This past week I did a routine audit of character sheets and found that most of the players were ignoring encumbrance, so I directed them to clean up their sheets, get their encumbrance correct, or else I would just assign encumbrance levels until they did.
My oldest son, a stalwart and a hard worker, lamented how difficult it is and how much time and attention it takes.
Likewise, this very morning I read an RPG blogger talking about how they really, really dislike encumbrance rules.
I was a tactical soldier in an airborne unit based in Ft. Bragg for 6 years. I I have done hundreds of miles in ruck marches and was in land navigation competitions [think orienteering in rugged terrain with 80-100 lbs of equipment]. I became so adept at fitting necessary gear into tight space my kids say I have the Clever packer skill at 93%.
I know encumbrance.
I also know that it matters. Carrying too much weight slows you down. Carrying big, bulky objects slows you down. Travelling becomes much harder when you are carrying a heavy load. Horses are not motorcycles - too much weight slows them down and can hurt them, etc.
At the same time, there are serious reasons that soldier carry so much weight - you need things! Food, water, bandages, blankets, light sources, arrows, sling bullets, tools, components, rope - all could be very important. I am far from the first guy to point out that a core element of games, both modern and old school D&D in particular, is resource management. If you just handwave components then magic-users and clerics get easier and more powerful; if you handwave food and water you reduce or eliminate time limits of travel and exploration; if you handwave equipment you reduce or eliminate the use of all sorts of barriers, tricks, and delays.
Ignoring things like, oh, how many torches you need also makes a lot of spells useless. If the cleric never needs to consider a Light, or Create Food and Water, or the wizard never needs to think of Floating Disc or Tiny Hut why do those spells exist? What are they for? And this is yet another way you make your spell casters more powerful in combat - the cleric can take all healing and combat spells, the mage can take all combat spells because, well, they don't eat, sleep, or get cold and can always see.
If you do make them account for everything you can add a lot of tension to the game very simply.
Example: Krellor was worried; somehow the map was wrong. He knew it was wrong for one simple reason - they couldn't get out. He had originally been angry with Mellie, the young cleric. he was really glad he hadn't said anything, though; after 2 days of following the left wall they not only hadn't found the way out they had taken at least 3 different routes. Somewhere in the maze of rooms and corridors was a trick wall, door, or corridor that kept moving on them.
Kurrie, the scout, had lost his grin and was looking downright scared. Alazaar, the mage, was starting to slow down and even the shaven-headed monk Xing was obviously suffering. They had been without food for 3 days, now, and the brackish water from the puddle was almost gone, too. If they didn't find the way out soon they might die of thirst in these twisting halls. Krellor had relented this 'morning' and they group was alternting left and right in hopes of avoiding whatever deviltry was trapping them here.
Perhaps as troubling as the lack of food and paucity of water, they were down to just 3 inches of candle in Mellie's lantern - the feeble light barely allowed them to creep through the halls. Once it went out they would be almost totally blind - and as good as dead.
Kellor habitually checked his weapons belt as he prepared to round a corner. As he paused he heard a noise from the corridor; with a gesture Mellie closed the shutter on the lantern. The lost adventurers waited as a glow appeared from around the corner and the sound of orc voices grew.
When the orcs rounded the corner Kurrie, Xing, and Krellor fell on them ferociously and with total surprise. The slaughter was over in moments and Kurrie began rifling through their gear.
Three flasks of oil was good. An entire smoked ham and a sack of dried cherries was better. The full waterskins on all 6 of the dead orcs was best. Kurrie habitually grabbed the few coins these low-level guard had on them as the party carefully ate and drank a little. Too much at once would make them sick. After 20 minutes of rest interspersed with a few small bites and spare sips Mellie refilled and lit her lantern before tucking the candle stub away.
Maybe their luck had changed. Maybe they would get out. At least they had another day or two to try.
That was from an actual adventure I ran that the players still talk about much later.
Keeping track of this stuff, while time consuming, can be both a source of game tension AND a tool for character development.
Example: As beautiful as the sight of the first rays of the sun sparkling off the snow-capped mountains was, Aurelius missed the abbey. The warm bed, the food, the wine. But most of all, the library. All that knowledge, all that wisdom. He liked nothing more than to immerse himself in the rows of books until he was too exhausted to read another page.
But as a prefect he had certain responsibilities. The bishop had asked him to join the paladin Tamarind and his companions in a quest to end the attacks on the western villages. Aurelius had smiled, agreed, and inwardly bemoaned whatever streak of madness had compelled him to travel with Tamarind when both of them were newly ordained. Aurelius' reputation as an 'adventurer' may have earned him a swift promotion or three, but it also kept him from his beloved books.
There was Tamarind, now, riding alongside the trail, checking on all of his companions. A good man, Tamarind, truthful, brave, and honorable. He saw Tamarind pull up next to Aurelius' acolyte, Willit.
"How fare you, young Willit?"
"Very good, Sir Tamarind."
"Oh, yes, sir! When we return I am to be tonsured as an adept!"
"Keep it up, and soon I shall be reporting to you!"
"Oh, no Sir Tamarind! A knight like yourself reporting to someone like me?"
"A knight, but yet a paladin who must answer to the priests, isn't that right Father Timms?"
Aurelius' other assistant, riding nearby, chuckled and said,
"Mayhaps I have the authority, but the temerity? That I do not have!"
At Noon Aurelius' two assistants supervised his servants as they set up a field table for Aurelius, Tamarind, and the companions to eat their meal. Others set up a blanket on the grass nearby for the servants' meal. The companions were all good company: Orion, the famous wizard from the West; the dwarven warrior called only the Smiter; the lovely halfling maiden and scout Mellificent; Fandor, the ranger from the Great Wood; Tamarind; and Aurelius. After their quick meal of cold meats, cheese, and small beer the servants quickly loaded the gear back onto Aurelius' cart, mounted their own mules, and they resumed.
At evening the servants erected Aurelius' pavilion and prepared a meal. As the companions dined the servants gathered wood, built another fire, erected Aurelius' sleeping tent, and prepared their own shelters and meal.
An hour before dawn Aurelius said the travelling Mass with Father Timms and Brother Willit assisting. Afterwards the servants quickly struck camp and prepared everything for the road.
Tamarind and Aurelius are both characters from campaigns I have played in. Tamarind is a typical paladin; water and thin gruel for breakfast, lunch is a meal in the saddle, dinner might be a sapare hot soup and some hardtack. He has a prudent amount of gear but otherwise the Lord will provide.
Aurelius has 2 henchmen, a valet, 5 teamsters, 2 porters, a linkboy, a cook, 3 grooms, and 7 light cavalrymen as hirelings. His people all travel on horse or mules or in the cart he brings along in addition to his pack horse. He carries tents, a pavilion, field tables and chairs, silverware and place settings, tools, rope, spare clothes, manacles (in various sizes) blank books, vials, jars, and boxes for samples, etc., etc., etc. All in addition to a mix of fresh and preserved food, water, wine, and brandy.
His henchmen and hirelings typically build and guard a camp for the extra equipment with the servants making things ready for the party's return. On at least one adventure one of the henchmen led 2 guards and a teamster back to town with a wagon to completely replenish supplies while the adventurers were still underground.
Sure, these are extreme examples, but show that if you want to use encumbrance it can be a lot more than just book keeping on a character sheet.