Tuesday, February 8, 2022

The importance of Encumbrance, And How to Make it Easy in Your Game

I want to talk about one of the most contentious mechanical issues in table-top RPGs: Encumbrance.

I know a few readers are just going to shrug and skip this one. There are plenty of tables that see encumbrance as such a pain in the ass that they  simply ignore it. Hell, when the Dungeons & Dragons Next playtest was running it took them months to notice that they forgot to include an encumbrance mechanic. The developers admitted in the development blog that don't use it themselves.

And for every GM that just throws encumbrance out, there is a few more who ensure that a Howard's Handy Haversack or Bag of Holding shows up in an early treasure hoard, then "forgets" the item's limitations. They usually follow it up with a Murlynd's Spoon, Field Rations Box, Portable Oasis, or Wand of Goodberry. And maybe Decanter of Endless Water or Alchemy Jug for good measure. Or if you are mean like me, an Omelet of the Planes.

But here's the thing: Encumbrance can make your game better.

When your players have to manage resources, it introduces constraints into the game that the players must adapt to. Needing to choose their gear carefully, because they need to carry it all. It creates limits to how long they can spend in the dungeon by limiting the torches an oil that they can carry. Not to mention the rations,

This in turn gives them reason to engage hirelings and animals. This requires them to spend the gold they are bringing out of the dungeon, which makes treasure seem meaningful.

It also makes exploration more interesting, as the PCs have to limit their range, plan for diversions, take into account terrain. They will have a reason to push themselves during a mission, and find ways to make it pay because It represents an investment of time and planning. Developing a company to ensure supply trains might even be in the cards.

When the strategy, logistics, and planning pay off, it can be incredibly satisfying. 

Why We Ignore It

Here's the thing: the way almost every edition of Dungeons & Dragons traditionally handles encumbrance is dull and fiddly. It feels like accounting. I will cover the common methods of tracking from D&D (and other mainstream TTRPGs) and then compare with some if the more innovative tools in the indie and OSR scenes you might want to consider as a replacement. 

As an aside, the weights that Dungeons & Dragons list for equipment is ridiculous. In real life, a Roman Denarius weighed 1/54 of a pound. The average mace 2.25 lbs even the two handed sword weighed less than 5 pounds on average. Chainmail is fairly light, and even a suit of plate mail doesn't weigh much more than 50lbs. - unless it is made for a particularly large person. And a trained knight would be able to distribute the weight and have the necessary training to be able to move in it with almost full Mobility so long as they weren't knocked flat on their back. The weights that were established in early Dungeons & Dragons manuals and passed down modern editions are set for metagame purposes and have nothing to do with actual mas of real weapons or armors. If you want a better sense of the weight of medieval gear, I highly recommend looking up historical replicas sold online, they will give you a pretty good sense of the real weight of items.

So lets look at the way encumbrance has been handled in Dungeons & Dragons:

Coin Tracking, Abstracted

Original Dungeons & Dragons tracked things by a weight in coins. Each coin was assumed to weigh 1/10th of a pound, but converting pounds to coins was really only important for moving bodies or for GMs to ballpark the weight of unusual items. Your character had a threshold in coins that they could carry with no penalty, and then several bands of weight ranges that slowed your character's movement, and a maximum weight they could haul while still moving. A high strength score came with a bonus that was added to the roof of each band, and a low score carried a penalty.

Thus a character with a Strength of 10 was encumbered, and their movement rating is reduced from 12 o 9 if they were carrying 751cn to 1000cn in gear.  From 1,001cn to 1,500cn their movement rate would be reduced to 6. From 1,501cn to 3,000cn, their movement rate would be reduced to 3. Above that, they couldn't move.

Characters with a 13 strength would add 50 coins to each of those values, meaning they would go down to movement nine when they were carrying 800 coins, etc.

I suspect that this 75lb. Threshold before be coming encumbered has based on the fact that the standard load out for a United States infantrymen during the Vietnam War was 75 pounds of equipment, but I don't have any way of verifying that theory.

Original Dungeons & Dragons took some pity on the players, however. A backpack full of gear was assumed to weigh 80 coins. So, as long as the characters were carrying a reasonable amount of equipment, they didn't have to track the weight of individual items in their possession. This was actually a fairly light weight.  If the character was carrying a mountain of additional gear, the GM might add an additional 80 or 160 coins to that carry weight

Weapons and armor had their entire weight added to the total of what you were carrying. These weights were extremely exaggerated, with some items weighing over eight times their real world weight.  This was partially t cover things like maintenance gear and accessories: a sword needed a scabbard, whetstone, oil, etc. A suit of armor requires maintenance tools, multiple kinds of oil, wax, sewing kits, etc to keep it in good repair. These could simply be assumed to be part of the weight carried.

The other part of it is that 8lbs. of equipment isn't going to actually cover the entire weight a character is hauling. A higher strength character is likely to be wearing heavier armor, and also likely to pack on more gear. There was an assumption that if you were tough enough to be wearing plate mail, you are also probably hauling around a lot of gear and the extra weight added by rhe plate mail would average out with the extra gear you were hauling around.

