The Bag of Holding is a bad magic item for D&D

The bag of holding is a bad magic item

Please excuse the provocative title, but I would like to talk a little about why I think the Bag of Holding is an item that’s better left out of your Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

What is a Bag of Holding?

The Bag of Holding is a magic item that exists in most (all?) editions of D&D, as well as most clones (like Pathfinder and OSR games). It is basically an enchanted bag with an interior considerably larger than it’s outer dimensions. It is used to store treasure and equipment that would otherwise be too cumbersome for the player characters to carry.

Below is how the Bag of Holding is described in D&D Basic/Expert from 1981. Note that in those older editions weight was defined in coins. 10 coins were equal to one pound, so this Bag of Holding can fit items with a combined weight of 1000 pounds. (source: Old-School Essentials System Reference Document):

Bag of Holding
A normal-looking, small sack that can magically contain large objects and weights.
Size: Objects of up to 10’×5’×3’ can fit inside the bag.
Weight: Up to 10,000 coins of weight can be placed in the bag.
When full: The bag weighs 600 coins.

The modern version of the Bag of Holding (D&D 5th edition) is more or less identical to the B/X one, but carries “only” 500 pounds of weight.

What purpose does the Bag of Holding serve?

In short: the Bag of Holding lets player characters carry much more items than they would normally be able to. This is of course extremely useful for a bunch of semi-medieval adventurers in a fantasy world. Players are happy because their characters can bring more equipment and salavage more treasure. The dungeon master is happy because he doesn’t need to bother with rules for tracking encumbrance.

Why the Bag is Bad.

So, why is this a bad thing?

Well, it’s not bad per se. If you want to run a superhero style D&D campaign, where characters are larger than life then it’s fine to not track mundane mechanics such as encumbrance. But then again – why not just ignore it completely? You don’t need the Bag of Holding as an excuse to remove encumbrance from your game. Just assume the characters somehow manages to carry everything they want.

But to me D&D isn’t a game of superheroes and epic encounters. To me D&D is a game about heroic burglary and expedition style adventures. I would argue that most older editions of the game support my approach. Others would argue that later editions are built for something very different. Both viewpoints would probably be correct.

If you want to play D&D the way I prefer, then mundane choices become important. The Bag of Holding removes those choices from the game. It makes them irrelevant, and that is why it’s bad.

Expedition style D&D

Expedition style burglary adventures are all about prioritizing. When encumbrance is a factor the party need to somehow decide what to bring on their journey.

  • How many torches do we really need?
  • How much water and food can we carry? What if we run out?
  • Do we need to bring any special equipment or tools based on what we know of the site?
  • Can we make do with one tent, or do we need two?
  • Do we bring things “just in case” or only what we know we’ll have use for?
  • Do we need to get a donkey? A cart? What do we do with it when we enter the dungeon? (hello Bill)

By having to make all these choices the game becomes richer. Already in “town” the players need to start planning their venture. They benefit greatly by gathering information about the adventure location as such information can help them prioritize. Without a Bag of Holding these are hard choices! With a Bag of Holding they can just buy up the whole inventory of the store and they’re all set. There are no choices to make except for possibly financial ones.

A game of burglary

D&D is a game of burglary. It’s about reaching hard to reach places, and enter dangerous sites to find treasure and get out alive. This presents important choices. Treasure weighs – often a lot. If the players have a Bag of Holding they can just grab whatever they find and stuff it. If they don’t – well that’s another story. The 200 pound statue looks valuable, but is it worth the effort? Salvaging a chest full of coins is a feat of it’s own. Even if you manage to get it out of the dungeon you might not be able to bring it back to town without assistance. Perhaps better bury it somewhere where X marks the spot.

Being encumbered is risky, especially in old-school D&D where combat is dangerous. An encumbered character is putting his or her life at risk should a hasty retreat become necessary. When danger lurks around the corner you want to make sure you’re able to run. Having to leave treasure behind is an excruciating decision to make, but an important lesson can be learnt here: next time make sure to bring hirelings on your expedition.

All these decision makes the game richer in my opinion. What the Bag of Holding does is to remove such dilemma, and that’s why I think it’s bad.

Edit 2020-10-11: this has made some people angry. That’s fine, there’s no reason to agree for the sake of agreeing and everyone plays the game the way they want. Some of the angry readers have accused me of being a boring DM for taking the mundane into consideration when playing D&D. And while they might be right about me being boring (I hope not, but I’m not the right person to say) I’d like to write just a few words about why I think the mundane has an important place in my campaign:

The tension between the mundane and the fantastic

A lot of people roll their eyes over mundane things like encumbrance mechanics in D&D. To me such things are important to set the right tone in the game. It’s not about “high” or “low” fantasy. It’s about tension between the mundane and the fantastic.

