2 May 2020

Across the Clones - Encumbrance

In a previous post I examined how the old-school TSR rulesets tackle encumbrance, by taking an assumed equipment baseline and seeing how a PC would look like in each edition covered in terms of burden levels.  As a follow-up, I'm going to examine a series of retroclones and see how they tackle the issue.

As I anticipate doing this sort of old-school and OSR rules dichotomy for multiple mechanics, I thought I'd pick a base set of clones and return to them again and again.  As such, we have:
  1. Adventurer, Conqueror, King System (ACKS)
  2. Astounding Swordsmen & Sorcerors of Hyperboria (ASSH)
  3. Blood & Treasure 2nd edition
  4. Basic Fantasy RPG (BFRPG)
  5. Crypts & Things Remastered
  6. Fantastic Heroes & Witchery
  7. Lamentations of the Flame Princess
  8. Swords & Wizardry Complete
As our guinea pig, we're using our friend from the previous post, Ricky the Burdened.  If you recall, he carries:

Leather armour, dagger, longsword, shield, backpack, bedroll, one week’s iron rations, full waterskin, tinderbox, belt, clothes, hard boots, two large belt pouches


ACKS uses an encumbrance system rooted in the UK's stone measurement.  1 stone weighs 14 pounds (6.35 kilos).  Everything is measured in terms of stones.

ACKS encumbrance

There are three burden levels, with Strength being irrelevant.  An interesting element of the system is how much coinage it lets you carry: 1 stone = 1,000 coins.  Following the old-school standard, many games make coins enormously heavy, and while pretty much everyone recognizes that the old-school coin weights of 10 to the pound were far too heavy from a historical perspective, some justify this by saying that it makes it an interesting and useful challenge to recover coinage and thus gain XP.  Using traditional rules, the 14 lbs of a stone would get you only 140 coins.  To take an example, in BECMI, the most generous old-school system, you're going to be able to stagger around at best with 2,400 coins, and even then your speed drops by 87.5%.  With ACKS, with nothing else on you, you can carry 5,000 coins and not even hit the first level of encumbrance.  It's a huge change to gameplay.

In leather armour, Ricky the Burdened would be at 6 stone, just into the first level of encumbrance.  However, he doesn't have much of a cushion before bumping into the next burden level: just two more stone: adding chainmail would put Ricky there (-50% move).  However, that one stone left in the current category means 1,000 coins, which again is far more generous in that regard than any other system.

ACKS uses about 71 coins to the pound.


ASSH follows a broadly 2nd ed AD&D setup: variable encumbrance based on Strength, with the system of measurement using pounds.  However, it doesn't go anywhere near as silly in terms of the number of burden categories as 2nd ed does.  It also allows a slightly greater unencumbered load than 2nd ed (e.g. Str 3 unburdened in 2nd ed is 5 lbs vs ASSH's 10 lbs, while Str 18 unburdened is 110 vs 125), and a noticeably greater one at maximum encumbrance (e.g. Str 3 max burden is 10 lbs vs 30 lbs, while Str 18 unburdened is 255 vs 375).  There are two burden levels (-25% and -50% movement).  It's less penalizing in terms of movement rates than most systems, but adds an Armour Class penalty at both burden levels (-1 per), also unlike most systems.

ASSH encumbrance

In this system, Ricky at Str 12 would be unencumbered with leather armour, and at the first level with chain.  At Str 17, he'd be unencumbered no matter which armour he used.  This matches 2nd ed AD&D, though his burden level effects are slightly different (-25% Mv and -1 AC for ASSH, vs -33% Mv for AD&D 2nd ed).

ASSH uses 100 coins to the pound.


BFRPG encumbrance

BFRPG sticks out in its fixed racial categories: a Halfling just plain carries less, regardless of their Str value: about 20% less.  However, halfling armour is 1/4 the weight of any other race's armour.  Additionally, it only has one burden level, which allows for up to roughly 2.5 times your unencumbered weight value.  Like B/X and BECMI, the armour your wearing is the major determinant of your burden level.

As you can see, the burden rates aren't fixed: they depend on what armour you're wearing, so that the one burden level effectively becomes three different levels (well, five technically, but only three are mechanically distinct).  Someone with no armour and someone with plate move at different rates, even if carrying nothing else.  You also add the raw weight of armour when calculating your load (which is where the halfling's armour weight savings comes into play).

I'm not sure I see the value of having a separate set of rules just for halflings, even as I readily acknowledge the realism factor.  At the same time, I don't see the value in halflings, so this could be just me.

BFRPG uses 10 coins to the pound.

Blood & Treasure 2nd Edition

Blood & Treasure encumbrance

B&T's system is also a variant on 2nd ed AD&D.  It hews pretty closely to that edition's weight capacities: a little more here, a little less there, depending on the Str value.  However, it chops down the burden levels, just as ASSH does: just two (-33% Mv and can't run [x4 move], and -50% Mv and can't jog [x2 move]).  In this system, Ricky would have the same base burden levels as ASSH, whether Str 12 or 17, and whether leather or chain armour.

Blood & Treasure uses 30 coins to the pound.

Crypts & Things Remastered

The Table of Contents for C&T is quite bad, but its encumbrance rules can be found on page 16.

Crypts & Things encumbrance

C&T goes for pounds.  It uses a variant of the B/X miscellaneous equipment rule in that whatever random stuff you have always weighs 10 lbs.  Otherwise, it's three burden levels: -25%, -50%, and -75%.  Neither Strength nor armour has any effect.  It's an unusual approach, in that it adopts the more precise pound standard, but then proceeds to abstract a lot of the remaining bits that would benefit from such granularity--not necessarily a bad idea.  The lack of Strength modifiers quite annoys me, though: that Raistlin carries as much as Throthgar the Destroyer is a bad ruling, IMO, especially considering C&T is a sword & sorcery game, where brawn should have greater prominence.

Under this system, Ricky is going to be unburdened in leather (25+30 pounds) and lightly burdened in chain (50+30 pounds).  At 25 pounds, only S&W out of the clones has leather armour weigh this much.

As you can see above, C&T uses 10 coins to the pound.

Fantastic Heroes & Witchery

FH&W encumbrance: click to enlarge

FH&W goes for both the granular Str and pounds measurement of 2nd ed and the burden level adjusted by armour of B/X, BECMI, and Crypts & Things.  It also has the greatest role for encumbrance in the system: you absolutely do not want to be burdened in this game.  The "Dice rolls penalty" listed at the bottom applies to attacks and damage both.

Annoyingly, you have to refer to the armour section to get the armour burden values, and no page references are given: you're just told to go to the appropriate chapter, which is bad in general and especially so in a book of this size (armour is on pages 64-65).  Uniquely, the speed reduction provided by armour (which is always either 0 or -33%), does not stack with encumbrance: if you already were slowed that much due to the weight you were carrying (which includes the weight of your armour), then you don't get the armour penalty on top of that.

Under this system, Ricky is going to be unburdened at Str 12 in leather, but hits the first burden level in ring mail (the closest equivalent to the typical +5 AC chainmail of most systems; 40 lbs).  Considering the penalties of being overweight, this is a bit disappointing, but then again, many characters wearing mail would have a higher Str.  At Str 17, our other assumed Str score, you'd be fine even in mail, which is the case for all games with this sort of Str & lbs-based system.

