Survivalist Gaming: Carry the Weight

Depending on your rules system, carry weight may or may not be a big issue. And frankly, even in systems wherein carry weight is a factor (most Dungeons and Dragons variants) it is an aspect of the game that will most likely be hand-waved away. Which is a legitimate option, taking carry weight into consideration necessitates a ton of book keeping. And if it’s not fun for your table, don’t do it.

But I’m going to make my best case for why you should consider adding carry weight considerations into your game.

An essential survival concern is that you need to stay mobile, and you can only carry so much. As I’ve stated before, the lives of most adventurers is fairly similar to the concept of post-apocalyptic survivors (whether the setting is post apocalyptic or not); they are called upon to protect and provide for themselves (with limited or nonexistant ability to request aid) and they’ll usually be forced by circumstance to keep moving.

One of the essential things that makes gaming fun is compelling choice. Which god does a character worship? How do they solve their problems? Learning (usually by doing) the answers to these questions plugs players into their characters.

So when’s the last time a character you were playing with had to choose between carrying that gold or another gallon of water? A magic weapon or the food that would keep them going another week?

That’s what a fixation on carry weight does; it creates increased area for compelling, difficult choices. When you can only carry so much, everything you carry becomes that much more precious. Each choice of object to take becomes telling to your character. In a real life example, while backpacking you might have to choose between packing an extra pair of underwear which -while it only adds a couple ounces- is that really something you want to carry everywhere? Especially, when adding weight will slow you down, tire you out, increase your exhaustion and possible increase the amount of food and water you need (which itself needs to be carried).

(Note: it’s possible it will be acceptible to minimize packed underwear, but never -ever- skip packing lots of extra socks.)

Carry weight is also an underutilized way to ‘balance’ martial and magical classes; to play to both of their strengths.

Magic/future tech can minimize these concerns (particularly with objects like the handy haversack or quintessential bag of holding) and allow characters to carry more than their strength might otherwise allow. But then, the issue becomes one of accessibility – decisions have to be made about what is kept readily accessible and out vs what has delayed availability. And a mistake here (I don’t need 4 health potions on my person, do I?) can make the difference between life and death.

Assuming you’re not utilizing a magical solution, you can buy a mule or a car in order to distribute weight onto a different creature/carrier. But then perhaps this can be stolen, perhaps it requires specialized care (which leads to different problems and solutions), and -again- there’s the issue of delayed accessibility.

Carry weight is -essentially- all about choices. You can’t carry everything, and so you have to choose. If you can magic/tech away your problems (say by creating water from thin air) then you have less concerns, but if you can’t then you have to think about how you’re going to meet your needs and that will often require a tool which is carried at the expense of carrying a little extra ammunition, a little extra of a necessity, or a little bit of comfort.

What your characters choose to carry says everything about them. You can hand wave it away if it’s less fun, but I for one am constantly looking to give characters creative restrictions and watching them figure out how to cope with them (while still avoiding turning roleplaying into mere ledger-keeping).

So what are ways that you’ve used carry weight to good effect? What suggestions do you have to make carry weight inspired choices feel ‘real’ and problematic while minimizing book keeping? Sound off in the comments.

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jmperkins

Action horror writer and freelance game designer J.M. Perkins pays his bills by working procurement for a biotech company and by making things up. He's got over 20 short stories, some game books, and a novel in print. His website is www.jmperkins.com he writes a fantasy tabletop setting built around the perpetual butchery of the Tarrasque called The City of Salt in Wounds, and you can buy his gaming book about surviving and thriving as the class everybody expects to die horribly The Adequate Commoner.