Making Encumbrance Work

The Legend of Zelda, Link doesn't use an Encumberance RulesWay back in November I wrote a piece entitled “Stuff Which Never Works.” The post details three elements of adventure gaming which I personally have never seen work well: ammunition tracking, encumbrance, and chase scenes. I actually started with a much larger list of things which need to be improved, but I boiled it down to these three items because each of them strike me as something which ought to work. Running out of arrows in the middle of combat, being unable to carry every single piece of treasure out of a collapsing dungeon, fleeing for your life; these are all staples of the novels and films which inspire our adventuring spirit. I tried to offer suggestions for improving the way each of these issues could be handled in Pathfinder, but none of my suggestions were very thoroughly considered, and I haven’t implemented anything in my games. However, as I mentioned in my much more recent post “Making Travel More Engaging,” the benefits of encumbrance are too valuable to pass up when you’re running a hex crawl.

Before we start crafting a house rule, though, it’s always important to have a thorough understanding of how the official rules on the subject work. The excerpts from the book would be longer than I’d like to post here, but you can find the basic information starting on page 169 of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook under “Carrying Capacity.” The information is arranged somewhat awkwardly in the book, so you may want to use the Pathfinder SRD entry on Carrying Capacity instead. The essential breakdown of the rule is that you consult table 7-4 to determine what your character’s light, medium, and heavy loads are based on their strength. Characters of larger or smaller sizes must multiply or divide the listed weights to get their correct carrying capacities. Light loads can can be carried with no penalties, while medium and heavy loads each reduce a characters maximum dexterity and speed, as well as bestowing a skill check penalty. A character’s maximum load is the upper-range of of their listed “heavy load.” Twice the maximum weight can be lifted, but characters can only hobble around in 5ft steps. Up to five times a character’s maximum load can be pushed or dragged along even ground.

Many or most groups don't even bother with encumbrance at all. I think I can safely say that these rules are bad. I know I just finished saying that encumbrance is important, but it’s not that important. Figuring out whether their character is straining under the weight of their backpack is not why your players are sitting around your table. They’re sitting around your table because they want to go on adventures! They want to slay monsters and recover treasures and create fantastic, epic stories of heroism together!  Nobody wants to spend time thumbing through the equipment chapter of the rulebook to find the weight of anything from a spyglass to a coil of rope. Anytime they got found a potion in a chest, or fired 10 arrows, they’d need to remember to recalculate their encumbrance. Not to mention consulting a chart every time their strength changes! With all of the abilities, potions, spells, and magic items that can alter a character’s strength, requiring the players to flip through the rulebook to find table 7-4 every time their strength changes is unacceptable.

I realize that the game intends for people to play encumbrance less than exactly. Nobody is expected to track every single potion’s weight as it is added to and removed from the inventory. And 90% of the time that a character’s strength changes, knowing how their carrying capacity changes won’t be relevant. But the way in which the system is designed, that kind of exhaustive tracking is the ideal. Pathfinder’s encumbrance system works best when it is handled by a computer, and that is unacceptable to me. No rule that complicated should be allowed to remain in a tabletop RPG. And that is why I’ve neglected encumbrance for so many years.

But as I’ve come to appreciate, encumbrance adds so much to a game. When the party is traveling, encumbrance affects their speed, which in turn changes how many days it can take to reach their destination. The need for the players to make decisions for how they will travel–decisions which affect how well they can travel–can be engaging. More importantly, anything the players need to leave behind is something they can come back for later. Returning to a dungeon to retrieve the piles of gold they were unable to carry can be an adventure in itself, requiring them to face unique challenges such as getting a large cart through the wilderness. In addition, it encourages the players to establish a base of operations. In all the time I’ve been GMing games, my players have never been really interested in buying a house in the city, or establishing a stronghold all their own, and it’s because they could carry as much as they wanted to on their backs. But if they can’t carry everything, they’re going to want to establish a place to keep everything. And once they have a fixed location, I can design adventures where those homes are attacked or burgled. And, perhaps best of all, enforcing an encumbrance system causes a bag of holding to actually mean something.

