Way 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.
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. And 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.