|A sample of item cards - Available as a free PDF from RPG NOW|
Now you may think that this is just a piece of blatant self promotion, but in reality this is a question which has plagued some of my (and possible your) games for years...
THE BACKPACK OF HOLDING
These non-magical backpacks, which are entirely indistinguishable from a normal backpack, bestow upon certain players the uncanny ability to pull out exactly the right item with which to execute their plan and save the day in the nick of time. When challenged these players will often say that they've had the item for ages or that they bought it in that town they visited 6 months ago.
In the interests of game play it is often best not to argue, but there are times when it can be detrimental to the natural flow of the plot and you need the party to have eaten their last lembas cake, supped their last drop of water or be confronted by the reality that they don't have a rope to their name when they've got a rope type dilemma.
ENCUMBERANCE IS A CHORE
As Berin Kingsman writes, the backpack is "an in-game manifestation of my least-favorite mechanic: encumbrance" and I've got to agree with him. Maintaining your equipment list as a part of your character sheet is a downright chore but it also presents a few other problems.
1. Character sheets are a player's preserve not the GM's - When GMing, I'm pretty busy and certainly don't have time to ensure that your equipment is in order and that you've been marking off your rations like a good little player, that's your job!!. However, this is easily rectified through item cards. Basically, if you can't produce it when challenged then tough, you simply don't have it. You can't argue all you want that you left it in your other backpack or it's in the saddlebags on the horse which is currently enjoying a holiday in the dragon's belly, but you'll only look stupid in front of the other players. This also cures the "infinite spell components" faux pas which affects most spellcaster PCs.
2. PC thieves steal from other PCs, fact! - How many times has your party contained a kleptomaniac PC who likes to look through everyones gear, well now they can, safe in the knowledge that they won't see any secret annotations on the victim PCs character sheet. Just hand them the contents of your backpack and let them rifle through to their hearts content. Better still, do it secretly and the victim PC might not even notice that the item is gone.
3. PCs lose stuff all the time - If you had a 300 year old heirloom sword you'd look after it right? Not PCs, they leave these things on inn tables, in slain dragons, on the floor, under pillows, in fact everywhere other than in their scabbard or sword belt. Now unless these weapons are magical hammers like Mjolnir, most will only return to their owners hand with the assistance of copious amounts of strong elastic, which the last time I looked wasn't in their backpack!!
Again the item card comes to the rescue, when they lose an item they have to give it up to the GM and it is lost unless they make a concerted effort to find it. This also goes for those clumsy characters who seem to find every ravine or cliff edge and then fall off it, you break it you lose it.
|A Medieval Flint and Steel|
But seriously, having a representation of an item can also be incredibly useful and educational. A fact I discovered Whilst researching the images for my item cards. My preconceptions about what an item looked like or how it was used were frequently challenged. Just take the common or garden flint and steel, for years I imagined a piece of flint and a knurled steel rod (just like I used when I was a boy scout), but the medieval version was actually hoop shaped and held in the fist like a knuckle duster.
Likewise, I find players treat their loot differently when they can visualise it with a jewellery card or a gemstone card. You can even make items critical to your plot in the form of a key or the parts of a puzzle. When I last ran "Challenge of Champions" I created item cards for each of items provided in each challenge which was an immense help to my players (who are not all card carrying D&D geeks) when they tried to solve the puzzles in real time.
5. 50' of hemp rope is pretty large and heavy - This is the bit of encumberance which is frankly a cludge, as it's usually interpreted as a function of weight and not a factor of bulk. Other items aren't easily stowed such as a 10 foot pole. It only takes up one slot on an equipment list but it doesn't fit in a backpack which means it has to be either put together in sections or you have to hold it. Which leads on to the next problem...
6. PCs only have one pair of hands, usually - The classic faux pas of most players is that they're so busy fighting with a two-handed weapon they forget that they're still taking the AC bonus from their shield. Item cards come in handy (pardon the pun) as a visual reminder of what their PC is holding at any one time, a concept familiar to Legend of Zelda players the world over. The logical extension of this is for players to arrange their cards in a series of stacks as a visual reminder, I normally define this as the BACK (carried on your back) RIGHT (hand), LEFT (hand), WORN (on a belt or on your head) and STOWED (on a horse or in a backpack) stacks.
This is a particularly useful mechanic when either entering or engaged in combat, as player will need to decide what they are going to attack with before hand. If they lose a weapon through a fumbled roll they may need to draw a different one. Spellcasters and other non-combat specialists may become embroiled and have to use up combat rounds fishing about in a backpack for that wand or pot of greek fire that they want to use. It really does make a difference to how your party treats combat.