Assuming you’ve agreed with me up to this point, we’ve established that 1) an encumbrance system is valuable to the game, and 2) the current encumbrance system is unacceptably bad. So step three is obvious: we make a better encumbrance system and use that instead.

The Rule: Items are either Significant, or Insignificant, as determined by the GM. A character may carry any number of insignificant items without penalty. Significant items may be determined on the basis of either weight, or size, and most have a base encumbrance 1. Exceptionally heavy or unwieldy items may have an encumbrance of 2 or more. A character’s carrying capacity is based off of their strength score. An encumbrance equal to a character’s strength score is considered a light load, while a medium load would be twice that, and a heavy load would be three times that. Quadrapeds, such as horses, have double the standard encumbrance capacity. Lightly encumbered characters suffer no penalty. Characters with a medium encumbrance have their speed reduced by 1/4, and take a -3 penalty on all rolls relating to physical activity. Heavily encumbered characters have their speed reduced by 1/2, and take a -6 penalty on all rolls relating to physical activity.

That’s the entire rule. It can be easily memorized, and doesn’t require looking at any charts. No accommodations need to be made for larger or smaller characters, because those differences will likely already be accounted for by the character’s strength. Encumbrance: Who Needs It Demotivational PosterAnd in cases where they are not, I see no reason to penalize a halfling for being strong, or reward an giant for being weak. All that remains to be done is to determine what is significant? The rule establishes that it is determined by the GM, but there needs to be a baseline suggestion.

The simple answer is that a significant item is any item which is heavy enough, or large enough, for the character to take notice of its addition to their equipment. If I’m wearing a backpack, and someone places a candle, or a pair of manacles, or a blanket in it, then I’m not likely to notice  the addition of the weight. I might notice somebody fiddling with my backpack, but if they were sly about it, I might never know that my pack was technically heavier. And in some cases, an item might be noticeable not because it is heavy, but because it is large. A rapier, for example, is a good 4 feet long or more from pommel to point–even though it might be considered pretty light. Or, if you prefer, consider a fully inflated beach ball. It may weigh next to nothing, but there’s no way you’d miss its addition to your pack. If you need a more exact conversion, then use 5lb as a cutoff for insignificant items. That means that items such as a flask, grappling hook, hammer, or  iron pot will be considered insignificant items. But items like a 10ft pole, tent, portable ram, or a 50ft coil of rope would be considered significant.

Now that we have a method to figure out what a significant item is, the question becomes: how heavy does a significant item need to be to count for more than 1 encumbrance? Obviously there needs to be an upward limit on which significant items only count for 1. Otherwise a character with a strength of 12 could carry around a dozen 2-ton golden statues without hitting medium encumbrance. Once again, this should be determined by the GM. As a baseline, something which would normally require both hands to hold (such as a suit of full plate) should be considered to count for 2 encumbrance. If, on top of being heavy, it is also large (such as an empty chest) it might count as 3 or 4 encumbrance. Again, if you would like a more exact conversion, use 30lb as the weight at which a significant item becomes worth 2 encumbrance. Going from there you could use 60lb for three encumbrance, 90lb for four encumbrance, etc.

There is one major flaw with this system to keep in mind: consumables. Food rations, torches, ammunition for bows and crossbows, and in particular money. Items like these are the kinds of things which players will carry an infinite amount of if they can. It doesn’t really matter all that much if your players decide they want to carry 40 cooking pots, but if you treat arrows as an insignificant item, then you may as well give the ranger a Quiver of Infinite Arrows at first level. To solve that problem, you can have vendors sell consumables in groups which amount to a single significant item. Some basic examples:

  • 1 week of rations (1 significant item.)
  • 20 arrows/bolts/shurikens/throwing knives (1 significant item)
  • 5 bags of caltrops / flasks of oil / torches (1 significant item)
  • 250 coins of any denomination (1 significant item)

Keep in mind that this system is not meant to approximate reality. It is very possible for characters to end up carrying much more than they should be able to. But assuming you’re playing with rational adults, they’re not going to be trying to game the encumbrance system. The idea is not to make encumbrance accurate, it is to make encumbrance function in such a way that it serves its purpose with a minimum amount of negative impact on play. And that’s what I think this system does.

