Supply Points: Abstracting resource management in D&D

As has been mentioned many other times by many other people, one of the mini-games of old school D&D is resource management.  Do you press your luck and explore a little farther, hoping to find that big score?  Or do you play it safe and return to town to recuperate, albeit perhaps empty-handed?

D&D, and its many variants and clones, have several forms of resource management.  Foremost are probably hit points, representing health, stamina, vitality, experience, endurance and/or luck (depending on how you define a ‘hit point.’)  Another common form of resource management is spellcaster’s ‘spells per day,’ which is a fairly clear indicator.  When the cleric’s and magic-user’s daily spells are expended, it’s usually time to head for camp and rest up, or at least find an out-of-the-way room and barricade yourself inside for the night.

And then there are supplies and provisions.  Rations, arrows, water, oil, torches, rope and all the other various and sundry pieces of equipment advenuterers require, or at least think they’ll require (better to have something and not need it, then to need it and not have it).  Equipment, of course, is not represented abstractly in D&D.  You’ve got to buy every 10′ pole, every torch, every iron ration and arrow, and then keep track of it all as you adventure.  And don’t forget to track the weight for encumbrance and movement purposes!

Except how many of us really do that?  I’m sure the hardcore grognards do so, but I think a lot of us just hand-wave those details.  I know our groups usually do.  After all, the game is about adventure, not accountancy; it’s Dungeons & Dragons, not Quartmasters & Bookkeepers.

So why not abstract equipment, provisions and supplies as well?  Why not Supply Points, to accompany Hit Points?

I tried an experiment with this running a Terminal Space  PbP game over at the OD&D Discussion Forum.  It turns out running a PbP game was a lot harder than I thought it would be, but I think the idea of using abstract Supply Points generally worked well.  One thing I hadn’t anticipated, and probably should have, was that a player would use the points to pull out a whole bunch of the same item (in this case, gravity belts).  For some items this could make sense, but not so much for others.  Why would any character be carrying around a half-dozen 10′ poles with them?  Of course, they normally wouldn’t.

However, I still think the idea of abstracting general equipment and supplies can work, and without a bunch of complicated conditional rules.  So, some guidelines to help it work:

1) Keep It Simple:  With this idea in mind, there should be only one type of supply point.  I had briefly thought about tracking different types of supply points:  ammo points, ration points and equipment points.  But really, tracking ammo and rations points is pretty much already done in The Game.  And three types of points doesn’t simply things all that much, even if they are abstracted.  So, just one general, all-purpose, universal Supply Point.

2) Don’t Sweat the Details:  We’ll assume that the party is competent enough to bring adequete light sources, rations and water on their adventure.  Someone still needs to be a designated torch-bearer, and bad things happen if you lose your light source in the middle of a fight, but we shouldn’t require a strict accounting of every last torch.  Likewise with provisions.  Unless the party is adventuring in a desert or similar barren environment, we should assume they have enough rations to get them through until they can get back to town and can find adequeate water sources along the way.  There’s also hunting and foraging for provisions; the time spent on these activities can be factored into overland travel rates.

3) Voluntary & Beneficial:  Originally I was going to use Supply Points to buy off negative effects, but this seemed distinctly un-fun to me.  I also thought about just ticking off a supply point each day, or every turn in the dungeon, or something similar, but that still involves a lot of regular bookkeeping which could be easily overlooked or forgotten.  So, with principles 1 and 2 in mind, I came to the conclusion that using a Supply Point should be both voluntary, so the player has to make some hard (and fun) decisions, and provide a benefit for using them, rather than buying off a negative effect.  This way, hopefully, Supply Points will be something players want to use rather than have to use.

