In an MMO, it’s easy to track food and water, ammunition, weight and encumbrance, and other such things. I love having this precision. But in a pen and paper game, it just isn’t realistic to expect everyone to manually maintain such detailed record keeping. So where do you draw the line?
When a player creates a new character, I have them start with a standard set of possessions: backpack, food and water, 50′ rope, tinderbox, torches, spikes, mallet, dagger, set of clothes, etc. From their starting cash they buy weapons, armor, and whatever else they think they’ll need. That way, they are always guaranteed to at least start out with all the basic necessities. Other than consumables, these items typically persist for the life of the character. If she somehow loses her rope, we track it in so much as she crosses off the rope and doesn’t have it next time she needs it (until she replaces it). That kind of tracking is trivial and just common sense. I’ve never had a player complain that this sort of tracking was any sort of a hardship.
Food and Water
Food and water are a bit different. Everyone knows that they need food and water to survive. But tracking it would be a pain. Also, characters would naturally live off the land as much as possible. Roleplaying such activities, especially on a daily basis, would be boring and time-wasting. Therefore, in any environment where living off the land is feasible, it is simply assumed that this is being done and there is no need to track these items.
When the party spends an extended amount of time in a dungeon or crossing a desert (or other environment where food and water aren’t readily available), we do track such items. These situations are fairly uncommon so it doesn’t come up very often. When it does, this sort of tracking is actually useful to the game in that it emphasizes that the party is in a more hostile environment that they should focus on leaving as quickly as possible.
There are additional reasons for carrying rations. When prisoners are rescued, or strangers met on the road, sharing rations is a good way to earn their trust. If the party is attempting to flee from what turned out to be a more dangerous encounter than first thought, throwing some food at their pursuers can very well save the party’s lives. In these cases, we absolutely mark off the number of days rations used in the process. But since rations aren’t normally used up as the primary day-to-day source of food, it is simply a matter of replacing these few days worth once the group is back in town.
If everyone in the party has infravision, or magic weapons that shed light, or some other magical means of seeing in the dark, there is no reason to use (or track) torches, lantern oil, etc. In my game there is no infravision and magic weapons don’t shed light. Therefore, torches and lanterns are generally a necessity (at least in a dungeon) and we track them carefully.
I realize that my game is unusual in this respect. But I really like the visual of adventurers creeping through the dungeon by torchlight. Infravision is just a cheat. Also, this is great incentive for using hirelings (which I strongly encourage). Not only can hirelings hold lanterns, they can carry treasure, stand watch, and even lift a sword if need arises. Plus, I find endless role-playing opportunities and plot devices through these henchmen.
Of course, there is nothing to keep a resourceful character from having continual light cast on an item, thereby eliminating the need for consumable light sources.
I’m a stickler for tracking ammunition. Quivers can hold 20 arrows or bolts and characters may equip up to two quivers at a time. Additional ammo must be carried in a backpack or on a pack animal. Ammunition that hits is considered to be destroyed. Half of all misses are recoverable.
I don’t think that this is overly limiting nor is it taxing for the player. Without limits on ammo, it devalues the Quiver of Holding and auto-loading magic bows (which I think are too cool to do away with).
Plus, it forces a bit of strategy on the player: how much ammo should be carried, what should you shoot at, when should you conserve ammo, etc.
Weight and Encumbrance
This is where I draw the line. Everything up to this point sounds like we track a lot of minutia. But really, it’s all just common sense and happens without thinking about it. But tracking weight and encumbrance is far too intrusive. That isn’t to say that we ignore the entire issue, but looking up weights and pulling out a calculator all the time just doesn’t work for us.
Instead, we just use common sense and generalities. If a group of four adventurers finds 100,000 cp, obviously they can’t just divvy it up and haul it out (that’s 500 pounds each plus what they already have). If they fight through 20 kobolds, each wearing chain mail and armed with long swords, the party isn’t going to be able to haul all that gear out of the dungeon (it’s all just too bulky).
The DM makes a best guess at what is reasonable for them to manage and we go with that. It’s quick, easy, playable, and works smoothly for us.
I discussed material components yesterday. Basically, I suggest removing the requirement for all common components and only tracking the rare and expensive ones.
When talking about tracking consumable items, it may seem odd to include character expenses. But characters do have expenses. At low levels, these expenses are substantial. A group of adventurers may have to pool their resources just to buy a pack horse. Meals and a night’s lodging at the local inn might tax their resources. Absolutely I would track these expenses!
But for higher level character’s, these expenses become trivial. Still, for food and lodging, and purchases around town, I would make sure that characters were still responsible for these minor costs.
However, I have heard of endless games where fees, tithes, taxes and tolls are levied against characters. There may be: a gate fee, per head and per hoof, to enter a city; a surcharge on goods (treasure) being brought into a city to be sold; a transaction fee to exchange foreign coins for coins of the realm at the money changers; and all sorts of other means of removing gold from the character’s pouches. For a low level party this can be quite a hardship. For a high level group it is just an annoyance. In either case, it isn’t fun and wastes time. Although all these fees may be reasonable and valid, they don’t add anything to the game.
As in all things, what works for one group doesn’t always work for everyone else. Do whatever works for you. Keep it simple and don’t let details get in the way of the fun. On the other hand, when things become too easy the game stops being challenging. Tracking ammo (for instance) may not seem crucial, but players have to be responsible for equipping themselves adequately and that includes replenishing supplies.