I would love feedback on this, though. Having never played with encumbrance myself, this is all just theory.

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13 thoughts on “Making Encumbrance Work”

  1. That looks very good to me. The only thing I would add is that any insignificant item should become significant if carried in number (by referee ruling and common sense).

    I play with the LotFP encumbrance rules and they are very similar except that the categories are slightly different.

    - 5 items cost one encumbrance point
    - The first five items are free
    - So carrying 10 items = 1 encumbrance point
    - And Carrying 15 items = 2 encumbrance points
    - Chain (medium) armor = +1 encumbrance point
    - Plate (heavy) armor = +2 encumbrance points

    0 – 1 is unencumbered, 2 points is lightly encumbered, and the scale goes up from there.

    Check out the free Rules & Magic book page 38 if you are curious:

    http://www.lotfp.com/RPG/uploads/downloads/GrindhouseRulesMagicFree.zip

    And the back side of the character sheet:

    http://www.lotfp.com/RPG/uploads/pdf/CharacterSheetGrindhouse.pdf

    I just printed out the back side of that character sheet and use it verbatim in my 4E hack game. It really is system agnostic. The only mods I made were that dwarves get an extra free encumbrance point and that any kind of strength bonus also translated to another single free encumbrance point.

  2. Yeah, I’m pretty sure this is a solved problem in the OSR.

    I use encumbrance by stone. A stone is ~15-20 pounds.
    Characters can carry 7 stone.
    Characters can carry an additional stone for every Strength bonus (13, +1; 16, +2; 18, +3)
    Dwarves can carry an extra stone.

    Items that weigh less than 1 stone are piled into bundles (Quarrels, torches etc.), every 5 bundles is a stone.

    At 2 stone (or while wearing semi-bulky armor) movement is dropped to 9″
    At 5 stone (or while wearing bulky armor) movement is dropped to 6″
    At 7 stone movement is dropped to 3″
    When overloaded, you move at 1″

  3. I know this might be a bit late… but I have used the base pathfinder system. A “Scottish Stone” (1 stone=25lbs) like -C’s and a system like yours. Only my penalties were the same as the base pathfinder system. Overall the stone and Encumberment point system were fairly easy. BUT by far the easiest one my groups have ever used (based on their own opinions not mine) was a story based one that I am going to post soon on my blog… as soon as Blogger decides to stop deleting my drafts. overall though it was the base pathfinder system where they only worried about their combat equipment and potions while they had a cart that actually collected gold as a extra party member and that they could just pull any non-magical good from simply by subtracting the correct amount of gold from the total. The cart was guarded by a storybased cohort of the groups.

    1. It’s never too late, I always monitor every comment.

      The cart sounds like a cool idea, though I don’t know if I’d like it in my games. I like forcing my players to prepare and improvise. I also like giving them a reason to create a stronghold by limiting the amount of treasure they can carry.

      But to each their own.

      1. I prefer them preparing as well if I’m running an adventuring campaign unfortunately it doesnt work to well in a battlefield campaign…

        Though if i allow the cart in an adventuring campaign thay do have to ‘budget’ the carts gp

        RogueMG

  4. Worked out my own system for this actually. Started with this one, but here’s what I came up with personally;

    Items are either Significant, or Insignificant, as determined by the GM. A character may carry any number of insignificant items without penalty. Significant items may be determined on the basis of either weight, or size. A significant item is any item which is heavy enough, or large enough, for the character to take notice of its addition to their equipment. An item such as a candle or a piece of writing chalk is unlikely to be noticed, and is therefore an insignificant item.

