Yesterday I talked about the space between ability modifiers and started exploring methods to make abilities not have “dead-levels.” An obvious idea for strength was carrying capacity, but for the fact that everyone hates encumbrance. So, I decided to try and find a way to make people not hate it.
The goal of the system is to create an incredibly light, abstract method for tracking weight that accurately puts characters in the correct level of encumbrance without punishing players that like to add realism by actually carrying around bedrolls and similar. The system must also reasonably simulate weight, particularly at the extremes when weight is most interesting.
The encumbrance of an item is measured in starks. A stark measures more than just weight, it also includes the awkwardness of an object or how much it impedes movement. For example, leather armor is significantly heavier than a longsword, but they have the same number of starks because the leather is designed to hug the body and distribute its weight while the longsword is three feet of rigid steel that gets in the way of every back flip.
You only track the highest three starks. The majority of weight a character carries is tied up in a handful of items. Those items are the ones that most impede his movement and so they are the most important items to track. This is not to say, however, that additional items don’t add incremental weight. They just don’t tend to add enough weight to importantly change the character’s abilities.
Some items, like backpacks, that are themselves light have a high stark. This is because we presume that if you have a backpack, you are using it. Because a stark includes both weight and awkwardness, it makes sense that many awkward items packed into a backpack have a lower overall stark than they would separately.
A character is lightly encumbered if his top three starks are more than ½ his strength (round down). A character is heavily encumbered if his top three starks are more than his strength. A character cannot tactically move if carrying more than double his strength in starks (top three or otherwise). This upper limit isn't intended to arise very often in game play and the idea is that if someone is carrying a massive chest of gold, they can move (i.e. overland travel) but not tactically move. They are encouraged, then, to just put down the chest when combat starts.
Light encumbrance provides a -2 penalty to move checks and similar skills. Heavy encumbrance provides a -5 penalty to move checks and similar.
Many items weigh 0 starks. This isn’t to say they have no weight, it is to say that they are unlikely to ever be in the top 3 and are not worth pushing a character over the 2x strength ceiling. Non-tactical small items (flint and steel, extra clothing, signet ring, etc) fit into this category as well as actual weightless items.
Light weapons, torch, silk rope
Standard weapons, Leather armor, bedroll, light shield, rope, day’s rations, wineskin
Studded leather armor, bandoleer, tent
Chain shirt armor, backpack, heavy weapons, heavy shield
Masterwork armor reduces the stark by one.
Keeping it realistic
The system does not provide an “inventory.” Things you carry need to go somewhere, which means relatively early on a backpack is required. Players should be able to describe their character. If an item doesn’t have a home, then it is probably in a hand which means that hand can’t be used for other tasks. The GM has the right to decide that something doesn't work. A wizard porting around a dozen one stark tomes and nothing else should not have just three starks.
Retrievable items can be drawn during combat with a minor action. Other items are buried away in backpacks or tied down to keep them out of the way. By default, a character can have five retrievable items (weapons, potions, etc) before they begin interfering with each other. Certain items can provide additional retrievable item slots. For example, a bandoleer provides an additional ten retrievable items, enabling many thrown weapons or potions (or a mix) to be readily available during combat.
Initially, encumbrance is a cumbersome word and I wanted a separate term to decouple any relationship to pounds or kilograms. Using those terms makes discrepancies in the weight from the real world offend logic—ambiguity is sometimes powerful. I wanted to use the term Stone because it is a single syllable with hard consonants and has a connotation of heft and discreteness. Unfortunately, it is a real world measure of weight. Stark shares a similar linguistic profile and has a connotation that supports the idea that the system only measures the obviously heavy stuff.
Why is it awesome?
Let’s consider two scenarios. A 14 str cleric wears chainmail (6), a backpack (4), a longsword (2), a heavy shield (4), and a smattering of stuff in the 1 range like daggers. The backpack is filled with a range of adventuring equipment like ropes, food, water, wet stones, etc and has a bedroll (2) tied to the bottom. The cleric has 14 starks (chainmail, backpack, shield) and is on the verge of becoming heavily encumbered.
During the campaign, the cleric is shamed. His church requires him to wear a lodestone necklace as penance for one year. The necklace weighs 5 starks. The cleric now has 15 starks (chainmail, necklace, and either shield or backpack) and is heavily encumbered. The necklace is a significant burden, but the true cost of that burden is only the incremental difference between it and what it pushed out of the top 3. This presents interesting tradeoffs—consider how it would apply differently against a 12 str character trying to be lightly armored by carrying nothing over 2 starks or how the burden diminishes if the cleric gains a strength or changes his other equipment.
Later, the cleric begins drowning in water (assume encumbrance penalties are doubled for swimming). The cleric drowns for a few turns and finally realizes that he has to strip EQ immediately or die. He drops the lodestone and becomes lightly encumbered, but he can’t risk it and so wants no encumbrance—he must get to 7 or lower; half his strength. He drops his backpack (4) and all the items in it, but he is still at 12 starks (chainmail 6, shield 4, sword 2). He realizes that he has to cut off his armor (6) if he has any hope. The leather ties are cut, the armor sinks, and he is at 7 (shield 4, sword 2, smattering of 1s). The cleric swims out.
The result is that weight is added on easy. You can take on weight for RP reasons without much impact if you are already encumbered. But when the goal is reversed and you have to become unencumbered, you have to drop a lot of EQ to achieve that. In this way, the system focuses on encumbrance only when it is interesting to do so. At all other times, it is summing three numbers.
Why retrievable items?
The system needs to support the idea of a character with a dozen daggers he intends to throw. However, because a dagger (1 stark) is so light, this can quickly lead to unrealistic characters. Limiting the number of items easily drawn during combat forces characters that rely on thrown items (or potions, poisons, etc) to equip a higher stark item (like a bandoleer) to then benefit from their many low-stark items.
What if I want more complexity?
- Put more detail into containers. For instance, maybe a backpack can only hold 10 stark worth of items with no item weighing more than 2 stark.
- Put more emphasis on where items are located or how they are attached to the character. That way, when things are dropped, stolen, or cut loose, there is more at stake.
What if I want less complexity?
- Remove the idea of retrievable items.
- Since the minimum strength is 8 (i.e. no encumbrance through four starks) and you only track the top three starks, don’t bother recording any item below two starks. The only variance is that someone with 2, 2, smattering of 1s gets a slightly free pass.
No really, I want less complexity.
Don’t use it then. You should probably have light, medium, and heavy armor confer a -1, -2, and -5 penalty, respectively, to move and similar checks. Masterwork versions decrease that to -0, -1, and -2, respectively. This returns dead-levels to non-modifier increasing strength attributes, though.