Ask The GM: Weighed Down By Encumbrance

By John Serpico on


Brandon asks – Do you enforce encumbrance?

Brandon, the very unglamourous answer is “it depends.” While I’m all for playing most games with the rules as written, I do think that incorporating “house rules” or tweaks to some of the more boring mechanics of certain games make for a better overall experience. In some circumstances, encumbrance and inventory management overall falls into the category of boring mechanics. But in others, figuring out how much you can carry and for how long becomes a pivotal element of in-game strategy.

The big question, therefore, is whether using encumbrance rules makes the game more or less fun. If the encumbrance rules as written improve the game, or synergize in very important ways with other elements of the game, then I wholeheartedly enforce them. Or, at minimum, ask the players to keep track. A great example of “encumbrance as fun” is Blades in the Dark, the indie-grimey-steampunky-Victorian-vampire’y gem from Evil Hat Productions. Before a mission (or heist, since it is about criminal syndicates), the players close a load level – three, five or six slots – but don’t pick what’s in those slots until there is a need for them. The more slots you have, the more armor or weaponry or equipment you’re able to call on, but the less discrete you’ll be. That’s a beautiful mechanic that makes planning more fun and lets you engage in interesting trade-offs mid-encounter.

By contrast, Dungeons and Dragons’ encumbrance system always seemed disconnected from the rest of the game. You can carry a number of pounds that is a multiple of your strength, but that load limit is usually so high it doesn’t really matter. GMs can make that number matter by making sure players keep track of how many sacks of coppers they’re carrying, but does that really make the game more fun? D&D is an example of a game where I deliberately disregard encumbrance rules and instead substitute a few things that are a little more straight-forward. If the party is about to explore a cave, I ask them what they’re bringing and what they’re leaving behind. If the party is in a town, I assume that they swap out their heavy money for bank notes or gems without having to ask. And on top of that, I defer to basic physiology. If the party is looting some grand manor house, they can probably carry out one or two fifteen foot ceremonial halberds instead of their entire carry weight’s worth of them.

Regardless of what I choose to do with a certain system’s encumbrance rules, I make the choice early and remain consistent throughout the game. I’d hate for a player to invest experience buffing strength if their expectation was to become some kind of Fallout 4-esque pack mule. Whatever you choose to do with encumbrance, make the call, explain why, and go from there.

Happy GMing!

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