To me fantastic genres like fantasy, horror and sci-fi is at it’s most captivating when the mundane encounters the fantastic. It is the contrast between those two realms that creates tension and awe.

If your character is a flying half-demon that shoots laser from his arse then few things in a fantasy world will feel very fantastic. Finding a magical item will be convinient, but never awe-inspiring because magic is an everyday commodity.

This is why I prefer human characters and why I think it’s good to count torches and track encumbrance. Because when the characters are rooted in the mundane, encountering something that isn’t is a truly magical experience.

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43 thoughts on “The Bag of Holding is a bad magic item for D&D”

  1. If the bag is bad then so are boots of flying, or teleportation spells, or even healing potions and iron rations. They all trivialize a mechanic in the game designed to be an obstacle for the players. We should be able to make players always have to make a hard choice when playing the game at all times. Or alternately they are all good and perhaps you just picked one mechanic that is a personal irk for you?

    1. Not at all. Healing potions and spell slots introduces more choices and prioritization, while a Bag of Holding removes choices. These have fundamentally different effects on the game.

      Teleportation is a spell that isn’t available until level 9 in B/X, and even then it’s very limited. Again, it presents more choices – not less.

      Not sure what iron rations are, but I would guess they are more expensive than ordinary ones and gives some kind of bonus? I don’t think you can compare the effect those has on the game with the Bag of Holding.

      As for magic items that let’s you fly without much limitation then no, I wouldn’t want those in my game either. That’s something that might fit in a superhero campaign which is not something I’m very interested in. With such an item, why would you ever walk? Boots of Levitation from B/X is a much better item that gives the players more options – not less.

      I like mundane restrictions in D&D. If everything is fantastic then nothing is. The magic happens when the player characters are rooted in the mundane, but *encounters* the things that are not. If the PC’s are all pink half-demons with flying boots or living robots riding flying unicorns then the meeting with fantastic elements loses it’s charm to me.

          1. Yup, agree; the need to ‘correct’ others thinking as opposed to share differing opinions is just bonkers.

      1. Meh…. Depends on what you want to focus on in your game. The author ends his article very pointedly, “I like mundane restrictions in D&D. If everything is fantastic then nothing is. ”

        Exploration is one of the great pillars of the game of D&D…. If you like to explore like John Muir with only a ruck sack… ok. If you want to fly on the back of a dragon …. ok. A low magic milieu or a high magic game. Both are OK. D&D in its many flavors and editions are strong to have many variations.

        If you like to play D&D like a camping outing and the DM likes to flex his ego and say – HAHA! You are out of torches or forgot 10′ more of rope needed … ‘neener neener… I am smarter than you and I like to pull the wings off of flies while I torture you…. ok. If you like the Marquis De Sade as a DM … rock on. I ran Dark Sun for a campaign from level 1 to level 14 over 150 play sessions in 3 years…. I can be a bastard. It was a tough game.

        If you like to play heroic fantasy with continual light spells and epic magic… ok.

        Bags of useful items, the artificer and other magical notions could be similarly bad if you don’t like them.

        I would have written the tittle of this article… … “Why I don’t like Bags of holding for my current game story” and not assigned it for a whole game… as if this one writer has the ego and hubris to know what is good for a very flexible game.

        The game of D&D has a culture rich and varied that can be different in every instance. Be imaginative… be creative… have fun…. enjoy the fellowship and enjoy the adventure. The Gods know we need some escapism in this year… enjoy.

  2. Agreed! I think that equipment / inventory management is an interesting aspect to the game. For instance, if players have to split up gear and get separated it creates some interesting dilemmas. Or maybe having to decide what treasure to bring along because of space issues.

    I think that small bags or pouches that store a little extra or maybe to protect things like potions so they don’t break are interesting items that don’t overpower players.

  3. That is an interesting point of view. Sometime ago I had a similar thought. But rather than banishing the bag, I reduce the volume and size of what could be carried inside. I also made it a little more rare of an item to find. It seem to have the same affect that you’re going for. A return to planning ahead rather than just stocking up.

