Making the Game Your Own
Making the Game Your Own
Under the basic rules, there's a very simple system to track how much players can carry, and it's designed so that players basically don't have to worry about it. So in my game, any treasure or items the players reasonably pick up, they can carry around with them. There's a more complicated variant rule where a player who carries too much becomes encumbered (meaning their speed is lowered or worse). But unless you're going with a realistic, survival game, I can't imagine any reason to use encumbrance.
There's also a specific rule about the number of magic items a player can have: the attunement rule. Most high value magic items require a player to attune to them in order to use them, which means the player has to spend a short rest "attuning" to the item. The limiting factor here is that players can only be attuned to 3 items at a time.
In hindsight, it's a very good rule. It's a rule I wish I'd used in my games and did not. At the the time, I thought it was too confusing to explain (unclear why I thought my players would be confused by a 3 magic item limit), so I just handed out big magic items all the time. This ended poorly.
Not only did each player have more than three fairly powerful magic items, they also had powerful consumables that they just refused to consume. My players had so many items, both magic and consumable, that they never used because they never even remembered they had them. And at some point it became silly to imagine my players walking around just loaded down with stuff.
I needed a solution. And the solution I decided on was visual backpacks.
I'm not the first person to make my players visual backpacks, and I got the idea from Last Gasp Grimoire's backpacks, though mine don't look near as good.
How It Works
The idea is that my players can only carry as many items as they have slots in their backpack. So basically, they can have 15 "items" and each item is represented by a little item card. For the purposes of our backpacks, anything that has an obvious use during either a role playing encounter or combat encounter takes up space in the player backpack.
So for example, earrings you can leave behind to spy on a person require a card for the backpack, but earrings that you wear purely for style do not. I admit it's a little clumsy, and some things end up being judgment calls, but it mostly works.
Why A Visual Backpack?
I'd given out so many magic items that my players almost never remembered what they had and some didn't even have all their magic items written down. Meanwhile, I was spending serious time creating custom magic items for everyone that no one ever used, which was sort of disheartening.
I wanted a system where they could easily see their items, especially disposable items like one-time use potions and spell scrolls. You know when you've erased in the same spot so many times there's a hole in the paper? Yeah, I wanted to stop that from happening with those, and I also wanted it to be easy for my players to trade items if they wanted.
And that desire to make the items feel more like tradable and usable commodities led me to backpacks with item cards.
Building the Backpack
I knew I wanted backpacks but wasn't sure how to best make them. At first, I thought just some folded cardstock would work, but it didn't. Not really. So I rustled through my craft bin and found some unused blank cards with pockets (from Cards & Pockets). They're really high quality, so they look nice, and the pocket can be used to store unequipped items and spell cards, which makes it extra functional for my spell casters.
Then, once I'd decided on the material for the backpack, I had to decide on (1) how many items they'd be able to carry in said backpack and (2) how I'd secure the item cards to it.
Number of Items
I settled on 15 item backpacks, partially for practical reasons and partially for aesthetic reasons.
Practically, I didn't think the players needed more than 15 usable items at one time. The fifteen items doesn't include their clothes or any accessories. So under this rule, if my monk had zero magic items, she could carry 15 weapons. And obviously a monk needs one weapon, maybe two tops. As it turns out, my monk does have several magic items, but she still has plenty of room in her backpack to buy potions and the like.
I also did do some research to see how many items they already had before instating this limit. Assuming they had 4 weapons (which is a lot, though two of my players do) and armor, that's still 10 open spaces for magic items and potions. We've been using backpacks for several months now, and only one player has had a problem with space. And the space problem? It's from consumable items like spell scrolls and potions, which she can easily use or trade to get more space back if she finds something better.
The other thing is that just because a player doesn't have the item in the backpack doesn't mean they lose it. One player has a Bag of Holding (well, technically, she has Cargo Shorts of Holding), and that Bag of Holding takes up exactly one item slot on her backpack, no matter how many items are in it. The other players can freely store their items in her Bag and retrieve them at any time. When an item is in the Bag, the player can put the item in the pocket of their own backpack, representing that it's not equipped but still available to them.
