Monday, February 27, 2017

Encumberance vs. The Real World

A common rule across multiple systems is some sort of Encumberance rule. Encumberance dictates how much a character can carry before they're overloaded. Some systems do it on weight. Some systems do it based on the size of the object. Others do a combination. Thing is, I've yet to see an encumberance system that didn't have people balking about it and the limitations that come - or don't come - with it.

Today, I want to talk about Encumberace, reality, and what the two may mean for your game.

It's More Than Just Strength
The first thing you need to know about encumberance - for the real world - is there is a lot more to it than just strength. This is why size of the objects comes into play in some systems. Simply put, a ton of marshmallows is going to be more encumbering than a ton of iron because iron because the marshmallows are going to take up a lot more space - while weighing a ton - and thus be harder to carry. Put another way, ever help a friend move some furniture? Often the complaint isn't the weight, but the size and awkward shape of the object that poses problems.

This is important to understand when considering encumberance and how you want to do it for your game. It's not just a matter of weight. Bulk, size, and distribution of the weight is also important.

Where You Carry It
Medieval armor could be anywhere from 40lbs to 70lbs of weight. That sounds like a lot, but it really wasn't as restrictive as most people think - and there are tons of videos on youtube of people tumbling in full plate to prove it. The reason for this is where the armor is worn and how. Most of the weight for armor could be put on the hips, letting the body's full strength carry it without limiting momentum. The armor above the hips was then also supported by the arm below as well as the user's shoulder. This distribution across the body made it feel lighter than it was - especially in motion. In the end it works out light a firefighter's gear, or a modern day soldier's full kit.

The same is true for the equipment that adventurers and PCs carry. The bodyis capable of holding and transporting a lot more than it looks like provided it is distributed evenly across the whole body. Look up pictures of soldiers' kits through the ages and you can see just how much stuff people carried. Look at what some folks have for their hiking gear, camping trips, or survivalist expeditions. It is impressive.

The catch though is that when you are carrying like this it is obvious that you are going around carrying a bunch of stuff. There's a pack on your back, pouches on your belt, chest, and thighs. You can't look sleek and cool while also carrying a ton of stuff. Though, you can still look cool. Just in that "I'm loaded out to go to war" sort of way.

Weapons On Your Back
Historically people carried weapons on their back for one primary reason: transport. When I say transport I mean the person needed their hands free - or wanted their hands free - while traveling. They did not wear weapons on their back to travel. The reason for this is simple: it's a pain in the ass - if not flat out impossible - to draw a weapon from the back, and even harder to put it back there once the fighting is done.

This is why you rarely, if ever, see people in movies draw swords from their back. You'll see them reach for the sword and start to draw, then it cuts away to show someone else - usually the opponent - and when you next see the character they have the weapon drawn.

The same is true with arrows but for different reasons. I have a friend who is quite good, and fast, at drawing arrows from his back. However, when passing under trees, or other overhead obstacles the arrows snag. Not to mention spilling more easily when you get tossed around from the necessity of a back draw.

I bring this up because carrying things on the back is a great way to have more storage room, but accessibility becomes a major concern. Especially on the spot access, like when being jumped for combat.

Realistic Carry
So what could an adventurer carry realistically? Some of this does depend on their strength. In general though, weapons the person wanted access to for on the spot fighting (random encounters) would want to be in hand, or worn on the hip. Two handed weapons (great swords, spears, pikes, etc) would need to be carried by hand. Things like knives could be worn on the chest.

More could be carried on the back, but these weapons would take longer to access and would likely need help or some time to be put back when not in use. Back draws are possible for some weapons, but back sheathing would need to be practiced.

And In Game?
Well, is your game realistic? D&D is definitely not realistic, nor does it care about realism as of 5th Ed. It is awkward to have a greatsword and a pike at the same time, but D&D does it without batting an eye. It also enables weapons to be drawn as part of the use action, and to be put back away without much concern. D&D 5th Ed also assumes that even at level 1 you're something of a badass with lots of training and experience though.

