Last updated: 190811..220824
“as the main purpose of adventuring is to bring back treasure, provision for carrying out a considerable amount of material must also be made.”
I’ve talked about encumbrance before, as its very complexity begs simplicity. But it’s time for a deeper dive. Encumbrance is, generally, the weight and bulkiness of a particular adventurer’s possessions (armor, weapons, equipment, etc.). Yet for all the importance, multiple contradictions, gaps, and invalid examples exist in the AD&D encumbrance system. How much can a pack carry? What effects does armor have on encumbrance? Even the very terms and ranges of encumbrance are inconsistent.
The following are defined as exceptions to encumbrance: one set of clothing, thieves picks & tools (or any small object as the only thing carried), normal spell material components, and a helmet (for a character not wearing armor).
Encumbrance is defined as a combination of the weight AND the bulkiness. Let’s look at the backpack: capable of holding 40 pounds (400 gp), and 400 encumbrance (full or empty). On the surface, that sounds great. Simple. But encumbrance is weight and bulkiness. And nothing is has more weight, and less bulk, than gold.
The standard for encumbrance is 10 gp = 1 pound = 10 encumbrance. “Weight” is often used as if it is interchangeable with “encumbrance”, yet encumbrance is specifically defined as the combined weight and relative bulkiness. Items more bulky than gold (isn’t everything?) are defined as two to five times more encumbering, depending on their bulk. In other words, each item needs to have two values: weight in gp, and encumbrance in gp.
As a rule of thumb, any non-bulky item can be assigned an encumbrance value equal to, or only slightly greater than, its weight in gold pieces; a bulky object should be given an encumbrance value of at least two or three times its weight; and a very bulky object should have an encumbrance value of at least five times its weight.
From the Players Handbook (p. 101):
|normal gear||about 35# and no great bulk||12″ – subject can run quickly|
|heavy gear||armor and/or equipment of about 70# or fairly bulky||9″ – subject can make a lumbering run|
|very heavy gear||armor and/or equipment of 105# and bulky (such as plate armor)||6″- subject can trot for short distances|
|encumbered||armor and/or equipment over 105# weight and/or (very) bulky||3″ to 4″- no trotting possible|
The PHB doesn’t explicitly define the full weight ranges for encumbrance. With 150# (1500 encumbrance) defined as the maximum a character can carry, and given that “Encumbered” is “over 105#”, the ranges are: 1051-1500 (encumbered), 701-1050 (very heavy), 351-700 (heavy), and 350 or less (normal).
The labels are fuzzy—isn’t someone who is not encumbered, unencumbered? DSG uses the same labels for encumbrance, but adds “Unencumbered / No Gear”, and often (but not always) uses the label of “fully encumbered” for the upper range. WSG redefines the labels and defines the ranges: 90-350 (Light), 351-700 (Moderate), 701-1050 (Heavy), and 1051-1500 (Severe), and defines “not encumbered” as less than the lower figure given for light encumbrance. OA simplifies that as a human carrying up to the listed weight can move 12″ per round, with each additional 350 coins (35 lbs.) slowing the character by 25% (3″ per round for a human).
Just to make sure things remain complicated, when defining the thief-acrobat, UA adds the term “body-associated weight/encumbrance” to refer specifically to the clothing, accessories, armor, and weapons of the character, but specifically not to include a backpack. Should a backpack be included, the character adds “Additional (carried) weight/encumbrance”.
That gives us a revised table of:
|Encumbrance||Armor & Equipment||Bulk||Movement|
|not/unencumbered (no gear)||0-89||none||12″ – run quickly|
|normal (light gear)||90-350||no significant bulk||12″ – run quickly|
|moderate (gear)||351-700||fairly bulky||9″ – a lumbering run|
|heavy (heavy gear)||701-1050||bulky||6″- trot for short distances|
|severe (fully encumbered)||1051-1500||very bulky||3″ to 4″- no trotting possible|
Strength specifically states that only those with exceptional strength increase the weight a character can carry without penalty for encumbrance, but later defines the weight allowance of non-exceptional strength as not incurring a movement penalty.
