Dungeons & Dragons Online

A Simplistic and Customizable Approach to Encumbrance: Determine Carry Weight with a Single d20 Roll!


Encumbrance is an often ignored part of DnD. Players and DMs alike consider it a hassle due to book-keeping, an extreme trial of patience, and, at best, just not fun. I would argue that these are justified reasons. This is because the way encumbrance is ran, according to RAW, is awkward, and even immersion breaking. How is the DM supposed to know how much an owlbear pelt weighs, and more importantly, who cares?!

That being said, encumbrance is a core component of the game. It serves many important functions, and should not be ignored just because it is awkward and too much work. With that said, I would like to present my homebrew encumbrance system, both to share and for critiquing, alongside a few optional and variant rules.

Carry Weight: A Simplified Approach to Encumbrance

Instead of a max carry weight determined by your Strength score, per RAW, you will have a single number determined by Character Level and your Athletics modifier:

Passive Carry Weight: Equal to (3 + Character Level + Athletics modifier)

Passive Carry Weight represents an abstract maximum weight your character can comfortably hold.

Active Carry Weight: The current total of all item Weights your character is holding.

Active Carry Weight is an abstraction of the total weight your character is currently holding. This does not include any items that you character currently has equipped, which will fall under Free Weight, to be explained later. Active Weight is determined only by surplus items that your character has on their person, such as extra weapons, whatever is in their pack, or more. In some circumstances, Active Carry Weight may exceed your characters Passive Carry Weight.

Item Weights

Just as Carry Weight is a simplified abstraction of the max weight your character can hold, so are the Weight values of items. Each notable item your character has in their inventory will be assigned a Weight value between 1 and 5. Item weights should be marked in parentheses directly after the item in your players inventory, like so:

Longsword (2)

  • A value of (1): A dagger, a single spell scroll, or an arcane focus would have a value of one. Other common items like 20ft of rope, a bundle of torches, or common trinkets would also have a value of one.
  • A value of (2): A longsword, shortsword, or most simple weapons would have a Weight of 2. A heavy textbook, or a full spellbook, would also have a Weight of 2.
  • A value of (3): A greatsword, or a shield, would have a weight of 3. Middling, hefy items or important items would match this weight.
  • A value of (4): A standard adventuring pack, such as an explorer’s or dungeoneer’s pack, would have this weight. Other large or bulky items that aren’t extraordinarily heavy, such as a wooden chair or bedroll would match this weight.
  • A value of (5): Exclusively is reserved for bulky and heavy items. A full suit of armor, a corpse, or a bundle of 2×4’s would match this weight.

Obviously, I cannot list the Weight of every item here, and this system is not designed to work based on a catalog of weights either. You, as the DM, or as a table, will have to decide how much items should weigh, to the best of your own judgment. I will outline a few guidelines to make these decisions easier:

  • Be Consistent: Ensure that items weigh the same in every circumstance, for every player.
  • Assign Weight According to Value: Because this is a game-ified abstraction of real life weight, you will want to assign weight according to the value of items. The best analogy I can come up with is that it’s like Minecraft: A player can hold 64 cubic meters of dense stone in a single inventory slot, but only 16 softball sized Ender Pearls. Now obviously, these don’t align with their real world weights or with the weights of each other, but they are weighted to value. Ender Pearls are more valuable than stone, so you can’t carry as many Pearls as you can blocks of stone. Likewise, when assigning weights, assign them based on value. It is perfectly reasonable to make a softball sized, valuable gem, have a weight of (2) or (3) just because you do not want your players running around with 16 of them in their inventory. For another example, if you are running a survival campaign, you could inflate the Weight of of torches or rations to a higher value to make inventory management prominent. Optionally, if you don’t care for those things, 60 torches could have a weight of (1), or be unmarked entirely and kept under Free Weight.
  • Keep Realism in Mind: I know I just spent a whole paragraph telling you that Weight doesn’t have to much real life object weight, but it should at least be similar. A sword should not have a weight of (5), nor should a full suit of armor have a weight of (1). The Weight values should roughly match what we would expect to see in real life, just as other aspects of DnD are kept similar to their real counterparts to maintain immersion.
  • Keep Size in Mind: Larger items should have higher Weights even if they weigh the same as smaller ones. A large bundle of linens may weigh as much as a longsword, but the space they take up is important too.
  • Only Use Whole Numbers: When assigning Weight values to items, try not to use decimals or fractions. Carry Weight uses small whole numbers to make math simple, and muddying that up with decimals or fractions defeats the purpose of the system. You should only assign decimals or fractions if your party actually likes extensive book-keeping.