    Whereas a polearm, which is heavy, or 50 ft. of coiled rope, which is unwieldy, would be significant. All items above 5 lbs. are significant. Exceptionally heavy or unwieldy items may have an encumbrance of 2 or more.

    A character’s carrying capacity is based off of their strength score. Spells such as Ant Haul increase the character’s strength score, but only for the purpose of encumbrance. Bags of Holding, depending on their enchantment, either lower the encumbrance level of the items inside them, or eliminate it altogether. Items which are awkward to carry, if they can be fit into a bag of holding, no longer count as awkward to carry.

    As a general rule of thumb, if the significant item could be easily carried in one hand, it has an encumbrance 1. If it is heavy enough requires two hands to adequately carry (such as a suit of plate mail), or is light, but awkward enough to require two hands, (such as a 10 foot long wooden pole) it has an encumbrance of 2.

    An encumbrance equal to a character’s strength score is considered a light load, a character with an encumbrance score twice that of their strength is at a medium load, three times their strength leaves them at a heavy load, and four times their strength renders them immobile. Quadrupeds, such as horses, have double the standard encumbrance capacity when distributed evenly across their back, such as in saddle bags or packs.

    A lightly encumbered character faces no penalties.

    A medium encumbered character faces a check penalty of -3, his maximum dexterity bonus is reduced to +3, his speed is reduced to 20 feet, unless it was 20 feet to begin with, in which case it’s reduced to 15, and he may only run 4 times as fast as his max speed.

    A heavily encumbered character is treated identically to a medium encumbrance, but the check penalty becomes -6, the maximum dexterity bonus is reduced to +1, and he may only run 3 times as fast as his top speed.

    Items which are awkward or difficult to carry, either due to size or shape, increase the encumbrance value of the item by one class.
    Multiples of any one insignificant item are counted as significant items at a threshold left to the DM’s discretion.

    An immobile character is rendered completely unable to move by the sheer weight of them items they are carrying; they are treated as flatfooted for all purposes, and are allowed no dexterity bonus of any kind. Characters in this position are of course required to either raise their strength, or ditch some items to move again.

    The amount of weight that a character can lift above their head is equal to their strength modifier plus 3, to a minimum of 1.

    A fighter with a strength of 18 would have a strength modifier of +4. 4+3=7, so a fighter with an18 strength would be able to lift anything in the Incredibly Heavy class over his head.

    The amount that a character can lift off the ground is equal to double the maximum weight they can lift over their head, while the maximum amount they can drag or push is equal to 5 times the weight they can lift over their head. If there is any single item the character cannot lift off the ground, obviously, he is not able to carry it. Items he cannot lift over his head count as awkward for the purposes of encumbrance.

    1-5 lbs. insignificant
    5.1-20 lbs. – Light (Encumbrance 1)
    20.1-40 lbs. – Medium (Encumbrance 2)
    40.1-70 lbs. – Heavy (Encumbrance 3)
    70.1-100 lbs. – Very Heavy (Encumbrance 4)
    100.1-180 lbs. – Extremely Heavy (Encumbrance 5)
    180.1-230 lbs. – Massively Heavy (Encumbrance 6)
    230-300 lbs. – Incredibly Heavy (Encumbrance 7)
    300- 600 lbs. – Immovably Heavy (Encumbrance 8)

  5. Going to be trying this out in the Rise of the Runelords Anniversary Edition campaign I’ll be starting up in the next few days. Wish me luck! :)

  6. First off, thank you for your awesome blog. Very well written. I’m a new GM and was lookign around on ways to simplify Pathfinder. Encumbrance and travel were one of the issues I chose to tackle. I love the concept of them, but they just seemed to tedious for me and my players.

    After reading the posts on travel and encumbrance, I came up with this. Thank you again and I hope someone might benefit. Let me know if you think it needs tweaking. I haven’t created a high level character to test this against.

    http://www.azurebloodfire.com/members/orion/pathfinder/share/Encumbered.xlsx