Like 2nd edition, FH&W uses 50 coins to the pound.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Probably the best known encumbrance system, LotFP uses a unique points-based system that abstracts everything.  I think it's a great base concept, but could certainly use some tuning.  In particular, once again, Strength does not affect your carrying capacity.  In a system like this it's particularly odd, in that the Str modifier could easily give you free items or free points or modify the number of points before burden levels kick in: I don't understand how that could have been missed or passed up.

LotFP encumbrance: click to enlarge
There are three burden levels, with speed reduced at each as usual (-25%, -50%, -75%).  You can get some strange artifacts as a result of this system: you can carry ten longswords or 1,000 coins and get the same encumbrance level.

In this system, whether at Str 12 or Str 17, Ricky is at the first level of encumbrance (weapon plus 11 or less points of stuff) regardless of whether leather or chain is worn.  Or at least, I think so: the way armour interacts with encumbrance here is not worded the best (worn metal armour is worth points per the top, but worn armour doesn't count for encumbrance purposes per the second footnote, so I dunno).

Coins have no individual weight in LotFP per se, since weight isn't tracked in real-world units; 100 coins = 1 item point.

Swords & Wizardry Complete

This system has a bewildering host of variants and subvariants, but Complete is the main version, and the one Frog God Games plans to support going forward, so I'll be focusing on it.

S&W Complete encumbrance
The pounds standard, three burden levels, Str modifies your capacity: simple and straightforward.

In this system, even at Str 12 Ricky is unburdened in leather (though as with C&T it's a hefty 25 lbs here).  In chainmail (50 lbs) he hits the first burden level.

S&W uses 10 coins to the pound.


System summary; burden assumes Str 12 score

Overall, the main thing that leaps out at me is that there's a decent variance in terms of measurement systems, but the gameplay effects are very similar.  Every system here abandons the old-school coin measurement standard for something new.  Using our test-case PC, Ricky the Burdened (assuming Str 12), whether we're using pounds, stones, quatloos, or what have you, we see that he usually starts out as unencumbered (usually just barely), but about a third of the time he's at the first burden level, and the overall result of being burdened in any way is that he's slowed down.

That having been said, what that means exactly varies from system to system, sometimes notably so.  ASSH's first burden level is very generous in terms of movement lost, but makes you easier to be hit, which no other system does.  ACKS gives you mountains of room for coinage, even if you'll be limited in trying to load up on almost anything else: it's the most conducive to hauling in the amount of coin you'll need to level up, especially at high levels, which I think is a big mark in its favour even if the rest of the system doesn't particularly stand out.  FH&W has you wanting to avoid a burden like no other game: having even the first one is practically a death wish, reducing your average damage by almost 50%.

Creating this overview, combined with looking back over the discussions I've read or had on encumbrance systems in the past, has made me realize something interesting: the general mindset around designing OSR encumbrance systems is centred on a) what the best unit of measurement is; b) overall item granularity; and c) what a coin should weigh.  The most common item in favour of an encumbrance system is "how easy is it to use?", which is why LotFP's is so commonly recommended.  What does not come up, oddly enough, is "What sort of gameplay are we looking to create here?"

  • What should be the system's base measurement unit?
  • Should your average adventurer start already burdened?
  • Should Strength matter?  If so, how granular do we want to get with that? 
  • Should armour have a special burdening effect, separate from its weight?
  • How many burden levels are needed?  When do we want burden levels to kick in?
  • How much burdened weight should you be able to add on top of the unburdened weight?
  • Very specifically, how much pure coinage do we want an adventurer to be able to haul around?
  • What penalties do we want burden levels to grant?
  • If movement penalties are granted (a universal assumption), how severe should they be at each burden level?

Most everyone agrees on a base pair of principles: 1) old-school D&D had encumbrance as part of resource management and if we're copying those games then we need that too, and 2) encumbrance should be in general bad and in particular slowing.  Perhaps that surface unanimity has prevented much of a deeper look at the subject.  Obviously, a lack of design notes on the systems covered above hinders an analysis of what the overall goal of each system above, if any, was.  Each differs in various ways, but it's not clear if a specific goal or set of gameplay effects was intended from the start.  I suspect in most cases there wasn't.  I think reasoning from principles (what do I want to achieve) rather than from obligation (okay, I need to have this in there) is going to get you a better ruleset, even if the foundation of any OSR ruleset as a whole is essentially going to start with the latter.

I'll make one more post on the topic where I consider my own system in light of what I've covered.

1 May 2020

Making Wilderness Play Meaningful - A System

Hot Springs Island: a great hexcrawl
So as I covered in my previous post, which examined the history of wilderness exploration in D&D, I'm looking to create a decent rules skeleton to facilitate a hexcrawl-style game, with the ultimate goal of having my players actually want to play in the wilderness (hence the "meaningful" part of the post title).  In short, the existing D&D rules for such are vague (in a frustrating way, not in a freeing way), time-consuming, and not condusive to actual exploration.  Here's what I concluded I wanted:

  1. An elegant hex-based system for tracking overland travel.  No trying to mash hexes and miles together.  It needs to cleanly integrate mounts, weather, terrain, fatigue, and encumbrance with a base method of everyday travel.  Getting lost should be easy to adjudicate.  Overall, the first reaction of players and DMs when the wilderness map is brought out must not be a groan of dismay.  Ideally, there will be meaningful player choices available even at this stage.
  2. Interactions and effects not already present in dungeon play.  For example, dungeons have the hunt for traps and secret doors, things that generally don't feature in wilderness or urban play.  Hunting and foraging is a wilderness example, though ideally we're going to have something more interesting than "fending off starvation".  Weather is a similar one.  Random encounters, already a staple of D&D, need to fit in to whatever new is added.
  3. Player-facing mechanics.  As this is going to be offering a new style of play (or, more accurately, facilitating an uncommon and old style), it needs to be presented to the players rather than reserved for DMs, so that players have the rules in front of them to prompt them to go exploring, but also so that the choices made while exploring can be informed ones.

#3 doesn't really need to be covered here, as it's simply a matter of making sure that the players have access to whatever rules you come up with, rather than walling them off behind the DM screen.  I've put these in my players handbook, and so they can consult them and plan around them.

Fundamentally, I want a better adventuring experience at the table, and also have no desire to increase granularity or simulationism.  Of course, the latter two might translate into the former for some, but not for me.  As such, some might feel my system is bare-bones, but for me it gets to the heart of what I see wilderness play should be: moving overland with a minimum of rules hassle, giving players the means to find cool stuff while doing so, and giving them meaningful choice in it all.

An elegant hex-based system for tracking overland travel

In my previous post I expressed my admiration for OD&D's system of hex-and-points based travel, despite it requiring the Outdoor Survival boardgame to use.  This is one of those cases where, I think, original D&D got it right and AD&D, in the quest for more rules and more granularity, went astray.  Since my primary goal is to play a hexcrawl anyways, let's go back to that.  Using hexes and points as the foundation of the system in a stroke gets rid of the awful miles vs. hexes interaction problem (again, see here for a recap).