Continuing the AD&D usage of examples that actually aren’t examples, the Strength example in the PHB uses 500 (50#) as the baseline for Strength 8-11 characters without encumbrance. That’s overruled by every other source.
Bulk, and Armor
One of the worst culprits for encumbrance confusion is armor:
- PHB, p. 36: “Magic armor negates weight, so that movement does not consider any encumbrance from magic armor.”
- DMG, p. 27: “The encumbrance factor for armor does not consider weight alone; it also takes into account the distribution of the weight of the armor and the relative mobility of the individual wearing the protective material.”
- DMG, p. 28: “When magic armor is worn, assume that its properties allow movement at the next higher base rate and that weight is cut by 50%. Magic shields are no less weighty than their non-magical counterparts, but they are non-bulky with respect to encumbrance.”
- DMG, p. 164: “For game purposes all magical armor should be considered as being virtually weightless—equal to normal clothing, let us assume. This gives characters so clad a base movement speed equal to an unarmored man. Magic shields, however, weigh the same as a normal shield of the same size.”
- DMG, p. 27: Scale mail is fairly bulky (normally move 9″), yet a base movement of 6″.
- DMG, p. 27: Banded mail is bulky, yet permits a base movement of 9″.
- Dragon Magazine #136 states, “Chain mail is fairly bulky even when magical, and thus negates the barbarian’s full bonus.”
- R-4 (Doc’s Island): “Non-magical metal armor certainly causes a character to sink immediately, and even magical armor causes encumbrance.“
What a mess of contradictions. In the PHB magic armor weight hinders movement (not bulk), despite that bulk of armor affects movement in the PHB Encumbrance section. The DMG on p. 164 equates magic armor weight to movement. The DMG explicitly defines magic armor as weightless for purposes of movement, and also as a weight of 50%!
Scale mail is only fairly bulky, yet has a base movement of 6″? This contradiction can be only be resolved by considering weight being an additional factor. 40# moves scale mail up to the next weight class of encumbrance (of > 35#), normally reducing movement. The movement for “fairly” bulky would also normally be 9″. In this case the movement rate for scale mail is decreased twice—once for the bulk, and once for the weight. One could assume magic scale mail (only 20# at half weight) would then be a movement of 12″.
UA adds field and full plate, both also fairly bulky, and also with a base move of 6″. Another case where the bulk of the armor doesn’t explain the movement until you consider that the weight is > 35#.
Then there’s banded mail. Banded mail is bulky (normally a move of 6″), yet has a move of 9″. Why?
There is no way to resolve these contradictions—each DM will have to choose their own path. Encumbrance is defined as the weight and bulkiness of an adventurer’s armor, but most adventurers will, early on, have magical armor. Much depends on whether the DM wants to completely remove the impact of armor on movement and Surprise.
I prefer the definition on DMG, p.28: assume that magic armor allows movement at the next higher base rate and that weight is cut by 50%, but leave the actual bulk unchanged for other effects. That’s more consistent with the defined impact on swimming, where any character wearing magic armor will be encumbered and the only stroke possible will be the dog paddle. Also characters encumbered with more than about 20 pounds of gear will be forced to walk on the floor of the ocean, lake, river, or whatever. It also means encumbrance remains a factor once a party has magic armor.
Armor makes everything more confusing by having a bulk rating, and a weight (where encumbrance is supposed to be the combination of bulk and weight!), but no actual encumbrance number. There’s a reason for that—armor is treated as more encumbering than its weight! Take plate mail as an example. Plate mail is bulky, restricting movement as if it had an encumbrance of 701+. The obvious reason for this is so the character can carry more, but not have their Strength score override encumbrance providing even characters in plate mail with a movement of 12″.
