The Lost Art of Packing It All In
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    The Lost Art of Packing It All In

    The Dungeons & Dragons' rules set encompasses a variety of games within it, including the game of logistics. Players and Dungeon Masters alike have a love/hate relationship with logistics; some groups count every item in inventory while others handwave the process of carrying equipment entirely. Given how often gamers ignore logistics, it begs the question: why have it at all?

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    It's Only Logistics, Captain

    Jon Peterson identifies three modes of play in Dungeons & Dragons in Playing at the World:

    ...a mode of exploration, traveling through potentially dangerous places; a mode of combat, when danger manifests; and a mode of logistics, when dealing with the consequences of an expedition or preparing a new one. By rationing out these modes judiciously, a referee creates a dramatic blend of tension, catharsis and banality that keeps the adventures fresh, impactful and plausible for the players.

    Of the three modes, combat gets the most attention in D&D, with travel and logistics less so. And yet logistics is the glue that holds the other two modes together -- logistics come into play when characters acquire loot in the dungeon and what they do with the loot afterward. It can affect combat if the player has too much or too little of something, and it can slow or speed up travel or aid in exploration.

    Into the dramatic structure of Dungeons & Dragons, the mode of logistics injects some much-needed banality: after the suspense of exploring and the adrenaline of bloodshed, the chores of logistics, even when they border on tedium, serve as an important counterweight to adventures. The necessity of performing these mundane tasks also contributes to the realism and immersion of the simulation; surely administering the removal of loot would pose almost as much of a challenge in the overthrow of dragons as the messy slaying.

    Peterson calls logistical management the "weekend" for adventurers:

    From a perspective of dramatic pacing, the mode of logistics is also the weekend of adventurers, providing a necessary lull in the stress of exploration and the strain of combat. It furthermore allows players to squirrel away the spoils they have accumulated to date, so as not to risk them while adventuring.

    Logistics is the very first part of the game that most players are introduced to. Given its complexity, it can also be the first part of the game that turns them off.

    Unpacking Inventory

    There are three logistical components of inventory management. The first is treasure, acquiring and spending currency for other items. The second is placing them in the character's possession, keeping track of it all so that the character knows how many arrows were fired or how many charges are left in a wand. The third and sometimes ignored component is encumbrance, be it weight or space -- even if a character could feasibly carry everything he can't necessarily use everything.

    Treasure

    Adventurers begin most role-playing games by purchasing equipment. Peterson explains how treasure management is its own game:

    ...the process of physically removing treasure from a dungeon, and dealing with its dispersal afterwards, is a significant component of the game of Dungeons & Dragons. Because of the factor of encumbrance, the material a character brings into a dungeon limits the amount of new items that can feasibly be acquired. Even when plunder has been removed from the dungeon, coins must be stored and other prizes must be sold, if only to get them off an adventurerĺs back. With newfound lucre, characters may re-equip themselves, research new spells, or put a down payment on that citadel in the hills

    The many forms of currency pose their own challenge, as copper and silver are less valuable (and thus cost more from an encumbrance perspective) to carry out of the dungeon:

    In an encounter on the first level of a dungeon, one might find thousands of coins, and without a substantial party, hauling the stuff out of pits requires serious logistical preparations. Copper and silver pieces seem to exist in Dungeons & Dragons for no reason other than to value themselves less than gold pieces and encumber their finders. Hirelings, and to some degree mules, can mitigate these difficulties, but both require supervision, to ward against attack and wanderlust bothŚ the proclivity toward the latter probably increasing with the value of the baggage. Even leaving much of the loot in situ and making multiple trips back and forth between town risks claim-jumpers or other self-appointed custodians of the stash.

    Management of treasure has increasingly fallen out of favor as it can get in the way of narrative play, but in sandbox style gaming it is an important limitation. Some games ignore the weight of treasure, while others convert treasure to gold without worrying about taxes. This led to the phrase "Greyhawking the dungeon":

    "Plunder everything that isn't nailed down. Then take everything that IS nailed down. THEN take the nails from the walls. Finally, take the walls." Presumed to have started because RPGA started assuming players acquired all available treasure, so if you didn't take literally everything, you were behind the curve.