This abstraction us a good system because the only things that require any serious tracking are the treasure you collect. Adding the weight of armor and weapons is just there to make sure there is some kind of trade off. Because your goal was to bring the best treasure possible back, making sure you manage which coins you carry, and prioritize things like gems and jewelry (which only weighed as much as a coin) was baked into the system. 

I liked this system and appreciated how it was presented in Swords & Wizardry.

However, it is fiddly. Your character really does have to keep track of their ammunition and the treasure they are carrying using fairly large numbers. Monitoring the weights of treasures down to the single coin can be a real nuisance. The system that followed was even tougher...

Coin Tracking, Linear

Basic Dungeons & Dragons also used coin weight to track items. However, it did away with the 8lb of gear rule, and expected players to track the weight of all of their equipment in coins. Even extremely light objects like sprigs of wolfsbane are weighed at one coin. The weight of objects in Basic tended to be a little lighter: a two-handed sword, for example, weighed 100cn rather than the 250cn of Original Dungeons & Dragons. Platemail weighs 500 coins, which is pretty realistic (assuming chonky coins). However, most armors are measured in 100cn or 50cn implements, making lighter armors way too heavy for realism, and only hitting actual weight a couple of times almost incidentally.

Weight PCs could carry was massively scaled back: 400cn, 800cn, 1,200cn, and 1,600cn were the thresholds for slowing a character's movement. As distance was abstracted from inches on a table to feet per turn, Basic Dungeons & Dragons had more movement categories, a character could move  15' per turn while carrying between 1,601cn and 2,400cn.

This system was, in a word, painful. You needed to carefully monitor weight of things like gold spent and arrows as you expended them. It is also very easy to make clerical errors on, and it behooves a player to audit their encumbrance frequently.


Advanced Dungeons & Dragons offered a slight variation. Instead of giving weights and coins it gave weights in pounds, and used weight brackets like previous systems only also measured in pounds. To keep things from getting too fiddly certain light items, such as chalk or quills are given a "negligible" weight. Characters can carry as many of these as they feel the need to do without having to track them. Likewise, there is a number of items that are marked with a n asterisk (*) on equipment tables designated as light items. Players were expected to treat each one as 1/10th of a pound, but they were not required to track the weight until they had 10 items with that mark.

Coin still weighed 1/10th of a pound, and players were expected to divide the weight of treasure by 1/10th to track encumbrance.

This system at least had smaller numbers than tracking by the coin. It also abstracted smaller, fiddlier values. There was a test understanding that things like Spell components pen piles of quills might be average out by the excessive weight of some other common items, as Dungeons & Dragons continued to use ridiculous weights for equipment.

I get the impression by this point in the evolution of the game that the item weight tables had become a tradition. No one particularly cared that a two-handed sword was 25lbs. in the game and only 5lbs. in real life. Certainly, however, the idea that an item's encumbrance was related to its accoutrements had disappeared: whetstones, cleaning cloths, oils for armor and weapons, sewing kits, etc, all appeared as separate items for sale in the equipment section of the PHB.

Encumbrance Brackets

Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition introduced the idea of categories of encumbrance. No load, light load, medium load, and heavy load. Each of these had a movement rate based on the character's size and racial base speed, and came with a check penalty that applied to balancing, tumbling, climbing, and jumping. Swimming suffered triple the penalty. Armor had a separate movement rate and armor check penalty, and the player character took the worst penalty and the slowest of the two speeds. Encumbrance brackets also put a cap on the bonus a character could receive from their dexterity score on armor class.

In 3.5 and later editions, dwarves got to ignore some or all of the penalty for encumbrance.

Encumbrance was still determined by totaling up pounds of gear. Rather than have one general encumbrance table modified by strength, instead the strength ability score had separate weight thresholds for each bracket listed on the strength ability score table.

The weight by item remained identical to the tables in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, at this point the heavy item weights were clearly a holdover from earlier editions that had lost all metagame purpose.

Because of the open-ended nature of armor class in Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, characters often were better off wearing light than heavy armor. The total of a bonus of a Dexterity score, plus bonuses gained through special abilities that required the character not to be encumbered were often higher then the armor class offered through heavy armor. Agile characters could be nearly unhittable so long as they maintained no encumbrance or light encumbrance.

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition didn't innovate much on this front. They made at least one tip of the hat to reality by reducing the weight of coins to 1/50th of a pound. Armor only applied an armor check penalty if the character wearing it had a strength score below a threshold set for that armor. Check penalties, like armor class and a number of other factors were pared down to reflect the more bounded accuracy.

The clear and simple mechanics on building magic items in 3rd edition incentivized players to side step encumbrance by creating their own bags of holding if ones are not offered as treasure. I've had that've invested fortunes in experience points and gold into being able to avoid issues with encumbrance.

Much of the culture around Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, being more story focused, encourages groups ignore encumbrance, or sidestep it as soon as possible.

I would say that this encumberance system, while less fiddly than coin measurements, ultimately fails because the penalties make players want to find any means possible, in or out of game, to avoid using the system.