First we need to set a hex scale.  Outdoor Survival used three-mile hexes.  OD&D used five-mile hexes.  However, I'm going to standardize on six-mile hexes, thanks to this seminal post over at the Hydra's Grotto.  It's reasonably common, and works well.

Now then, we have to switch to miles per day of travel, but solely for the purpose of establishing a baseline of how far a group can travel each day.  Assuming open ground and no major obstacle, OD&D allowed characters to cover 15 miles per day, while 1st ed AD&D went for 30 miles per day.  B/X, BECMI, and 2nd ed AD&D all went with 24 miles per day, which became the standard that's carried on right through to 5th edition.  As 24 is a power of 6 (and 30 is going to be a bit high as a base due to some other modifiers I'm adding in later), it's going to work well with our six-mile hexes and so I'm going to stick with what is generally expected.  With our baseline established, we can ignore miles from here on out.

With the scale chosen, that gives a walking, unburdened party the ability to cover 4 clear hexes a day.

Click on any image to enlarge

Simple enough, I think, with a six-mile mountainous hex taking the better part of a travel day to navigate.

Next, we need to allow for environmental variance.  I don't want to get bogged down in a thousand subfactors here: in the same way that all terrain falls into three base categories, I'd like only a handful of modifiers to the above.

So if it's hard to see and/or hard to move, the rate slows.  If there's extreme heat or cold, it also slows.  A frozen, snowy mountain would be less than six miles a day (though if it was the dead of winter I'd just say mountain travel was impossible, as classically when winter came many mountain passes closed altogether and people could be stuck up there all season: this just covers blank-slate, first snow on the mountain-type situations).  Alternately, good roads can boost your travel rate to 30 miles a day.

Encumbrance is noted at the end of the above chart.  It needs to be covered, but this is trickier in that there's a lot of different encumbrance systems out there, and so we'll need to keep things simple if we want the mods to easily port over to whatever system is being used.

What Light, Moderate, and Heavy means is something you'd have to define yourself, but the matching Combat Speed penalties should give you a guideline.  For AD&D, they could translate to heavy, very heavy, and encumbered loads.  For B/X, they match up neatly to leather armour, metal armour, and metal armour plus treasure.  For BECMI, it would be the second through fourth burden categories, which have the same combat move percentage penalties.  For LotFP, they translate straight across to light, heavy, and severe encumbrance.

We also have to consider mounts.  I've not made these a massive speed boost, as I'm assuming long-distance travel rather than short dashes: you have to be careful not to ride them to death or break their legs.  As such, a lot of these look similar.  Much of what will distinguish a mount will be its encumbrance capacity, which I've cut off because again, people probably have their own rules on that.

I'm assuming in the worst terrain (the 3-point hexes) you'd have to walk your mounts, so they won't help you race through the jungle or mountains.

The main advantage to this system is that there's almost no tracking travel across hexes.  That is, you're either in one hex, or the next.  At most you'll have one fractional hex per day (the one at the end of the day, when you might run out of points for the day before making it to your next hex).  For example, if you want to enter a woods hex (2 points) but only have 1 point left, then you spend the 1 point and call it a day, and pick things up the next morning.  No more making marks, say, every 1.43 hexes per day (e.g. 3.5 mile hexes, 5 miles per day in the mountains on heavy horses) or whatever.

Lastly, I wanted some player choice available even here.  I suppose what mount to buy is sort of a choice, but it's not quite what I had in mind.  I'm thinking the basic dilemma in the desire to push on/faster, vs. the desire to move at a normal pace or even slow down and be extra cautious.

Force marches are of course a travel staple.  Procedurally there's rarely a need for speed, but when a curse or lethal disease kicks in or it's a race against time against the grimlock hordes, rules for extreme haste are valuable.  With a forced march on clear terrain, a unit can cover up to 30 miles a day, 36 if good roads are present.  This is well within the realm of the possible: the American 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment in late 1942 covered, in a three-day forced march, 136 miles with full equipment (Ambrose 141; about 45 miles a day).

Regarding the note on fatigue: I have my own separate fatigue system that defines what light or heavy fatigue is.  Like encumbrance, I'm presuming you can define what those labels mean yourself rather than me trying to shoehorn yet another new system into this post.  The gameplay effect is that, assuming you're fresh, you can force march for up to two days (fresh to light fatigue on day one, light to heavy fatigue on day two).

The cautious march is the more unusual choice.  While I found the in-depth hexcrawl rules presented on the Alexandrian blog to be far too in-depth for my liking, the idea of the cautious approach was one that appealed to me, and so I salvaged it for my own ruleset.  How this ties into random encounters I'll get to later.

Interactions and effects not already present in dungeon play

Fundamentally, all I want my wilderness rules to really do is to be a process smoothly funnelling cool stuff to the players.

Most designers, content with AD&D-style wilderness movement, tend to place the meat of their hexcrawl system here.  I think a lot of systems go wrong with this by trying to make the system itself be the source of entertainment, when the content you encounter as a result of the system is really what best serves as the heart of things.  D&D's dungeon exploration rules are, at their root, quite simple: they aren't in-depth on their own, but they facilitate the distribution of in-depth content (traps, rooms, encounters).

What's worse is that designers often try to make the system be the content by creating a lot of procedural realism.  That means weather, watches or other segmentation of the day, hunting, fishing, foraging, crafting, disease.  For the most part that's not what I'm interested in, and if you are you might want to check out things like the Forbidden Lands system.  In my experience, such things become their own minigame but do not, through their results, make players want to actually do something wilderness-related.

As for what I do like along the above lines, disease I see as a generic system item--valuable, but just as likely to show up in sewers or dungeons as it is in the wilderness, and so not really belonging (just) here.  Fatigue, which starvation and other deprivation fits into, I see in the same way.  Weather is good, but this is going to be long as it is and so I'll possibly look at that at a future date.  Crafting I dislike on a purely conceptual basis: I want an adventure game, not a crafting one.  Hunting and foraging is simple enough.  B/X has rules for it, and they're bad.  Foraging works well enough, but hunting gives you only a 1 in 6 chance of finding just 1D6 days' rations (where each feeds one person for one day) and you can neither travel or rest that day.  This is obviously a losing proposition for any party.  For all that people say B/X and BECMI are identical, they aren't: BECMI corrected that, and that's largely the version I use (not included here).

Finding Your Way

Here's how you make your way from hex to hex.

Fieldcraft is something from my homebrew: it translates straight across to "is a ranger" or "has the appropriate Survival skill".  (As an aside, I often use a D12 rather than a D6 for things like this, because I like how it gives greater granularity than a D6 while still being easy to roll, easy to read, and maintaining compatibility with anything originally designed to use D6.)  The base odds of getting lost are on average lower than the traditional rules: B/X gave you a 33% chance per day of getting lost in a forest (one of the more common terrain types); in AD&D it's a 70% chance, and being a ranger didn't help with this unless the DM said they were familiar with the area you were in.  Here, assuming you cover four clear hexes or two woods hexes in a day with no ranger-like aid, a day's travel results in about a 30% chance of getting lost at least once, which I felt was enough.  It's very easy to raise, whether as a whole or just for select terrain types--just a matter of raising the terrain modifiers--if you prefer the more punitive old-school rates.