The caveat is, if they're trying to retrieve an item from the Bag of Holding during combat it takes a full action (plus whatever movement they had to spend to get to the player). Also, if they're involved in a social interaction, any person they're talking to would see them rummaging around in our rogue's pants. That means they have to make decisions about what items they think will be useful at any given time.
Aesthetically, I wanted the item cards to fill up the backpacks. That meant some measuring. I wanted to ensure the item cards were big enough to give information about the item and also ensure the players could carry enough items. Eventually, I decided on 1.5x2in item cards simply because that gave me enough room to write relevant information on the cards and still perfectly fit 15 in the open backpack space.
Originally, I imagined the item cards much bigger. I intended to cut lined note cards in half for each item card, thinking I'd use the blank side to draw the item and the lined side to write what the item did. Well, when I decided to use the small Cards & Pockets for the backpack, half a note card was too big.
So the 1.5x2 size item cards arose from necessity. The problem was how to attach them to the backpack. I tested double-sided tape, but the tape sometimes ripped the backpacks, and it started to lose its stickiness after several removals. Since I wanted players to be able to move them, use them, and trade them, double-sided tape was out. I considered velcro, but that seemed expensive and also prevented me from effectively using the back of the card. Luckily, I used to be an avid scrapbooker and had some photo corners.
Photo corners are great because they're designed to not harm the item (specifically photos) they're holding in place. So for the backpack, you can just place the photo corners where you want them, and you'll be able to pop the item cards in and out.
To do this, I used a pencil to trace the top left and bottom right corner for each item slot.
Then I placed the photo corners right on the edges of my trace marking. To make it easier to remove the item cards, I only used two photo corners--one on the top left and one on the bottom right.
The Backpacks Thus Far
I wanted to use backpacks because my players had too many items. Arguably, I could have fixed the item problem by giving fewer items, making potions more expensive, and following the rules of attunement. But my players play in a high-magic, wealthy world, so I didn't want to do those things. And yeah, all that would have fixed the small problem of too many items, but it wouldn't have fixed the larger problem of wanting an item system that felt more tangible. Plus, not only have the backpacks solved the problem I wanted them to solve (allowing my players to see, trade, and use their items easily), they've also streamlined my process of creating treasure.
Now, before the game even starts, I pre-roll the treasure and write any item on an item card. When the players find it in game, I just hand it to the players and they get to decide what to do with it. When a player uses a potion or spell scroll, they return the item card to me, which I put back in a box of item cards. Next time that potion or spell scroll is going to be included in a treasure haul, I can reuse the item card. I also have a large box of blank item cards I keep on the table during the game in case anyone ever needs them.
The card have also streamlined combat and role-playing scenarios because my players just have more familiarity with the items they have and how those items work.
But the backpacks haven't been 100% successful. What must take up a spot in the backpack and what doesn't require a spot has, at times, been clumsy.
For example, all my players are in something called the "King's Guard." Every member is given a magic bracelet that allows them to cast a version of the dancing lights cantrip so that other members of the King's Guard can find them. Some of my players (reasonably) had the bracelet taking up a space in their backpack because it allowed them to cast a cantrip, and some didn't because they didn't even remember the bracelet could cast a cantrip. But the bottom line is that the functionality of the bracelet is limited to DM needed plot points--not actual in game use--and I don't want it to take up a space in the backpack.
I also allow my players with darts or arrows to have all those darts or arrows taking up just one single space (same with those who have two daggers as their ranged attack). But I don't allow my players to have multiple health potions taking up one spot. All of which makes sense to me, but didn't make sense to one of my players who for months did have four health potions taking up one spot. You see, it can be clumsy.
It was also an adjustment for my players, who all had to learn a new equipment management system just because the DM said so. But I mean, one of my player's backpacks looks like this:
So, you know, it's not all bad.
Post by Rachel Paxton. She sometimes hits the craft bin a little too hard, and her players have to suffer through it. Ask her about backpacks on Twitter @rachpax.