  4. Wondering if you have read much about Forbidden Lands? I really like this system and it fits really well with the type of games you mention, it has a real focus on the more mundane elements but it manages them very well. Encumberance is done by just being able to carry an amount of items double your strength score. Heavy items take up two slots, light items take up half a slot and tiny items are free, this is a lot more elegant than in D&D where everything is done by weight. It’s easily applicable to 5e though. I play 5e more like a legendary heroes game and Forbidden lands as a gritty survival.
    Great blog! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Happy to share more about forbidden Lands if you want to know

    1. I’m somewhat familiar with Forbidden Lands (being a Swedish game and all) but I’m not very fond of dice pools so I don’t play Free League games myself. I still think they are doing a fantastic job in the hobby and their success is inspiring!

  5. I generally agree but with the simplification of 5E I am not sure that it is something to really worry about. I think that interesting puzzles, tricky fights (with a bit of twist), and notable NPCs are what really make a good D&D game. Worrying about how many pounds someone is carrying (unless it is crazy) probably won’t add much to the game.

    1. I don’t play D&D 5e though, so this post is more regarding D&D in general, not specifically the new school “superhero”-editions. If you play 5e and like it then I see absolutely no point in introducing mundane elements to the campaign.

      1. So your ill-advised post doesn’t apply to literally the most popular and widely played version of DnD to date, which you snidely refer to as one of the “superhero” editions (further evidence that you don’t quite comprehend what it is you have apparently so hastily dismissed out of some sort of misplaced old school loyalty), meaning your clickbait titled post is largely irrelevant for most of us and to DnD as currently played in its most accessible form to date.

        I don’t know which is worse actually: that you mischaracterized the old school DnD editions I love and grew up with as essentially just “a game of burglary” or that you dismiss newer editions you apparently don’t know much about as “superhero editions,” but I can only imagine how tedious your beancounting campaigns become and how restricted the storytelling and role play must be. For your players’ sake, I hope I’m wrong but experience with such legalistic DMs suggests otherwise.

        But thank you for your out-dated and largely irrelevant opinions on the subject.

          1. I think that’s a very good post, with several valid points. People should read both yours and mine and decide for themselves what they think about the Bag of Holding.

            A couple of things:

            You write that I have never played 5e, which is not true. I write “I don’t play D&D 5e” which is not the same as “I have never tried 5e”.

            Also, there’s a bit of a “gotcha” part of your text where you write that Bag of Holding has been in the game from the early days. I think I was quite transparent about this in my post, especially since I chose to refer to the rules for it from the 1981 edition (while not being the first, I’d still say you can count it as part of the legacy.)

            Anyway, keep up the good work!

          2. The reason I invoke the 1974 OD&D was precisely because quoting a later addition made it seem as if the Bag of Holding was a rules hack added in later to overcome the rules of encumbrance altogether, when it was part of the game from the start.

            How many sessions of 5e did you play exactly? Because your characterization suggests you never quite gave it a proper go.

          3. Yeah but I clearly stated that: “The Bag of Holding is a magic item that exists in most (all?) editions of D&D”. The only reason I wrote “all” with a question mark was that I didnt know for certain if every single iteration has it. I never insinuated that the BoH was a later “hack”. Rather the opposite, I’d say.

            As for D&D 5e. I’ve read it, and didn’t like it. Played it very briefly, and found it “ok” at best. That’s more time invested in any other game I’m not really interested in. Not sure how many sessions you would call a “proper go”, but I really don’t see the point in pursuing it further. I don’t want to turn this comment section into a review, but so far I haven’t seen or read anything that suggest it would suit me better than the games I already play and enjoy.

        1. thank you! A voice of reason. I’d like to add that D&D has always been a pwoer progression game. You start out doing the tomb raider type stuff because that’s all you are capable of. It makes sense that encumbrance is important at low levels as you are supposed to feel like characters at the beginning of a story. As you level up, you can go on to do more intersting things, just like in fantasy novels. Your power level grows and it seems dumb to be tracking the weight of every peice of treasure or worrying about hirlings and stuff at that level. It just bogs the game down. At the same time you don’t want to get rid of encumbrance altogether. A ba of holding still has limits (in fact in 3.5, there were different sized ones all with different limits). It doesn’t get rid of encumburnace, it just makes things a little easier as you level up. At very high levels PCs are essentially superheros/gods at the end of their story archs, so at that level, yes having so many bags of holding and magical teleportation of goods, flying, etc, that you really don’t care about encumurance at all. This makes sense and is a logical progression

  6. I completely agree with you, but then I often find myself sounding like an old man (I got in when only the basic set was available) constantly going ‘this isn’t what d&d is supposed to be like’, whenever I hear people talking about the WoW clone that I find it to be today…

    It should be a game about Indiana Jones (first and second one) style heists and adventures…Planning ahead and making the hard choices you talk about should be a big part of the game *assume grumpy old man voice* where as 10 way multiclassing to get an extra something to add to the extra other thing to add to the 500 hp bear form that insta heals to full hp when it hits 0 and goes back to and to and to oh god, I really don’t like anything past 2nd or 3rd ed I guess….