    In modern games where currency doesn't have nearly as much weight, tracking coinage in this fashion makes even less sense, which is why games like D20 Modern use Wealth checks to determine if something can be purchased.

    Encumbrance

    Related to the use of currency and its weight is encumbrance. If calculating the weight and location of every gold piece is an inconvenience, calculating encumbrance can potentially be even more onerous -- it involves not just the weight but the relative size of everything a character carries and wears. And yet, encumbrance has its uses in dungeon exploration:

    ...Encumbrance is itself an incentive to make several short trips to acquire moderate amounts of treasure, rather than trying to drag home a pallet of plunder from a single protracted expedition.

    In the Original D&D rules, weight was measured by currency. Acquisition of treasure was the primary goal of many dungeon adventures, and therefore coin weight was its own standard:

    The maximum encumbrance that a character can carry is 3,000 gold pieces worthŚ the choice of the gold piece as the base unit of weight measurement is certainly a wise one, given the expected course of gameplay. At any encumbrance above 1,500, characters must move at half their normal speed. This threshold is surprisingly easy for a Fighting-man to reach; an example in Men & Magic of a character with plate armor, a helmet, a shield, a flail, a dagger, a bow with a twenty-arrow quiver and a few miscellaneous sundries already wears 1,200 gold pieces worth of encumbrance, and thus can pick up only 300 more without incurring a penalty.

    Currency and encumbrance interact in very specific ways, with adventurers encouraged to collect more treasure than heavy items:

    Consider, for example, that plate armor costs 50 gold pieces, but weighs in at 750 worth, and thus an adventurer would be foolish indeed to strip plate armor from the dead and carry it back to town for resale, if instead there were gold to carry; shields also weigh fifteen times as much as they cost. Even for picking up nothing but coinage, a budget of 300 measly gold pieces worth of weight cannot suffice for a mildly successful dungeon sacking.

    In games that are not about looting dungeons, encumbrance has increasingly fallen out of favor, and many games gloss over both. But there is one component that plays a more prominent role in inventory that is not as easy to ignore.

    Equipping

    Acquiring and carrying equipment does not mean the character can actually use it. Rules for equipping item have changed over the years, but can range from something as unique as a magic item that only works for a particular class or race, to the mundane logic that a fighter can't wield three swords if he doesn't have three hands. There are also artificial limitations that prevent characters from becoming walking piles of magic items, like only two rings per character in D&D 3.5. Fifth Edition D&D restricted magic items by allowing a maximum of three magi items "attuned" to a character:

    An item can be attuned to only one creature at a time, and a creature can be attuned to no more than three magic items at a time. Any attempt to attune to a fourth item fails; the creature must end its attunement to an item first. Additionally, a creature canĺt attune to more than one copy of an item. For example, a creature canĺt attune to more than one ring of protection at a time.

    Given the sometimes onerous task of managing these three elements of inventory management, it's perhaps no surprise that enterprising gamers have tried to make them easier to manage.

    Digital Solutions

    Logistics become much less onerous in electronic versions of D&D because the computer keeps track of it all. It also means that logistics can become a factor in tabletop play when using electronic tools to track equipment. Suddenly, a character's size, strength, or storage space becomes much more important when the penalties start adding up. Last Gasp even recommends using Pinterest for this purpose.

    The downside of a digital tracking system is that it removes the player from the process, which means there is no sense of three-dimensional space in how the player interacts with his character's inventory. A number next to an item, be it lbs or coin equivalent, is not the same thing as seeing how much space a shovel takes up compared to a sack of coins.

