Weighty Matters

Today, I had a good pick of topics I could have blogged. I could have blogged about the newest Pathfinder RPG vs. Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition flamewar that’s currently making the rounds. However, I concluded that I have better uses with my time than trying to inject reason into that toxic soup of ad hominem and tin foil hats. Besides, Mxyzplk is already on it.

I could have blogged about Green Ronin’s upcoming licence RPG Dragon Age, based on BioWare’s CRPG of the same name. However, while I have faith in GR’s ability to design a good game, it’s far too early to say anything substantive about it, which, again, hasn’t stopped the forum hordes. One ugly trailer, though.

But then, on our gaming group’s IRC channel, the discussion turned to such things as encumbrance and the retrieval of equipment from one’s backpack during combat.

Yeah, I know.

Really, it’s more exciting than it sounds.

We quickly came to a number of conclusions:

  1. Nobody was really sure what the official rules on getting stuff out are.
  2. Nobody actually used the rules as written in this case.
  3. The weights given for equipment in the PHB are better thought of as “encumbrance units” instead of actual pounds, because otherwise we have some very heavy gear indeed.
  4. Encumbrance rules tend to be ignored.

These aren’t really problems unless one makes them into problems. Calculating encumbrance and cross-referencing tables to get your weight limits and encumbrance penalties is fairly tedious stuff. However, the rules are still there and it’s better to see if they can be made to work instead of just abandoning them. It’s a verisimilitude thing (note that I am carefully avoiding the word “realism”, here).

Well, turns out number one was easy. They’re in the Actions in Combat table, PHB page 141 or PFRPGβ page 135. Retrieving a stored item is a move action that provokes an attack of opportunity.

However, if it’s that simple, I one must ask, what’s the point of the bandoleers in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting. They’re items that allow a number of small items like potions or daggers be stored on a belt across the chest. Since they’re categorised as special items, they must have a rules function that is not clearly apparent in the text – so, what’s the difference between a bandoleer and a backpack when retrieving items in combat? The consensus that we reached is that getting the backpack off your back so you can get your stuff also counts as retrieving an item, another move action. Therefore, getting an item out of your backpack counts as a full-round action (plus another move action the next round if you want to put the backpack on again instead of just dropping it [a free action]).

Then there’s the issue of pockets and storing stuff on your belt. This, as far as I can tell, is not handled anywhere. Personally, I’d say that you can have up to six potion-size objects (scrolls, acid vials, alchemist’s fire, wands) on your person without investing in a bandoleer or a potion belt. A bandoleer allows eight, a masterwork bandoleer twelve. A potion belt allows you to retrieve a single potion as a free action, once per round.

This, in turn, kinda forces you to track where your gear actually is, but I think it’s worth it.

Then there’s the issue of the backpack.

For the past five years, I’ve played with the implicit house rule that everyone drops their backpacks as a free action the  moment initiative is rolled and sheds the accompanying encumbrance penalties. This is a relic of Sampo Haarlaa’s Living Greyhawk games. However, according to the D&D 3.5 Game Rules FAQ, it’s a move action to drop a backpack.

So, to summarise what we came up with, browsing FAQs and rulebooks, and houseruling the gaps:

  • Retrieving a stored item is a move action that provokes an attack of opportunity.
  • A backpack on your back counts as a stored item itself, and therefore retrieving an item from your backpack is a full-round action.
  • You can normally store up to six potion-sized items in addition to your weapons on your person, to be retrieved with a move action. Wearing a bandoleer or a potion belt can raise this limit.
  • Dropping your backpack to shed yourself of its encumbrance is a move action (as is picking it up when you’re fleeing in terror).

This is all a part of an attempt to make encumbrance a meaningful part of the rules instead of something that everybody ignores.

Incidentally, we also paid attention to the weights and volumes of potions, which nobody seems to ever do. Turns out a single potion is one fluid ounce in volume, or about 29ml, which amounts to approximately a shotglass. This has been something of a journey of discovery. Or at least a double move.

3 thoughts on “Weighty Matters

  1. I somewhat posted this elsewhere, but it can go good here. I started writing an RPG (A fantasy heartbreaker) years ago, and made a much nicer (useful and easy) encumbrance system called “the dot system”

    Basically a character can handle so many somewhat abstracted “dots” of stuff (based on strength). A dot being a representative of how bulky or heavy something is (usually based off item size). It allows for a rational limit on how much stuff someone can carry, options for things like nesting (a backpack may only count as 4 dots but can hold X many dots of gear, provided no item is 4 or more dots and you are willing to spend time rooting through), and easy enough for quick and easy changes with situation.

    The portion is real easy to plug and play to other systems, every portion of the game is (the game is called Piecemeal, its a plug and play RPG). You can get a free copy of it at zzarchov.bravehost.com, the rules are in a windows compatible viewer program (.exe), but if you run linux I can email you one of the older PDFs that used to be up

  2. For me the biggest weight issue in D&D (all editions up to 3.5) has been weapons. The weapon weights have shown again and again that no D&D game designer has ever held a weapon nor opened a weapon reference book. The heaviest sword ever made is unlikely to have weighed more than six pounds. Which is a fraction of what the game states what a greatsword weighs. Absurd.

    Note: I have nothing to do with 4E, so I don’t know nor care how it handles weapon weights.

    Thanks for that link to the Pathfinder preview, I enjoyed it. It just makes me happier that I preordered my copy.

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