  7. I have allowed a Bag of Holding in D&D before, and there are fun, clever things that can be done with one. But used as an encumbrance-hack it quickly turns a campaign into The Witcher, with a ludicrous inventory system that insults the player’s credulity every time it’s used.

    Encumbrance, ammo — bean counting in general — can slow play. But there is a *huge* payoff in RP and engagement when it comes time to decide what to do with that last arrow, how the thief will now navigate without a torch, or whether to take the Sacred Skull (value unknown) or the 100 pp.

    When I want to give the players a big reward, they get a 2000 gp diamond rather than 2000 coins. Compact and simple. When I want to encourage a difficult choice, they find a gold-leafed marble bust.

    I did develop a little lore for Bags of Holding that make their use a bit more interesting. When used in my campaigns it is known that they are created by powerful wizards in search of certain items. They then send them out into the world. They work as normal until one of the desired items is placed inside, whereupon the entire contents are teleported to the mage’s keep. I decide in advance what the trigger item will be, but a d100 roll could serve just as well.

    1. Damn, this is diabolical! And me thinking about making the items disappear after a while in the bag but you, my friend, got 10 in wickedness!

      I’ll use this if I have the opportunity.

      About the article, I believe it has already become clear that everyone agrees to disagree on how to conduct their campaigns. Thankfully D&D is so flexible that it accepts it without any problems! And continue with the great work mr. Niklas.

  8. Late to the comments, but I’ll chime in that I…kind of agree. Not that I usually play games hyper-concerned about encumbrance, but what I really feel like the Bag of Holding robs is an interaction point. Hirelings are delightful, even if not human; my current Dunkelmoor party has formed a real emotional attachment to their mule. The longest-running game I ever ran had the party receive a cart and a loyal golem, Muddy, on their very first mission…and that became a huge part of their party identity and friendship. So basically, even if you do want to handwave encumbrance, why not do it with someone/something with personality?

  9. No one needs me to wade into an argument that’s two months old, but here goes anyway. I agree with Niklas. The Bag of Holding is indeed a hack around encumbrance rules. It basically converts treasure into abstract “points” and gear into “inventory” like a video game. By doing so it nudges the game away from role-playing and towards “power-gaming.” And the Bag of Holding *feels* like a hack, not a real magic item with a legendary history, etc.; it’s no Excaliber.

    I have run campaigns where magic was rare and wizards were whispered rumors, and I’ve run campaigns where young wizards duel in the streets like gunfighters. None have needed Bags of Holding. But like Niklas, I prefer games heavy on role-play.

    One solution I have come up with to the issue is a spell called Vanish/Conjure. This is a prized spell with a high cost. It allows the wizard to vanish something into thin air (the Vanish part) and then later retrieve it (the Conjure part). The high spell cost limits overuse–most wizards who have the spell use it to hide a sword or crystal ball or something. And the spell has a real-world counterpart, that is, it’s the magic version of a mundane magician’s sleight-of-hand.

  10. Beyond the early levels, I feel that without the bag of holding, you have to earnestly support the old school mechanic of followers and henchmen. That’s how the encumbrance issue was solved in real life expeditions, hired help and pack animals. Eddie the squire stays with Bill.

    This makes some sense if you are characters are in Indiana Jones mode, in it for the gold and treasure. I feel that since 2e, though, a lot of games follow the more Tolkien inspired fellowship of heroes on a Quest theme. This doesn’t mix as well with hiring a troop of porters.

  11. I thought the title should not be, “Why the Bag of Holding is bad for D&D.” But, “Why the Bag of Holding is Not for Me.” Good points made, you also except other perspectives in many cases. I saw someone write about D&D being an escapism, for me my character is something I need to work on personally, we all have our reasons to pick up the Game. Really in this reality it is, just a Game. Thank you.