Alternative Systems

With Encumbrance  systems being such an unpopular part of the Dungeons & Dragons experience, but also such an important one to a challenging experience, a lot of alternative systems have started to crop up. Some of them are relatively old, and some are fairly new.

If you are looking for an alternative way to handle encumbrance in your role-playing game many of these are worth looking at.

Encumbrance Value

Castles & Crusades uses a system of measuring an item's bulk as an abstract number usually called Encumbrance Value. Shadow of the Demon Lord and  Stars Without Number uses a similar system,. This system is based as much on how an item has to be carried as it is it's weight.

In every variation of the system that I have seen, characters can carry a threshold of EV based on their strength score. In Castles & Crusades it is strength + 3 with an additional bonus if your character has Constitution as a primary attribute. In Stars Without Number a character may carry EV equal to half of their strength in items they can access, and their strength in stowed items that take time to retrieve in packs, etc.

Every item has a EV rating from 1/2 to 4 for everyday equipment, although most are rated 1 or 2. Some things like rolled up tapestries or statues might have bulk ratings much higher. So long as a character's total bulk does not exceed the threshold, they suffer no penalties and move at full speed. If they are carrying over their bulk threshold, they are slowed and suffer penalties. If they're carrying more than twice their bulk threshold, they are significantly slowed. The specifics vary by game engine.

In Castles & Crusades backpacks, pouches, and other containers allow a character to carry x number of items so long as they're not too large for the container without them adding to their total encumbrance. This is a simple abstraction that makes tracking encumbrance in C&C fairly easy. C&C also has a formula for calculating EV for objects based on size, material, and flexibility.

This system is still crunchy, but much simpler to manage than tracking  individual specific item weights.

The Dozen Dooms in particular has an excellent version of this system.

Bulk Rating

Lamentations of The Flame Princess uses a system similar to encumbrance value, but lighter and more abstract. Characters have an overall encumbrance rating that increases based on certain conditions.  Individual pieces of equipment aren't tracked, but armor, heavy weapons, full backpacks of gear, large bags of treasure, all increase a character's bulk rating. When it reaches a certain threshold it reduces character movement and may cause other penalties.

This is a light, flexible system that requires a little more GM ruling involvement.

Size-Classed Item Allowances

Used in some editions of PARANOIA, and several story games, items are broken down into heavy, medium, and light. A character can have a number of items from each category without penalty. How often, one or too heavy items, 2 to 4 medium items, and between 8 and 12 light items. Things like piles of coins are often categorized into one category or another based on how many are contained in a given container. Some versions of the system also include negligible weight items that stack 5 to 10 in a light item space.


Used in Forged in the Dark and some Powered by the Apocalypse games, this is a list of gear by class that a character may choose from at the beginning of an adventure. Usually a may carry their choice of listed items, but for each item brought along the character has an increased number of adverse effects.

For example in Blades in the Dark, a Lurk (infiltration specialist) can choose from lockpicks, a shadow cloak, light climbing gear, a silence potion, and dark-sight goggles, The lockpicks don't count against the loadout. If the players take three of the other items they have no penalty. If they take all of them, your character looks suspicious and might be detected.

Item Slots

I first saw this tool used for comedic value in the PARANOIA 1e module The Trouble with Cockroaches, but appeared in its more refined form in Index Card RPG Core 2e, as well as in Knave-Based games like Mausritter and Cairn.

Characters have a limited number of slots on which it's can be stored. Some larger items, like armor, may take multiple slots. Some small items might fit 3, 5, or 10 to a slot.

Some slot systems, like ICRPG Core 2e keep separate sets of slots for items that a character is currently wearing, using, or has easy access to, and which ones are stored and do not currently benefit the PC. 

The number of slots may be static, like in ICRPG, or based on stats, like in Knave. A slot system may limit a PCs by saying they cannot carry more than what fits in a slot, or may levy penalties for each slot above the normal maximum for a character.

Others determine what a character can access based on what is placed in the upper inventory slots.

In some systems a character trying to access a slot must roll a die to see if they can access a given slot and still act in a given round. For example, a character might be trying to access an item in slot #3, and must make a retrieval roll a d6. On a roll of 3 or better, they can get the item and use it. On a roll of 1 or 2, because it is lower than the slot indicated, they spend too much time getting the item and must wait until next round to use it 

Mausritter and Cairn have diseases, curses, and fatigue take up slots, forcing PCs to abandon gear or suffer penalties as slots fill with negative conditions.

Many slot-based systems such as ICRPG and Cairn require PCs to take up slots to prepare magic, taking away the need for a separate spell slot system and creating a physical cost for preparing magic spells.

D12 Monthly Issue #7 has an excellent Slot-Based system I recommend hacking into your game if you wish to use one.


  1. I like the Knave and ICRPG systems, but when gaming with the kids I tell them if they have room to write it on their sheet, in the inventory/backpack box, then they can carry it just fine.

    We also bought a mule first thing. :-)

    1. Luka Rejec's SeaCAT uses a similar policy: your character can only have as many powers, spells, personal items, etc., as you can fit on the character sheet.

    2. Cool.

      It's fun for the kids to try to tetris all their stuff into the little box. haha.