Midian: Dark Fantasy Role Playing Game Wiki
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Midian: Dark Fantasy Role Playing Game Wiki

Encumbrance is an oft-lamented part of most games' rules. While most people would agree that, yes, it is good to have encumbrance rules in a game, a large number of players and game masters don't use them very often. Since Midian is more of an urban horror game than a dungeon crawler, how we handle a character's belongings will be a bit different than what works for D&D, or similar games. Midian shines with attention to detail, and detailed equipment lists--with its attendant many small items and accompanying descriptions--have always been a part of this. Whether or not you have the right item, right now, can make or break an encounter. On the other hand, it makes more sense for a character to not be perpetually bogged down as though hiking through the wilderness when you're just going to your neighbourhood bar. Equipment should be mostly kept at home (which isn't too far for most characters, most of the time) whether that be in your apartment, at your castle, below decks aboard ship, or just in saddlebags on your horse.

Midian currently uses a dual load system. That is, we separate moving from attacking. How bogged down you are is sorted into 6+ load levels: none, light, medium, heavy, very heavy, and heroic. Mostly, this is determined by your weapon and armour, and is otherwise pretty fuzzy. While solving logistics puzzles is an important part of Midian's design, it's not a key feature. I tried to keep the things affected by load level believable, but not overwhelming. I would also like the system to support the differences in fighting styles between a heavily armoured knight, a lightly armoured skirmisher, and an unarmoured brawler. However, the system as it stands may not be up to the task. I've considered mandating that a character sheet specify where an item is carried (and the very earliest versions of Midian did this) but that quickly devolves into 'everything goes in the backpack/saddlebag'. Another possibility is flipping the system: add bonuses for lighter load levels. The drawback there is with skills/actions that some players are going to think that being naked should thereby grant a bonus to craft skills. Also, many baselines (such as running speed) assume a light or no load.

Some games completely do without any sort of encumbrance system. Mostly these are video games--ironically, as it would be trivially easy to implement when the computer tracks that for you--but lighter proper roleplaying games that have no emphasis on equipment might dispense with such rules as well. The chief problem with no rules for weight carried is one of verisimilitude. The stereotypical FPS warrior has a score of weapons on his back--some of them even crew-served--that are instantly available, and don't get in the way of running, jumping, ducking, or crawling through the level. If you take a step back, one would see a giant mass of barrels sticking out of this spud's back, or a team of gun caddys handing him whatever weapon is requested, but somehow never otherwise helping or getting shot at themselves. 'Kitchen sink' equipment lists are bad enough as it is, and I'd prefer a system that avoids encouraging these. I've seriously gamed with someone who--in the middle of a dungeon crawl, and after narrowly escaping slavers by both climbing through narrow caves and swimming a subterranean stream--wanted to throw livestock and furniture down on top of an enemy. He didn't have his weapons (due to the aforementioned narrow escape) but decided that his warhorse, pack horse, bed, dresser, etc. were all listed on his equipment list, and thus somehow still on his person and available as makeshift ammo.

The grandparent of all encumbrance systems (as with most subsystems) is D&D. This is also likely the most complex and involved as well. Here, every pound and ounce is accounted for, with some items counting as greater than their actual mass, due to their size, unwieldiness, or difficulty in packing. Earlier editions of the game used coins as the unit of weight. A large chart is referenced, comparing the current load to the specific Strength score, as it affects each point of movement. Editions that have load groups rather than individual movement points have encumbrance affect more game mechanics. Given D&D's emphasis on equipment, this approach still doesn't ameliorate the 'kitchen sink' equipment list problem. This is also substantially more work than what most Midian players are willing to tolerate. 5th edition's encumbrance rules are probably the best (and simplest) but, like in every other incarnation of D&D, still involve tracking the specific weight carried.

