A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer

26Jun/11Off

The World-Ending Bag of Holding

I don't know if I've mentioned it here or not, but when it comes to managing encumbrance in D&D I'm of the school that assumes everyone - even first level characters - has a Bag of Holding. I do not want to worry about the math involved in determining weight, and I refuse to believe that our heroes would be over-encumbered and suffer in combat because they're one pound over. Also, I'd hate to think of the chaos that will ensue if the heroes just toss aside their inferior magic items, leaving them lying about as if they're spent cigarettes. Imagine if a wandering goblin chanced across your +4 Mace of Chieftain Braining just because you prefer your shiny new +5 weapon instead (although, come to think of it, that's kind of a cool adventure seed!).

So unless you want to carry a different broadsword for each day of the month or enough suits of plate mail to equip the London Symphony Orchestra, I'm going to assume you can carry the item somehow, regardless of size or weight. Either you get to hold on to your old magic items or automatically have some way to convert them to residuum so you can sell them back in town.

But, in a fit of boredom, I began to think about what exactly is a Bag of Holding. How does it work exactly, and what are the problems you face for doing certain things to it?

Dungeons and Dragons 4e's listing of the Bag of Holding and its bigger brother, the Handy Haversack (seriously? That's what it's called? Sounds like something Dora the Explorer carries around), doesn't go in to much detail on the subject:

Bag of Holding - Level 5 Uncommon
This item appears to be a simple sack of brown canvas.
Price: 1,000 gp
Wondrous Item
Property: This bag can hold up to 200 pounds in weight or 20 cubic feet in volume, but it always weighs only 1 pound.
Drawing an item from the bag is a minor action.

Handy Haversack - Level 10 Uncommon
This ordinary-looking backpack is surprisingly light.
Price: 5,000 gp
Wondrous Item
Property: This backpack can hold up to 1,000 pounds in weight or 100 cubic feet in volume, but it always weighs only 1 pound.
Drawing an item from the backpack is a minor action.

NOTE: There are other similar items - such as the Deep-Pocket Cloak and Tinkersuit (both from the Adventurer's Vault 2), but the concept is the same.

Every time I make a character that's high enough level to afford one or the other, I get one. But I got to thinking... What happens if it rips? What happens when you turn it inside out? What happens when you put one inside the other? What happens if I stuff the annoying gnome in to one?

D&D 4e makes no concessions for such actions, leaving it irrelevant or up to the discretion of the GM. Which, quite frankly, is kind of dangerous... 'cause the first thing I think would happen if you put one bag in another is that the world would implode. For any of the above actions, GM's can do anything they want: create a rift to another plane, creating a miniature black hole, spawn Orcus, spawn a pony... GM had free reign. And God help you if your GM knows anything about physics...

Can you imagine what it took to create the very first bag of holding? How many mages are standing around the Astral Plane thinking "well that didn't work..." and wondering how they're getting home?

Looking back at previous versions of D&D you can tell that many people have tried the above "what if" scenarios, so the rule books had to be very explicit of what would happen. Here it is from the d20 SRD:

Bag of Holding

This appears to be a common cloth sack about 2 feet by 4 feet in size. The bag of holding opens into a non-dimensional space: Its inside is larger than its outside dimensions. Regardless of what is put into the bag, it weighs a fixed amount. This weight, and the limits in weight and volume of the bag’s contents, depend on the bag’s type, as shown on the table below.

[Table removed - see above link]

If the bag is overloaded, or if sharp objects pierce it (from inside or outside), the bag ruptures and is ruined. All contents are lost forever. If a bag of holding is turned inside out, its contents spill out, unharmed, but the bag must be put right before it can be used again. If living creatures are placed within the bag, they can survive for up to 10 minutes, after which time they suffocate. Retrieving a specific item from a bag of holding is a move action—unless the bag contains more than an ordinary backpack would hold, in which case retrieving a specific item is a full-round action.

If a bag of holding is placed within a portable hole a rift to the Astral Plane is torn in the space: Bag and hole alike are sucked into the void and forever lost. If a portable hole is placed within a bag of holding, it opens a gate to the Astral Plane: The hole, the bag, and any creatures within a 10-foot radius are drawn there, destroying the portable hole and bag of holding in the process.

That's a big sack. Two feet by four feet is larger than my laptop bag; that's not a bag, that's an oil drum.

Think about that description, though... A 9th level magic item that is capable of creating a rift to the Astral Plane and sucking most of the party along with it. And you can stuff all the magic items you want in it, but if someone pierces it with so much a needle everything inside it is vaporized. If you toss in your brand new +6 Longsword of Cloth Piercing, goodbye worldly belongings.