So, enter a hex, make a check.  For most of the old-school systems, getting lost requires a table and/or determining degrees off-course: far too fiddly for what I'm aiming for.  Inspired by the system found in The Treasure Vaults of Zadabad, I've changed it to a time waster (it consumes hex points) and a potential monster generator.  If you get lost, you make a navigation check to find your way.  As each navigation check requires a random encounter roll, wandering aimlessly through the wilderness may result in you stumbling onto more monsters.  There's a clear cost involved, but it's mechanically very easy to resolve: no tables to look up or protractors to consult for degrees off-course.


Okay, you've made your navigation check and all is well.  Now what?

In the classic hexcrawl, it was assumed that you just found whatever was in a hex once you entered it.  In part this annoys me because of the lack of realism, but the main issue is that it doesn't give much in the way of depth to a hex.  A six-mile hex is big: plenty of room for obscure things buried in the corners.  I want a system that makes the game world feel like there are all sorts of hidden wonders out there, awaiting only a dedicated party willing to risk the time and chance of battle to find them--one willing to explore.  Having every oddity leap out at you the moment you arrive doesn't give me that.

With this system, as a GM you'd classify each hex feature as one of two types: overt and hidden.  Overt are the classic type: enter the hex, find the thing.  Hidden features are your lost cities and hidden caves and clearings and bandit lairs: the stuff it takes time and effort to uncover.**  Having the two types allows you to really make your world feel layered, while preventing the player perception that everything is in a bizarre kind of stasis, lying around solely in wait for them.

By default I have hidden features automatically found if the players make the effort to search, with the assumption that not all hexes will have such a thing.  This can be easily modified via a quick added roll for certain features to represent especially well-hidden items (or perhaps an increased search cost representing especially difficult-to-search hexes).  However, my general belief is that if the players have invested the time and are willing to risk the extra encounter roll, you might as well just give them the hidden feature.  This approach makes even more sense when you consider that hex content is almost always written assuming the Judges Guild method of automatically being encountered.  As such, it's generally not "you find a holy avenger +5 lying in a field" or whatnot that deserves being strongly siloed away, as that sort of thing would in a dungeon.  At most I would institute a known but otherwise secret roll of "you find any hidden feature on a 2+ on D6": just enough to add a touch of uncertainty to the process, while making it the vast majority of the time worthwhile.

Random Encounters

And then comes the last part.  You need to have this all tied into the random encounter system, to reflect the types of terrain you're using but also so that player choices are meaningful.  Slower pace equals less monsters.  Time spent searching equals more monsters.

Again, note that it's a D12, not a D6

The rougher the terrain, the greater the chance is of finding monsters.  On the other hand, if you have a ranger, it doesn't eliminate the dangers (we want to avoid a 5th edition-like scenario where having a ranger removes all danger and uncertainty from overland travel), but it certainly mitigates them.  Assuming no other modifiers, having a ranger means that you go from a 33% chance of an encounter in a mountain or swamp hex to a 25% chance; in a woods or hills hex you go from a 25% chance to a 16.5% chance.  What makes a hex "safe" or "especially dangerous" is up to the GM (as is the specific dangerous modifier).  Neither modifier is meant to be used regularly, but it gives some flexibility in shaping the tone and hazards of the wilderness; it also makes things overall less mathematically predictable.  Information hinting that a given area is safer or more dangerous can be given to the players ahead of time through rumours, general tavern chat and the like (e.g. the areas nearest your home base town / keep are patrolled by the local militia and so are generally safer, while X forest is known as the home of the Bonegnasher orc clan and so is an especially risky visit).

As for camping, you can light a fire at night, which allows you to see your attackers if ambushed, but also makes that ambush a bit more likely (though with something like wolves I'd automatically adjust their reaction roll to "not interested" to reflect their fear of fire and probably end the encounter).


Below is the entire thing in two pages, as a PDF (remember: Fieldcraft = is a ranger / has the right Survival skill):

Simulacrum Wilderness Exploration Rules

This has been a longer post than I intended, but I didn't want to split this part over multiple ones, and I find rules posts useless without a solid grounding in the theory behind them, so one can understand why the designer's choices were made and better see how the rules will play out.

**After coming up with this I was pretty impressed with myself, until I saw afterwards that the Necropraxis blog had done the exact same thing back in 2013, the only difference being "obvious" features rather than overt ones.  As my version saves two letters, it is clearly the objectively superior choice.

25 April 2020

Making Wilderness Play Meaningful - Some History

The idea of the hexcrawl has fascinated me ever since I first read about it.  Like I think a lot of people--especially those without access to Judges Guild products--wilderness adventures in general were largely passed over by myself and my gaming buddies when kids.  The idea of aimlessly wandering around the wilderness getting eaten by bears or 1D4x100 orcs or whatever rather than "actually playing the game" didn't hold any excitement.

However, after reading about the concept of the hexcrawl and the now-legendary West Marches campaign--around the same time my childhood interest in D&D had been rekindled after drifting away when 3.5 came out--I became intoxicated with the idea of player-guided exploration of the wilderness, where exploration was its own reward.  The land is dark and full of terrors, but also fantastically cool encounters and treasures and oddities, worth wandering through even if there's no firm destination in mind.

The only problem is that there's no real system to handle it.

The Wilderness in D&D

When looking to run something in an OSR game, the natural source of guidance are old-school texts.  First, we need to realize that wilderness travel and wilderness exploration are two different elements, though so closely interlinked that they're often treated as one and the same.  D&D covered travel, but not exploration: that is, the rules tell you how to get from A to B, but not much of what to do in the meantime.  Wilderness content is largely limited to random encounters and (in some versions) hunting and foraging for food; there's no mechanics for actually scouring an area, be it a hex or whatever.  The general assumption seems to have been that wilderness items were essentially location-based.  That is, you used the travel rules to go straight to the location you had in mind: there wouldn't be any wandering around looking for items or places of interest unless the DM first seeded it (or decided to spontaneously run with the results of a random encounter roll).  The exception was with goal-based exploration: in OD&D, players looking to place their eventual name-level fortress had to scout around to find a spot they liked, which could entail some general wandering about without a set destination in mind.  I'm not sure how often that happened outside of the core TSR gaming group, but it's there in the book.

Wilderness Travel

Like many things, how wilderness travel worked varied across the rulesets.  OD&D decided to piggyback on another set of rules: namely, Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival boardgame.

The whole OD&D travel ruleset: short and sweet
As you can see, this uses a hex-based system.  That is, there's not just the assumption of a hex map, but the hexes themselves are the main unit of overland travel.  It assumes a fixed hex size of 3 miles per hex, but that figure doesn't really matter: it's only there to give you some idea of what you're dealing with, rather than miles-based measurements having any effect on play.

It's actually quite an elegant system, but has the obvious shortfall of requiring another's company's product to run.  As TSR expanded and D&D moved into its own, doubtless the requirement for players to buy an Avalon Hill boardgame just to run this portion of the game seemed a needless one.

So, with AD&D we get a new system.  And it's not really a good one at all.