    Getting Physical

    Of course, it's entirely possible to use physical representations of items to show equipment. This requires a significant investment on behalf of the player. Stonemaier games' Treasure Chests provides a wide array of adventuring items, from food tokens to water tokens to sacks of grain. Giving each player a bag to hold these items makes it much easier to manage inventory, although it does become onerous the more items a player collects.

    The other component of inventory management is treasure. it's simple enough to buy toy coins for this purpose, although some creative efforts will need to be spent on differentiating between the types of coins.

    One advantage of tracking inventory this way is that it helps new players understand how their characters interact with the physical world. It also makes bookkeeping a little more hands-on, which helps develops math skills for younger players. Still, that's a lot of stuff to keep track of, multiplied by every player in the game.

    Abstraction

    A third option is to track inventory by using a hybrid solution that involves a visual approach to management. A phrase often used in anime where a character seems to pull items out of nowhere is known as hammerspace, often for comedic effect when a character suddenly reveals an impossibly large hammer. Thus we have Matt Rundle's Anti-Hammerspace Item Tracker. Raging Owlbear has a modified version for Fifth Edition D&D.

    Ammunition is its own component of inventory management that can be challenging for players. One solution is to use dice, with a low roll indicating that the character finally ran out of something. There's also use of sticky notes and abstract backpacks that simplifies item management and placement.

    Gamers' relationship with logistics has changed as the game has changed. With access to computers, printers, and 3D components, logistics can be less onerous and hopefully more fun to keep track of than ever before.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.
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  2. #2
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    "Into the dramatic structure of Dungeons & Dragons, the mode of logistics injects some much-needed banality"

    I disagree with this statement, primarily with the "much needed" part.

    Back when I was a kid and I played at the least once a week, often more, then yes, perhaps the addition of logistics made some good sense. We were playing with such intensity that the break and the detail of logistics was okay. I could also engage in a lot of logistics management away from the rest of the group.

    I don't play nearly as much now. My group's time at table is precious, and I cannot expect much investment from them beyond that point. And, to be honest, our mundane lives have loads of entirely banal logistics. I simply don't see much need for it in my sessions at this point. It is simply no longer interesting, and if I go to a game to sit and do boring stuff, I stop going to the game.

  3. #3
    "Given how often gamers ignore logistics, it begs the question: why have it at all?"

    Because some players and GMs enjoy it. That's reason enough for supposition. If most of the group finds counting-out coin tiresome, then don't. Skip it and move on. Fun is the key, right?
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    Quote Originally Posted by Umbran View Post
    "Into the dramatic structure of Dungeons & Dragons, the mode of logistics injects some much-needed banality"

    I disagree with this statement, primarily with the "much needed" part.

    Back when I was a kid and I played at the least once a week, often more, then yes, perhaps the addition of logistics made some good sense. We were playing with such intensity that the break and the detail of logistics was okay. I could also engage in a lot of logistics management away from the rest of the group.

    I don't play nearly as much now. My group's time at table is precious, and I cannot expect much investment from them beyond that point. And, to be honest, our mundane lives have loads of entirely banal logistics. I simply don't see much need for it in my sessions at this point. It is simply no longer interesting, and if I go to a game to sit and do boring stuff, I stop going to the game.
    You bring up a really good point: does logistics appeal to a younger demographic who doesn't have to deal with logistics as much in their day-to-day lives?

    There's lots of pressures NOT to do logistics nowadays, with limited time being one of them. I imagine that changes as you get older.

  5. #5
    You make many good points but personally, in my on games I do place a value on logistics but I guess that can vary from game world to game world with lower levels of fantasy requiring more strict logistics.

    I use the character sheet inventory for anything carried by the character their self and additional index cards for items stored on carts, mules and so forth. An idea somewhat like the sticky note backpacks. While not mechanically based I tend to go by the "Does it make sense rule" thusly carrying a 10-ft solid iron rod around would be a hassle and impose countless issues while the player could possibly carry many scrolls bounded together in a disposable spellbook.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Umbran View Post
    "Into the dramatic structure of Dungeons & Dragons, the mode of logistics injects some much-needed banality"

    I disagree with this statement, primarily with the "much needed" part.