If having a separate limiter on armor grates on your sense of propriety, there’s another way to look at armor and encumbrance. Create an encumbrance value for all the armor types, taking into account the weight and bulkiness to reflect the limit on movement:
|SHIELD, SMALL, WOOD||non-||3#||30|
The plus is you no longer have to apply a separate limiter to movement for armor. The change removes the limiter for armor, but the PC will be able to carry less, but move faster if they have the Strength to carry the armor. You can then simply halve the encumbrance value for magic armor.
Movement emphasizes that there are two facets to encumbrance: weight, and bulk. If either (or both) exceed their limit, movement is reduced.
Strength can modify that effect, although exactly how is conflicted. The description for strength says that for characters with exceptional strength (18/xx), the strength bonus increases the weight the character is able to carry without penalty for encumbrance (implying that for those without an exceptional strength bonus, the bonus will not increase the weight a character can carry without impacting their movement). Yet in the actual definition of weight allowance, clearly the weight allowance affects movement for all Strength scores:
If a character could normally carry 500 gold pieces without encumbrance, but the character had strength of 17 instead of the normal 8-11 range, 1,000 gold pieces could be carried without incurring movement penalty.
Even that example is screwed up—a character can’t carry 500 gp without affecting their encumbrance. In the normal 8-11 range a character can only carry up to 350 gp before affecting their encumbrance, so a Strength of 17 would only increase their limit to 850 gp before incurring a movement penalty.
Translating for the vagaries of vocabulary, besides movement rate, the degree of encumbrance has the following other effects:
- Fully encumbered creatures gain no DEXTERITY bonus (or are -1 worse, if they have no bonus to lose).
- Fully encumbered creatures are +2 AC.
- Fully encumbered creates cannot search for secret doors, try to pick a lock, or other such activities.
- Fully encumbered creatures are not allowed to charge.
- Fully encumbered creatures underwater are performing strenuous exercise. The number of rounds they can hold their breath are cut in half.
- Fully encumbered creatures cannot climb anything other than a gentle slope that is either non-slippery or slightly slippery, and does so at one-half of his normal climbing rate (WSG).
- Fully encumbered characters are two segments slower when Surprised.
- Heavily or moderately encumbered creatures cannot climb anything other than a gentle or moderate slope that is either non-slippery or slightly slippery, and do so at one-half of his normal climbing rate (WSG).
- Heavily encumbered characters are one segment slower when Surprised.
- Moderately encumbered gain no Dex Reaction bonus to Surprise.
- A lightly encumbered character can climb any slope (but not a cliff face) at their full normal climbing rate.
- Only not encumbered characters can climb a cliff face (a thief or character with mountaineering).
If a character has a chance to take a large breath of air, and does not perform strenuous exercise while holding his breath, he can hold his breath for a number of rounds equal to his Constitution Score, rounded up. Nonstrenuous exercise includes such activities as normal movement, searching for secret doors, trying to pick a lock, or other such activities. A character cannot be fully encumbered while performing any of these functions. Continuous climbing, swimming against a strong current, and moving while severely encumbered are examples of strenuous activity.
To avoid the risk of fatigue, a character must rest for two consecutive turns after four turns of strenuous activity. If the character chooses not to rest, he must make a Constitution Check after exerting himself for six consecutive turns. Failure on this check indicates that he is fatigued; success indicates that he can remain active for at least five more turns. At the end of those five turns, the character must make another successful Constitution Check to keep going. Every time a check is successful, the time until the next required check is reduced by one turn (to a minimum of one turn). A character with an extremely high constitution may be able to keep performing a strenuous activity for several hours, but the odds will eventually catch up with him.
Very cold clothing has en encumbrance value equivalent to that of plate mail (bulky, 450 gp), and an outfit of such clothing will cost about 15 gp.
Cold clothing has an encumbrance value equivalent to that of ring mail (fairly bulky, 250 gp), and an outfit of such clothing will cost about 7 SP.
Moderate clothing may have no encumbrance value at all (if the Dungeon Master considers it to be the same as a character’s normal attire), or may be considered equivalent to leather armor (non-bulky, 150 gp) if the clothing is relatively heavy.
