Rethinking Encumbrance

Rethinking Encumbrance

Many RPGs have a system for dealing with encumbrance and how much a character can carry. On the surface, the purpose of encumbrance is pretty straight-forward: It's a mater of simulation and verisimilitude: A person can only carry so much without being burdened by it all. Underneath, however, encumbrance rules play a variety of more subtle game roles. It's these games roles that I'm going to take a closer look at in this post, and then I'm going to look at a new encumbrance variant that may see use in future Saga Machine games.

Historically, RPGs come from a old-school dungeon-crawling tradition. These dungeons feature many traps that could kill a character, and one of the best ways around these traps was to have some piece of equipment that could get around them: 10' poles, ropes, antidotes, healing vials, metal hooks, etc. In the sort of game, without some method of tracking encumbrance, it's always advantageous to just carry as much of that stuff as you can--so you're always ready. Encumbrance systems come into the situation as both a simulation, but also as a game artifact to make the player pick and choose what she thinks is important. It's intentionally meant to prevent the player from just carrying with them a solution to everything, and to force them to make do with what they have.

Now, RPGs have diversified quite a bit since these old school days, and the purpose of encumbrance has diversified as well. But it still maintains a related game function: Keep equipment lists manageable. And make players choose to carry with them what they think is important. This can improve the game in that it means there is less bookkeeping and more meaningful decisions.

In Saga Machine (and many other RPGs), however, encumbrance plays an even more subtle role: It's the most significant component in determining what armor a character can wear, and thus it's an important balancing element in a character's defenses. In this regard encumbrance also serves the same role as "Armor Proficiency" does in some other systems. Is the average joe able to do backflips in full plate without penalty? Don't know. Look at the encumbrance rules.

So now let me propose a new encumbrance variant and we can consider what this means for the game concerns listed above:

In our encumbrance variant a character has a number of encumbrance "slots" equal to their Strength + Size. Every item they carry takes up one slot, unless it has one of the following three item properties:

  • Neg: Means the item is of negligible encumbrance and it takes 0 slots. The GM is still able to rule that carrying a bunch of such items may add up to taking a slot.
  • Big X: Means the item is particularly encumbering and it takes X slots.
  • Worn: Means the item can be worn, and when worn it takes up one less slot than normal.

At its core, this system is simple and requires much less book-keeping than the current Saga Machine system. It also, at base, results in small enough equipment lists to keep things manageable. In this regard it works for those associated game aims.

Not everything is sunshine and roses, however. While this system is simpler, it is also more abstract than the current Saga Machine encumbrance system. And abstract systems often run into a problem with verisimilitude at the edges. This is more apparent for items that fall somewhere in that gray area between being negligible and being a basic item--particularly if they have significant game function. Take for example a healing potion: Should the average joe (Str 4, Size 0) be encumbered when carrying five healing potions? Saying yes is a bit of a stretch, unless those healing potions are the size of pop cans. On the other hand, saying that healing potions have negligible encumbrance has game balance implications--a person can always carry with them as much healing as they want. (Okay, this is technically limited by how much they can buy/make, but trying to balance healing based on game income is a whole other can of worms.)

One possible way to try to patch this situation is to let containers give a few more slots, possibly with conditions. let's use pop cans as an example. It can be difficult to carry six pop cans at once without some sort of container. I dare say, that's enough to net the average joe at least a -1 or -2 penalty to Dexterity-based rolls while he's trying to juggle six pop cans and picking a lock all at once. On the other hand, if those same cans are all strung together as a six-pack, they're a lot easier to carry than when they're held individually. In this instance the six-pack is a container that takes up one slot, but grants six extra slots (for pop cans only).

Now, the six-pack is a simple example, and things get a lot more complex for the purposes of balancing when taking more general containers--such as a backpack--into account. But the basic idea is there. Storing objects in containers may also in terms of balancing items in combat: It may take one manipulate maneuver to open a backpack and another to take something out of it; essentially the container may give you extra slots, but those slots are less easily accessible.

The final game aim to consider with this system is armor encumbrance. Naturally, armor is bulky and the prototypical candidate for the Big property. But just how big is armor? Setting that can be a little tricky. Let's take the extreme example: full plate. Should the average joe be able to tumble and jump and swim in full plate without penalty? I would say probably not. That's a good argument for full plate being at least Big 6. But is even a very strong human able to swim and tumble and all that in full plate without penalty? Maybe? There's perhaps a case to be made that heavy armor penalizes Dexterity, regardless of Strength.

There's one last point I would like to make before I draw this post to a close: And it's on how the encumbrance rules affect Stat balance. In Saga Machine every stat is used in determining some aspect of a character's capabilities. The primary uses of Strength are in determining damage and encumbrance. The importance of Strength in this regard, however, has been undermined by traits--such as Pack Mule or Forceful Strike--that allow a character to easily make up for a lack of it. Without these traits having a viable Strength becomes significantly more important.

With the slot system of encumbrance, and thinking about encumbrance as armor proficiency, this importance becomes much more transparent. If having an extra slot means you can wear armor with one better DR, then the cost of buying that slot (with Pack Mule or the like) should be at least the cost of buying one more DR. Any less than this and buying traits like Pack Mule to get the number of slots you want is strictly better than raising Strength to that point.

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