Monday, March 23, 2015

Strict Encumbrance, GURPS, & My Games


- Not the DMG.

Apologies to Gary Gygax, whose "Meaningful campaign" quote has been much mocked but also much commented upon.

Encumbrance seems to be one of the issues that splits old-school gamers. Track it strictly? Track it strictly but come up with an alternative method, such as item slots or large items vs. small items? Come up with some alternative? Appendix O doesn't get the love that Appendix N or the Random Harlot Sub-Table receive.

I go with strict tracking.

In my GURPS games, in fact, in every one of my GURPS campaigns, encumbrance is tracked pretty strictly. On a 5-point strictness scale, with 5 being "by the book, always" and 1 being "who cares?", we play every game at either a 4 or a 5. Usually both.

I think this is because encumbrance is so deeply embedded into the core of GURPS.

Encumbrance is handled with a simple, concrete, real-world metric - weight. Bulk matters abstractly (hard to hide under a table with a halberd, say) but weight is concrete and tracked. Your strength (ST) stat directly translates to your maximum load. Just about all gear comes with weight. We routinely keep track of weight and I expect all of my players to be able to quote me their loaded weight (PC + gear) at any time.

Why I say it's the game system is that I don't really do more than eyeball my S&W character's gear. I didn't even think about encumbrance for my D&D5 guy. But GURPS, I know to the pound what people are carrying in their normal loadout.

We'll eyeball things and wing it a little in play - it's easy to say that you've got 60 pounds between "Light" and "Medium" encumbrance so adding on this treasure puts you at Medium and that's that, without doing the math beyond estimation.

Like I said, I think it's the rules. Since encumbrance effects so much (Move, Dodge, fatigue after a fight, penalties to load-limited skills, etc.) and the limits are so embedded into the system, and the metric for it is so common and easy to grasp, it's something we all track. No "200 gp weight for a scroll, and GP are 10 to the pound, but scrolls are bulky and have more encumbrance" to foul up tracking. No bulk-conflated-with-weight issues. You need to deal with bulk on its own, with a GM's judgement, but it's easy to get strict encumbrance tracking.

And so every GURPS game I've played, back to when we just messed around killing each other in Man-to-Man, we've known how much gear we're carrying. It's easy enough, and a big enough deal to not be a big deal at all.


  1. I typically run it at about a 4 as well. Really large objects, like halberds, definitely aren't going in your "pack". Coin weight typically doesn't get tracked - in GURPS games, a vast bulk of my (S&S) player's cash is really in the form of promissory notes anyways, and in D&D those coins look awful massive for me to really bother.

    Ideally, I have players record three levels of encumbrance: Dry, Marching and Combat. Dry is just you and your "daily essentials" - clothes, maybe a weapon. Marching is everything your character is dragging along on the trail - what you're wearing, what's in the pack, etc). Combat is your encumbrance less your "pack" gear - your weapons and armor.

    These get recorded as little notes next to the encumbrance section on the character sheet for quick reference.


    1. One of the hidden gems of GCA is the loadout manager, which allows you to track exactly this information. If like me you don't want the faff of detailed calculations and you're happy to build a number of pre-set loadouts, it's ideal.

    2. I encourage people to keep track this way.

      Even if they don't, it's not hard to do it manually - the "encumbrance ranges" (x+ pounds, 6x+ pounds, etc.) make it trivial to know where you are. Plus everyone can grasp weight at the table, unlike abstract sizing or encumbrance.

    3. I haven't used GCA in probably about five years to be honest. For the longest time, an important part of character-making was the tactile sensation of writing a character sheet. I only recently started using a character creator called "GURPS Character Sheet". You can find it here:

      Peter, I think it's a very useful system, especially in the case of GURPS where several skills degrade based on your load. Marking it next to the loads section on the front page gives a quick, at a glance answer for just how weighed down (and thus vulnerable) you are.

      I think the only time I invoke size over mass are for things on long poles; everything else I assume you find some way to lash in place. Fortunately, the last few S&S games I've run, players usually take just like one "nice new thing" off a casualty or two, instead of trying to walk of with the dirt in their pockets, too.

    4. Yes, it is. And like I said, you have a combo of:

      - easy, real-world metric everyone is familiar with.
      - broad bands of weight levels.
      - embedded effects

      All of which make it really easy to be pretty strict about it. I've played with some very fiddly rules, I've played very fast-and-loose rules light games, but encumbrance has been a constant. Big part of the game and easy to track. I think many of the "simple" systems used in other games often end up being more complex and thus overlooked.

