Tracking it requires a referee-level attention to detail, from a player.
Which isn’t a slam against players; it’s just the reality of how I expect those two roles to be approached. When I sit down to referee, I know that I need to keep a ton of information straight in my head. But when I sit down to play, I’m looking for a more casual experience. Tracking encumbrance requires more effort than I want to invest.
Encumbrance is also necessary.
In many ways, D&D is a game about limited resources and how the players choose to spend them. Hit points are a resource that determines how much combat the players can endure. Time is a resource that requires players to be selective about their actions. And in a game about dungeon crawling, encumbrance determines both how much equipment you can take into the dungeon (which serve as a kind of arsenal of potential solutions to problems), and it determines how much treasure you can carry out of the dungeon.
While discussing this issue with the erudite Frotz Self the other day, he struck upon a solution: we should just use a Google Docs spreadsheet. It seemed like such an elegant idea that I immediately set one up for my ORWA campaign. We’ve been using it for a few weeks now, and I’m pleased to report that it’s working phenomenally. Here’s what ours looks like:Before moving on, I should explain what you’re seeing a bit. ORWA’s got an odd encumbrance system, which is currently undergoing some tinkering. At the core, we’re using LotFP encumbrance, where each item goes on a line, and each group of lines makes up one “encumbrance point.” We’re also using the LotFP playtest variant where each character’s Strength score determines how many lines make up one group. Furthermore, I’m experimenting with an armor system where players can wear up to 3 pieces of armor, with each one being only a single encumbering item.
Also, Lugud’s encumbrance looks weird because he recently died, and the players took all his good stuff.
Like I said, my system is a little disorganized at the moment. But, the shared spreadsheet method has helped clear things up immensely, and should work regardless of what specific rules you’re using.
Previously, the encumbrance system was a set of abstract rules that the players had to understand and apply themselves. Here, I’ve basically done all the heavy rules lifting for them, and all they have to do is plug their items into the slots provided.
You could say that a character sheet would accomplish the same thing, but in an online game, character sheets can be a real hassle. Not every player will have easy access to a printer, and even if they do, a printed sheet can only be used by them. If they have a question, they can’t show the referee what they’re looking at unless they’ve got a fairly high quality webcam. Plus, even in meatspace games, the constant need to write & erase every time an item is picked up or consumed can be frustrating in the extreme.
Allowing a character’s current inventory to be easily shared is another huge benefit of this method. It helps not only me, but every member of the party.
I hadn’t anticipated this, but since we started using this system players are much more likely to ask me questions. It makes sense though, right? When I’m a player, and I’m wondering “is each torch encumbering, or should I bundle them? How big is a bundle?” I may feel like it would be an imposition on the game for me to ask about such a trivial thing. Often, I’ll just make a judgement call as a player, and go with that.
But, if we’re all looking at the same document, there’s more pressure to be accurate and consistent. The first session we used this method, there was a good 30 minute discussion about basic encumbrance stuff that hasn’t changed since we first started playing. Obviously it wasn’t the most riveting 30 minutes of play we’ve ever had, but once we did that, everyone was on the same page, and we were able to move forward with, I think, a more meaningful campaign.
It also helps the rest of the party, because now everyone knows what equipment is ‘in play.’ If player X comes up with an idea that would require a certain tool they don’t have, they can just look at the sheet to see if player Y has the tool. My players have started coordinating their inventories because of this, which has cut down on pointless redundancies (“We don’t need 3 crowbars!”).
The spreadsheet also makes the task of separating a character’s inventory from their possessions feel like less of a nuisance. If a player has collected 30 different potions, which are all written down on a list, it may seem kinda bothersome to re-write a smaller list which contains only the potions currently being carried. Yeah it’s cheating, but it’s cheating out of boredom, rather than cheating out of an attempt to gain advantage.
Using a shared spreadsheet forces players to put in that ounce of extra effort that all of us are guilty of avoiding from time to time.
Lastly, now that encumbrance is running so smoothly, I’m excited to introduce some new complexities.
Which may sound counter-intuitive: I just succeeded in making something simple, why would I want to mess that up? Well, the issue with encumbrance before was that it was unpleasant to interact with it. I had my players track it to the best of their ability, but I knew it wasn’t really working properly, so I avoided poking at it.
But now, I can poke to my heart’s content. I could attack the players with monsters that steal a random item, or introduce a vendor who sells expensive backpacks that allow characters to carry more than they normally could. The more firmly established structure that the spreadsheet provides makes it easier, and even fun, to tinker.
Honestly, my only problem at this point is that I don’t have a method of running encumbrance this effectively around a real table.
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