Why the Bag of Holding is a Good Magic Item for DnD

Recently, I came across a post from Swedish fantasy artist Niklas Wistedt, whose art I absolutely adore by the way, called The Bag of Holding is a bad magic item for D&D.

I obviously disagree with the entire premise of his post’s title,  but for the sake of courtesy, let’s look at his argument.

A Bag of Holding, in all of its varied forms is simply a sack that … well, Wistedt’s summary of the Bag of Holding’s purpose is mostly spot on (mostly):

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.

So why in a realm of magic, would Wistedt object to such a magical item as overpowered?

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.

I freely admit that I ignore the nitpicking rules of encumbrance but I do hold to encumbrance as a general principle. If I didn’t,  there would not be any point to a magical item called a Bag of Holding at all! I don’t know any DM who simply ignores the principle of encumbrance altogether. Even DMs who run sessions where the characters are indistinguishable from superheroes in a fantasy setting put limits on how much any given superhero can lift or punch through. Wistedt’s suggestion of zero limits or the implied accommodation of encumbrance is simply a straw man argument built on a subtle non sequitur.

In other words, it does not follow that because we use magical items yo overcome encumbrance in a magical setting that we may as well chuck all the rules or needn’t bother explaining how your halfling bard can carry the equivalent of seven wagonloads of loot in his left pocket! Literally, no DM I’m aware of operates that way. All variants of Bags of Holding and similar items such as Heward’s Handy Haversack, Portable Holes, Matt Mercer’s Bag of Colding, and John Beck’s Boxes of Many Holdings (one of my favorites from Dragon magazine Vol V, No. 7 – January 1981,  p. 23) have limits to how much they can carry. For example, here is an illustration of the selection of extradimensional accessories and their respective capacities from the 3rd edition:

So rather than doing away with the rules of encumbrance entirely,  Bags of Holding and their ilk allow players and DMs to play for a bit without having to get bogged down with calculations over weights and measures as much as they might normally have to.

Most DMs know it’s supposed to be an uncommon item anyway.

So back to the reality of how games are actually played, why is the Bag of Holding a bad magical item?

Wistedt’s argument is that he plays older editions of the game which he implies are better. No, I’m serious. His article really does boil down to a clichéd and tired street fight between old school and newer editions of the game. He repeatedly (mis)characterizes newer editions of the game, especially 5e, as “superhero” editions while suggesting that older editions were intended to be “a game about heroic burglary and expedition style adventures” rather than “a game of superheroes and epic encounters.”

The problem with his assessment of the Bag of Holding starts with its beginning. Folks, the Bag of Holding has literally been there since the beginning. It is first listed on page 25 of the Original Dungeons & Dragons, Vol 2: Monsters and Magic (Tactical Studies Rules, 1974) by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, where an asterisk notes that the item is available to all classes. Then on page 36, it is described in brief.

Since it has literally been there from the beginning amongst the scant few magical items listed in that first set,  it is fair to say it was always intended as a magical means to overcome the burden of overencumbrance.

Just like a mundane wagon or cart… which conveyances weren’t even cited with a weight limit anywhere that I could see (The closest the original sources came to solving that was by noting the range of gold a typical orc wagon might be carrying but this was by no means cited as a maximum capacity). Gygax and Arneson weren’t handing us rules for beancounting wargames. They wanted magic and role-playing! The rules were characterized by Gygax as helpful guidelines to facilitate gameplay but it was always expected that the DM should write his own laws if he so preferred. This was even written into the Introduction.

As far as his criticism of “superhero” editions goes, I mean, if we’re being dead honest here, “superhero” or “superheroes” [as a level of basic category of level above “Man” and “Hero” for Fighting-Man, Cleric and Thief characters (with Wizard being the equivalent for Magic-user characters) or equivalent enemies] is mentioned 30 times in the 1974 Single Volume Edition of that first set.

…which sorely undercuts Wistedt’s suggestion that newer editions are a type of superhero edition that differs greatly from older editions.

So if Wistedt’s preference is that DnD should be reduced to game of heroic burglary,  more power to him, so long as he does not also suppose this was the original intent of any of the older editions! If anything, we might characterize newer editions as a return to something closer to the original intent that subsequent editions lost by degrees under the encumbrance of rulemongering according to an ever-increasing volume of RAW!

Now, to be fair, Wistedt might not realize that. In a comment on his post, he admitted that he’s never played the 5th edition.

Begging his pardon, but if his criticism of Bags of Holding don’t apply to the most popular and widely played version of the game to date, they’re largely irrelevant.

Now, having said all of this, I think it’s really, really important NOT to buy into the whole old school versus new trope. I play the 5th edition because it’s more accessible and because it’s wildly popular. I wanted to introduce my kids to the game I loved so much and this is the edition their friends play. It’s simplified for a new generation. And frankly it’s pretty close to the (relatively) rules light approach I’ve always taken as DM.

My guys are trying to become superheroes in an epic fantasy adventure… but they’re also mostly heroic burglars and murder hobos. It’s not old versus new. It’s (always been) a bit of both.

The Bags of Holding just let us play without the encumbrance of pretending magic wouldn’t be utilized in this way in a world where magic is actually a thing.