I could go into detail, but really, Delta has said it better than I could on his blog, so I'll just give a summary.  In short, though still assuming that you were using hexes as the base unit of interface, AD&D layered a miles-based system on top of it.  This enabled the game to break free from the need to have Outdoor Survival (I wonder how many copies were sold to OD&D players who were just looking to run their campaigns).  It also allowed DMs to vary the size of their hexes to suit their campaign scale.  However, the clash between hexes and miles resulted in some ugly kludges and a real pain when attempting to track movement, especially movement that crossed into terrain that gave movement modifiers.  It's really not satisfactory.  Unfortunately, it's the system that D&D wound up sticking with, also being used in B/X and BECMI.  Even as it was content to abstract in many other places, such as the 1-minute combat round, the 10-minute adventuring turn, gold into XP (hell, XP in general), and the concept of hit points, overland travel was left tied to a specific, granular, real-world measurement scale.

Wilderness Exploration

Regardless of how we get around the wilderness, what do we do when we're in it?  Fight and maybe eat, seems to be the answer.  Wilderness travel using the AD&D rules (which B/X and BECMI followed) was annoying, but resolveable: the real gap in the rules was the sense of the wilderness as a unique and separate playspace.  Conceptually, the wilderness in old-school D&D is a creative and mechanical void.

Fighting is simple: there are random encounter tables, and when you find a monster, roll your reaction check and see what they feel like doing, just like in a dungeon.  Hunting and foraging is in B/X and BECMI (the latter ruleset being an improvement over the B/X version), and is quite short and very easy to use.  But these do not inspire, and they don't offer a new mode of play that would compel someone to wander off into the forest or desert in search of adventure.  Instead, you're left with vaguaries.  For example, hunting and foraging rules were present (at least for Basic), but what did it mean when you ran out of food?  The rules didn't say.

That having been said, I don't think you need much in the way of rules to really make a wilderness-based game work: I don't think wilderness play fell off due to lack of rules, but lack of guidance.  Dungeoneering has long examples of play and construction guidelines in the rulebooks.  A dungeon's naturally constricted venue of play also makes it easier for a DM--especially a new one--to create something usable, whereas the very openness of wilderness play can be intimidating.  There are lots of dungeon modules out there to draw inspiration and guidance from.  Wilderness modules, on the other hand, tend to be plot-based adventures set against a wilderness backdrop: the wilderness is a mere touch of the exotic, rather than its own thing.  The Expert box set introduced wilderness mechanics as a major new item of play and its enclosed X1: Isle of Dread is the best official example of a pure wilderness module we have, but its format was abandoned immediately thereafter, the X line allowed to immediately devolve into generic D&D adventures that merely were built for the stated level range of the Expert box set (even if some of these were quite good at times).

At last conceptually, the best guide to wilderness exploration for the sake of wilderness exploration came from third-party products.  Judges Guild's Wilderlands of High Fantasy introduced the concept of the hexcrawl, not so much formally, with written examination and guidelines, but through example, given you a series of hexes and then a list of contents in those hexes.  The contents ranged from enemies, to mundane items (altars, tombstones), to treasure, to whole lost cities, all described in a line or two.  No exploration procedures were given--the assumption seems to be that when you entered the hex, you automatically found whatever was there--but the very idea that something could be done in this fashion expanded the possibilities of wilderness play.**

Additionally, the idea of wilderness exploration in general faded out because the idea of unguided exploration as a whole disappeared.  Sandbox play was something that died young in the history of D&D, players and DMs coming to prefer scripted encounters and story-based plotlines.  The idea of exploration for the sake of exploration--something a wilderness venue enables quite well--was thus something few seemed to be looking for.  The lack of rules and DM guidance mentioned above only compounded this.

What Does Wilderness Exploration Need?

In short, I feel wilderness exploration is overlooked because of a lack of concrete adventure material and general guidance, and a lack of a robust ruleset that creates new opportunities for wilderness play.  I don't think you need a fresh ruleset to run a hexcrawl or a wilderness sandbox in general (history makes this clear), but I think a good one would enhance the experience.

With all the above in mind, what do I think a wilderness ruleset meant to facilitate a hexcrawl needs?

  1. An elegant hex-based system for tracking overland travel.  No trying to mash hexes and miles together.  It needs to cleanly integrate mounts, weather, terrain, fatigue, and encumbrance with a base method of everyday travel.  Getting lost should be easy to adjudicate.  Overall, the first reaction of players and DMs when the wilderness map is brought out must not be a groan of dismay.  Ideally, there will be meaningful player choices available even here.
  2. Interactions and effects not already present in dungeon play.  For example, dungeons have the hunt for traps and secret doors, something that generally doesn't feature in wilderness or urban play.  Hunting and foraging is such a wilderness example, though ideally we're going to have something more interesting than "fending off starvation".  Weather is a similar one.  Random encounters, already a staple of D&D, simply need to fit in to whatever new is added.
  3. Player-facing mechanics.  As this is going to be offering a new style of play (or, more accurately, facilitating an uncommon and old style), it needs to be presented to the players rather than reserved for DMs, so that players have the rules in front of them to prompt them into choosing to go exploring, but also so that the choices made while exploring can be informed ones.

The second item is going to be the hardest, in that, thanks to the lack of a standard old-school template to draw off of, people have wildy varied ideas as to what wilderness exploration should even consist of and offer: not just in terms of granularity, but with regards to the base features available.  One person's Fantasy Vietnam survival game is another's freewheeling pauldroncore nonsense.

For myself, I can say that I'm less interested in creating a wilderness simulator than I am a vehicle for wilderness exploration.  In other words, I want more opportunities for adventure and a different style of play, rather than more realism.  I'm not looking for a lot of rules, but rather, just enough to facilitiate a hexcrawl.

In my next post I'll detail the system I've come up with, bearing in mind the above.

**Speaking of expanding the possibilities of play, the less said about the late 1st-edition product Wilderness Survival Guide, the better.  A book which had the opportunity to open up a whole new world of campaigning completely squandered the opportunity in order to add a host of fiddly, granular rules on top of the existing wilderness rules structure.  That is, rather than adding new modes of play, it added (unneeded) granularity to existing modes.  There was the occasional bit of useful material (though oddly based on character level, the jumping rules in particular are something I've found often strangely overlooked in rulesets, considering it's something every character can do and--with the number of pits and the like in dungeons--inevitably will want to do).  Overall though, it's a bust: detail for the sake of detail, naturalism at its worst.

14 April 2020

An Initial Look at The Halls of Arden Vul

First, I want to make clear that this is not a review.  A review means in-depth analysis, not a flip through its pages combined with surface impressions, which is what I'm going to give you.  Famed punk rock band Tenfootpole claims to be working on a proper review, and it will be far more thorough than this in the ways that matter.  I just wanted to give a bit more info than the usual publisher previews (though some of what's below is preview material), and in doing so start breaking down the material for my own understanding.

Basic Content

I'm sure you know what this is at this point: a 1,120-page megadungeon, in five volumes.  Volumes 1-3 are adventure content, while volume 4 is all the new ancillary stuff: 149 New Monsters, 332 New Magic Items, 69 New Technological Items, 44 New Spells.  Volume 5 contains the maps.