Now we’ll address groups of small items. You can optionally track them under Free Weight, but if you want them to be included in inventory management, you’ll have to use Bundles.

Each Bundle of an object should have a weight of (1). We will use coins for an example. A Bundle of coins should have 50 or 100 coins (whatever works best in your game’s economy), and no matter how full that bundle is, it always weighs (1). It weighs (1) when it has 1 coin, 24 coins, and 100 coins. When the last bundle is full, you start a new one, and that new Bundle also weighs (1). So 102 coins and 200 coins both weigh (2), individually, since they each constitute two Bundles.

Obviously this doesn’t apply just to coins. It can apply to torches, lengths of rope, rations, lockpicks, you name it! Whenever you assign a Bundle size to a group of objects, keep in mind the same rules listed waaayyyy above concerning item Weights. Those mostly apply to Bundles, as well.

Carry Checks

You may notice that the starting Passive Carry Weight is rather low. This is on purpose, because players will be routinely encouraged to surpass their Passive Weight by making Carry checks.

A Carry check is simply an Athletics check, with the DC being equal to the weight they are attempting to now hold. On a success, they include the item in their inventory and their Active Weight changes to reflect the new number.

If the player fails their Carry Check, they have the option of swapping out items from their inventory to include the new item, leaving the item, or taking it anyway and becoming Encumbered.

A Carry check can be characterized in-game as your character finding a novel or creative way of packing items. Maybe they find the perfect position to hold it, discover a forgotten, empty pocket, or gain a second wind. The possibilities for finding a way to carry just a little more are endless.

The Encumbered Condition

An Encumbered character has their speed halved, globally. This means that players in battle have their movement speed halved, but also their travel pace halved as well.

Free Weight

Free Weight represents the Weight of certain items that can be ignored. While not the most realistic approach, Free Weight provides a convenient solution for Weight that you shouldn’t or do not want to track.

For most characters, ignore the weight of any of their currently equipped items and tools. If this rule is too fast and loose for you, Free Weight for most characters should be the starting gear they get according to their class. If this still isn’t specific enough for you, then you can tally up the individual weights of each item assigned per class, and use that as the maximum for Free Weight per character.

Items that are essential for battle are practically mandatory in standard situations, so counting their weight is unfair, inconvenient, and counterintuitive when these items are both required for normal gameplay and constantly being held by the characters.

Furthermore, other items that you don’t want to count, for sake of convenience, fall under Free Weight. The most prominent example of this would be coins, or in heroic campaigns, essentials like rope and torches.


Now that most of the mechanics have been explained, let’s flesh them out by looking at a few examples:

Turok, a Level 3 Barbarian, wants to purchase a spare battleaxe (3) to provide an alternative to his greatsword. First, Turok’s player determines Turok’s Passive Carry Weight. Turok is level 3, and has an Athletics modifier of +5, so Turok’s Passive Carry Weight is (3 + 3 + 5 ) for a total of 11. Currently, most of Turok’s gear was provided by his class at level 1, so his Active Weight should be pretty low. He should be good to pick up the item, but just to doublecheck, Turok’s player checks his Active Carry Weight. Turok only has three healing potions (3), a rusty helmet (2) that might be worth something, and a family heirloom (1) in the form of a pocket watch. His Active Weight is (3 + 2 + 1) for a total of 6. Turok has room, so he buys the battleaxe (3), and his Active Weight increases to 9.

Grima Wormtongue, a Level 6 bard and glib advisor to the reigning king, is currently ransacking said king’s quarters for valuables. Grima’s player built him to be a DEX fighter, and so chose STR to be his dumpstat. That being said, Grima’s player chose proficiency and expertise in Athletics, not wanting to rely on others to hold his items for him, so Grima has a -1 to STR, but gets to add +3 twice due to expertise. His Athletics modifier is +5. Grima’s Passive Weight is (3 + 6 + 5) for a total of 14. However, Grima has a problem. Forever a kleptomaniac, Grima’s pockets are almost stuffed from previously ransacking the queen’s bedroom, so his Active Weight is 12. Nearly full. Grima *really* wants that rare art piece (3) hanging by the king’s window, so he asks the DM to make a Carry check. The DM agrees. Grima rolls Athletics, with the DC being his Active Weight + the weight of the art piece (15). Grima fails with a 6, so he must abandon the art piece, become encumbered, or make room for it in his inventory. Never one to give up, Grima ditches the less valuable silver cutlery set (1) in order drop his Active Weight to 11, thereby making room for the art piece.

