I read a wonderful article a week or so ago, (I think it was someone’s archive, so it may have been much older), about hiking and backpack loading, with comments dealing with real life hiking trips as well as how it all applied to dnd. I just now tried to find it, so that I could link to it, but sadly my search skills are lacking. : (

One topic that came up was whether adventurers should wear backpacks during combat.

The dominant opinion was a resounding no. So much so that a number of folks sounded amazed that anyone would consider such an unconventional move.

My friends and I are more of the couch potato variety, so hiking is just something we do when forced to. I never gave any thought to removing my backpack for combat and, to my knowledge, neither has anyone else in my group. But I have to admit, the notion of removing the backpack certainly has merit. Enough so, that I’m considering imposing a -2 penalty to combat (to hit and damage for melee, ranged, and thrown attacks) while wearing a backpack. Swinging a sword, with 100 pounds on your back, could certainly throw you off. I can see where it could be a disadvantage.

Now I wouldn’t want this to be a hardship, so if I were to do such a thing, I would make a couple of other changes first. Removing a backpack when you know combat is about to take place is easy enough. But what about when it descends upon you without warning? Now you need to remove your pack during combat or fight at a disadvantage. That’s not acceptable to me. But there is an easy fix.

Quick-Release Straps

Install a quick-release mechanism on the straps. There are two shoulder straps and two additional straps, (one across the chest and another across the waist), that secure the pack tightly to the body. Even a medieval society should be able to engineer such a connector.

I think a quick-release mechanism would be an acceptable solution. But after some thought, I think I would also recommend an additional measure. What I have in mind is to take the backpack away entirely. What are combat-ready adventurers carrying a backpack for anyway?

I’m sure that statement got your hackles up. But please keep reading.

Hire a Porter

What I am suggesting is recommending to players that every adventurer obtain a low-level hireling to carry their pack. It used to be the norm for parties to secure a number of hirelings as porters and torch-bearers. In recent editions, such a thing has fallen out of favor, so newer players are rarely aware that it is even an option. I would definitely install the quick-release straps anyway, but suggesting hirelings to the players could still be a good solution.

Hireling porters can double as torch-bearers, help carry extra gold or wounded adventurers out of the dungeon, retrieve items from an adventurer’s pack so they don’t have to attempt it themselves during combat, and carry additional party gear in order to keep the adventurers lean and combat-ready.

Is This Really Necessary?

It really comes down to who can afford to be overloaded in a fight. Fighters have the highest strength and can carry the most stuff. But they are in the front line, wearing the heaviest armor and already wielding heavy weapons. As a character, I would feel safest knowing that the fighters are lean and mean. Thieves aren’t carrying much: leather armor, daggers, and thieves’ tools. That’s about it. But they need to be silent and stealthy. Plus, sometimes they need to climb treacherous walls. Bulky or noisy gear could easily put them, and possibly the entire party, at risk. Wizards have the least strength. Even though they don’t wear armor or use heavy weapons, their spell book and magical items already put them close to their encumbrance limit. Extra torches are often about it for what extra gear they can carry. That leaves clerics. Clerics have so-so strength, wear heavy armor, and wield heavy maces. They could manage a few extra pounds of gear, but the cleric is probably the last one I’d want to load up (especially if we only have one).

Obviously, adventurers could all split the load. They are doing it now. But shifting all their packs to hirelings really just makes more sense. And now that it has been pointed out to me, attempting to fight with a heavy, bulky load on your back seems like a complicated proposition. Imposing a penalty feels reasonable to me, and shifting packs to porters is a simple way of getting around the penalty.

Improving Backpacks

Since I’m already looking at backpacks, this is an excellent time to make them better. Really, it’s just a change to their description, but it’ll make me happy knowing I did it. The rules say that you can retrieve an item from a backpack in one round (six seconds). No fucking way! Not with current backpacks.

Most people wearing a backpack have something in their hands. Sword and shield, wand/staff, a torch/lantern, something. Whatever it is must be thrown on the ground. If they have a bow and quiver hung on their shoulder, that has to be removed and thrown on the ground. The backpack straps across the chest and waist need to be untied. The character then finally needs to disentangle himself from the shoulder straps and place the pack on the ground. The flap on top needs to be untied, so that the character may access the contents. This already has taken a ridiculous amount of time. But now, cold, tired, probably scared, and constantly alert for that enemy about to break through the lines and charge him, the character can now finally start searching the pack for a small item among two or three cubic feet of misc. gear… and all this by the dim, flickering light of a torch or lantern. I can’t imagine how long all that will take, but most certainly it cannot be completed in six seconds.

Spring-Loaded Cord Locks

The biggest time sink with backpacks is the process of removing it. This is countered with quick-release straps, or better yet handing off the pack to a porter so that removing the pack isn’t even needed. The next greatest time sink is the need to untie various things. Quick-release straps replace some of the straps that otherwise would have to have been untied. But the flap at the top of the pack still represents a barrier that will take time to untie. My solution is to replace these ties with a spring-loaded cord lock. It is one of those little plastic doo-dads that you squeeze to release the clamp, which allows you to then slide the cord one way or the other to open or close the bag opening. Obviously, we won’t use plastic, but our medieval engineers can probably come up with an alternative.

More Pocketses

Lastly, I would add tons of pockets, both inside and out, in order to organize everything. With more pockets, quick-release straps, and spring-loaded cord locks, I think it actually would be possible now for an adventurer to remove a pack and retrieve an item all in a single round. There will still be a -2 penalty to combat, but these new packs can now easily be removed, costing the wearer but a single round. Having a porter carry the pack even offsets the cost of that round.

New Backpack Description

A backpack is made of leather and heavily reinforced so as to be able to carry a heavy load. The dimensions of the main pack are 12″ x 18″ x 24″. There are two padded, adjustable shoulder straps, plus two additional straps (one across the chest and one across the waist) used to secure the pack tightly against the body. Each of these has a quick-release connector, allowing the pack to be removed quickly. There are also four 24″ x 6″ x 4″ pouches (two on either side), and four 12″ x 9″ x 4″ pouches (on the back) external to the main pack. All of these pouches, plus the flap at the top of the main pack, are secured with spring-loaded cord locks, so that they may be opened/closed quickly. There are also a few pouches inside the main pack, but they are strictly to keep small items separated; they don’t add any additional space. The various straps are adjustable, in order to distribute the weight evenly, allowing a fully-loaded pack to be carried for long periods without discomfort. Lastly, there are numerous mounting rings sewn in place, so that various items (bedroll, shield, bundles of rope, etc.) may be secured to the pack. Altogether, the pack has room for more than five cubic feet of gear, with a maximum weight limit of 200 pounds (10,000 coins).