The text uses 10-pt Minion Pro, with spells and items separated out in a font reminiscent of 1st edition's Futura.  Layout is at once clean and stuffed.  Select use of bolding and whitespace means it's navigable, but of course you don't get 1,100+ pages in without a shitton of text.  In short, it could use more whitespace, but I figure even a half-point font increase would increase the page count by 10%.  So let's call it making the best of the situation.

One of the pieces I particularly like
Art is what you'd expect for the most part in an OSR project: classic black and white line art.  There are some nice full-pagers once in a while as you can see.  Overall, I have to admit that while art is important to me for my own projects, I rarely care about it in others so I'm not the best arbiter here.  I would only point out that with 1,100+ pages of content, art is going to be sparse.  I'd guess you're getting a piece on average about every 4-5 pages or so.  Most of it is new to my eyes, and so illustrates the dungeon rather than just filling space, though there are the occasional William McAusland and Dean Spencer stock art filler pieces.

Introductory Material

So what is it, exactly?  It's a lost city, long ago torn apart by civil war. It's broadly intended for 1st edition: you've got your nine-axis alignment on NPCs, 1st ed spells, etc.  It uses the OGL and OSRIC licenses.

And another.
The intended level range is for PCs of levels 1 to 12.  It has two different levels intended to start 1st level PCs off.  There's a table on p. 12 that shows dungeon level to PC level pair-ups.

There's a backstory, of course: I'd call it brief for 1,100+ pages.  For all that the OSR tends to hate backstory, you do need some of it to help the DM provide appropriate answers, especially for stuff like divination magic. Here it's especially important in order to make sense of the numerous factions, which I'll get to shortly.  There's a giant timeline as well, though this is clearly just for reference.

Design Principle: I always appreciate a section devoted to this, so long as the designer has something worth saying.  This one tells us we've got over 2,000 keyed encounter areas over 25 levels.  It also gives this useful bit:

the product is self-referential in numerous subtle ways. This means that actions taken by adventurers [on] one level can and will affect their adventures elsewhere in the Halls, sometimes in ways that they may not even realize. We have provided numerous cross-references which the GM can use to help keep track of how foolish or clever actions in one place might affect actions taken elsewhere. In this sense, the Halls are a living place, and the adventurers only one of many inputs that affect how the site evolves and changes.
This is key, as one of the more mockable dungeon design tropes is the monsters walled up in their individual cells, with no existence except to wait for the blessed day when the players throw open their door.  From what I've seen, the encounters often do have their own lives, moving about on their own and performing actions based on the existing dungeon denizens.  Based on my reading so far, the dungeon certainly holds up to the statement above.

General Construction Features: I think all dungeons should have these, as they affect basic flavour text but also how the dungeon reacts to certain spells, such as stone shape.  What's interesting here is that many of the factions within have done some of their own building, and so they have their own construction foibles.  Much of this here is fluff, but it does give you default door size and construction, whether they're locked or not, ceiling height.  I'd call it overly detailed, but its heart is in the right place.

The dungeon level to PC level pairing table, along with a shot of the Construction Features

Investigative Info: There's an allowance for sages or other NPCs in the wider world knowing about certain key dungeon areas, a nice touch that begins the process of imprinting the dungeon on your world.  It breaks these up by obscurity, although ultimately you're left to decide what differentiates the spread of knowledge on a "rare" location vs an "esoteric" location.  This is essentially an alternate-format rumour table, in that for each location there's what anyone who knows something would know, and then how accurate that info actually is.

Beyond that, we have a two different 100-entry rumour tables, one for adventurers and other folk that have been there, the other with historical-type information.  They both have your standard true or false natures.  These are good rumours too, with some mixed truth and falsehoods.  For example:

The Great Chasm is an important route to the lower levels (T). Or so my sources said. The problem? A tribe of trolls lives in the chasm (F). They ride on top of tamed giant spiders so they can scamper up and down the chasm walls (F).

Faction Table: 12 major factions, each with different relations to the others, ranging from not knowing who they are to hatred to neutrality to fondness to fear.  You then get about 20 pages to break this all down in detail.

Hooks: You get some standard stuff in this regard: missing person, missing thingymabob.  Then there's bits like get through a particular set of doors, or infiltrate a cult in the dungeon.  There's a good mix of fetch quests and exploration here.  There's even a table here on pp. 53-54 that shows all the captives you could rescue, who would want them back, and where they are.

There's a section offering apologetics for its unabashed usage of tech once in a while, a la Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.  It also offers ways to reskin the tech stuff for fantasy purists.  However, by and large this is a trad fantasy dungeon, not a tech-based one: this stuff is largely the province of just one of the twelve factions.  I do appreciate the designer flexibility of realizing some people are a little more insistent on their genre barriers, though.

The exception, rather than the rule

Adventuring Content

And so here we are: page 60 and we're at last ready to get underway with adventuring content.

First you have the outlying valley, the approaches to the dungeon.  This gives you stuff like village names and locations, fortifications nearby, natural features, local authorities. The surface of the ruined city has been deliberately left vague, so if you want to play there, you need to do some of the work yourself.  However, there is still two dozen pages of material for the surface, including some keyed areas and a few tables for encounters and goodies.

Okay, at this point we've in what we expect to see in a megadungeon, namely the actual dungeons.   The dungeon itself starts on p. 81.  Let's do a bit of selective digging and call up some points I think are worth highlighting.

For each level, there's a chart listing all other levels this level can access: a good choice.

Many levels have a graffiti table.  I like this: it essentially serves as supplementary rumour table, albeit a cryptic one.  I suspect in a lot of cases it's going to function akin to prophecy: players having something happen, checking their notes, and going "oh, that's what it was referring to".  But I still think they're fun.

Encounter Writeups

Room Titles are reasonably good.  All short, they make an effort at being descriptive.  Even something like Room 3-191 Empty Cave?, using a question mark to make clear that there's more going on than first appears.  Storage Chamber.  Misty Cave.  Black Light Zombies.  You get an idea of what's going on.

I'd say the general style is a Greg Gillespie-style classic vanilla: it tries to be thorough and creative within the scope of what we would call traditional old-school D&D: there's nothing Raggiesque here.  I have no issue with this, being a big fan of classic D&D: a desire to capture this spirit is what made me return to this via the OSR in the first place.  I'd also argue that there's room for creativity within the bounds of vanilla.  Room 8-76 has a room with warped flesheaters that are hanging around eternally feasting on the flank of a god who is partially projecting into this plane.  Twisted flesheaters endlessly carving off godsteaks is a great encounter.  In a module full of this, you'd wind up with gonzo, but it still clearly has a place in vanillaland.  Encounters like these aren't the norm, but it does go to show that there's more than orcs and goblins and whatnot within.

Encounter write-ups specifically swing between for the most part between one column and three lines.

The description style for an encounter is comprehensive by topic. That is, it breaks down key features paragraph by paragraph, dealing with them in their totality before moving to the next.  The advantage to this is that everything is together.  The downside is that you really don't get a quickie overview of a room, and the longer the room is, the more you have to read to provide the sort of PC-eye description you'd give to them when they first enter.

