Dungeon Weariness: Encumbrance & Exhaustion as Encounter

In my last post, I jumped off from Brendan’s thoughts on lighting as encounter with a couple of ways to simulate the passage of time, and as usual my personal favorite is the playing card method. Last night, while perusing the LotFP Rules & Magic book for no particular reason, I started thinking about it some more, and I think there’s more that can be handled by the “four suit” method. (To recap, base encounters on playing cards and torches go out every time all four suits have been drawn.)

First, one tweak I’d make to lighting in particular. I previously suggested that lanterns should run out of oil every other time the four suits are drawn. Even as I wrote this I didn’t love it, as one of the goals of the card method is to keep things very simple: Every time you draw X, then Y happens. I noticed in LotFP, lantern oil lasts a full 24 hours, and while this is a bit more generous than I’m inclined to be, it did lead me to my solution. Every time torches go out, there is a 1-in-3 chance that lanterns run out of oil as well. This makes lanterns theoretically infinite, but the odds are low.

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In his post, Brendan also references Torchbearer and how it mechanically reinforces increasing exhaustion as characters explore dungeon environments. This is something I’ve been interested in incorporating with more traditional D&D-ish games as a replacement for straight-up encumbrance, and I believe this can be tied into the four suit mechanic as well.

Here’s the basic mechanic: every time the four suits are completed, all characters roll a d20 vs DC X. Success means continuing to function as normal, failure means you gain a point of Weariness (maxed out at 3 points). For every point of Weariness, the character takes a -5 ft penalty to their movement rate and -1 to all physical actions. Being reduced to 0 ft movement rate means you’re barely shambling along outside of combat, and in combat you effectively can’t move without assistance from another character.

The d20 roll is modified based on your encumbrance and physical capability. My initial thought is to take the LotFP encumbrance numbers and invert them to penalties (i.e., carrying 6 or more item -1, carrying 11 or more another -1). Modifiers for Strength and Constitution (or Stamina) are also added to the roll, so a PC with an 18 in both would have a +6 bonus. Racial modifiers are probably also appropriate; dwarves most likely have a bonus here. A natural 1 is always a failure, and a natural 20 represents a second wind, eliminating 1 point of previously gained Weariness. All Weariness goes away after a normal night’s rest under reasonable circumstances. Trying to rest in taxing circumstances, such as camping within the dungeon itself, should probably require a saving throw to recover.

The hardest part of this for me is figuring out what the DC should be for the Weariness check. On one hand, I want to keep it low so that it doesn’t quickly affect characters with a positive or no modifier to the roll. On the other hand, the check is only being made every 7.66 turns on average, so even heavily penalized characters are getting a solid chunk of game time between checks.

Let’s look at a character with average ability scores (9-12) with severe encumbrance against various DCs. The character is wearing plate armor (-2), wields a two-handed sword (-1), and is carrying 21+ items (-4) and a 10′ pole (-1). That’s a total penalty of -8. Against DC 5, the character has a 65% chance of failure on each weariness check, which sounds too low to me. If we bump it up to DC 10, there’s a 90% chance of failure, which strongly penalizes such a heavy load. But it also means the same PC carrying no equipment has a 50% chance of failure, which seems too high.

I think the sweet spot might be DC 7. Carrying the super heavy load, the PC has a 75% chance of failure, but carrying no equipment the chance is 35%. I feel like 35% could be reasonably justified as reflecting overall hardships of terrain in the dungeon environment.

There’s another option, though, and that’s to only require characters with a negative encumbrance modifier to make the Weariness check. In this case, I would definitely set it at DC 10. However, I’m more inclined to have all characters make the check and stick with the lower DC. I like the idea that dungeon exploration is fairly exhausting activity no matter how you approach it.

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