Dr. Miskatonic is an eldritch warlock and a seeker of forgotten knowledge. Despite being level 4, her Passive Carry Weight is only 5, because her STR score is hot garbage. Miskatonic’s party is drawing near the end of a dungeon, and their packs are brimming with loot. Miskatonic herself just succeeded on a Carry check, stuffing her pack with a golden idol (2) and raising her Active Weight to 6. Directly after, Miskatonic stumbles across an eldritch tome (2), which she suspects might contain information about her patron. Everything else in her pack is essential or valuable treasure. She concludes that she can’t give this tome to another party member, since she doesn’t trust them with such dangerous information, and also concludes she can’t pass up this opportunity to gain leverage on her patron. She has one choice: she must attempt another Carry check. This time, the DC will be 8. Miskatonic’s player rolls a 9, but due to her -2 STR modifier, fails the check. Miskatonic’s player doesn’t fret, however, since her DM gave her an inspiration die earlier for good roleplay. With the addition of the inspiration die, she rolls as low as possible with a +1, but still manages to meet the DC of 8. Dr. Miskatonic’s Active Weight increases to 8, and she successfully ties the tome to the outside of her already overflowing pack.

Optional Rules:

The base ruleset for Carry Weight is designed to be a balance of simple and forgiving. Players with full inventories are still encouraged to loot through Carry checks, and equipment that is determined to be a necessity can be listed as Free Weight and ignored entirely.

However, some of you out there may be looking to run tougher, stricter adventures, or simply may wish to modify the rules somewhat. Below are some suggested variant rules that you may apply in your game, but feel free to add your own!

With any rule that increases the difficulty of the system, I would recommend raising the base modifier to Passive Weight. This gives your players a bit more wiggle room to play with, especially since they have more punishing mechanics or more stuff to deal with. Increase the base modifier with caution, though, since raising it makes Carry checks harder too.

Modified/No Carry Checks

Carry checks are a forgiving mechanic; there are no penalties to attempting them. If you are a nasty metagamer, or simply someone who enjoys mischief, you may have spotted the exploit: Anyone can boost their Active Carry Weight high above their Passive Weight by attempting numerous Carry checks on junk items. After they’ve lifted their Active Weight to a higher number, they are guaranteed to have the space for valuable items in the future, simply swapping out the junk for the valuable stuff when they inevitably fail a Carry check. Note that Carry checks naturally get more difficult the more stuff you have to aid against this issue, but abuse is still possible. If you have problem players or simply do not like Carry checks, a few variant rules can be seen below.

Only a Single Carry Check: This one is self explanatory. Players are only allowed to have one Carry check’s worth of extra Weight above their Passive. After, they are not allowed to try any more Carry checks, and must swap out items to put anything new in.

Subsequent Disadvantage on Carry Checks: This one is also self explanatory. After the players have succeeded on a single Carry check over their Passive Weight, all subsequent Carry checks must be made with disadvantage.

No Carry Checks at All: If you don’t like Carry checks, just don’t use em. They are an entirely optional mechanic whose purpose is to allow players with full inventories a chance to join in on the looting fun. If you decide not to use them, however, note that the system is balanced around their use. If you don’t use Carry checks, a would recommend raising the base modifier to Passive Weight (3) by at least +2, or any other number you see fit.

Hardcore Carry Weight and Over-encumbrance

Are you a hardcore survival gamer, or do you just hate yourself? If your answer to one of those was “YES!”, then Hardcore Carry Weight might just be for you!

With Hardcore Carry Weight, anytime a Carry check places you over your Passive Weight, you are automatically Encumbered, and on a fail, you have to swap out items or can’t pick it up at all.

Furthermore, anytime your Active Weight exceeds double your Passive Weight, you become Overencumbered. When you are Overencumbered, you have your speed halved globally, and you gain a level of exhaustion.

