Monday 21 May 2012

Bloody Encumbrance

A slight detour before the final post in this set of introductory notes to look at encumbrance in AD&D.

Encumbrance is probably the most old-school mechanic in the game. Modern games have, like most AD&D DMs, tried to look for various simpler ways to handle encumbrance and many have simply given up on the whole topic and scrapped it, replacing it with guidelines like "just be reasonable". There's a few problems with this in AD&D. Primarily they are to do with the game's assumptions.

The glamour of low-level adventuring

AD&D is, as previously mentioned, frequently about resource management, at least at the system level. As the game progresses and the character increase in level the nature of the resources change as part of a general movement away from realism and into the fantastic.

For low level characters one of the things that they are limited by is carrying capacity. Take away this restriction and you make one aspect of low-level play a lot easier. You also negate one of the advantages of high strength scores.

So, my advice is to use the system as printed and see how it goes. Obviously, this assumes that you know what the system is, which is just a case of reading a section in the rule books, right?

Encumbrance has several aspects in AD&D: weight limits, bulk, and movement limits. These three factors feed into the character's weight limit, dexterity, and movement rate respectively.

A character can be unencumbered, moderately encumbered, encumbered, or overloaded (these terms are not consistently used in the rules). In game the effects of the first two are fairly clear; but the others are not defined anywhere in the rules.
  • Unencumbered: normal action; no effect.
  • Heavy: the character's dexterity bonuses for surprise and missile fire do not apply, although any armour class bonus does. Note that any penalties still apply. Movement is reduced by 3" from base.
  • Loaded: not only do bonuses not apply, but the character is "slowed" but no rules are given about what this means. Movement is reduced by 6" from base.
  • Maximum/encumbered: "slowed greatly". This is also not defined (edit: there is a +2 to-hit modifier, DMG p67),.  Movement is reduced by 9" from base.
Over the years, I've tried many definitions of "slowed" and "slowed greatly". At the moment my suggestion is that they are used as individual initiative modifiers of -1 and -2, with negative numbers being possible. I'll look at this more in the post about initiative.

1. Weight
"Loose" items only relate to weight, but shields also add bulk, and armour adds both armour and movement limits. Magical armour introduces probably the most well known of the rules' self-contradictions.

Here's a table based on strength of what each of these means in terms of weight limits (counted in gp values; 1gp=1/10th lb):


Thus, an average strength person (STR 11) can carry 35lbs (350gp) weight or less with no effects and can not carry more than 140lbs/1400gp. An 18/00 fighter can carry 110lbs without effect, and has a maximum carrying capacity of 440lbs.

2. Bulk
Armour and some shields are rated for bulk as either non-, fairly, or bulky. Basically, these set the character's minimum encumbrance regardless of weight carried as unencumbered, moderately encumbered, or heavily encumbered. Thus an average strength person carrying 500gp and wearing bulky armour is treated as being heavily encumbered rather than moderately. If carrying 1200gp they are still counted as being overloaded.

3. Base Move Rate
Each type of armour has in addition a maximum movement rate stated in inches. This is a slight tricky rule as it's not clear, for example, whether a character with a base 15" move is treated in the same way as a character with a 12" move rate. Adding to the complication is the question of what the demi-humans' move rates are since the rates given in the monster manual seem to allow for armour already.

In the dungeon this is no great issue as underground movement rates are so slow that the average dead dog could keep them up indefinitely; the limiting factor there is stealth rather than actual movement ability and the heavier armours' low move rates can be rationalized as reflecting the difficulty of moving quietly in them (or not - you don't have to rationalize anything if you don't want to). Over long distances outdoors, it's probably worth ignoring the question although you could reduce dwarf movement by 25% and halfling/gnome by 50% if you feel that the human rates are too unrealistic (you should also reduce weights of clothes, shields and armours by the same amount if you do this). I would leave elves at 12" movement.

It's Magic. Or is it?
And now the contradiction. The DMG tells us that magical armour is half the weight of non-magical armour and one step better maximum movement (p28) and that it is weightless and imposes no movement limitation at all (p164). Which is right? The DM can pick, but I generally use the difference between chainmail and elfin chainmail as the basis so that magical armour is:
  • Half the weight
  • One step less bulky
  • One step less restrictive to movement.
Magical shields weigh the same as non-magical shields, although you might want to overrule that either for particular shields or for all. Note that a large shield is bulky and I'd certainly reduce that to fairly-bulky for magical ones.

Magical weapons have no special weight or handling rules by default.

So, in summary, a human fighter with STR-17 wearing magical platemail and carrying a large shield and bastard sword, backpack with change of clothes a tinderbox and half a dozen torches, 50' of rope, a flagon of beer (1 quart), and a sack with 120 gold pieces is carrying a total weight of 902gp. This would make him moderately encumbered with a movement of 9" but the large shield is bulky and makes him encumbered, with a move rate of 6" and the penalty of being "slowed".

Generally, speaking, large shields are not designed for mobility, although I would recommend discarding the bulk penalty when used on horseback as per the Normans (replacing that penalty with a restriction on which flank the shield protects).

That's plenty on encumbrance for now except to point out that when using the encumbrance rules there are armours which simply are inferior in all ways, including cost. However, not every campaign will allow all armour types to be available and still less so individual towns and villages within a campaign.

Onwards - to initiative via surprise!


  1. The encumbrance rules for magical armour is one aspect I have decided to ignore. Same weight, bulk and movement rates as non-magical armour; I am not totally satisfied with that, but more so than choosing between the two possibilities.

  2. It depends on the visualization you have of the world, I think - Excalibur style leaping about, or Aguirre, Wrath of God grind. Many players like the idea of being able to move 12" in their platemail but I've found that the ones with wargaming backgrounds think it's as silly as Yellow Submarine (hmmm...possible game setting there!)

  3. I should add that I am not averse to armour that is less encumbering than the standard, I just figure it should be a specific property (as with elvish mail), rather than an assumed one for all magical armour.

  4. My interpretation of "magical armour is half the weight of non-magical armour and one step better maximum movement (p28) and that it is weightless and imposes no movement limitation at all (p164)" is that magical armour is always non-bulky, weighs half, and grants movement one tier better.

  5. According to page 102 of the players handbook, equipment must be both heavy AND bulky to heavily encumber. Therefore weight allowance can raise a character to 9 move in platemail, just as if they were wearing Banded Mail. Base move is not max move; it is the adjusted movement of an average strength character wearing that armor. I know this is an unpopular view but a careful examination of all rules supports it fully

    1. I'm not seeing that. I see "and/or" not just "and". What it's saying is that having BOTH heavy equipment and bulky armour is no worse than having one or the other.