Encumbrance: Into the Wilderness

Encumbrance. Surely, no single phrase (except possibly, “I initiate a grapple”) illicits so much terror and confusion among gamers.


I recently posted an article entitled the Fallacy of the Adventurer’s Backpack, after my very own (tremendously short) adventure on Dartmoor. Loads of people read the article, and even more interestingly several soldiers chimed in with list of that they carried while on operations. The amount of kit is incredible and could weigh up to 100 lbs.!

However, even these super-fit individuals wouldn’t actually fight while carrying and wearing all this kit, if they could help it. Instead, they’d dump their packs before going into action.

In a series of related pondering I was chatting with some friends last week over a rather marvellous full English breakfast about encumbrance and how it related to the Kingmaker adventure path we played the best part of five years ago. During that campaign, the party would regularly plunge into the wilderness for weeks at a time with only what they could carry in their trusty—and it turns out unfeasibly stuffed—backpacks.

Generally speaking, getting about in the wilderness is slow going and the adventurer must carry a tremendous amount of gear. It got me thinking about what the average adventurer might need for a week in the wilderness, beyond his normal adventuring gear. Such a basic equipment list could include (but is not limited to):

  • 7 days of food
  • 2 waterskins (these can normally be easily refilled from streams and pools)
  • 1 spare change of traveller’s clothes
  • Bedroll (and possibly a winter blanket)
  • Tent
  • 1 suit of light armour (I’m assuming studded leather to wear while sleeping in case the campsite is attacked or mobility or stealth become important)
  • Spare ammunition (arrows, bolts and so on)
  • Spare weapons
  • Spare oil, torches etc.
  • Spare rope
  • Spade
  • Hatchet (for cutting wood, clearing ground for a campsite etc.)

Obviously, the specifics of the adventure might dictate adding other things to the list (for example, lots of rope in the mountains, cold weather gear in the artic and so on). In any event, without magical assistance such as a bag of holding or suchlike this amount of equipment is heavy and bulky. And there’s no way it would all fit in a backpack.

Instead, the PC might elect to buy a pack horse or donkey to carry all this equipment; he might even engage a hireling (who he may also have to equip) to manage the pack horse, help about camp and so on. He might also buy a horse for himself (and possibly even for this hireling) which necessitates other equipment including bits, bridles, saddlebags etc. If he buys a warhorse, he’ll probably also pick up some barding.

Resource Management = Boring?

Now, of course, you might find the minutia of this kind of resource management boring. I love resource management for two good reasons, but you might think it distracts from the essential business of whacking orcs. That’s cool—and your prerogative—but personally I like my adventurers rooted in “reality”.

For me, it adds to the play experience. It acts as a subtle highlight of the party’s situation and surrounding environment. It also adds an extra dimension of cool challenge to proceedings that doesn’t feature in a game where such “boring” minutia as food, water, light sources and ammunition are hand-waved. Do the party have enough time to explore the dungeon and get home? Are they fighting against the clock as well as the dungeon’s denizens? Should the archer save some arrows for later or fire as many as possible as quickly as possible? (Something my son struggles with in my Shattered Star campaign).

Another outcome of focusing on these kind of details is that it means the PCs have less money (particularly at low-levels) to spend on their latest shiny toys. Consequently, they might be forced—the horror—to rely on their wits and skills as players to overcome challenges (instead off just whacking them with a sword or blowing them up).

Gary Gygax said in the 1st Edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide:

“It is important in most campaigns to take excess monies away from player characters…”

While he was talking about taxation (more on this exciting topic another time) I think it also holds true with equipment. And I’m unsure how Gary Gygax could be wrong!

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What Do You Think?

Is this a colossal waste of time? Do you love this facet of the game? Let me know, in the comments below.

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

6 thoughts on “Encumbrance: Into the Wilderness”

  1. When I’m able to be a Player (I almost always have to DM), I usually hire a couple of Porters or a Valet (Planchet from The Three Musketeers comes to mind) that are willing to lug my stuff around in the dungeons (I have to pay them more because apparently standard hirelings are unwilling to enter a dungeon). That means I can keep stuff handy (with the Porters/Valet) but only have to worry about the encumbrance of my weapons and armor. It also adds a bit of fear to combat encounters because the Porters/Valet don’t have the ability to defend themselves properly, so I always have to try to keep them safe.

    These hirelings often become valued NPCs that the party ends up willingly risking their lives for.

  2. I’m getting ready to run Kingmaker with a group of new players. What other articles or resources do you have from your Kingmaker campaign?

  3. I love the kind of attention to detail that come with a resource management game. My players don’t. They rebelled pretty seriously on me when I noted I wanted to track encumbrance more closely. I even came up with a way to still allow them to carry lots of crap, but keep it a tad more realistic… and they still really got up in arms. I honestly thought the game might break up over encumbrance. It was literally a hot-button issue because so many other DM’s hand-wave it.

    1. Wow. I’m stunned than a group of players would be so up in arms about one small part of the game. At the end of the day, I always think the GM should have more say in the kind of game than the players. The GM is the person putting in all the work behind the scenes and spending much more time actually working on the game than the players. The GM’s opinion is thus more important.

  4. The game requires encumbrance rules for balance reasons. I rank it right up there with not putting 18’s down your statline. The game become better when you have to worry about how many torches are carried because the player becomes engaged. Being trapped underground with no light and food becomes something to fear. It reminds me of playing video games on god mode; it was an exercise in childish indulgence rather than meaningful play.

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