It's almost like carrying around Pandora's Box. The thing should come with an instruction manual or warning label; thanks to the manual I don't have to worry about sucking my bathroom in to the tenth level of hell because I know not to use my blow dryer in the shower.

D&D 4e forgets all that, either pretending that those situations would never happen or simply leaving it up to the GM's artistic license. I don't have to worry about how many razor sharp weapons I'm tossing in, or even if the annoying gnome can breathe in there.

It's also worth noting that there are four types of bags, each with varying bag weight, maximum weight capacity and maximum volume (the largest bag can hold 1,500 pounds and 250 cubic feet). The handy haversack exists as well, working essentially the same as the bag but with the added bonus that "when the wearer reaches into it for a specific item, that item is always on top." D&D 4e allows you to pull anything out of the bag as a minor action, even if it's something you tossed in years ago.

The description brings up yet another object that could combine with the bag of holding to end civilization: the portable hole, which also exists in D&D 4e but radically different...

Portable Hole - Level 19 Uncommon
This handkerchief-sized black circle becomes a great hole when placed on a flat surface.
Price: 105,000 gp
Wondrous Item
Power (At-Will): Standard Action. Place a portable hole on a wall, a floor, or a ceiling. (The surface must be flat for the item to function.) The portable hole instantly creates a 5-foot-wide, 5-foot-deep hole in that surface. With a standard action, any creature adjacent to a portable hole can pick it up, provided there are no creatures or objects inside it.

What I find interesting in the above description is that it isn't particularly clear as to what it does. if the wall is 5' thick, does that simply make an opening? What if the object is smaller than 5'x5'x5'? What if I put this thing on the annoying gnome's chest?

For the record, here's the Portable Hole in the d20 SRD:

Portable Hole

A portable hole is a circle of cloth spun from the webs of a phase spider interwoven with strands of ether and beams of starlight. When opened fully, a portable hole is 6 feet in diameter, but it can be folded up to be as small as a pocket handkerchief. When spread upon any surface, it causes an extra-dimensional space 10 feet deep to come into being. This hole can be picked up from inside or out by simply taking hold of the edges of the cloth and folding it up. Either way, the entrance disappears, but anything inside the hole remains.

The only air in the hole is that which enters when the hole is opened. It contains enough air to supply one Medium creature or two Small creatures for 10 minutes. The cloth does not accumulate weight even if its hole is filled. Each portable hole opens on its own particular non-dimensional space. If a bag of holding is placed within a portable hole, a rift to the Astral Plane is torn in that place. Both the bag and the cloth are sucked into the void and forever lost. If a portable hole is placed within a bag of holding, it opens a gate to the Astral Plane. The hole, the bag, and any creatures within a 10-foot radius are drawn there, the portable hole and bag of holding being destroyed in the process.

Note the major difference: The portable hole went from being 6' wide and 10' deep to 5'x5'x5', no doubt to conform to the traditional "1 square = 5 feet" convention. Also, if something is inside the hole when it's folded shut, it stays in there in the same manner as a bag of holding; the D&D 4e version can only be closed if empty.

So in past versions of D&D these items were a disaster waiting to happen. In 4e, they're just another item that the players can use without fear of retribution or having an unscheduled visit to the Astral Plane. On an unrelated note: God, how I miss cursed items sometimes...

I'll continue to use them, just because it ensures I never have to worry about encumbrance. I'm kind of glad I don't have to worry about whether I will implode the world every time I put something in there.

As a 4e GM... Heck, I'd make *everything* include this technology one way or another, putting the players at great risk should they decide to put the would-be treasure inside their own bag of holding. But I can already see the problems with that: when a GM decides to take such liberties, the players might protest because it's not written in the rules anywhere. That still won't stop me from creating a world-ending cataclysm just because you put the wrong thing inside your little bag.

And if you're a gnome in my party, I'd be careful if I was you.

Filed under: 4e, DnD, Mechanics, RPG Comments Off
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  1. I once had a character trapped on the Positive Material Plane, in danger of dying from over-healing. He cast rope trick and jumped in with his bag of holding, ripping his way free to the Astral Plane. (Unfortunately, he was then promptly captured by githyanki and sacrificed to their Lich Queen. One of his better deaths, honestly.)

    I put this kind of interaction right up there with potion miscibility. It is so much fun, and adds so much MAGIC to the magic, that I can’t imagine why later editions toned it down so much.


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