Patrick over at RPG Diehard just had a post on Rations and record-keeping (basically asking whether it was a good idea or not to make the players track things like food), which set me to thinking.
One of the neat insights in Savage Worlds, which I’ve mentioned before, is that you can sometimes replace frequent small events with rarer more significant ones to accomplish the same goals. That’s most evident in the way damage is handled, but appears in other places in the rules as well, such as the way ammo is handled for the PCs allies. Savage Worlds is intended to allow the players to control bunches of NPCs as allies, but keeping track of ammo for them whether it’s bullets or arrows, would be a big bookkeeping hassle. So they abstract it into the allies having four possible ammo levels: Very High, High (they start at this level unless you take special effort to equip them), Low, and Out. Every combat where the allies are heavily involved in fighting, they drop a level; if during combat they are dealt a 2 as their init card, they drop a level after that round. There’s no game effect until they hit Out. When they’re Out, they’re all out. So it’s simple to keep track of, allows for the possibility that they run out during combat, and makes it so you have to pay at least some attention to keeping them supplied.
It seems to me that a similar mechanic could work very well for things like rations and torches, even for PCs. Give them 4 levels of the significant groups of consumable (e.g. I’d do food and water together, but light sources as a seperate track). Then have the level drop if some event occurs.
For instance, in an overland adventure, you’d almost always be rolling at least once a day for either weather or encounters. It would be simple at the same time to roll to see if rations dropped. You could either put it as an “event” on the encounter table, or (and I kind of favor this) you roll the best character’s Survival die, and on a 1, the party and all its allies drop a ration level. Once the level drops, it can only go back up if the party touches base at some relatively settled area such as a village or farm (depending on the size of the group), or if the party spends a day foraging and gets a raise on the Survival skill. If they ever reach Out, they start to suffer the effects of Hunger as per the core rules.
While it has the drawback that bad luck could result in running out of food quickly after leaving the settled areas, you could explain that as something specific happening (a bear getting into the supplies, the food turning moldy, etc) I think that adds a nice bit of flavor that is otherwise pretty unlikely to crop up in a game that isn’t obsessively detailed, and the upside of requiring almost no bookkeeping besides a couple of tick-marks while making sure the players at least occassionally consider where their supplies are coming from is quite high. And if you’re running a fantasy campaign, it finally makes spells like Create Food and Water or those pouches of neverending food something the adventurers will be quite pleased to have.