Free Action: The wearer of this ring can move and otherwise operate as if he was not encumbered, unless he is actually severely encumbered, in which case he can operate as if moderately encumbered. Wearing this ring does not enable a character to carry more encumbrance than he can normally; if such an attempt is made, the power of the ring is negated until the wearer rids himself of the excess baggage. The ring does not change the character’s actual encumbrance value, so that if he is astride a mount, his presence has its normal effect on the animal’s ability to carry encumbrance.
As an illustration of this point, consider a prominent example from the game rules: A pack of standard rations, designed to feed one human for one week, has an encumbrance value of 200 gp. Assume that the actual weight of the package is 14 pounds (140 gp), and the other 60 gp of its encumbrance value accounts for its bulkiness.
Thus, the minimum daily requirement of standard rations is two pounds. Compare this with a pack of iron rations, having an encumbrance value of 75 gp. Of this amount, perhaps as little as 5 gp accounts for the bulk of the package (since the food is more concentrated and occupies much less space). The other 70 gp, or 7 pounds, is the actual weight of the package, and therefore the minimum daily requirement of iron rations is one pound.
Water has an encumbrance value of 50 gp per gallon, plus an extra 50 gp for every three gallons being transported in a single container.
So what do we take away from that survey?
Gold has 10-20 times the density of everything else (water, stone). Yet that’s assuming a solid bar of gold. Stacked coins have a lower density, and loose coins a lower density still. For simplicity, consider that loose coins are the baseline. Gold bars are 20:1, gold coins are 10:1
- things that will float (solid = 150 encumbrance/ pound (solid) )= two-thirds x
- water (solid) = 8 gallons in 1 cubic foot = 100 encumbrance/ pound (solid)= 1x
- stone (solid)= 3x = = 67 encumbrance / pound
Loose coins of slightly different diameters don’t vary much by encumbrance. Assume everything is leaving space by 2x for being loose?
- 2/3x = 150 encumbrance solid, 300 encumbrance (loose @ 2x), 225 encumbrance (email@example.com)
- 1x (water) = 100 encumbrance solid, 200 encumbrance (loose @2x), 150 encumbrance (loose @ 1.5x)
- 3x = 67 encumbrance (solid), 135 encumbrance (loose @2x), 100 encumbrance (loose @ 1.5x)
- 5x = 20 encumbrance (solid), 40 encumbrance (loose @2x)
- 10x = 10 encumbrance
- 10x = 10 (loose) gp = 1 pound = 10 encumbrance = 10x
- 20x = 20 (bars) gp = 2 pounds = 5 encumbrance = 20x
- 15 (stacked) gp = 1.5 pounds = 7.5 encumbrance
- Every item needs both a weight, and an encumbrance value. Every container (backpack, pouch) needs both an encumbrance capacity, and a weight capacity.
- 350 encumbrance is not encumbering.
It’s clear there are slight exceptions based on the specifics of the encumbrance value of an item. The weight of a standard book of median size is 150 gold pieces (adjusted upward or downward for varying sizes). The encumbrance value of such a book is equal to three times its weight (450 gp or thereabouts), although it is correct to assume that a volume will fit within an otherwise empty backpack or large sack. Traveling Spell book: The weight of such a book is approximately 30 gold pieces, and encumbrance roughly 60 gp.
The backpack has a listed capacity of 400 gp, which is typically considered both weight and encumbrance. Yet, there’s a lot more room in a pack for items that are less dense than gold!
TSR 2010, Players Handbook, 1978.
TSR 2011, Dungeon Masters Guide [1e], 1979.
Dragon Magazine #50, The Ups and Downs of Flying High, 1981.
TSR 2018, Oriental Adventures, 1985.
TSR 2019, Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide, 1986.
TSR 2020, Wilderness Survival Guide, 1986.
Dragon Magazine #136, Sage Advice, p. 50, August, 1988.
R-4, Doc’s Island, p. 14, 1983. [magical armor encumbrance]