So here on p. 164, we have "Ancient Tombs and Halfling Camp".  We have walls, 3 sarcophagi, 3 candelebras near them.  So far, so good.  Then we have a northeast opening, and a parapet made of rubble across it, and some historical detail on the passage and dwarven stonework info.  Then, detail on a poison manufactory against the south wall, which is then like the parapet broken down to give you all the detail you might want for it.

Because most but not all of this gets its own paragraph, it's at least reasonably well ordered.  But it means a decent amount of reading for each room before you know you've told the party all the most relevant visual details.  It's the sort of writing style that calls for a highlighter, unfortunately.  Now, I want to emphasize that this isn't verbose.  There's a little pointless historical detail (e.g., for here in the stuff about the parapet), but not much.  It's more a matter of organization.  I prefer a summational room description style to let the DM be sure that they have everything visually distinct immediately at hand: "here's what immediately catches your eye when you walk in".  Such a style also facilitates the back and forth investigative dialogue between players and DM that's so the hallmark of old-school play.  Broadly, I think the text could use a bit more focus, especially considering how big this product is.  The longer the room entry, the more of a problem this is.

How I'd highlight the essentials

I do want to talk about some of the nice bits of room organization though.  We have a Tactical Note, so not everything is just charging you.  We have creature statblocks well separated out.  We have a separate treasure section, and even a GM Option section that suggests that maybe you want to put a bridge up here.

Again, not every room gets this sort of mammoth breakdown.  Flip the page and we have room 3-5A, which gets three lines.  The page after that and we have room 3-8 with 12 lines.  So it's not a wall of text for every room.

Overall, the description style is "reasonably short descriptive".  This is opposed to point-form terse (ultra-terse OSR style or early 1st ed), folksy conversational, or long-form descriptive (2nd ed or Wizards of the Coast style).  Here's another example:

"The upper register of the walls still bear evidence of the room’s original function as a Thothian audience hall: images of ibises, baboons, magical symbols, and cylindrically-hatted priests form a frieze along the upper register of the room."

I generally hate "used-to-bes", because 9 out of 10 times they're irrelevant.  Here, any player that's reached this point has probably clued in that Thoth is important to the area.  Basically, I think you could trim 5-10% of the module in the form of narrative links and historical "used-to-bes", though the result would be that some others would find the work overly sparse, I'm sure.  To me, this is an acceptable amount of such material: it doesn't make the module a slog or anything, and would only be noted by someone expecting either the much shorter or much longer forms of these entries.

Random Bits

Arden Vul doesn't provide us with a homebase area outside the dungeon, like Barrowmaze and Highfell does, for instance.  Instead, there's dungeon areas specifically geared to wider interactions, which I like.  Level 4, The Forum of Set, is a giant market and meeting area where the players can unload stuff without slogging back to civilization, buy new stuff, get info, and meet and greet the factions.  It's a great idea, and believable in a former city and a setting of this size.  There's some good smaller-scale personalities to interact with here in the form of merc parties and interesting vendors as well, with goods available beyond the usual weapons, armour, and 50 feet of rope.  These people have nice, workable personality notes to help run them, for example, "Sarcastic, impatient, sharp ears", or "Unctuous, obsequious, curious."  Slaves are regularly bought and sold here, though it doesn't descend into Gorean edgelord territory.

Area 4: The Forum of Set

In terms of treasure, even on the intro level there's an enormous haul, though it's in the delightfully assholish form of 220,000 coins (worth about 8,500 XP in all).  Then there's the main vault concealed by all this garbage, which has another 30K worth of stuff in a great mix of items ranging from gold statues to a gold-gilded bed to death masks to eggs.  It's not easy to find though, being behind two different secret doors.  An analysis of whether or not the adventure as a whole has enough bling would require close study and is beyond the scope of what I'm doing here.

As an aside, I'm not seeing any typos.  I do tend to notice these, being a writer myself, so while I'm not saying the thing is free of them, it's not egregious (I've found all of one).

Lastly, the size of this thing in PDF (which is how many people are going to come to it, as it's cheaper, and out first), is in *some* ways deceptive.  Just because the single work as a whole is 1120 pages doesn't mean you're *using* 1120 pages every second you're running this, anymore than, say, a guy with all the Forgotten Realm books needs to bring out every country guide to run an adventure in Waterdeep.  90% of the time you'll be referencing one of the volumes at a time, and none of the levels spill into other volumes and thus force you to use two at once.  In that light, on a session to session basis it wouldn't be much different than trying to run Barrowmaze or something of a similar length.  The dungeon is enormous, but it doesn't need to be shotgunned into your face as a whole at once.

Summing Up

So, is it worth it?  I certainly like what I see so far, but am well aware that it's the slightest skim over something this enormous, and I really hate glance-throughs masquerading as reviews, so I'm holding off still.

I think that even if you don't use this whole, you could easily steal mountains of it for your own games.  In terms of price, yes, it's expensive as all hell.  People in particular have complained about the cost of the PDF, but the idea that printing and warehousing are the only costs associated with creating a gamebook is a pernicious idea that needs to die.  You don't get three people labouring for multiple years on a multi-volume project without incurring significant costs in terms of layout time, art costs, and that little thing known as paying the writer.

14 January 2020

Across the Editions - Encumbrance

So in hindsight it was a terrible idea to start a blog just as my dissertation was ramping up.  I'd also like to thank Google for ensuring that all previous comments on this blog were deleted with the loss of Google+.

In any case, I was wrestling with the idea of encumbrance.  I want a system that falls in the happy valley between realism and complexity, both of which of course are subjective.  Perhaps it's better to say that I consider AD&D's "everything measured by coins, and everything measured" system overly fiddly, and 5th edition's "fuck it, carry whatever you want" idea to be far too generous.  OSR games are a matter of resource management, and if you can carry everything, there goes one of the central pillars.

When making a variant of an existing subsystem, I think it's vital to establish your baseline.  That is, presuming you want to capture an old-school experience, your ruleset should deliver something approaching old-school results, even if it does so in a different manner.  So what does that look like?

Our Baseline

Let's take a basic fighter and figure out what his item load is going to look like.  Our brave volunteer, Ricky the Burdened, carries:

Leather armour, dagger, longsword, shield, backpack, bedroll, one week’s iron rations, full waterskin, tinderbox, belt, clothes, hard boots, two large belt pouches

I've picked the above because to me it's an adventurer's baseline equipment.  Rope is important, but not everyone carries 50 feet of it.  Light sources are often essential, but some characters can see in the dark, and in other cases there's torchbearers to handle that.  Shield plus longsword is generally close to a two-handed sword in most editions, so that alternate weapon loadout doesn't have much of an effect here.  As for armour, fighters rarely just wear leather armour, but heavier protection comes with special rules and so I want to deal with that later.  Now, let's see what this basic load works out to in terms of encumbrance.