4)  Limited Resource:  As cost has never been a limiting factor when it comes to standard equipment I think that weight (or whatever you use for encumbrance) would have to be the limiter.  Each Supply Point should be one ‘unit’ of encumbrance (about 5 lbs I’m thinking, or 1 Stone or 1 Encumbrance slot, however you track it in your game, assuming you do).  It should be easier to track 10 units at 5 lbs each than dozens of units at varying weights each.  If you don’t feel like tracking weight or encumbrance, simply set a flat limit…say 10-15 Supply Points per character, 3x that per mule or draft horse, etc.

Following are a few examples of Supply Points in action:

  • Binding Wounds:  After each battle, characters may bind wounds by spending a Supply Point (for bandages and ointments); you can’t heal anymore hit points than you lost in the battle; exactly how many hit points are healed by binding is left to individual DM discretion.
  • Ammo:  you need at least one Supply Point to fire a bow or crossbow, or to fire sling bullets (but not for stones–stones are everywhere); this assumes a deliberate effort to conserve ammunition (and to recover ammo after the battle); however, by expending a Supply Point you can increase your rate-of-fire by one step for one combat round.
  • Equipment:  While torches and rations (and maybe flint-and-steel) are assumed, other pieces of general adventuring equipment are not.  Whenever a character wants to use a specific piece of equipment from the established equipment lists, they must expend a Supply Point.  For example:  flask of oil (as a crude firebomb), 50′ rope, 10′ pole, a dozen spikes, a metal mirror, etc.  This applies only to standard equipment, not to custom-made equipment or masterwork/high quality equipment.  Nor does it apply to weapons, armor or magic items of any type.  Finally, any equipment produced is assumed to be consumed, lost, broken or abandoned after use (adventurers are hard on their gear).
  • Faster Movement:  If we factor time spent on hunting and foraging into overland movement rates, we can then allow players to make the decision to spend Supply Points to increase their overland movement rate (say double rate for one day, to keep it simple).  This sounds like buying off a negative, but instead I think it’s making a strategic decision, expending limited resources for faster movement when speed is of the essence.

Some additional ideas, which bear further thought:

  • Spell Components?:  I’ve toyed with the idea of using Supply Points to represent material spell components as well.  However, this begins to stray into the ‘buying off a negative effect’ territory.  Also, many campaigns (ours included), simply ignored most material component unless they were exceptional (such as a 1,000 GP diamond, for example).  One possible rationalization could be that using material components (via Supply Points) allows magic-users to cast additional spells per day?  But this rationalization doesn’t work as well with clerics.  Naturally, you couldn’t use a Supply Point to represent a valuable material component (like the aforementioned diamond).
  • Hirelings?:  Another idea I’ve toyed with is every hireling and animal the party takes on consumes 1 Supply Point per day.  Again, this strays into buying off a negative rather than providing a voluntary benefit, but it would serve as a kind of ‘Supply Sink’ to make hiring an army of porters less attractive.  Then again, porters can die, mules need camps, camps need guards…all very expensive prospects so maybe a supply sink wouldn’t be required afterall.

Players may redistribute Supply Points between their characters as needed, and they can hire porters or buy mules to carry additional Supply Points for extended expeditions (though, as mentioned, porters die and mules won’t enter dungeons, thus requiring guards to watch them).  A good cost would be 1-2 GP per Supply Point.

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2 Responses to “Supply Points: Abstracting resource management in D&D”

  1. Chris Woods Says:

    Excellent idea! I’d love to steal this as a house rule next time I start a campaign of Castles & Crusades. The only obstacle I can see is that versimiltude-minded players would be all “No, I already have a rope cause I spent a supply point on it earlier!” I think if that’s how you’re going to see things, normal equipment lists would work better.

    • edowar Says:

      Thank you. I agree that players will have a tendency to say “but I already have a X.” And that’s fine. Let them keep that rope…as long as they’re in the dungeon. When they leave, then I’d consider the rope lost, damaged, worn out, cut up…whatever. Equipment wears out (which isn’t really reflected in D&D), and I have to imagine that adventurers are particularly hard on their gear. The next time they go into the dungeon they’ll have to spend a supply point for a new rope.

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