Feelin’ encumbered

I’m working on a game, a part of this game centers around the creation and use of THINGS. You make stuff, you use it. It behooves you then to have a fair amount of stuff on your person, because, man, what if you need that busted helmet later? You could rework it into some sort of brain-enhancing helm, or just scrap it to help armor your jetpack! Or whatever.

Which of course means I need to start thinking about inventory limits and carrying capacity. Which means that I have to start thinking about encumbrance.

Ugh. Encumbrance. If rule zero of every RPG is “The GM is there to delineate arguments and make executive decisions,” then rule zero-point-five is “The rule for encumbrance is going to be ignored starting session 2 at the latest”. Now, perhaps your experiences are different, but me? I never see encumbrance used outside of computer RPGs, or individual situations that amount to “wait, can you even carry that huge thing?” tests. Honestly, overlooking encumbrance is one of those house rules which is so widespread in the realm of, say, D&D, that it doesn’t even make sense to think of it as a house rule. It’s the gorramn normative state, and paying attention to the weight you’re carrying from moment to moment is the weird exception. Certainly, some folks focus on it… this is why hirelings and mules exist I suppose, but I’ve never been in a game which bothered once starting inventory was purchased.

And of course, the world abounds with alternative rules… a ten-second google search for “rpg encumbrance” will net you six or so different takes on the same basic concept, running the gamut from “encumbrance is stupid, carry whatever you want” to crazy slot-based systems to a fairly brilliant system built on dot-based “encumbrance values.” All food for thought.

One of the problems with encumbrance is that it’s generally punative… you carry a lot of stuff and you make yourself slower (usually) or weaker (rarely). You carry too much, and you find that you can’t carry more, which is a subtle punishment but a punishment indeed. You have too much stuff and you need to make multiple trips to carry it or purchase a pack mule; minor and easily elided-over punishment, but punishment all the same.

On the other hand, if you ignore encumbrance, you…

… hm.

Oh! Oh, okay, if you ignore encumbrance you can have players carrying entire department stores in their backpacks, because your game economy isn’t robust enough to make selling of items a sensible option. That doesn’t sound right… I mean that it lets your players carry too much stuff around as they flit from dungeon to dungeon because you aren’t setting reasonable limits on how much useful treasure they’re acquiring. Or… not that… right! It’s that without the risk of encumbrance, players have no reason to stop flitting between dungeons and actually visit settlements, because you haven’t bothered to design settlements which are worth visiting on their own merits. No, wait, I mean that if you don’t encumber players, then they’ll have access to all kinds of equipment which will allow them to navigate around rails you’re trying to set down for them. Wait, that’s not right either. I think I mean this: if you don’t have a system of encumbrance in place, it’s too hard for you to screw over your players when you send a rust monster after them. No, it’s… it’s… RIGHT! It’s that your players are being packrats, and that’s annoying and silly. THAT’s the reason.

… hm.

OKAY, I’m being deliberately an ass here. Carrying capacity: good for realism, good for resource management, good for occasionally forcing players to make tough decisions.  Has its uses. I’m not after realism, no, and I’d rather the tough decisions be plot-oriented, but there’s nothing wrong with forcing a little resource management on the players, provided that it’s not a nightmare of bookkeeping for the poor GM.

My method? Well, I’m still sussing it out; part of the problem is solved, I think, by dividing stuff into two broad categories: Props, which cannot be permanently lost or destroyed, and mere items, which get lost and destroyed ALL THE TIME. Beyond that, a fairly robust system for making useful devices means that I’m selling the impermanence of inventory items, and hopefully quells the packrat urge. So, that’s one part of the equation.

The other part is an idea inspired by this post, from the Game Mechanic; in brief, objects that get written on a character sheet are sacrosanct, and getting rid of them is an annoyance. Objects written on a post-it or otherwise are easy to get rid of. MAN. That’s a great concept. That’s a concept deserving of a twenty-five page paper on the ludic possibilities of really basic presentation and the power of the path of least resistance. That’s not something I’m doing right now… but I might at some point. For now though, I’m just running off of this notion that if you want to take something around with you… if you care enough to make it a part of a semi-permanent inventory… then you have to fill out a little card for it, that includes details like where you’re carrying it*. If you don’t care enough to keep it with you forever, then don’t… jot it down on a sheet of paper or whatever, but know that as soon as any in-game time passes it’ll be gone and forgotten. Whatever happens, inventory that you’re holding onto just to have doesn’t touch the character sheet. Less call to packrat, less emotional investment in any given item, and a mechanic by which its easier as a player to not bother carrying things around than to actually hold on to them at length. Cut off capacity limits at the knees.

*And there you have my only real mechanical nod to encumbrance and the penalties thereof… if you put a hundred things in your satchel, you’ll start gaining disadvantage on physical activities. If you are wearing three pairs of hats and shoes on your hands, you get social disadvantage, and so on.

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