AD&D 1st Edition

Leather armour (150), dagger (10), longsword (60), shield (100), backpack (20), bedroll (no listing), one week’s iron rations (75), full waterskin (50), tinderbox (2), clothes (30), belt (3), hard boots (60), two large belt pouches (20)
TOTAL: 580 coins

In 1st edition there are four encumbrance categories, each of which varies based on the character's Strength score.  With STR 12-13, we're looking at this:

451-800 (-25% move)
801-1150 (-50% move)
1151+ (-75% move)

With STR 17, we're looking at this:
851-1200 (-25% move)
1201-1550 (-50% move)
1551+ (-75% move)

Assuming STR 13, brave Ricky here is encumbered, sitting at the first burden level before he touches a single optional item or finds any treasure.  In AD&D 1st ed, this means his movement drops by a quarter and he loses any Dex bonus to initiative.  As a consolation, he can carry a decent amount of additional weight while still remaining at this burden level.

What if we were to add armour to this?  As I mentioned earlier, it's handled specially here.  While your weight allowance increases as your Strength score climbs, most armour assigns an automatic burden level to its wearer regardless of Strength.  Leather armour has no special effect beyond its weight.  Chainmail (an affordable medium armour), on the other hand, weighs 300 coins, but also always encumbers the bearer, so that they automatically move to the first burden level regardless of their Strength or actual coinage load.  In the case of Ricky, switching from leather to chainmail would raise his item load to 730 coins.  The coinage doesn't actually change his encumbrance category, but takes a heavy toll of his remaining weight cushion, leaving him with only 70 coins before hitting the next category (-50% move, suggested -3 to initiative).

First edition is the only one where choosing a two-handed sword over longsword and shield makes a notable difference; the two-hander is 90 coins heavier.

As an aside, I strongly suggest getting a copy of Footprints #7, which wrestles the godawful layout of 1st edition's encumbrance information into something much easier to use, including noting the system's contradictions.


Leather armour (200), dagger (10), longsword (60), shield (100), EVERYTHING ELSE [backpack, bedroll, one week’s iron rations, full waterskin, tinderbox, clothes, belt, hard boots, two large belt pouches] (80)
TOTAL: 450 coins

In B/X, everything other than weapons, armour, treasure, and found non-basic items is abstracted into a flat 80-coin package.  Spikes, rope, rations, of any amount: 80 coins total.  Burden levels are fixed, so that your STR score has no effect on how much you can carry:

Burden Level
1) 400 coins or less OR unarmoured
2) 401-600 coins OR leather armoured (-25% move)
3) 601-800 coins OR metal armoured (-50% move)
4) 801-1600 coins OR metal armoured and carrying treasure (-75% move)

So if you have no armour, and are carrying 400 coins or less of gear, you use burden level 1.  If you have 401-600 coins, you use burden level 2.  Armour adds burden levels, e.g. 200 coins normally leaves you unburdened, but if you're wearing leather armour then you automatically move to burden level 2, or chainmail to level 3.  If Ricky is wearing leather, he's at burden level 2 and can carry up to 250 coins before moving to the next category; if he's wearing chainmail he's at burden level 2 (metal armour) but can carry up to 350 coins before hitting level 3.


Leather armour (200), dagger (10), longsword (60), shield (100), backpack (20), bedroll (--), one week’s iron rations (70), full waterskin (5), tinderbox (5), clothes (--), belt (--), hard boots (--), two large belt pouches (--)
TOTAL: 470 coins

Burden Level
1) 400 coins
2) 401-800 coins (-25% move)
3) 801-1200 coins (-50% move)
4) 1201-1600 coins (-75% move)
5) 1601-2400 coins (-87.5% move)

Basic gives a simplified version; this is the Expert version.  Though most people say that B/X and BECMI are identical other than layout, their encumbrance systems are quite different and, I think, the BECMI version is noticeably better in most ways.  It's simpler, doesn't have the strange "carry almost anything you want for 80 coins" kludge, and allows a character to actually carry a decent amount of coinage, essential in a game where your XP primarily comes from treasure.  Returning to Ricky, even in leather armour he's lightly burdened; in chainmail (+200 more than leather) he's the same, though at 670 coins he would be just over halfway through the first burden level.

AD&D 2nd Edition

Leather armour (15), dagger (1), longsword (4), shield (10), backpack (2), bedroll (--, though in 5th edition it weighs 7 lbs if you're hunting for a guideline), one week’s iron rations (--), full waterskin (1), tinderbox (--), clothes (5; includes belt and hard boots), two large belt pouches (2)
TOTAL: 40 pounds (47 with bedroll)

Second edition keeps 1st edition's separate categories by Strength score, but switches to pounds as the main unit of measurement.  Second ed doesn't bother giving a weight for a week of rations, interestingly enough, another sign of how it de-emphasizes old-school adventuring.  It also gives you two different optional systems to draw on, one of which is far too granular in terms of number of weight categories for my liking.  I'm presuming the simpler one below.  Of note is that, like BECMI, 2nd ed eliminates the automatic burden level for armour: it's just raw weight, so that a strong warrior can really move freely even in the heaviest of armours.

Our friend Ricky is unburdened in leather armour (unless you throw in the bedroll), and and at the first burden level in chainmail (+25 pounds over leather).  2nd ed uses 50 coins = 1 pound, so he can carry quite a bit of coinage.

With STR 12-13, we're looking at this:

46-69 (-33% move)
70-93 (-50% move)
94-117 (-66% move)
118-140 (-92% move -- Mv rate of 1)

With STR 17, we're looking at this:

86-121 (-33% move)
122-157 (-50% move)
158-193 (-66% move)
194-220 (-92% move -- Mv rate of 1)

Our Baseline Revisited

Depending on what system we use, assuming STR 13 (or any STR value, for B/X or BECMI), a starting fighter in leather armour is almost always at the first burden level (about -25% move) before we add any non-standard equipment or treasure.  If we replace our leather with chainmail, Ricky is always at such a level, with the sole exception of him being a 2nd ed character with 17+ STR.

Here's a quick side-by-side comparison of the systems:

Armour Automatic Burden
Weight Measure
Penalty Gradations
# of Burden Categories
Weight Categories
AD&D 1st ed
AD&D 2nd ed

Considering heavy armour (plate mail, field plate, or full plate), in recent years there’s been pushback against the very old idea that such left the wearer so inflexible and encumbered that you couldn’t mount their horse without help, pick yourself up if fallen, and the like.  Modern recreations have shown this to be garbage.  At the same time, it’s possible to go too far with this.  Heavy armour is encumbering: even if it doesn’t prevent you from performing many of the tasks it was commonly thought to, the weight ensures that you’re definitely slowed while doing them (see “Obstacle Run in Armour”, by Daniel Jacquet—his film recorded speed drops very close to half).  In D&D, heavy armour (field / full plate) weighs from 500 to 650 coins or 60 / 70 pounds; only a 2nd ed character with at least 18/01 STR can adventure without any burden level in full plate and the standard gear listed above.

So what am I looking for?  Ideally, I'd like a system that approaches B/X or BECMI in simplicity, allows an adventurer to have the basic level of gear without encumbrance, permits an adventurer to actually haul around a decent amount of XP in the form of coins, and recognizes that heavy armour is a serious load but allows armour lighter than this to be worn without automatic burden levels, and allows STR to affect one's carrying capacity.  In the future I'll look at how some retroclones approach the problem, and overall look to working out a system for myself.