Cyclical Resource Management

I've had a post on the back burner for a while about reading rulebooks and other materials procedurally, and I wish it were finished prior to this post just as an easy reference to what I'll be talking about here. That being said, I already have a post about how light pertains to movement rules in old editions of our most honorable tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons [1], so I think that works well enough to contextualize my thoughts here.

After Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, it became the norm to treat sources of light as the subject of a resource management cycle. This is not without a lot of caveats. For one, there has never been an official D&D rulebook that treat torches (or anything besides arms and treasure) as something cumbersome for player characters, such that the players must choose to carry a torch over something else. Torches were always included in the 8 lb (i.e. 80 pieces) heavy "miscellaneous equipment" category, meaning that regardless of how many torches or rations or potions or whatever you carried, you would never be encumbered by more or less than 8 lb. The 1981 version of D&D Basic ("B/X") even has a simplified encumbrance table based on what armor you're wearing and if you're carrying any treasure at all. AD&D does not seem to state anything on items besides weapons and armor, apparently leaving it up to the referee to adjudicate characters' encumbrance based on weight and volume, but the same point holds true: there is no formal resource management game in old D&D as written.

Nevertheless, in more recent years, players of D&D etc. have retained those same rules for light either as artifacts of those D&D editions or as part of a more formal resource management game, often relying upon more stringent schemes for character encumbrance to make every bit matter (e.g. slot inventories). This has corresponded with an over-complication of turn-by-turn activities, either actual or potential depending on implementation, by hinging the rhythm of exploration and of resource management on light sources specifically. Take for example a basic 'hazard die' [3], which abstracts the typical subjects of time-keeping (torches, lanterns, spells) by encapsulating them as random events alongside the more typical wandering monster outcome.

  1. Wandering monster encounter
  2. Clue as to next wandering monster encounter
  3. Environmental change
  4. Rest or suffer fatigue
  5. Spells expire
  6. Light sources exhaust

This is an excellent way to abstract the happenings of a dungeon expedition which are already experienced in cycles anyway, but it reveals the complexity of the dungeon exploration game owing to certain mechanics that we take for granted and around which we have reconstructed the dungeon game. Here, I am going to explore possible directions to incorporate resource management as part of the base structure of the dungeon exploration game without resorting to additional book-keeping or dice-reading.

Method A: Rest or Spend Resource

Summary: The referee rolls a rest check die each turn; there is a 1-in-6 chance of characters needing to consume a ration/waterskin or else spending the next turn resting. Then the referee rolls a wandering monster check. Optional: Each torch lasts for 1 turn.

I always like appealing to the original Dungeons & Dragons (1974) ruleset not out of any nostalgic preference, but because it has so little of the features we now take for granted. The only structural or procedural features of the dungeon expedition are that (1) there is a 1-in-6 chance of a wandering monster each turn and (2) one turn per six must be spent resting. You still need to buy a light source to see in the dark, but there are no specifications given with respect to visibility or duration. Since you can buy 6 torches for 1 g.p., and this seems analogous to how you can buy 7 rations for 5 g.p., my own interpretation is that you expend 1 torch per underworld (i.e. dungeon) turn in the same way that you might expend 1 ration per wilderness (i.e. hexcrawl) turn [4]. The effect might be that player characters take turns holding torches, alternating between exploration turns or between hours or however desired. You could also read torches as having no duration at all, only exhausting due to environmental circumstance or by characters' actions. In any case, there is no room here for interesting choices, at least not without a more stringent encumbrance system (and even then, I think hour-duration torches would still be foreign to the ruleset).

Let's look at what we already have, instead. Forcing the party to rest once per hour is debilitating in an interesting way, since what it does is it forces the party to spend a turn without doing anything while the referee checks for a wandering monster. Necropraxis, who originated the hazard die, later came up with a trade-off between taking a rest and consuming 1 ration or else losing 1 hit point [5]. I think this is excessive when it exists alongside other resource expiration triggers, but it's extremely interesting to me in that it points to another context for resource management than has been previously considered.

