Monday, September 9, 2019

A NOTE: On Encumbrance, Treasure and Session Structure

Recently I’ve discussed the importance of resource based risks to classic play, and perhaps offered a reason to use this play style, but I’ve saved the most important element of meaningfully including supplies in your game until now. Risks and tables that offer dire consequences for characters who fail to appreciate them are maybe interesting, but they’re superfluous if they never have a chance to enter play, which requires limiting player supply. The primary way to limit supply is Encumbrance. The amount of equipment, weapons and armor that a character or party of characters can carry in game is important because it provides a clear metric of character strength beyond hit points that makes intuitive sense to any player, and with proper rules can make mechanical sense in a dungeon crawl (see The Risk Economy Part II).




When I was a kid, playing Basic Dungeons and Dragons after school in a friends basement around 1986, one of the game events that upset me the most was an encounter with a ‘Rust Monster’. The propeller tailed, bug thing completely devoured out fighters’ weapons and armor before being killed. A prized +2 sword was reduced to a jagged crumbling shard of metal and both me and the other two players were aghast at the horror visited upon us. The Rust Monster is one of the uniquely Dungeons & Dragons creatures that Gary Gygax invented from a bag of plastic toy “dinosaurs”, but more than any of those others: the Bulette, the Owlbear and perhaps the Umber Hulk, the Rust Monster is a monster tied to the exploration side of the game. It doesn’t do much harm to characters’ hit points, but it destroys the party’s ability to engage in combat with other enemies, dramatically increasing the risk of further adventuring because it attacks equipment rather than hit points. It upset us young players for precisely this reason, because it operated outside the structure of risks and rewards we expected. It was such a scandalizing outrage that I still remember it because equipment (especially that magic sword) is something that D&D players value greatly but view as static, and because its destruction made a great deal of obvious sense.

The rust monster's natural form
 The Rust Monster itself looks a bit goofy, but there’s nothing wrong with what it represents, a novel danger or obstacle for the players to think around. It’s a trick monster, but notably the Rust Monster’s trick, while dangerous, doesn’t represent a danger of immediate death for a character. The loss of equipment hurts a character effectiveness and increases overall risk and is difficult to replace in the adventure locale, but it has an intuitive logic - tools break - and so it doesn’t feel like a gamified and artificial mechanic. There’s an important distinction her though, as much as Rust Monsters, prying open doors, rolling down slopes of jagged scree and wedging moving walls apart make losing weapons or armor make sense, weapons, armor and magic items are generally considered permanent - players don’t expect them to be exhausted, while other items are disposable. Food, light sources (including oil bombs), scrolls, potions and a few mundane supplies like iron spikes are something that players expect to exhaust during the adventure and resupply in town. It’s useful to make a distinction between these types of supplies - semi-permanent equipment and usually the easily exhausted consumables (or supplies).

Risk to character equipment has a history beyond special monsters such as oozes and the rust monster, and the AD&D includes a set of saving throws for equipment based on its material and various types of disasters. Potions boil, freeze and shatter while scrolls survive falls and “crushing blows” with ease. It’s a fairly functional system really, applying both to the loss of player items in trying circumstances and player character efforts to destroy mundane objects: cutting ropes, burning down doors and such.

AD&D Monster Manual Rust Monster
David C. Sutherland III (?)
5th Edition also makes some nods to the possibility of equipment destruction, thought it seems more concerned with players destroying obstacles and dungeon furniture.“When characters need to saw through ropes, shatter a window, or smash a vampire's coffin, the only hard and fast rule is this: given enough time and the right tools, characters can destroy any destructible object. Use common sense when determining a character's success at damaging an object. Can a fighter cut through a section of a stone wall with a sword? No, the sword is likely to break before the wall does.” - 5th Edition Dungeon Masters’ Guide, Pg. 245. Afterwards the 5th Edition Guide provides useful rules for item Armor Class, Hit Points and damage reductions/thresholds to make durable objects stronger.

The burdensome nature of these rules (or punitive one if used in every situation where they might apply - do all the items in a PC’s pack need to save after every blow, after every battle?) makes them something that often gets forgotten in play, but exact method (the saving throws above, or perhaps a simple X in 6 chance of breakage) is unimportant and can be streamlined or applied only in extreme situations. The special revulsion and horror that I showed towards the rust monster as a young player shows that risks to character equipment remains a valuable tool for a GM who wants to expand risk while attacking something other then character HP, but like most serious risks, if a character would have a chance to evaluate risk of breaking an item then the player should be forewarned.

Old Games

Let’s talk about old tabletop roleplaying games - specifically the kind of games played in the 1980’s and recently depicted in the nostalgia...