At my game table I have a bowl filled with poker chips. At the start of every game, my players look at their inventory and pull out a number of white chips equal to their ammunition, red chips equal to their torches/lantern oil, and blue chips equal to their rations. As we play, chips go into the bowl when these consumables are used, and come out of the bowl when they’re purchased. When the game ends, the players count their chips, and update their character sheets. It’s an efficient system which allows me to be strict about consumable use, without requiring my players to perform a lot of annoying bookkeeping. I think I originally got the idea from Telecanter.
Prior to using this system I was the bad sort of GM who just hand-waved consumables out of the game because they were too much of a pain in the ass to keep track of. I find I enjoy the game much more since I’ve started using this system, though. Tracking ammunition has the largest impact on the game, since players need to be much more conscious about how frequently they use their bows. After a few hours of frequent combat, the ranger starts to get nervous, and that makes the game exciting. Tracking light sources has less of an impact, but it serves as a timer for how long your players can travel underground. Gods help them if they use more than half of their lantern oil on the way down into the dungeon.
Rations, on the other hand, have yet to play any important role in my games. My players track them because I’ve told them they need to do that. They dutifully toss a chip into the bowl at the end of each adventuring day, and when they free a prisoner or find someone in need, they share their poker chips with that person. But tracking rations has never served an actual purpose in the year or more that I’ve been doing it. It’s just a rote action of taking chips out of, and putting them back into the bowl. What is the point?
I don’t want to return to hand-waving rations because of this issue. Limited food resources has too much potential value. There’s a huge desert in the northern part of the continent my players are on. If they ever try to travel there, days away from any town, running out of food is going to be a serious concern. I’ve also begun work on a megadungon which extends dozens of levels beneath the earth. Again, in that situation, the possibility of starving is going to create excitement and urgency in the game. I won’t sacrifice that. But I also don’t want to continue tracking rations day-by-day, purchase-by-purchase for all the sessions where there’s no actual danger of food running out.
Starting with my next Pathfinder session in a couple weeks I’m going to switch things up. First off, I’ve been having players track 1 week’s worth of rations as 1 significant item using my encumbrance system. (A system which I intend to revisit and revise soon). Based on how much food actually weighs, rations in my game are far too light. Looking over military rations used by the U.S. within the last 30 years shows that a single meal can weigh as much as 2.7lb using relatively modern technology. Assuming three meals a day, a week’s rations is nearly 60lb! That’s hardly in line with other significant items, such as a greatsword, which might weight 10lb. Three days of food, at about 25lb, seems like a much more reasonable weight for a single significant item.
Having determined how a character’s carrying capacity converts into food, I’ll then have my players tell me how much of that carrying capacity they’re willing to devote to food. If they allocate 1 significant item to rations, then they have 3 days worth. If they allocate 2 SI, then they have 6 days worth, and so on. It will be assumed that any time the players visit civilization, (barring extenuating circumstances), they’ll find time to purchase food. The cost will be rolled into their standard upkeep costs. Using this method, the players can just write “6 days of food (2 SI)” on their inventory sheet. All I need to do is ask once every 3 days away from civilization if the players have enough food. If they do, we continue on without a hitch, if they don’t, then things start to get interesting.
Using this system should maintain all of the interesting aspects of tracking rations, but reduce the bookkeeping aspects to a minimum.