What’s In Your Backpack? A Healthy Dose of Reality

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on August 27, 2012

When it comes to fantasy role-playing there are a lot of things you have to just accept in order for the game to function. Magic exists. Dragons exist. Elves exist. I have no problems with any of these things. They may be fantastic but they’re familiar and acceptable. But when it comes to the amount of gear a typical adventurer can carry in his backpack many players believe that anything goes. This is not a fantasy that I’m willing to accept. There needs to be some common sense applied some of the time to D&D and for me the buck stops with your backpack.

The way I see it there are two real issues when it comes to the reality of your backpack: 1) How much can it hold, and 2) How easily you can grab something out of that backpack in the heat of combat. I have had way too many players push the boundaries of what is actually possible in both cases that I’ve had to introduce a house rule when it comes to equipment the first thing that goes into any character’s backpack is a healthy does of reality.

This month Game Knight Reviews wants to know “What’s in *your* backpack?” as part of the August RPG Blog Carnival. I expect we’ll see a lot of posts where people list off their favourite must-have items. Here at Dungeon’s Master we’ve decided to approach the discussion from a slightly different angle.

Storage Capacity

Eventually any adventurer worth his salt acquires a Bag of Holding or some other receptacle with an extra-dimensional space. This was clearly invented for D&D when the first DMs realized that it was going to be physically impossible for heroes to carry all the fantastic loot they discovered while adventuring. Give them a Bag of Holding and the problems and additional recordkeeping that come with encumbrance are eliminated. Magic trumps physics and we move on. But until PCs get a Bag of Holding they have to rely on the more mundane, traditional way of carrying their wares, on their back.

A lot of players like to believe that as long as an item is recorded on their character sheet it’s safely secured in their backpack. For the most part I’m ok with this interpretation. However, there are some exceptions. After all a typical backpack is, at best 2-3 feet long, so any item that is larger than that is not going to fit inside the bag easily. Now for most PCs the only things they’ll have that are bigger than their backpack (and won’t fit inside of it) are weapons and armor. Big weapons are usually strapped on their person somewhere (over their back or at their hip in most cases). Armor is always worn during an adventure and very few PCs will bring back-up armor, especially if it’s metal simply because it’s too big, bulky and expensive.

A disturbing trend I’m seeing a lot more often than I ever used to, are players who feel that they have to spend every gp during character creation that their PC gets at the beginning of play. After purchasing their weapons, armor, holy symbol, spell book or other adventuring necessities, they start going through the equipment list and taking one or more of anything and everything. This isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but that reality that we put in the bag at the outset limits what you can actually get inside the backpack. In a recent adventure a PC claimed that he’d been carrying around three 10-ft poles since the adventure started. This was three levels later. This same character crawled through narrow fissures, and used disguise to pretend to be a town guard. Neither of these tasks would have succeeded if he had three giant poles sticking out of his backpack. Yet it was on his sheet so he stood fast and said he had it.

I’ll admit that I’m not looking to add unnecessary recordkeeping to the game. I don’t really want to worry about encumbrance, but players have to work with me. They need to apply some common sense and limit themselves to things that actually believe they could fit into a real backpack. You may have it written on your character sheet that you have two suits of plate mail but the reality is that this simply doesn’t make sense.

It’s funny because the carrying capacity by weight or volume never seems to be problematic when it comes to treasure. PCs have gold pieces and gems which I agree will fit into any nook and cranny of their backpack. By the time they have enough coins and gems for weight or storage space to become an issue they either spend the coins or convert them to greater denomination. It’s the regular, everyday, mundane items that always seem to cause the most problem in these fantasy games.


Just because you’ve got a knife in your backpack doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be able to get to it quickly or easily. I realize that during combat no one wants to waste a lot of action taking off their backpack and routing around for that one specific item they need. In fact I’m usually pretty generous and forgiving when this happens. But again I do still apply a healthy does of reality.

I always assume that a standard D&D adventurer’s backpack is full of pockets and compartments. The idea is that the things you’re most likely to need (potions, scrolls, caltrops, a torch, more daggers) will be stored in an easy-to-get-to pouch or pocket. This is a good way to explain why it only takes a minor action to get at these items quickly when you need them most. But we must never forget the all-important dose of reality that’s also in your backpack.