    Back when I was a kid and I played at the least once a week, often more, then yes, perhaps the addition of logistics made some good sense. We were playing with such intensity that the break and the detail of logistics was okay. I could also engage in a lot of logistics management away from the rest of the group.

    I don't play nearly as much now. My group's time at table is precious, and I cannot expect much investment from them beyond that point. And, to be honest, our mundane lives have loads of entirely banal logistics. I simply don't see much need for it in my sessions at this point. It is simply no longer interesting, and if I go to a game to sit and do boring stuff, I stop going to the game.

    I think this is probably the key issue. When I was a kid, I *loved* the game Payday. I would play it against myself if no one was available! Now that I *live* that life of bills and budgeting, it's not fun at all! Likewise, I have three kids' stuff, friends, and activities to manage, every day. Getting them all into the car in the morning, with their backpacks, lunches, and (currently, hello Michigan) snowgear is quite the logistical challenge every day. I don't then look with expectation and joy on figuring out if my cleric's backpack can handle another week of rations, a coil of rope, or the extra packages of incense for my ritual spells.

    Having said that, I think handwaving most of the Logistics and calling out extreme or unusual logistics situations can be a good change of pace. Module A4, In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords, drops a party of medium-level characters in a cavern with nothing but loincloths.... how do you make weapons? carry loot? maintain modesty? The proverbial dragon hoard... exactly how do you transport 32000 coins (roughly 640 pounds), numerous art pieces and objects, and weaponry/armor? Or the everpresent problem in Dark Sun - keeping enough water on hand to last the day?

    D&D provides lots of tools to mitigate this. "Create Food and Water" spells, bags of holding, Leomund's Tiny Chest, and so on. What's more important, carrying every last copper coin (BoH), or having another 50 +1 arrows? Remembering to stock enough rations for the 2 week hike to the dungeon (CF&W), or having another Dispel Magic / Animate Dead / Glyph of Warding?

    I think Umbran's observation is right, though. We play RPGs to escape reality. PayDay isn't fun anymore, and neither is packing for family trips. Keep them out of my game, please, unless it's an interesting and unique situation that deserves my puzzle-solving attention.

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    Quote Originally Posted by talien View Post
    You bring up a really good point: does logistics appeal to a younger demographic who doesn't have to deal with logistics as much in their day-to-day lives?

    There's lots of pressures NOT to do logistics nowadays, with limited time being one of them. I imagine that changes as you get older.
    As former younger generation logistics was pain back in 1980. We ignored it. When I started trying to enforce it, it was pain. My final solution was hey guys make it reasonable, and pass out bag of holdings with each happy meal.

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    Quote Originally Posted by jasper View Post
    As former younger generation logistics was pain back in 1980. We ignored it. When I started trying to enforce it, it was pain. My final solution was hey guys make it reasonable, and pass out bag of holdings with each happy meal.
    Yeah this.

    I mean there's a reasonable limit to tracking the stuff you have. If it's:
    A: Extremely valuable.
    B: Extremely rare.
    C: Highly flammable.
    Then it's probably worth a couple extra notes on your sheet as to how/where you stored it.

    Otherwise? As a DM I don't care.

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    For my game, I mix in logistics at an abstract level. Its an Arabian campaign and I do want the journey to have some meaning. But I (and my players) do not want play out every drop of water. So there are survival rolls along the way to see how much of their resources they use (for you Savage Worlds folks, I have them do a form of Dramatic Task - every Success/Raise gets token - at the end of the journey the tokens represent 10% of their starting supplies).

    If their resources abstractly run out before getting to another waypoint, then they will not be in good shape when they get there.

    It added to my story without bogging down peoples character sheet with mundane stuff.

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    Potentially a misleading title - at least in the UK, "packing it in" means "giving up". Then again, that's what most groups I've seen who initially tried to pay some attention to logistics ended up doing.

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