  2. We run at a solid 4. We hand wave most the small details of a loadout, and pre-calc the encumbrance cost of whatever empty sacks they carry down into a hole. That way we we don't have to worry about it so much while running from things that want to eat us.

    This still forces the adventurers to make some hard choices about what they want to take. We've had guys dump backpacks full of food, rope, and brand new gear, because they found a horde that would allow them to buy it all back and then some. We've also had guys leave a lot of treasure behind because they preferred to take a unique bulky magic item over a sack full of gold.

    On the other hand, not tracking encumbrance to the coin means we don't get bogged down in minutiae. When we tracked at a solid five the game ground to a halt while people recalculated everything. We even had one guy spend five minutes considering whether it was worth it to drop three iron spikes early in the dungeon. Sometimes a solid 5 devolved into silliness like that, so we scaled back.

  3. My preference is probably more for a 2 or a 3. I mark everything less than half a pound individually (arrows, empty bottles, pieces of jewelry, whatever) as "Neg" and have never been told how much my free default clothes weigh and so I don't even mark them on my character sheet.

    I like what GURPS does with encumbrance, but I'd like it to be more granular (like BL = ST x ST / 2 with only the levels of "no encumbrance", "encumbered", "heavily encumbered", and "you can't move it" instead of the more fine-grained scales we get out of ST x ST / 5).

    That said, I would still happily play in a game tracking the weights of what I was carrying down to the tenth of a pound for my arrows. Not fond of these already small weights getting divided even further for small characters though, I'll admit.

  4. I'm probably a 4.5. I track exactly between sessions, but I can be a bit looser during the adventure, when there are lots of other things to track. If a PC is 2 lbs. below the next encumbrance level, and picks up 3 lbs. of small treasure, I probably won't remember to slow him down more. But if the PCs want to start hauling large weapons and suits of armor home, I remind them of how much it'll slow them down, and they usually reconsider.

    My players would love to find some armor with Lighten -50%, or a Backpack of Holding (in my games it's always cast on backpacks rather than bags, because who would spend all those energy points and then not even put straps on it? That's a dumb as enchanting a sword that isn't fine and balanced...), but they haven't yet.

    I'm thinking of introducing Tenser's Floating Disk into my game, as a flashier alternative to Lighten Burden. Basically, Levitation, usable to carry non-living stuff, with a slightly nicer casting cost (1 FP/80 lbs., half to maintain, but without the 2 FP minimum so you can maintain a < 80 lbs. version for free at 15 skill). Pros: You can carry 75 lbs. for free, for the cost of concentration (when it's moving) and a spell on and slowing the party to Move 3. Cons: The disk is obvious and the cargo is vulnerable. (Evil cackle).

  5. Your blog ate my comment!
    I hate tracking this stuff. It's important, of course; we don't want a realistic campaign to be like a FPS game where you can carry 12 rifles with ease, but when some of the GURPS weights are much higher than they should be, it gets annoying. I think they recently corrected the ridiculous 5lb broadsword, but 4lb axes are more like a mini-sledgehammer, and a 30lb medium steel shield would be rather difficult to wield, judging by how tough it is for me to swing a 25lb standard weightlifting plate.
    It all adds up, and when your dodge is low, you often die.
    I'd rather it be a 2 or 3, especially since the swamp area requires survival gear vs. Felltower, which was a weekend warrior dungeon dive every 2 weeks, and we all ran back to Stericksburg when the punch clock says our adventuring shift is over. (reminds me of the cartoon with the sheepdog and the coyote...)

    1. Some bad examples, there - the broadsword has never been 5#. It's always been 3#. Recently this has been clarified to mean a sword and its furniture. An axe comes with a cover, a sword with a sheath and assumes a belt, so the actual weight is even lighter. A 4# axe is heavy, but there are also 2 and 3 pound axes to choose from, which no one does because they want the most damage they can get.

      The shield is one of those things you can make with the rules, but I don't think is realistic. Most metal shields I've seen have been small; the bigger shields seem to be all leather on a frame or plywood. So I don't really expect 30# shields.

      I'd run it at a 2 or 3, but only if it was the kind of game where gear doesn't really matter quite as much. In this kind of dungeon delve - in the middle of a swamp, in this case - part of the challenge is transporting gear in and loot out. Playing looser with encumbrance would be fine, but then I'd equally place looser with loot and be much more generous with penalties ("You've got a lot of stuff, that's a -3" and not hear argument back that "It's only 39.5 pounds of gear, it shouldn't be a -3"). Generally the group we've got now is more worried about consistency than speed, so I equally rule on consistency.


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