|Image from Wikipedia|
Encumbrance is measured relative to strength points, with most items being worth one point of strength (insignificant items do not count at all, and bulky items cost two strength points). An encumbrance of less than or equal to the strength score is considered unencumbered, with greater encumbrance being calculated by multiples of strength. So, for example, a character with strength 12 who was carrying 17 encumbrance points worth of equipment would be considered lightly encumbered. Each tier has associated penalties like you might expect (decreased speed, penalties to physical actions).
It's a good system. Like the LotFP way of doing things, it's a huge improvement over counting exact poundages (Third Edition) or coin-equivalent weights (TSR editions of D&D). However, I feel like it still requires a decent amount of calculation overhead, and this is especially difficult to coordinate for games played by videoconference (which is where I am doing most of my gaming these days). There have been a number of other blog posts about more visual slot based systems where players essentially fill out worksheets. I also feel like those are too much work to be easily adopted and maintained.
My current OD&D game is "officially" using this backpack-based encumbrance system I drafted back in July, but in practice it's been more of a "keep it reasonable" kind of thing. The party as a whole does move slower since some of the PCs are wearing plate (and party speed is determined by the slowest members). It would be important if someone was in a drowning situation. But honestly, I don't feel like it has made much difference.
The problem, I think, is that the movement penalty is not salient where movement happens entirely in a shared imaginary space. Ultimately, there are really two things that an encumbrance system should accomplish, in my opinion. The first is a sense of verisimilitude and realism (that's right, I just used two trigger words). The second is that encumbrance should make choices of what to bring an interesting trade-off. In a perfect world, I would like the fighter's choice of what weapon to bring along to be just as interesting as the magic-user's choice of what spell to prepare.
So here is my super simple proposal, inspired by the Papers & Pencils strength based system. Items are categorized as either significant (sword, dagger, scroll) or insignificant (fishhook, ring, coin). Characters can carry a number of significant items equal to their strength score with no penalties, and up to 100 insignificant items (I don't expect that anyone would actually want to carry that many insignificant items, but it obviously can't be truly unlimited). For every extra significant item carried, characters take a -1 penalty to all physical rolls. So, for example, 3 extra items results in a -3 penalty to attack rolls, saves, etc.
That may sound harsh, but the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that it is actually realistic. An unencumbered person is able to fight just as well and move just as quickly as a person who is carrying nothing at all (that's literally what being unencumbered means according to the system). In my past job, during my commute I would usually be carrying a briefcase with a few items inside and a canvas bag with two lunches and 1.5 liters of water. I'm relatively in shape, and I felt encumbered. I've also been backpacking, and even if modern equipment is used and items are packed well, it's still quite awkward and tiring. Verisimilitude is less important to me than a functional game system, but in this case I think both requirements are satisfied.
Having extra items in a backpack or sack that is easily dropped for combat is one way of avoiding some penalties while still carrying more gear, but note that saving throws made during standard exploration will be penalized by the extra encumbrance. Further, if you drop your backpack during combat and need to retreat, that backpack is getting left behind for the enemy.
The thing that I like about this is that the -1 penalty per extra item makes "just one more item" have immediate consequences. In most of the other systems I have seen, it is possible to add another sword and stay within lightly encumbered or whatever. I think that kind of structure fights against both a sense of immersion and meaningful choices.
Examples of encumbering items:
- Suit of armor
- Quiver of arrows
- Thieves' tools
Examples of insignificant items:
- Basic clothing worn
- Holy symbol
- Belt pouch
- Flint & steel
Rules of thumb:
- If the item has system weight (and is not a magic item), it is probably encumbering.
- If it is a magic item that can be crafted without extraordinary requirements (scrolls, maybe potions), then it is encumbering.
- Items made for helping to carry other things are insignificant in moderation (backpacks, belt pouches).