  12. I am the player you’re worried about. The first item I always pick up is a crowbar. I have been known to literally pry gold runes out of the floor with acid and said crowbar and toss them in my bag of holding. Hell, I have stolen floor tiles and paneling that I thought looked nice.
    My personal hoarder tendencies aside, I appreciate your take on the bag of holding and will be passing it on to some friends. While the bean counter stage of DnD isn’t for everyone, and isn’t necessarily the right permanent home for all campaigns, it absolutely has a flavor all its own and is a welcome staple of the sword and sorcery genre.

  13. You wrote: “If you want to play D&D the way I prefer, then mundane choices become important. The Bag of Holding removes those choices from the game. It makes them irrelevant, and that is why it’s bad.” I felt this was a great summery of your full article.

    At the core, I agree with the overall feelings you are trying to articulate. I find the more I play the more I tend to morph even 5e into an old school style game. I too like the idea that my choices matter. That there is a risk and challange to what I do as a player and a character both.

    However I am going to also say I think you over exaggerate the impact of the bag of holding. For example; one of my characters in a 14 month campaign had one and I can tell you for sure it did not remove any of my mundane choices nor did it make my choices irrelevant.

    What it did do was in some ways take the place of a mule in a few of the delves, that is true. Did I carry any tents and 100 torches? Nope. But did my character carry a small portable alter (think paperback book size box with small items inside) for the cleric and a scroll tube with parchment paper for us to write a journal and draw things for later sharing with the guild? Yes the character did. Did I ever leave some items in a dungeon room to make room for something we found? Yes I did that too, after some hard thinking of what to leave and what not to.

    For me, what you are warning about has less to do with a specific item and more to do with a mind set. If the players and GM make too much too easy the game will lose something. Keeping an element of risk and limits in the game help keep the excitement and thrill alive.

    I know this is just my opinion, but overall, like i said above, I agree with the core of your concern. If we want the thrill of a dungeon crawl, we have to be willing to accept limits.

  14. Having read both articles, I find myself in the middle regarding the BoH. I see both sides of the debate that is not really worth an argument. Ultimately, the decision in gameplay goes back to the DM.

    As a kid myself playing 2nd Ed, we barely followed the rules and we treated the BoH as a Mary Poppins style fanny pack.
    Now that I’m older and teaching my own sons to play, one son was granted a BoH after killing a mini-boss nilbog and rolling 20 when he looted the corpse. (My intention was for him to only receive a homebrew Rod of Magic Missile.) On the fly and did to my lack of planning, he “earned” the BoH.
    That said, I am strictly adhering to the 5e description that suggests a BoH is as large as an industrial trash bag, 2’x4′ and perpetually full. Therefore, fighting while carrying it around is basically futile.
    In the following game we played I introduced an NPC that explained the importance of a pack animal and a hireling to tend the animal while in the dungeon. The BoH allows more looting, but is not an encumbrance fix all.

  15. I’m running a military campaign that has a lot of home brew magitech. The whole feel of this campaign is that the PCs are the kind of people that typical D&D PCs roll over in a fight. Encumbrance and resource management is a part of this campaign. Thus far, Bags of Holding have just not been available, but now we have an Artificer in the party that can just make one. I am fine with this. The Bag of Holding is volatile storage. All it takes is a stray attack to damage the bag and POOF, all your loot is gone. that’s actually built into the rules. And then there’s The Bag Man introduced in Ravenloft which I plan to have some fun with.

  16. “High level characters should feel identical to low level characters” is definitely a hot take the likes of which I’ve not seen in a long time.

  17. You realize that all characters in LOTR are “low to mid” level in D&D, right ? Like, most of the fellowship is up to level 5-7 (as in, a character of that level, without insane optimisation, can do what they do) with Gandalf being slightly higher level.

    There is close to no depictions of high level D&D pcs in fantasy. And really, a character that reached that level is good at management. A player might not be that good, ie, let players have fun things that let them think about other tactical issues. Especially when you see the amount of loot high level encounters can bring.

  18. Absolutely love this. I don’t think that anyone who cares about the integrity is disagreeing with you. All the comments I’ve read to the contrary are definitely main characters that want a 5e campaign designed around how awesome they are and not to start as a commoner or villager and see how far they can make it and what kind of impact they can make on the world before their untimely death. I appreciate the “mundane” and would rather use the word roleplay, people that don’t appreciate the “mundane” are people that don’t create characters, they create stat blocks. I’ve given bags of holding when I was a new DM, winged boots, all the rest and absolutely, if everything is fantastic, nothing is, and everything had to become deadly and be left up to dice rolls of do or die because the baddies had to be as strong as the players for them to be challenged.

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