Notes on natural encumbrance (GULLIVER)

Forum poster P, in reference to GULLIVER’s natural encumbrance rules, included the word “messy” among other (much nicer!) comments. Of course, I had to ask what’s “messy” with them, and P was kind enough to oblige with a response.

The below may or may not change anyone’s mind about the rules, but it did lead to the introspection below that natural encumbrance fans may find of interest. (And it’s a shame not to recycle such a long post into all-too-scarce blog content…) Here’s the forum text: 


Thank you for the kind words, P. Permit me an initial clarification:

And, as I said above, I agree that your general approach was the right one: weight and mass ought to be handled consistently in all cases, and ought to determine the default value of things which depend upon them in real life.

Actually, I would never say that weight and mass and the such ought to be handled consistently and realistically. I would assert, until the final heat death of the universe, that all things should be handled as the players want. Which in the case of biomechanic performance may mean fudging things case by case, or ignoring such trivia altogether. Either of those is an excellent way to play!

The only folks left out: those who do want to fiddle with consistent performance rules but aren’t provided those by the game. Hence the natural encumbrance and other rules, to offer at least some limited options for these players.

Next: thanks for the further details below. I get the occasional comment about “too complex” or some such, but you wouldn’t believe how hard – nearly impossible – it is to get people to back up such comments with specifics. And without specifics, nothing gets improved. So again, thanks!

As for the messyness, here are my thoughts. One needs to add arbitrary levels of Extra Encumbrance to large races to let them support themselves and get reasonable mobility. One still needs to modify Basic Move based on body form and other factors. Is this really any simpler than 4e? Things with Extra Encumbrance, like almost all mounts, need to have their encumbrance levels worked out by a multi-step process involving multiplication and a modified version of the table (eg. where will the combination of WSR and MSR knock my horse over into another encumbrance category?). I have no objection to math before the game, but this seems a bit much. 

First, the key: when you choose to use a system like natural encumbrance, you’ve decided “I don’t want to just fudge this matter, I want to apply a consistent simulation here”. But a simulation won’t output good stuff unless you feed it good stuff.

The standard GURPS encumbrance rules assume human-like capability (for the given ST). Which just doesn’t hold for all creatures in RL; nature gives many additional advantages, such as multiple legs, and for the big critters, frames, builds, and stances that better support weight. If you want to simulate these creatures’ capabilities, you have to make some allowance there.

I used Extra Encumbrance simply because, well, that was the only solution GURPS presented at the time. For those new to GURPS, that 3e trait created a new encumbrance progression. Then there was yet another encumbrance progression in 3e, for four-legged animals. I made EE a leveled advantage as an attempt to combine these two orphan rules into one consistent solution for extra load capacity.

Extra math? You’re right, there is extra math if you want to go for the full-monty approach of combining weight and mass effects; for designs with unusual load capacity, that can produce results that are different (and IMO more realistic) than the simple table lookup gives. It’s optional, though; you could also just do the one-shot weight-based table lookup, same as for a human, and call that good enough. (Which still leaves us with 3e-like extra tables for different creatures, true, and that is a bad thing.)

Anyway, I get the occasional oddball comment about “not consistent with GURPS”, which is humorous; those GULLIVER rules try slavishly to follow GURPS in many cases where new approaches would have been better. Your point here may be a good example. EE is a bit clunky, and I wouldn’t follow that method for 4e. If I were to update the natural encumbrance rules, I would suggest extra Lifting ST instead – say, an extra X% per additional SM, an extra Y% for four legs, etc., or just whatever net +Z% feels right to the designer. I think that adding some net Z% to Lifting ST during design would fill the simulation’s needs, while remaining pretty darn simple and fully conforming to 4e. Would you agree? 

There is also the issue of the oversimplification that all encumbrance is the same, whether from body weight or a backpack (traditional, I know!).

Yes, an oversimplification – but this is a case of less messiness, not more! As well as a case of following GURPS, which made no distinction between an extra 50 lbs. from density, from fat, and from a sackful of raccoons.

The alternative is obvious: give either natural weight or carried weight some multiplier to enforce a distinction. But I think most gamers would find that messy.

The WSR and MSR columns are not particularly elegant either, in order to follow GURPS at medium levels and obtain reaonable results at low levels.

True, there’s no visibly elegant progression there. The reason, as you note, is again conformity: hewing to the official GURPS encumbrance progression, which is equally arbitrary.

But I don’t know that a good, playable encumbrance progression can follow a neat formula. And more importantly, does it matter? Whether the table’s levels follow some neat progression or not, you do the same thing in play: you take a number and look it up. A neat progression would have aesthetic value for the mathematically-minded, but wouldn’t change play at all.

Summing up: For my part, I’ll agree with one point above about “messy”: the use of EE to handle load-bearing frames. In its defense, it picks up on existing 3e solutions, needn’t require any extra math, and only comes up for the occasional non-human design (normally outside of play, too). But it could be cleaner, and for 4e, I would recommend simple additions to Lifting ST instead, together with one universal encumbrance table.

With that change, I honestly think the natural encumbrance rules set is pretty clean! (Further corrections to that belief are appreciated. : )

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