Rethinking Rations

Bowl filled with poker chips for the purposes of tracking consumables in Pathfinder
It’s my bowl.

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.

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6 thoughts on “Rethinking Rations”

    1. I go on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes the way in which they fired their arrows is not conducive to recovery. If they’re in a situation where I feel that recovering arrows should be allowed, I roll a d4, and either 25, 50, 75, or 100% of their arrows can be recovered.

      It’s not a well considered system, really. It’s just what I came up with at the table to handle a relatively minor aspect of play.

  1. Wow… Your system puts adventuring in a new light. My players are going to spend a lot of time away from civilization, so they will need to get as much food a possible from small settlements and hunting… I think they will need some kind of beast of burden to carry it. Sound like a lot of fun !
    As a thanks, here is an anecdote from a previous game : we had to chase a elf who had stolen some of our best equipment. The elf was one day ahead of us, and we knew which way he had gone. Unfortunately, unlike him, WE needed to sleep, which meant that he was widening the gap.
    One morning, after a few days of chasing, we came across a peaceful lumberjack who was carrying some wood in an ox wagon.
    Did I mention we were all unspeakably evil ? This is where it gets funny.
    The half-ogre half-dragon (don’t ask, the guy was a total munchkin) grappled the poor guy, took off, and dropped him from the sky by ripping his arms off. We then all climbed in the wagon, and resumed our chasing. At night, the half-dragon would get out of the wagon, make the ox climb in with the rest of us, and pull the wagon himself (his strength allowed him to pull something like 1.5 tons). Thus we could keep moving 24/7 and start gaining ground.
    As for how we caught and killed that annoying elf, that’s a different story altogether…
    But we had some nice beef for dinner the night we did.

  2. I am still a new DM… However, I question why you aren’t accounting for food spoiling. Yes some towns might have a reliable source of rations… others might have someone trying to sell spoiled fish. If nothing else it’ll give a bard/paladin or what have you an interesting encounter trying to talk to the trader. heck give a quest out of it. Like the traders wife has been deathly ill and she is the real cook. he’s trying to make just enough money to pay for her medicine… or whatever. Maybe the thief is gonna get your money back from the person. I think that’d be more interesting… The poker chip idea really has me waiting to start another game.

    1. One reason not to concern yourself with ration spoilage is that real life people concerned themselves with ration spoilage back when that would have been a problem, and they solved it. Pocket potatoes, salted meats, jerky, stale breads and crumbs of cheese. There are a ton of options for road food that will last for weeks at a time. If your players are eating something that spoils more easily, they’re probably eating in town.

      Though I confess the PRIMARY reason I don’t concern myself with that is that it’s boring. A game about managing your food is boring. Rations have a purpose, and they should serve that purpose with a minimum amount of extra hassle.

      The purpose of rations is to determine how far a group of players can move away from civilization before they need to rely on their own foraging skills to survive. You can think of rations like a leash, tying characters to civilization until they’ve got the skills to move further abroad.

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