Wednesday, February 16, 2011

DM's Corner: The Devil's in the Details

How much detail should you go into in a game before the whole thing collapses under it's own weight?

Do you track food and water for the party?
Does each character have to keep a running tally of encumbrance?

They may seem like minor details, but I find they can be a great source of plot hooks and sometime necessary information.

Lembas, part of this good, nutritious breakfast
Lets talk about food and water first. Granted, you can easily assume that the party can hunt and forage for food and water. Or you can take for granted that they stock up on food in town before heading off into the wilderness to avoid the tedium of tracking how much they have on a given day, but that can also do a dis-service to your game. Say you want to surprise the party with a little "survival" adventure where they are lost in the desert and need to use their wits to survive, but not for a few days. If you have never tracked food and water before, and are suddenly asking them to do so, would it ruin the surprise? Would you have a party of adventurers who now know they are going to be starving and dehydrated pretty soon? Of course. Now, it may not be a huge problem to suddenly say "By the way, you've been in the desert for 6 days now, and you're out of food and water" to get the survival ball rolling, but would the players then feel slighted that they weren't allowed to prepare properly?

By keeping track of food and water, even if it is at a cursory level, at least they have the opportunity to be prepared at all times and maybe that will alleviate the feelings of "railroading" that they may have.

Where's he gonna carry all the loot?
Now, lets talk about encumbrance. I think this is the most overlooked, or flat out ignored, aspect of RPGs. No one wants to keep track of how much every little piece of equipment weights at all times. What if I use up a candle or a flask of oil? Do I really need to keep track of how much my chalk and hand mirror weight? but what happens when they slay the dragon and are faced with a massive treasure horde? Do you NOW expect them to calculate how much they are carrying to determine how many copper pieces they can take home with them? It would almost feel like a punishment to balance their reward. What about the dreaded river crossing when one of the party inevitably falls in and you have to decide if he's sinking or swimming? Do you wait till that moment to decide how much his gear weights and if he's strong enough to dog-paddle to shore? Couldn't it be more of a team building exercise to have the party do a little prep work BEFORE they leave town to determine who is carrying what? And maybe those strong fighter types can help alleviate some of those pesky items that the wizard has to carry so he can bring an extra spell book. After all, isn't that what you would do in real life before going on a hiking trip? And all of this can add to adventure tension when the party gets split and one character has the vital piece of equipment that the other half needs.

Note the lack of actual gear
I am as guilty as anyone of skipping these important details. Brushing them off as "too realistic" for a fantasy game. This is supposed to be fun, not work. But part of the fun, to me anyways, is making it feel a little more realistic. Let the party sit for a few minutes before they set off to determine a few things like: How long they will march each day, what they will do before camping for the night, who will be on watch and when, who is carrying the extra bandages and oil flasks they'll need once they get to the dungeon. It may seem like over kill, but I've always found that they gain a sense of camaraderie by all taking part in planning their trip and not just rolling dice once they get there. Plus it makes for some good player/ character interaction that sometimes goes missing in games.


  1. I think that the keyword here is "reasonable".
    I do not keep track of every ration or ounce of equipment my players are carrying, but i can imigine myself put in front of my players all the problems you mentioned.

    If they have to cross a river, I'll warn them BEFORE the crossing that guys in heavy armor will have problems.
    If they end up in the middle of the deseert I assume they packed reasonable rations and water to go where they where going.
    If they find a dragon's treasure, i will ask them "how do you plan to carry this?"

    Rations and encoumberance are ment to be part of interesting scenes, not boring ones.
    For the same reason all the girls are perfectly shaven if they want to and never got their period (and boys don't have erectile disfuntions ^_^)

  2. I'm a lil bit anal about encumbrance, gear stowage, light sources and the like, but we seems to have hit a happy balance by using various oft-overlooked bits of the B/X rules (foraging + hunting, rest requirements, need for tools to break in dungeon doors, etc.), the Tekumel:EPT rules for light (1 lantern per 5 people, or you're working in each others shadows), and by ripping off LotFP's "one line item = 1 unit of enc." rule.

    Resupply is handled with the "pay 1% of XP" upkeep rule: that buys back expended ammo, spikes, rations, etc.
    Shopping for new equipment (and squabbling about who carries it) is all part of the fun of town.

    The above are all rules-light enough that I can remember them in the heat of play, but concrete enough in effect that people suddenly begin to pay attention to who has the lamp oil, or who packed what kit.

  3. @Chris, those are some descent ideas. You still get a little realism without it overtaking your fun. And I think that's the balance you need to find; how real can you make it before it stops being a game and starts being a simulation.

  4. The main thing to look out for would be food and water. In MY sessions, of course! :) I don't keep track of encumbrance and such.

    International calls

  5. Perhaps it was because my friends and I were all in the Boy Scouts and did a lot of camping, but we knew first hand how much gear you could fit in a pack and carry all day. We weren't sticklers to the encumbrance rules (or any rules for that matter), but we did follow them in a general fashion. We were allowed to keep any reasonable amount of equipment in our packs. The rest of the equipment was left at the base-camp with the mules, ½ the hirelings, and any PC who didn't make it to game night.

    River crossings could be a big problem. Once, my dwarf (in plate and loaded with treasure) went over the brink and into the drink while crossing a rickety rope bridge. He quickly sank straight to the bottom. Luckily, I had the forethought to tie him off to a long rope. Unfortunately, my companions waited until they had all crossed the river until pulling him out because, “the dwarf's Dex is so bad, he will just fall in again anyway.” To add insult to injury, they stripped him of treasure and left his drowned corpse on the river bank.


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