I would phrase it, instead, as either once per hour or at a 1-in-6 chance per turn (rolled alongside, not on the same die as, the wandering monster check), the party must rest or consume 1 ration. The resource at hand could be something else, e.g. a flask of water of which each person must have their own. Anyway, the resource becomes something with which to avoid the bad condition of rest. You make the choice of consuming the resource or being a bunch of sitting ducks.

Whether or not there is a specific frequency of rest decisions or if it is a random event is probably an individual preference thing. However, if it is random, I think it is best determined using a separate die from the wandering monster check. That is, the referee rolls one die for rests and another die for wandering monsters--in that order. This takes advantage of the fact that now we only care about two possible events each turn, not six, so we can afford to roll two different dice and treat the events independently. It also makes the decision a stressful one because, if you rest instead of drinking water or whatever, you are putting yourself at greater risk of being surprised by monsters. Making active decisions is what makes a game interesting, to me.

It might also be more appropriate to have the subject of resource management be something actually cumbersome, considering how heavy water and food are, and how light people seem to think torches are (such that it is often decided that there should be multiple torches per item slot).

Method B: Rest to Restore Hit Points

Summary: Players can choose to let their characters rest for a turn to restore d6 hit points (possibly spending a resource to do so). The referee rolls a wandering monster check each turn. Optional: Each torch lasts for 1 turn.

I think we all accept that hit points are the primary resource of combat encounters. How many are you willing to lose, or would you rather run away? I think that D&D Fifth Edition is extremely clever to allow characters to restore hit points during a short rest (one hour long). Except that timekeeping is so inconsequential, it recognizes that the game is ultimately a string of encounters punctuated by breaks to restore a character's own longevity in those encounters.

So, if you embraced your own campaign as a combat-focused one (while supposing it is still a dungeon expedition game), you could really lean into hit points as the main restrictive factor on your character's activity. The rule could be simple: at any turn, you can rest and restore d6 hit points. Resting becomes the players' own initiative, their own decision to risk being caught by a wandering monster or to keep going while suffering fatigue etc. If we expect one wandering monster per hour, and this turns into a fight, it becomes likely that players would take a rest after each such encounter to restore their hit points. Leveling up then corresponds directly with being able to sustain more encounters in a row without resting, since you have greater maximum hit points. This collapses the typical expedition features of wandering monsters, resource expiration, and rests into one structure, while reducing book-keeping since there is only really one resource players need worry about. It also puts the burden of rests on players to decide if they want to take one or not.

Although I prefaced this with saying it works best for campaigns that embrace combat, I'm only really saying that to cover my behind. I haven't read a version of D&D that doesn't focus on combat implicitly, if not altogether explicitly. This method to me seems very much in continuity with D&D as the skirmish wargame. It's for this reason that in the previous method I suggested, the rules don't interface with hit points at all. I think whether or not you emphasize the 'dungeon game' or the 'dragon game', so to speak, should be reflected in the most base loop of that game. The former method assumes that encounters are always undesirable, always best avoided, always existentially threatening to the player characters. This second method assumes that encounters are a given, being themselves a part of the game which your character is supposed to navigate. I think leaning into either one could be compelling even if they lead to different experiences, owing to how characters interact differently with the game-world.

Conclusion

Either way, both methods condense the resource management aspect of the dungeon game which we often attribute to light sources by incorporating resource expiration into key decision points of the game. In contrast, the typical resource management of light sources is not that interesting since it does not offer decisions or trade-offs that players make. Being more aware of how resource management can structure a game, we can more consciously incorporate it in ways that complement the game's structure without being overbearing.


[1] https://chiquitafajita.blogspot.com/2022/02/double-feature-movement-light.html

[2] We could also blame Holmes' version of D&D Basic (1977) since the AD&D Player's Handbook was not published until 1978. However, my hunch is that the rule probably originated from Gygax himself and was incorporated into Holmes' book before being published in Gygax's own. I think this because it would be weird for a rule from D&D Basic to be added to AD&D, when the former was basically commissioned by Gygax to phase out the original Dungeons & Dragons and make the franchise his own. Take all that with a grain of salt, though; I'm not a historian.