Items that you use often or are likely to need in an emergency are certainly going to be easy to access, but this doesn’t apply to every single item in your inventory. Something has to be at the bottom of the bag, and it’s usually the larger, bulkier things that are not usually needed in the heat of combat. I’m all for players being imaginative and trying to come up with alternative ways to use mundane equipment, but don’t expect that you can retrieve anything and everything with a minor action.

Reality is Boring

Despite my insistence of having a healthy does of reality in your backpack the truth of the matter is that reality is boring. That’s one of the reasons we play fantasy role-playing games in the first place, to experience the incredible and unbelievable. My preference is that players try to be realistic when it comes to what’s in their backpack, but every now and then – as an exception – I will allow them to stow something that they shouldn’t be able to, carry an item that is obviously too heavy, or just look the other way when they want something outrageous. I make this exception because it’s often these things that will add a dose of humour or unexpected inspiration to an otherwise routine encounter. So as much as I want there to be a healthy dose of reality in your backpack, I know that there should still be at least a little bit of room for the fantastic.

What are some of the most outrageous things you’ve tried to carry in a regular backpack? As a DM what have you allowed that you knew was clearly impossible? How do you handle carry capacity in games where the Bag of Holding doesn’t exist or is not readily available? Should players ever have to worry about encumbrance?

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1 Taed August 27, 2012 at 12:44 pm

One item that I like to carry around is a Nail of Sealing, for locking down doors to limit room access for tactical reasons or to allow an escape without being followed.

The only unwieldy item that I carry around is 7 javelins. I bought them at 1st level and am now an 8th level Warden and have only ever thrown 2. But I just have this vision of being in a scenario where I’m on the other side of a pit from some baddies and I don’t want to be stuck without

The last few months we’ve really messed up a few battles and have escaped TPK by having everyone (but one) climb or throw unconscious allies into our Handy Haversack and then being carried away by an invisible or high-stealth character.

2 Tom Coenen August 27, 2012 at 12:54 pm

In our group we are very lenient towards storage capacity.
Characters can carry around heaps of unconverted money or have a bag of holding with a large construct, some bottles of wine and a dead paladin.
Great times 🙂

@Taed, thanks for Nail of Sealing, I didn’t know it existed.

3 funkaoshi August 27, 2012 at 1:16 pm

One of the guys in my gaming group picks up all the loot we find: non-magical axes and armour and swords and anything and everything the people we fight might be carry.

4 shortymonster August 27, 2012 at 1:46 pm

Now, I have gone totally reality based for my entry into this. As long as you accept that zombies are something worth planning for that is…


5 Ameron (Derek Myers) August 27, 2012 at 1:49 pm

We have a lot of fun with the Nail of Sealing. It’s not as good at higher levels because many monsters have pretty high Strength modifiers, but for heroic tier play it’s a must have if you an afford it.

Regarding those thrown weapons that rarely get used, I usually spring for a +1 version (usually a distance weapon to increase the range) and that way I only need to carry around one. As the DM I give these out early to keep the silliness down (“What do you mean I can’t have 12 throwing hammers? They’re all hanging from loops around my belt; that’s believable.”)

I’ve always ruled that the opening for an extra-dimensional space item like the Bag of Holding or the Handy Haversack are not big enough to stuff a person into. Now a Portable Hole is another story all together. This all goes back to descriptions of the items from previous editions. Really it comes down to how generous the DM wants to be. If the PCs can figure out a way to shrink PCs I’d certainly allow them to stuff their allies inside (Pixie Dust comes to mind).

@Tom Coenen
I gave up tracking the encumbrance for money ages ago – way too many headaches. We play primarily in Eberron so I assume the PCs convert their money to paper notes or leave it in the Kunderak banks.

We unusually do the same; one guy tracks everything we collect. However, I usually have him indicate which PC is carrying which items; especially if the items are big, fragile or extremely valuable. Once we get a Bag of Holding this problem goes away. However, I have a hard rule that if it’s not recorded somewhere it’s gone. This has led to some heated arguments over the years.

6 Valadil August 27, 2012 at 2:15 pm

I like the article in theory but in practice I hand wave all that stuff away. It’s not that I don’t enjoy bean counting but that the brand are the same no matter the character. Fitting items into a backpack is going to be the same problem no matter whose solving it. I couldn’t tell you how many characters I’ve played in the last 17 years of gaming but if I was asked to solve the same backpack tetris problem for each of them, I’d have quit ages ago.

