficult.
Dislike Should Lead To Discovery
When we encounter a rule we don’t like, rather than just dismissing the rule I think we should look deeper, and figure out why the rule is in the game, and how it contributes to the experience the game is trying to create.
Sometimes we can figure that out ourselves by just thinking about what the rule does, the decisions which center around the rule, etc. If you cannot find the answers there, you can post the question out on social media, and see if the community can assist. Finally, you can often just find the developer online and ask. Most game designers are easy to approach, and will be happy to explain what their game is supposed to be doing.
The Chiltons Manual
Soapbox time. This is something I want from other games, and something I am vowing to do as I design The Fate of Elhal. I want a supplement to come with my game, a separate PDF (it does not need to be a print book) that explains to me how the mechanics of the game work, their dependencies, and what play experience they are suppose to create. In that same book, I want tips on hacking the game, or things to consider if I want to remove a rule.
I would buy this book for every game I had, so that when I encountered a rule I did not like, I could understand why it was there, what its intended purpose was, and what the consequences are if I want to ignore it.
Conclusion and Questions
Everyone has rules they like and do not like. Sometimes we drop a rule when we don’t like it, and other times we just switch games to find a game that does it more the way we enjoy. Rules are included for a reason, and not always a reason that the designer shares with us overtly. Before you get ready to drop a rule or dump a game, take a closer look at what the rule is doing, and see if it matches up with your own expectations for the game. Once informed, you can then make a better decision about removing it or switching games.
What rules in RPG’s annoy you and what have you done about them? Are there any rules you disliked as an early gamer, that you have embraced lately?
This is very true, Phil. I was running a D&D game and decided to ignore the seemingly innocuous rule: that when a summoned creature is dismissed, everything that was once a part of that creature is also dismissed. In other words, if your summoned monster loses a toenail, when the summoning ends, the toenail also vanishes. I broke this rule to accomplish something in a particular scene. This, in turn, cascaded into PC’s summoning Water Elementals in order to get a drink (“you’re putting your straw where?”), or using the mount spell in order to get some horse meat in a dungeon. It is good advice to think things through before changing or removing a rule.
What I dislike most about encumbrance is its step-like nature. A character can go along, adding a pound or two, here and there but at one point, after picking up another pound, his encumbrance changes. This sudden change means the GM and player have to be keenly aware of the weight, at all times. All the bookkeeping is a distraction from play.
As for magic weapons, I created some house rules to deal with non-magic weapons when attacking magical monsters:
1. If the monster can only be hit by special material, (eg: silver or cold iron), then for mundane weapons, divide the damage by 5 and drop all fractions.
2. If it can only be hit by +1 weapons, divide by 10 and drop all fractions. For +2 divide by 20, +3 by 30.
3. If attacking a +3 monster with a +1 weapon, divide by the difference, in this case 20.
This means even magical monsters should be afraid of the Tomb of Horrors.
When I first started playing D&D in my tweens we didn’t bother with encumbrance. As you note, the main reason groups drop rules is that they interfere with the desired style play. We were playing the game for its stories of adventuring and heroism. The dull, bookkeeping nature of tracking encumbrance didn’t fit with that, so we ignored it. Completely.
Over the many years since then I’ve gone back and forth on encumbrance rules. I’ve played with GMs who were sticklers for them. I’ve been a stickler myself at times while looser other times. I’ve settled on the view that encumbrance rules are neither inherently good nor bad but must be applied in light of what the GM and players want to get out of the game. (In other words, my tween self was wiser than he realized at the time.) When the game is about making meaningful tradeoffs about what you can carry vs. how fast you can move in combat, or how many horses and wagons you need when traveling long distance, then use encumbrance. If those considerations aren’t important elements of the story, skip it.
By the way, your point is well taken about how changing one rule can cause major unexpected problems in a different part of the game. But I have never seen encumbrance cause such a problem, except in cases were a player was clearly abusing it. Like the fellow who said, “Oh, torches cost 1cp? I’ll take 3gp worth!” and then shambled off to the dungeon looking like a walking wood pile.
imo, Here’s the problem ignoring encumbrance causes and it may or may not be a big deal in your game:
RAW encumbrance usually limits the players to a suit of armor a weapon or two and some misc gear before slowing down and eventually stopping. This has several major impacts of note.
-DnD is and always has been about the rate of attrition of your resource pool (generally measured in hp, but also in spell slots, magic items, and yes, gear). Dropping encumbrance allows characters to improve their resource pool beyond the intended levels. Abstracted, it has a similar impact as giving all the PCs a couple extra hp a level.
-Some of the challenge of DnD is solving diverse challenges, and various gear especially magic items (and in later editions things like masterwork climbing gear and tanglefoot bags) are “free passes” through some sorts of challenges. Making the players decide what gear to take means either educated guesses as to which challenges might pop up or expending resources on scouting missions, augury or the like.
-Encumbrance limits what you take OUT of the dungeon as well as what you take in. It’s an automatic treasure regulator and allows for interesting decisions like if the party should discard some of their gear for it’s weight in treasure.
