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Let's take a gnome for the example. Here is what the PHB 37 says for its size:

Size. Gnomes are between 3 and 4 feet tall and average about 40 pounds. Your size is small.

The PHB 176 also says the following for the carrying capacity:

Carrying Capacity. Your carrying capacity is your Strength score multiplied by 15. This is the weight (in pounds) that you can carry, which is high enough that most characters don't usually have to worry about it.

[...]

Size and Strength. Larger creatures can bear more weight, whereas Tiny creatures can carry less. For each size category above Medium, double the creature's carrying capacity and the amount it can push, drag or lift. For a Tiny creature, halve these weights.

If this gnome has a Strength of 10, it means it can carry 10*15=150 pounds ! More than the triple of its own weight !

Am I missing something or can small characters really carry that much ?

PS: I know D&D isn't meant to be a realistic simulation, but still.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Obviously gnomes are just really big ants. \$\endgroup\$ – aslum Mar 7 '18 at 19:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ Of course, gnome sized plate-mail still weight as much as goliath-sized plate mail so it evens out. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Mar 7 '18 at 23:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ Taken to more of an extreme, this results in why can a gnome grapple a goliath \$\endgroup\$ – Joel Harmon Mar 8 '18 at 0:05
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Yes, those're the rules.

That's really all there is to it. Except here's a bit more.

PS: I know D&D isn't meant to be a realistic sumulation, but still.

There are times in the history of D&D when it's tried to be a more-realistic simulation. For your purpose I'd recommend taking a look at racial bonuses/decrements to stats; perhaps the PHB1e?

Many people still play that edition, including this author. It can be fun. It's a different game.

5e, however, made the explicit choice to play a different game which prioritized "gameplay" concerns higher than "simulationist" concerns. If you choose 5e, that's part of the choice you're making.

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Yes1

Medium and Small characters have the same carrying capacity. Large creatures get a boost, and Tiny creatures get a reduction.

You've provided the only relevant quote yourself:

Size and Strength. Larger creatures can bear more weight, whereas Tiny creatures can carry less. For each size category above Medium, double the creature's carrying capacity and the amount it can push, drag, or lift. For a Tiny creature, halve these weights.

1If you want to get sciency about it, which I don't recommend, consider the square-cube law as it applies to biomechanics in your thinking.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I really like the explanation about the square-cube law (although I certainly won't use it in my games :) ) \$\endgroup\$ – Yotus Mar 7 '18 at 14:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Yotus Me, neither. \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Mar 7 '18 at 15:07
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Everyone here has said yes, because, yes, those are the rules. Do they make sense given physics? I think that the root of this question is an incredulity that this makes any kind of real world sense.

You might be using children or the idea of humans scaled down. Gnomes, and halflings aren't that. If you want a real-life comparison, look at our own "little people."

From an article titled 10 things I Wish Everyone Knew About Little People

  1. We are deceptively strong. Our arms and legs may be shorter, but many little people are extremely muscular. I can do a headstand, shovel snow and perform almost any activity that an average-sized person does. I am also a yoga teacher.

Fantasy Gnomes and Halflings are still pretty darn diesel for their size. In the animal kingdom there are a lot of examples. The article I have linked basically rates animals pound for pound and tells us the equivalent in human terms. So a gorilla for example, IF they weighed what a human did can lift 1800 pounds. Some of that is due to square cube law (which can also work FOR you regarding realism)--but consider that humans gnomes and halflings are not the same species.

Or even close. We know this because of breeding...

You get Half-Elves and other crosses, but you don't get cross breeds of humans with dwarves, halflings or gnomes.

Genetically, I'd say that they are different enough that different rules apply than it would for a human that was simply really short (and even then, our little folk are darn strong pound for pound!)

If you really don't like it, you can use the alt encumbrance rules as suggested by @kviiri.

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Yes, a gnome (small size with a Strength of 10) can indeed carry 150 pounds at maximum, by the math in the question.

On the same page as carrying capacity (Player's Handbook, page 176), there is a variant encumbrance rule which states that the normal carrying capacity math is deliberately simplified. Many people don't find tracking the weight of the things they're carrying engaging, or feel it amounts to nothing but pointless bookkeeping. For the players who disagree and want a more simulationist weight limit, the variant encumbrance rule is available.

Using the variant encumbrance rules, the same gnome could only carry 50 pounds before being encumbered. When encumbered, the gnome's movement speed would be reduced by 10 feet. Carrying more 100 pounds or more would double the speed penalty to 20 feet and imposes a disadvantage on ability checks, attack rolls and saving throws using Strength, Dexterity or Constitution. The gnome's maximum carrying capacity is still the same 150 pounds.

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One thing not mentioned in other answers because it really isn't addressed in the rules, is that not only are small races, well, smaller, it should be inferred that much of their equipment is smaller as well. In the rules, a suit of armor or a sword have a specific weight value, but halfling plate should not way anything near what half-orc plate would.

This is an abstraction, of course, because 5th edition eschews fine bookkeeping and fiddly modifiers. I would never suggest coming up with a horribly kludgy encumbrance modification chart. A bag of gold weighs the same for all characters. I just consider the weights to be an abstraction, and the thought that equipment is scaled down in many cases is enough for me to suspend my disbelief and get on with the adventuring!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ An excellent point, actually. A "shortsword" for a Dragonborn and a "shortsword" for a gnome would be very different in weight, but both would be sized to be easily wielded in one hand by the respective user. I think 3.5e even had notes about treating a dagger dropped by an orc as a shortsword if used by a halfling, etc. \$\endgroup\$ – Asher Mar 7 '18 at 18:57
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A Strength of 10 means "as strong as an average Human", not "as strong as an average member of their race." You'll notice that smaller races and monsters/templates tend to have Strength scores of less than 10, while those that are larger tend to have Strength scores greater than 10.

You'll notice in "Ability Scores and Modifiers" in your book:

A score of 10 or 11 is the normal human average, but adventurers and many Monsters are a cut above average in most Abilities. A score of 18 is the highest that a person usually reaches. Adventurers can have scores as high as 20, and Monsters and divine beings can have scores as high as 30. (Emphasis added)

The numbers are meant to put things in to perspective for players, so the Ability Scores are defined in terms of Human capabilities, where 10 represents the average of the Human race, 18 represents the normal "maximum" peak of perfection that humans can naturally attain.

This means that a normal character with a Strength of 10 can carry as much as an average Human. The Tiny and Large rules for carrying capacity are meant to be a simple approximation of the square-cube law (as noted in the other answer), with Medium and Small characters being the middle ground.

All of the stats are built this way. For example, smaller creatures also typically have a better Dexterity than larger creatures, for same reason. They're smaller, and more nimble, and so do better at certain tasks than a Human would.

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