7 Ameron (Derek Myers) August 27, 2012 at 2:47 pm

I’m not suggesting that you give inventory any real time or heavy consideration. Your goal is to play D&D (or whatever your game of choice happens to be) and not “Backpack Tetris” as you so accurately put it. I’m just asking for some consideration of the mechanics. I mean, really, three 10-foot poles? It doesn’t take too much thought to realize that’s not going to work. I guess the real point of my article is that the players shouldn’t try to abuse the DM’s hand wave when it comes to inventory. Keep it believable and I won’t make you waste time with the bean counting.

8 Philo Pharynx August 27, 2012 at 5:02 pm

Actually my rule is that mundane adventuring equipment isn’t even recorded, except maybe at 1st level. If it makes sense that they would have brought it, they have it. If it’s odd, then I usually roll a d20 as a luck check. Big items like 10′ poles and anvils would have to be recorded until they get extradimensional spaces. After that, it makes sense that they carry that. When they get into paragon and epic, I’ll even occasionally let them pull out alchemical and low-level magic items.

Part of this is avoiding bookkeeping and part of it is encouraging creative solutions. If they have a plan that involves a spool of thread, a block of wax, twenty three marbles and a crowbar, then I’m going to let them try it.

9 Welbo Welbes August 28, 2012 at 5:51 pm

I liked this article, and I enforce most of it at my table. My players seen to forget they walk around carrying backpacks full of usefull stuff, they think that all itens they have on their character sheets just simply appear in their hands in a magical fashion whenever they need it. I have to remind then that some thing are impossible. Once, they needed to get inside this building where weapons were not allowed, and the people who worked there would search you for weapons and store it safely in a vault. The rogue suddenly had the idea to roll thievery to hide a couple of daggers in his body, and I think that’s completely possible and allowed it. Suddenly, the paladin wanted to do the same… with his greatsword. I mean, it dosen’t matter if you roll a 20+ result in the thievery check, I’m not allowing you to hide a greatwsord in your clothes or armor, that’s impossible. That’s just one of the things I remembered right now, but things like this are common with my table, but overall they agree with me when they try doing things and realize they seem too absurd, even for a role-playing game.

10 valadil August 28, 2012 at 8:35 pm

> I guess the real point of my article is that the players shouldn’t try to abuse the DM’s hand wave when it comes to inventory.

I’ll buy that. Call it a gentlemen’s agreement. Don’t pack stupid things in your backpack and the GM won’t make backpack tetris for a significant portion of the game time. It might not work with an adversarial table, but I aim to run and play collaborative storytelling games anyway.

11 BeanBag August 29, 2012 at 4:17 pm

One of the first parcels i give out as DM includes a Bag of holding, an everflowing bottle (of water) and Leomund’s Spoon (of gruel).

I am an accountant during the day, i dont want to be an accountant at night.

12 vaeres August 29, 2012 at 11:32 pm

As soon as I saw the title of this article I knew I was going to have to leave a comment, without even reading it. I KNEW you were going to bring up the 10 ft pole from your encounters sessions.

REALLY man? Do you not understand how a 10ft pole works? Do you really think a 10ft pole is 10ft long? Of course it isn’t, it is a 1ft pole with expanding sections (ever see babylon 5? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkeOAh7hAjY&feature=player_detailpage#t=268s that is what a 10 ft pole is like).

So please, give the 10 ft pole thing a rest, I love your site but this concept should not be this hard to grasp.

As you probably guessed I am one of those people who must spend every last gp, especially in a 1shot, and I too had a 10 ft pole that I pulled out during our last lair assault (the priestess in the last room dropped that black hole spell on the ground and I used it and my 50ft rope to get across it since it was the only way to reach her). Anyway point is my DM gave me 50 experience for having a 10ft pole in my pack.

13 Philo Pharynx August 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm

Speaking as a devil’s mechanical engineer, any extensible pole will be less strong and/or less stable than a solid one given the materials available. Given medieval technology, a telescoping pole would be pretty difficult to manufacture in any reliable way. Poles that fastened to one another would be more likely. And remember that screw threads aren’t standardized or common at this point. You are probably talking fitting one end into a socket and probably using a pin to hold it. Which means that it’s not quick to deploy.

All of these approaches would be more expensive and introduce weak points that could flex and break at inopportune times. Ten socketed sections would give you pole that would flex quite a bit. Not to mention that they’d take up a huge chunk of your backpack.

