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Sean Patrick Hagen

Vancouver based programmer who also does stuff with ttrpgs and video games.

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Learning to DM D&D

I’ve recently got into playing Dungeons & Dragons, DM-ing for two groups of friends.

As part of learning how to DM, I’ve been reading a lot ( and I do mean a lot ). What to do, what not to do, tips, tricks, etc. One of the better resources I’ve found is Papers & Pencils. He hasn’t been so active recently, but there are some great things in there.

In the campaign I’m running, I wanted to have encumberance, and I wanted travel to be more than the players simply stating “we travel to X”. So, after doing some looking around, I found two great articles on Papers & Pencils: one on encumberance, another on making travel more engaging. After reading them, here’s what I’ve settled on so far. This is very much open for tweaking, as I figure out what works and what doesn’t work for my players. A lot of this is copied pretty much vertabim from the Papers & Pencils post, so all credit goes to Nick Whelan!


The rule is pretty simple.

Items are either significant or insignificant. Characters have a limited number of encumberance points. Insignificant items don’t cost any encumberance points. Most significant only cost 1 encumbrance point. Exceptionally heavy or unwieldy items may have a score of 2.

A significant item is basically any that is heavy or large enough for a character to take notice when it’s added or removed from their equipment. For the most part it’s just DM fiat, but a good rule of thumb is that if it weighs less than 5 lbs, it’s not significant.

For higher scores:

  • if you need two hands to hold it ( a chest with stuff in it ), it’s 2 points
  • if it requires two hands and probably would require more than one person to carry if it wasn’t in a backpack, it’s 3 or even 4 points

Consumables count in “packages”. Some examples:

  • 1 week of rations
  • 20 pieces of ammo ( eg, arrows/bolts/shurikens/throwing axes/throwing knives/etc )
  • 5 bags of caltrops, flasks of oil, torches, etc
  • 250 coins of any demonination

A character’s carrying capacity is their Strength (STR) score. Quadrapeds ( ie, horses, mules ) can carry double their STR in points.

Up to a character’s STR is a light load.

From there to 2xSTR is a medium load, and with a medium load their speed is reduced by 1/4.

From 2xSTR to 3xSTR is a heavy load, and their speed is reduced by 1/2 plus they have disadvantage on any attack rolls or any STR or DEX based checks.

Over 3xSTR a character simply can’t move.

So, a character who has a STR of 12 has twelve points of encumbrance. Above 12 points they’re carrying a medium load. From 24 to 36 is a heavy load. Above 36 points they can’t move.


The reason for figuring out encumbrance is so that you can figure out how quickly characters can travel.

A character’s travelling speed is their speed minus five. The party travels at the speed of the character with the lowest speed ( unless they want to split up… ).

Travelling on a hex map uses a certain number of points, depending on the terrain that they’re travelling over:

Terrain Examples Movement Cost Becoming Lost
Easy road, city 4 No Check
Average clear, grasslands, trail* 6 Survival, DC 10
Moderate forest, hills, desert, badlands 8 Survival, DC 15
Difficult mountains, jungle, swamp 12 Survival, DC 20
  • There’s no Survival check for following a well-marked trail

Moving into a hex uses up points. If the players are about to move into a hex that would use more points than they have remaining, the DM has to let them know. If they choose to continue, then it’s a forced march.

Side Note: Searching

While travelling, parties are travelling through hexes that are 6 miles wide. That’s a pretty big area – to travel through it and only use the minimum number of points, they travel in as straight a line as they can manage. If the party wants to thouroughly search a hex, they have to spend movement points to search the hex properly. Spending 1/4 of the points required to travel through the hex searches a quarter of that hex.

An idea that I’m playing around with is that if players are searching for something ( for example, Wyvern Tor in the Lost Mines of Phandelver ), then each time they spend some points to find something in a hex, they have a chance of finding whatever it is they’re looking for. On the first time they search, they have a 25% chance of finding it, the second 50%, the third they have a 75% chance, and if they search a fourth time they’ve fully explored the hex so they just find it. However, each time they search, they have a chance of running into something nasty. Each time they search, a d20 - use the standard encounter rules ( on a 17-20, they encounter something, roll on the encounter table to find out what ).

Side Note: Encounters

While reading over the module for Lost Mines of Phandelver, I found the encounter table they suggest using for the area…. lacking. It’s the same list of enemies, no matter where on the map you are. So I came up with my own encounter table. It has some bad stuff, some not so bad stuff, and some good stuff. The best things only happen once, and then the stuff that shows up on a lower roll happens instead.

The End!

So that’s what I’ve got so far. This will probably evolve over time as I actually get some more experience as a DM. If ( & when ) things change, I’ll make new posts. If you’ve got any feedback, leave it in the comments below!

This post was authored by Sean Patrick Hagen on 2021-01-31 14:29:52 -0800 PST

Wanna see the commit? Go here: 8dae7b5a7658caef8feef6fa8ffb582636c687c7