-The limited gear sets allowed by encumbrance are a source of diversification and role playing. I remember back in 1e every character I made who could use them carried around a trident, broadsword, and footman’s flail and a shield because there was no reason not to and tridents did the most damage vs large creatures, broadswords did the most vs medium/small creatures and footman’s flails did the most of all blunt weapons (so I was covered for all sizes and damage types though not all combos). Limited encumbrance forces you to make a choice and minimally stick with it for this trip to the dungeon.
In the interest of keeping my explanation I may have created a wrong impression. I don’t ignore encumbrance entirely in my games though I may give it only a small bit of weight (pardon the pun) when it’s unimportant to the story. Here are a few examples:
1. When the PCs in my LT game were lower level I did have the players calculate encumbrance. At that point, it mattered. Players needed to make meaningful choices about what their characters could carry– both in equipment and in spoils– within practical constraints. Encumbrance is a useful mechanic to adjudicate things like how many spare weapons a character can carry, whether one person can carry 21 days of rations in addition to everything else, and whether it’s worth scooping up all the nonmagical equipment from your fallen foes to haul back to town and sell.
2. As the PCs in my game have become very high level, calculating encumbrance has become less important to the story. They all have magic like Bags of Holding so they have pretty high limits. Plus, as they’re heading out to upend an entire duchy, it would conflict with the epic fantasy nature of the story to fault them for being 10 pounds overweight. I do check encumbrance but I do so in a very casual fashion. It’s more like, “Note which items your character is wearing and which are in the bag.” If the items worn seem reasonable that’s enough.
3. Across all PC levels, most of my players have understood the spirit of the rules and have been pretty good at self regulating. I’ve had a few players who were always looking to skirt the rules. In those cases I was more careful about checking their numbers. And it wasn’t just encumbrance…. I recall having to look over the shoulder of one player every time he’d shop for equipment because he didn’t seem to grasp that the amount of money in his character’s coin purse was a limit on what he could buy.
I like that. You’re right that once you have enough bags of holding (or pack mules or what have you) then you’re doing all this legacy bookkeeping for no impact and I think phasing it out as time goes on is likely the right way to go.
Encumbrance is a perfect example of very unexpected by highly complex interdependencies. Without encumbrance, supplies no longer have a purpose. Without supplies wilderness travel becomes meaningless. And without encumbrance and supplies, random encounters also don’t make sense anymore.
Now calculating encumbrance by counting the weight of each item in pounds is highly annoying and frustrating, which is why most people ignore it. (A much better system is to eyeball it and assign all items a weight class of 0, 1, or 2 and allow PCs to carry their Strength score in weight unencumbred, twice their Strength score lightly encumbred, and tripple their strength score heavily encumbred. Try it out, it works amazingly well.) And what difference would it make, one might easily think? Actually quite a lot, because the entire exploration and survival aspect of an RPG falls away and only leaves you with the combat system.
Rules that get too far into the minutia are most likely the ones I’m going to ignore first. Like encumbrance. I do agree that understanding why they’re there is definitely important, but I think it’s also okay to toss them out if it’s just slowing your game down and taking away fun for you and the players. I try and keep the generalities of those rules in mind but not get too bogged down in the math and record keeping.
So, instead of keeping track of exact encumbrance, I’ll point out to the players when they’re carrying more than a normal load or how heavy a certain thing will be to try and get it back to town. Usually that’s enough of a spur to make them come up with some creative, crazy scheme to still get the phat loot and not break their backs. 🙂
Agreed. Encumbrance can change what is suppose to be a game about adventures into one about logistics.
See now here’s the right place to have a discussion about expectations with your group because young me totally agrees with you but the older I get the more I see all editions of DnD as really interesting logistics puzzles and I find it even more satisfying than silly ol’ adventures.
I find game-of-thrones adventures more interesting than the old hack-and-slash.
Ugh! Stab my eyes out! 😉
I love how so many people can get so much enjoyment from so many different interpretations of our hobby.
Games that get too into logistics and the nitpicky make my eyes glaze over. That’s when I start doodling, playing with the phone, or falling asleep. I want the story and the action and the adventure. If I want logistics, I’ve got my job.
In my regular group, we generally shut down ‘shopping’ and other such logistics after it gets to a point. After we spent an entire session doing accounting style logistics, we realized that wasn’t the game for us. No one left the table happy after that game.
The podcast episode that discusses Encumbrance can be found at http://misdirectedmark.com/mmp142-encumbrance-what-is-it-good-for/.
I recommend updating the first paragraph of this article to “On our last episodeâ€”Encumbrance, What is it good for (MMP#142)â€” my co-host challenged…” with the title (between em dashes) being the link above.
I recommend this because I had to hunt for the episode.
Sorry about that. I forget that people find these articles weeks after they have been posted.
I added a link to Episode 142 at the top of the article, so that people can go right to the episode if they are interested.
Thanks for calling that out.