Saturday, 13 March 2010

Encumbrance.... I hate it, yet I love it

Encumbrance is one of those things that nearly everybody prefers to ignore. Frankly, it's a pain in the arse keeping track of how many sewing needles you have, and how much every little thing weighs, and where you're storing it, and how slowly you're staggering along under the load. But I love it. Just love it.

Is it because I am an anal, borderline autistic, obsessive accountant-type? Why no. In fact I am one of the laziest, most disorganised people I know.

It's because, to me, most of the fun of dungeon-bashing rests in overcoming the challenges of traps, terrain, and adversaries with limited resources. It's kind of like playing The Incredible Machine in the mind, with hideous tentacled monstrosities from the Abyss to complicate matters. I've never really been one for roleplaying poltical intrigue. I don't really care about detailed interaction with NPCs, although that can sometimes be fun. I just like solving puzzles and beating things up and nicking their stuff, which I can then use to solve puzzles and beat things up and nick their stuff.

In my Swords & Wizardy campaign, I use a pretty simple encumbrance system:
Total Weight Carried
(in lbs)
Encumbrance LevelMovement RateDEX Save Adjustment
Up to STR x 5LightNo change0
Up to STR x 10Moderate75%-2
Up to STR x 15Heavy50%-3
Up to STR x 20Very Heavy25%-4

So far, so good. It's pretty easy to tot up how much all your bits and pieces weigh, and in general that's enough for game-playing purposes.

But it's not enough for me; I want to know not only how much characters are carrying, but how they're carrying it. You say you're moving cautiously, ready for combat with sword drawn and shield on arm... well that's fine, but how are you also carrying your lantern? And what about the bundle of five ten-foot poles you have written there in your equipment list? And what about this folding canvas bath with shower attachment.... what the fuck?

Equipment weight is dealt with in just about every equipment list in every set of rules I've ever read, but equipment volume is another matter. D&D tried to give everything an equivalence to coinage, which I've always found rather unsatisfactory; the exceptions seem to outnumber the situations in which that works well. Weight is a simple number, easy to comprehend, but actual encumbrance value is trickier, especially when you may not actually have a very clear idea of what your equipment actually looks and feels like. You may have been lucky enough to steal find a +3 Godentag which has been your signature weapon ever since, but what is that actually? How do you carry it? What sort of container do you keep lamp-oil in, and how big are they and where are they carried?

This is where the equipping screens for computer games really excel. You get a little picture of your character, and little pictures of your various bits of equipment, and you can drag and drop them on to your belt or into a pack or pouch or whatever, and you can see at a glance when things are getting ludicrous. A graphical solution like this has obvious advantages, but it doesn't translate easily to a pencil-&-paper tabletop RPG.

I wonder if some sort of stylized front-and-back figure-dummy printed on the character sheet might be a workable system — various bits and pieces could be drawn in on top of the mannequin where the player thinks they'll go, to represent his or her standard marching configuration.

Items placed in backpacks or belt-pouches would be listed in discrete areas on the equipment sheet. The trick here would be visualizing just how much stuff can fit in the given container — volume is going to be more relevant than mass here (until you try to pick the pack up, that is).

In all of this, the recurring issue is — what does stuff look like, and how big is it?

Clearly there is a need for a fully-illustrated equipment list, drawn to a constant scale, and providing details of weight, fragility, special cartage requirements (does a flask have to be carried neck-up to avoid leakage, for example). Maybe something like those dress-up paper dolls? Maybe not.

Anyway, I'd get right on to producing that, except for being the laziest and most disorganised person I know.