[3] https://www.necropraxis.com/2014/12/23/hazard-system-v0-2/. See also Errant (https://errantrpg.carrd.co/#procedures) and All Dead Generations (https://alldeadgenerations.blogspot.com/2019/03/time-risk-economy-part-i.html).

[4] This might be corroborated in AD&D where you buy torches that last one hour per unit, rather than in sets of 6 units.

[5] https://www.necropraxis.com/2017/11/22/hazard-system-v0-3/

Comments

  1. Mentzer expert does call for a total-equipment+treasure tally for encumbrance! I think I read AD&D as being stricter too here, PHB p 101 seems to instruct players to sum equipment and armour weight.

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    Replies
    1. oh never mind the ad&d bit, i see what you meant about the equipment list itself! so mentzer's expert is the odd one out here, the only version with this minigame

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    2. hi adam, thank you for your reply! that's interesting to know mentzer expert does that same sort of thing :)

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  2. It's nice to see this laid out clearly, it's the sort of thing I've been looking at for the past few years, and while I'm still a slots and the hazard/overloaded encounter/exploration die person (note: if you are rolling two die checks a round, one for exhaustion and one for monsters ... you could reduce that to a 1D6 with monster on 1, exhaustion on a 2, though this is nicer to the players as no exhaustion & monster is possible -- it's also a hazard die?), I think there is room for more gamification.

    One of the conclusions I've come to is that exploration and puzzle/problem solving based play is more fun if there are multiple player "currencies" spent for exploration. Light, food, HP, spells, and equipment all come immediately to mind - and of course exhaustion is a great one (I connect it to food, but however). Having various things with value to the PCs means the designer and referee (and more designers need to do it - rust monsters and grey ooze just don't show up in hip products these days) have more ways to create risk, and that players have more things to spend to solve problems and gain treasure.

    I suspect this is the core of the Dungeoncrawl game - balancing risks and reward, scheming how to use the resource one has the most of to protect what one has the least of (the entire thief class is built around this idea). The more things to balance the more complex both the scheming and risk management become - so figuring out how to make various currencies valuable (or adding new ones) in multiple ways and/or streamlining the process and bookkeeping are really one of the few way to improve the Dungeoncrawl.

    Looking forward to seeing where you go with this.

    Also agreed that AD&D is an incoherent mass which occasionally gestures towards amazing things before getting too excited about another table of polearms. Like Pynchon Gygax needed a better editor (as do it with all these parentheticals).

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    Replies
    1. hey gus, thanks for your reply!! i totally agree now, in hindsight, that multiple resources are more fun than one. after i had written this i was thinking to myself, "why are these different things?" keeping track of torches (as simplified as possible), rations, and hit points seems to hit all the boxes for the sorts of D&D resource loops we tend to expect, and i feel like coming up with a cohesive rest turn is essential to the last two things.

      my main concern here is sort of the complexity of things, i guess. i feel like if i were discussing with my friends how they'd want to go into a dungeon, i'd pick these resources in order of complexity they introduce: hit points, rations/water/etc, and light. hit points come first because taking a rest to restore them is totally the players' decision so it's an opt-in rule (and one which benefits them). rations to avoid exhaustion introduces a new detriment altogether, but it only comes up at random. keeping track of torches seems to lean more into resource management for realism's sake, so it'd probably come last; i'd rather handle them with tally marks instead of with a die roll, especially because if i introduced another die roll then it really would be more annoying to *not* have a hazard die.

      as for combining the exhaustion and wandering monster rolls into one, you're right that the reason i hadn't said that was because it allows for the possibility of having both events happen at once (and also the key decision point of resting while risking being surprised). it also just means that i'm not reading a die; i only need to check two events each with a 1/6 chance of happening. you're right that combining the results on one die makes it more gamifiable a la the hazard die, but it's this outcome that i want to avoid specifically.

      thank you for the encouragement!! we are all still looming under AD&D's shadow, but hopefully we can make do with it :P

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