I have recent experience with this, as I just did some painting on my house last weekend. I started out using a six foot pole with two 18″ extensions. The extensions added enough flexibility that it was hard to roll the paint onto the textured surface. I broke down and got a telescoping metal pole. Made of tubular aluminum. To get sufficient strength with medieval materials would have made it too heavy for most uses. Heck, I remember an anecdote from a stuntman the Bablyon 5 set that the pikes you talk about were pretty unweildy and didn’t last through many scenes.

Now magic could easily get you a telescoping pole without these drawbacks. But the cost would be pretty expensive, so you’d probably end up getting a bag of holding before spending on an extensible pole.

14 Svafa August 30, 2012 at 1:54 pm

My current group has a bag of holding but doesn’t use it (or, well, do, but solely for trophy body parts) and I’m not sure they even have backpacks. The Invoker started with Tenser’s Floating Disc and they’ve just always carried everything on it.

That being said, in a former game one of the characters collected javelins. At one point I think he was carrying around two dozen of them. I hand-waved it for comedic effect, which of course meant I could, at any point I saw fit, un-hand-wave it to create an embarrassing, bizarre, or otherwise humorous problem for the party. That sort of thing (well, at least in reasonable numbers) can just be strapped to the outside of the backpack too; the way I imagine most small blades and other essentials might be.

15 valadil August 31, 2012 at 11:21 pm

So this article convinced me to finally write up an idea I had for another way to do encumbrance. http://gm.sagotsky.com/?p=290 It might work for you.

16 Chad September 3, 2012 at 1:12 pm

I’ve never had major issues with this, since my parties typically spring for Bags of Holding at the first opportunity. I also plant Bags of Holding, Handy Haversacks, and other space-saving items (Everlasting Provisions, Keg of Liquid Gold, etc) in the adventure so that, if they forget, they won’t find themselves with a ton of treasure and no way to move it.
Personally, although I’ll never house rule against it, I find Quick Draw requires some mental gymnastics to justify. As grateful as I am that my warforged ranger can, in a span of six seconds, place two war hammers on his belt, sweep a longbow from his back, fire two shots, return the longbow to his back, and draw the hammers again in time to smash someone over the head, I find the idea too ridiculous to be real.
Oh, and Philo – props for the engineering speak, man.

17 Happydude September 5, 2012 at 6:56 am

I guess it depends on the tone of the campaign really. For a gritty survival style game (that can be damn good fun) then things like backpack space, rations, encumbrance, etc will be really important. For a more tradition fantasy romp not so much, it all depends on the tone you want to set in your game IMO.

18 Mattwandcow September 9, 2012 at 1:21 am

I once had the opportunity to single-handedly lay siege to an abandoned keep. My knight was prone to charging into situations head first and my DM prone to not punishing me well enough.

So there’s this large wall, a thick portcullis and 75-100 ft away, the start of a large pine forest with 100-200ft trees. I did some quick meta geometry. A wicked grin spread across my face and I laughed the laugh of a player about to do something epic.

Then I realized I didn’t have an axe of any kind.

Now, in every character, make sure to toss a few gold toward some tools: axe, hammer, nails… Any simple tool can do hundreds of things

19 shortymonster September 9, 2012 at 4:16 pm

And that’s why the zombie survival kit has a hatchet. It’s not to be used as a weapon, that’s what the crowbar is for…

20 Philo Pharynx September 10, 2012 at 12:50 pm

*chuckles* I once played with a rogue who had a goal to one day get an adamantine crowbar. It turned out that once he got it it was quite useful in stealing the ironclad warship.

Don’t forget that most tools have masterwork versions, exotic materials, etc. As you go up in levels, consider investing in some of thes odd items. In 4e, for 520 gold you can get a silent tool. http://www.wizards.com/dndinsider/compendium/item.aspx?id=2497. This is cheap when you’re a pargon level player and you’ll love the look on the GM’s face the first time you chop down a door without making a sound.

21 Brian September 10, 2012 at 9:00 pm

In a game I was playing, the DM had a novel approach to this problem. Instead of having a big laundry list of adventurer’s equipment, we simply had adventurer’s gear with five uses. Each time you pull some mundane equipment out of the backpack, it counts as a use.

I think this is a good way of doing it – it avoids the bookkeeping and suspension of disbelief of a character walking around with a hardware store on her back, and lets the players do awesome McGyver moves without being impeded by having brought a crowbar instead of a ten foot pole.

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