With Hardcore Carry Weight, I would also recommend boosting the base modifier to Passive Weight by +2 or more, to your own discretion. Just keep in mind that Carry checks become harder the higher the base Passive Weight is, because all ability checks are bounded at 20 + respective modifiers, and you do not add the base modifier to Carry checks.

Customized Free Weight

Custom Free Weight: As stated earlier, Free Weight excludes items from Weight calculations, for convenience’s sake. You can scale it back or forward to customize how tough you want your Carry Weight system to be. Personally, my table likes a moderately tough system, so my players only assign two hands worth of tools and weapons, plus their currently equipped armor, as Free Weight. On the other hand, I include coins under Free Weight, and don’t make my players weigh it at all. Similarly, you may expand or exclude items as you see fit to match your table’s preferences, just remember that you may want to slightly increase the base modifier to Passive Weight if you adopt a stricter ruleset.

No Free Weight at All: Do you want a super-tough, ultra-gritty-realistic inventory management system? Then remove Free Weight entirely! While I heavily advise against this, and wonder why you don’t just use the official Encumbrance system, there are a few tweaks you can make to Carry Weight to meet your preferences.

If you eliminate Free Weight entirely, you will have to drastically increase the base modifier to Passive Weight. There is no way around this, since starting class gear would creep past any character’s starting Passive Weight unless they heavily spec into Athletics. I would recommend setting your base Passive Weight modifier to 8, that being said, you are clearly a free spirit and thus can make your own decisions.

Pushing the base modifier to Passive Weight this high pretty much creeps out Carry checks entirely. If you still wish to run Carry checks without Free Weight (like some kind of madman) then the simple fix is to add the increase in base modifier to all Carry checks. While this doesn’t make any thematic or flavor sense, it is the easiest way to make Carry checks viable again.

Bag Upgrades

Here are optional rules for pack upgrades, or magical packs, that may allow for increased carrying capacity.

My suggestions:

  • Small Pack Upgrade: +3 to Passive Weight
  • Medium Pack Upgrade: +6 to Passive Weight
  • Large Pack Upgrade: +9 to Passive Weight

If you wish to make your own custom pack upgrades, the only guideline is not to put modifier any higher than +10. +10 is the highest standard modifier to a character proficient in Athletics, and putting the modifier any higher than that might make players at your table feel that it was not worthwhile to spec into Athletics if they could have just dropped 300 gold to buy a larger pack.

Alternate Abilities

Encumbrance is a system designed to make the STR stat more viable, but if you wish to diversify the the system, or if you hate STR for some reason, here are some suggestions:

Intelligence as A Carry Stat: Intelligence could easily be flavored as a character being very efficient at packing. Allowing characters to add their Intelligence modifier to Passive Weight might just make Intelligence a more useful stat. Give your Wizard or Artificer a little more wiggle room to carry stuff, I mean, would could go wrong?

Constitution as A Carry Stat: Constitution is a suitable replacement for the Strength stat in Carry Weight. Constitution could represent the stamina a character has to carry heavy items, and additionally, is generally a more useful stat than Strength. Furthermore, if you want to make your Carry Weight system a little easier, adding CON modifier on top of Athletics might be a fairer way to make physically weak caster classes able to access viable Passive Weight stats.

Wisdom as A Carry Stat: Wisdom is the second mental stat that can represent a character’s packing efficiency. Optionally, consider allowing your players to make Survival the Carry Weight skill instead of Athletics.


I know what some you may be thinking right now. “Simple rules my ass! This guy just spent 3,300 words describing this system! This isn’t easy at all!”

This is a simple system, it just has a lot of depth. Most of this information is stuff only the DM needs to know, or an explanation for why the system works the way it does. If you want to explain this to your players, summarize the rules like this:

Items will now have weights from 1-5, some we will ignore for convenience.

We will ignore starting gear for convenience.

Write the weight in parentheses next to your items.

The max weight you are guaranteed to carry is (3 + Your Level + Athletics modifier).

If you want to carry more than that, you can make an Athletics check, with the DC being equal to the weight you want to carry.

Encumbrance is a really cool system, and more than that, the game is designed around it. Encumbrance makes a natural limit on the stuff your players can carry, makes Strength a viable stat, and introduces risky plays or interesting dilemmas when your players want to carry more than they should. I hope that this Carry Weight system helps your table run Encumbrance in a simpler manner. If you have any feedback and criticism for the system, please post below!


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