Friday, July 10, 2020

A Dagger in the Boot: Gygax's Location-Based Encumbrance of the 1970s

Location-based Encumbrance in the Lost Caverns of Tsojconth

Encumbrance, while often ignored, has been part of D&D since the first published rules.

An entire page of OD&D Vol 1 (Men & Magic) is given over to item weights and how this affects movement. Instead of detailing every item of Equipment, this list focuses mostly on specific weights for armor, weapons and gold pieces, with "Miscellaneous Equipment (ropes, spikes, bags, etc)" being equivalent to 80 gold pieces (8 lbs). A few other treasures are also given weights such as scrolls, jewelry, gems, potions, wands & staves. 

Even a simplified system like this is easily ignored during actual play, which may be why Holmes left this list out of the manuscript for Basic D&D, only including "fully armored" or "heavily loaded" (left undefined) as categories in the Movement table. Gygax apparently did not want to go this far, as he added in a section titled "Encumbrance" to the rulebook as published. Even so, Gygax left out the specific weights that had appeared in OD&D. Instead he just references the "miscellaneous equipment" (giving it as 75 pounds minimum here), and then outlines what is essentially an alternate system where the only weight that is tracked is that of coins (600 coins / 60 lbs being "heavily loaded"), together with suggesting that each PC list where other items would be carried:

As you can see, this adds some nice flavor to a character's list of equipment, such as Malchor's hidden dagger and purse. It also fixes in place the locations of these items, making it easier for the DM to judge how quickly an item can be used in melee. And the right and left hand notations fit nicely with the rule in Holmes Basic (taken from OD&D) that a surprised character has a 1 in 6 chance of dropping a held item when surprised. 

Gygax didn't use this location-based system only in Basic. His pre-generated characters in Lost Caverns of Tsojconth, the 1976 tournament version of S4 The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, have equipment written up in a similar format. The picture at the top of this post shows the items for the first pre-gen, and here is the second:

We can see from the three above examples that Gygax favored a small sack slung over the shoulder, holding holy water, oil and/or potions of healing, presumably at-hand for quick use during melee.

This system is also suggested by the 1977 D&D character sheets, published the same year as Holmes Basic. These sheets are ostensibly for OD&D but contain some proto-AD&Disms, such as ten armor classes (ACs). The top of the flip side of the sheet contains space to list the "Distribution of All Items Carried". There's no dedicated space for recording items weights, just location carried, but the bottom of the page does ask for "Total Extra Weight Able to Carry" at normal or encumbered movements, and an adjustment for Strength, per the table in Supplement I: Greyhawk. So the implication here is that both the location and the weight of items would be recorded:

AD&D was slow to elaborate its rules for Encumbrance. The Players Handbook (1978) contains weights for weapons, but nothing else, and a very short section on Encumbrance on page 101-102 mostly indicating how weight would affect movement. 

When the Dungeon Masters Guide was first published, in August 1979, the further rules  for encumbrance were limited to types of armor in the section "Types of Armor & Encumbrance"; for more on these, see my post on Gygaxian Armor

The weights for other items didn't appear until the end of that year, when a revised DMG appeared (labeled "Revised Printing - December 1979"), including a new "Appendix O: Encumbrance of Standard Items". This section harkens back to OD&D by providing a list of items and their equivalent weight in gold pieces. It mostly leaves out weapons and armor, as they were detailed elsewhere, but does include a few more of these items such as bows and helmets. The list covers most of the Miscellaneous Items from the Equipment list in the PHB, and even adds a few items not otherwise explained the AD&D rules such as caltrops and the grapnel (aka grappling hook), a fan favorite of D&D players over the years.

In addition, the accompanying text provides an example describing how two adventurers, Dimwall and Drudge, carry their equipment in a manner similar to that of the Tsojconth and Holmes Basic, except that it is written out descriptively rather than as a list.

Also out in 1979 was the set of AD&D Player Character Record Sheets, which followed the earlier sheets including a section, again at the top of the reverse, noting where each item was carried, but also including a dedicated space for each item this time. So again, the implication here is that both methods would be used, weight and location.

AD&D Player Character Record Sheet, reverse side. Source: Ebay

When the new Moldvay-edited Basic Set was released in 1981, it returned to the weight-based Encumbrance system of OD&D (page B20), but with no mention of Gygax's alternate or supplemental location-based system. The 1980 PC record sheets that went along with this set also lacked any dedicated spaces for noting item location or weight. 

Overall, it seems that this system of listing out item locations is mostly forgotten or overlooked because it featured prominently only in the Holmes Basic. In OD&D, it only appeared on late-appearing character sheets; in AD&D, it was relegated to several dense paragraphs in an appendix and the back of character sheets that players only occasionally used; and in B/X it was left out entirely.

[I started writing this post last year & just finished it up! --- Z]


  1. Soon after I started playing, I designed "reusable" equipment sheets and included location without having seen those examples before. It just makes sense. When I play in a campaign, I always include the "where it is" info on my character sheet, regardless of whether the DM cares for it or not. It just helps me visualize my character.

  2. I think one reason Encumbrance got a bad rap was that tracking in it in gold pieces equivalents is very precise. Because a gold piece is a fraction of a pound, this encouraged extremely fiddly measurements - or none at all.

    The early editions of Runequest (1978) always seemed to have the best version: Enc was measured in "things" with a general rule being: carry about as many as your Strength, and a 1-handed item you can hang on a bet is 1 thing, a 2-handed or bulky item is 2 things, and a dagger or smaller item is 1/2 thing, and a sack of stuff is about 1 thing for every 100 coins. Armor is about 1 thing if light, 2 if medium (mail), or 3 if heavy. I remember when we started importing this system, people actually *used* Encumbrance.

    1. Dan “Delta” Collins uses a very similar abstract system with the English measurement “stone” replacing “thing.”

  3. @ Zenopus:

    This is fascinating stuff. Was there a set of character record sheets produced PRIOR to the AD&D sheets (which listed weight and location both)?

    1. The 1977 sheets that I show above are the immediate predecessor to the AD&D sheets. They don't have a space for Weight, only Location, but imply that weight will be added up as well to determine how much extra treasure can be carried. Note that OD&D only gives weights for weapons, armor, "miscellaneous equipment" (8 lbs in aggregate), and various types of treasure.