But that's Rules As Written, and you'll find most games don't particularly care if a character has a gun hidden in the crotch of their underwear in terms of getting it out and using it in combat. If you do? Maybe consider just where and what people can carry. It's a lot more than some simple number comparisons.


  1. My players are a really big fan of bags of holding. And pouches, and wallets, and pockets... of holding. You get the drift. The PC's in my current game usually have a vehicle where they leave their larger stuff, and carry necessary items and weapons on their person.
    Apart from the most iconic belt of hidden pockets, there are so many ways to add compartments for small items to existing items. Especially when you can enchant them to hold more. For some reason, a bra with a hidden pocket is one of the most popular items in my game(s)... For the ladies themselves, that is. Perfect for stashing an emergency dagger. And of course, a coat with hidden pockets (of holding).
    That said, historically people have come up with genuinely interesting ways to carry as much stuff as possible. There's no need to worry about losing any of your weapons when you have a sheath that can hold both your crossbow and a pair of daggers. Or a foldable pistol/crossbow (whether you can hit something with it at ten paces is another matter). A fanny pack might not be the most sexy item to wear, but what about a vest that was supposed to be worn under your coat with many, many pockets? Especially when you can enchant it not to look as cumbersome as it is, you'll never have to worry about lugging a big bag of gear around. And those really big cumbersome dresses for the ladies when they're not actually in their adventuring gear? Looking sleek and sexy is one thing, but when your skirt is wider than your person you can hide a pretty big pouch underneath it. There were slits in the dress to be able to reach them and the pouches could hold an extraordinary amount of items. And there was also the much smaller reticule, just as much for looking pretty but also enabling you to carry small items while attached to your clothing instead of carrying it around in your hands. Which can also be enchanted to hold just as much of course.

    1. Yeah, enchanted storage is a huge help - and I think the game's response to people who get hung up on encumberance vs. realism.

      "How are you holding 300 lbs of coins?"
      "BS, how?"
      "No,'s a magic bag!"

      Lower magic fantasy games though also have the issue, and sometimes people just want to try to kit themselves out. You are right that storage really is a "where there's a will there's a way" thing. It's absolutely incredible what was in soldier's kits through out the ages.

      But without magic, there is a price to carrying around 100+ lbs of stuff. That price is generally it's obvious you're carrying it. Of course, if you're carrying it all over you properly, you also look like someone who knows how to get stuff done.

  2. Even when you use magic, there are issues though. Sure you can have a bag of unlimited storage! But have you ever tried to retrieve your earplugs from a big backpack crammed with stuff? Now imagine doing the same while there's enough in your bag to fill a complete house. Retrieving one specific item can be really frustrating, if you stop and think about it for five minutes.
    It's easier to limit the amount of space you have in your bags and have a system to retrieve items (example: belt of endless pouches vs bag of holding) because you don't have to spend as much time trying to get a specific item out. And I just remembered seeing an item... think it was a bracelet? It allowed you to shrink your weapons/shield and carry it like a charm on the bracelet itself. It took a move action to retrieve the item, but it was still at hand. So even in a high magic setting... you'll probably end up looking like you're wearing a lot of stuff, except you can diminish the weight of the items in question and carry more without becoming encumbered.

    And going back to low magic settings... You're right, soldier's kits can be absolutely incredible. Seriously, I've seen some of them in museums and it's astonishing what they carried with them. But there's also an interesting hack they used: every item they carry has one or more function. Sure you can carry a set of shaving items with you, but that mirror is the right size to hold in your hand and use the sun to make signals in emergencies. You need to carry a pan? Your helmet is suitable for cooking now. The Swiss Army Knife wasn't named that for nothing (though for all the details: look up its history, it's even more complicated than it sounds). Multitools in themselves are interesting to hand out to your party and see what they do with it. And yes, I gave the wizard in the party a magical version of it and he promptly dubbed it "The Arcane Screwdriver".