A simpler encumbrance system is used by the Palladium family of games. There is a nominal carrying weight and a maximum weight. These are based on your Strength score (though the differing types of Strength can make figuring this harder than it perhaps should) and anything between 'carry' and 'maximum' means that you are barely able to lift and move that weight at all. Climbing and stealth (sometimes just the latter) are also reduced, based solely on the armour worn. That's pretty much it. Though simple and easy to use, this system does little to address the issues that I would prefer in an encumbrance system, namely the differing fighting styles and excessively large lists. It also still involves tracking the weight of individual items, something that is sparsely provided. Palladium certainly favours heavy combat; I'll remind the reader that the majority of their games strongly feature heavily armoured characters, and that this is the publisher that introduced weapon porn books into roleplaying.

I have seen a few approaches over the years to try and redo encumbrance, in order to make it more wieldy. Mostly these have been for older versions of D&D, but the sorts of people who like hacking RPG rulesets overlap quite a bit with the sort who blog about oldschool D&D. These older editions also serve as an effective common language for gamers. Among these rule fix attempts have been: to use the stone as the base unit of weight--the larger mass being more coarsely granular, and easier to both visualise and track--and character sheet based efforts whereby a constrained equipment list uses encumbrance benchmarks, limited item slots, &/or location-based tracking. Torchbearer (kind of) has a neat little rule where you list things in your backpack in order, so that the top of the list is what's at the top of your backpack, but I can see this as more of an initiative modifier than an encumbrance solution. Now that I'm thinking about it, this can be useful to help address D-purses, wagons, and other large storage items as well. The list should go in reverse order though, since the last thing added to the list will be the thing on top of the container, unless it's repacked.

Perhaps the goals I'm after are mutually exclusive. I would like a system that is quick and easy to use, but still believable. I want to encourage different fighting styles--and have this be a realistic choice, based on the character--while not being just a binary heavy/armoured versus light/unencumbered option. I would like characters to still be able to accumulate or create stuff, creatively using the green towels they found a few weeks ago, without simply shoving everything that isn't nailed down into a hammerspace backpack. This is especially true for tech-type, craftsman, or Batman-inspired crazy-prepared characters. Along with walking arsenals, these are valid playing styles/character concepts, and as should be mechanically supported, but not as the default. I certainly want there to be something for load/encumbrance; let's face it, there's a reason why athletes in most sports wear as little as possible. There's also something to be said for fashionable attire--for both men and women--to have clean lines rather than lots of bulging pockets, so the social dimension can be affected just as much as the physical. Just giving everyone a 'Santa sack' merely avoids the issue, rather than corrects it. If nothing else, limiting the amount of junk that can be carried creates a good reason to set up some sort of home base, with its attendant plot benefits.

Checking the Internet, consensus would seem to be 'simpler is better' or outright 'ignore unless necessary'. This is true even from my own table. On the other hand, I'd greatly prefer Midian characters not become the Junk Lady from Labyrinth. Hells, I'm one of the worst offenders for over-large equipment lists.

My current thinking is to keep the mechanics as-is, but add better explanations (with examples) of what the different load levels really mean. I can take a tripartite approach. That is, have a reward for the detailed list (predominantly of character appearance and background in nature) focus mechanically on weapons and armour (the bulkiest items, and where the mechanics most matter) and finally have bulk equipment lumped into fuzzy categories while requiring specificity on location. I can augment this with mechanical support for people who'd rather not focus on equipment whatsoever, such as Wealth Dice, or Common Sense checks to see if a needed item is at available.

Is the current version of the Midian guidelines worthwhile? If we change them, then how? Should we continue to determine load mostly by just eyeballing it? Should they be fuzzier? Should we alter the affected mechanics so that the skill penalty for armour is doing more of the work? Would something as simple as an experience point bonus for 'passing an encumbrance audit' or social bonus for lower load levels be helpful? Re-add the location guideline (which is becoming more appealing as I write this)? Am I overthinking this? Should I just better clarify the extant guidelines? (I think I have something somewhere already.) Any other ideas or comments?

tl;dr I want to simultaneously encourage detailed lists of things like your character's jewellery, while discouraging people who basically want to run around with an entire Wal-Mart in their pocket. I also want whether one is a light, medium, or heavy fighter to be a valid choice.

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