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Worlds of Design: Medieval Travel & Scale

We previously established the fundamentals of world-building; with a world’s basic rules down, it’s important to consider how you get around in that world. And travel was very different (read: slower) in a medieval setting.

canterbury-tales-1730722_960_720.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

It’s Not That Far…

As explained by Rick Stump in “Modern Minds and Medieval Distances,” there’s a psychological aspect to travel that should be considered when role-playing in a medieval world. There’s an old saying that 100 years is a long time to Americans but not to Europeans, while 100 miles is not far to an American but far for a European. The time or distance doesn’t change, of course, but the perception is quite different.

Maps can also be deceiving. Nowadays in Western countries there are usually paved roads from most anywhere to anywhere. So when you look at a map you think of distance as closely related to the number of inches between two points on the map. But this varies with terrain and especially with technology.

I’m in the early stages of designing a game about the American Civil War (ACW), and of course I knew that the war tended to be divided into eastern and western theaters. The reason is obvious on a certain kind of map, one that shows railroad lines or one that shows the Appalachian Mountains as a barrier, as they were in those days when the railroad lines didn’t go through the mountains. Railroads were the vital method of transportation for ACW armies.

Or look at a map of the Roman Empire. What’s not obvious is that water transportation was much quicker and much cheaper than land transportation, even with the fine Roman road network. So if you just look at the map you get a completely skewed idea of how transportation (and communication) worked.

I once found online an interactive map that showed the weeks of transportation from Rome (it's gone now, but Orbis is similar). You can easily see that it would be quicker to transport something from Rome to southern Spain than from Rome to northern Italy, especially because there are not big north-south running rivers in Italy sort of analogous to the Mississippi River in the United States. River transport was much cheaper than land.

Or is It?

The standard method of transportation in medieval times was walking. Even if you had a cart to carry goods you weren’t going to ride on that cart very much, nor would a cart with solid wooden wheels go very fast. At normal walking speed, which about 3 mph, it takes a heck of a long time to get most anywhere!

Yes, we have examples of forced marches by military units in times before mechanization that are sometimes mind-boggling, as much as 50 miles in 24 hours, though more commonly 20 miles in 24 hours. What you don’t hear about such events is that a lot of soldiers did not get to the end of the march, they dropped out for various reasons or struggled along far behind.

The U.S. Army 30 years ago would periodically send their troops on “12-mile road marches,” carrying about 80 pounds of equipment; that really wore out the guys I knew, who of course weren’t doing it every day, and did not look forward to it. I think the farthest I’ve ever walked in one day was 7 miles, without a backpack, and it sure ruined me for a while (thanks partly to flat feet).

Riding a horse would make this somewhat more comfortable but not much faster. Even when you ride a horse, for a significant part of a long journey you’re walking and leading the horse. Or you won’t end up with much of a horse.

You can see how much difference magical automobiles would make in a medieval world (provided roads are available . . .), let alone something like a magic carpet. We lose some of the sense of wonder such items would invoke in medieval inhabitants because we’re accustomed to modern technology. Even something as simple as a walkie-talkie with good range would be a great wonder in a medieval world, and very useful to military operations or dungeon and wilderness adventures. Splitting the party (which as we all know “you should never do”) would be much safer and more useful with a walkie-talkie set.

Yes, our fantasy characters are tougher than we are, and more inured to drudgery, but we should keep in mind the difference between a non-mechanized society and a modern highly mechanized society, both as players and as world builders.
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio
I like to go on hiking trips here in Europe, moving from town to town every day. Not only does it feel great when you crest a hill mid-afternoon and see your destination (in my more fanciful moments it makes me feel like I'm on an epic adventure across Middle Earth or something), it also gives you a very good sense of distance. For instance, if you walk the most common version of the Camino de Santiago, from the Pyrenees, across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostella, it generally takes a month to complete the 800 km.
 

Derren

Hero
And yet even in medieval times long range travel was not that uncommon.
Trade was of course done by sea whenever possible as it is much easier and cheaper to transfer large amount of goods by sea (something still somewhat true today).
Yet many pilgrim routes of various religions were done over land and from what accounts we have 10 miles a day were not uncommon.

Pilgrimages were a major part of medieval travel/tourism, yet that aspect often gets ignored when creating fantasy worlds. Not only that they happened at all, but also that a lot of infrastructure would exist to cater to them.
 

Yet many pilgrim routes of various religions were done over land and from what accounts we have 10 miles a day were not uncommon.

Of course. Unlike modern Western pilgrimages, which are all about the hardship of getting to your holy place in an era when travel is easy, in pre-modern times it was all about the destination itself. You just had to get there. If you could afford to travel by ship, or on horseback, or on the backs of your servants, that's what you did. (Unless you had vowed to complete the pilgrimage on your knees, or whatever.)
 

Derren

Hero
Of course. Unlike modern Western pilgrimages, which are all about the hardship of getting to your holy place in an era when travel is easy, in pre-modern times it was all about the destination itself. You just had to get there. If you could afford to travel by ship, or on horseback, or on the backs of your servants, that's what you did. (Unless you had vowed to complete the pilgrimage on your knees, or whatever.)

The 10+ miles per day was land travel, not by sea. Although it might include river travel when possible (Via Francigena)
Still, many pilgrims didn't even had that advantage and had to travel by foot, horse or camel.
 
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Li Shenron

Legend
Maps are always highly appreciated in RPGs. But indeed they are deceiving.

There are rules for travel which often gets too much into terrain details in order to convert distances into travel times. I think this is pointless.

"Distance is futile."

Unless you have an occasional spell with a range limit (e.g. teleport), and your destination happens to be close to that limit, the number of miles from your destination don't matter, only how long it takes matters.

So I often think, why not straight giving distances in terms of time, instead of converting? Who cares if city X and Y are 100 miles apart, rather than saying directly they are 1 day apart by horse, 10 days by feet, or 2 hours by griffon?
 


SkidAce

Hero
Supporter
So I often think, why not straight giving distances in terms of time, instead of converting? Who cares if city X and Y are 100 miles apart, rather than saying directly they are 1 day apart by horse, 10 days by feet, or 2 hours by griffon?
Because then I would have to develop stats for every type of travel.

If I call it miles, then I can convert if the players come up with something different than foot/horse.

In other words, time would be a variable, of to many to keep track, while distance would remain a standard.

But I like the flavor of your idea. Peasants could talk in those terms on occasion.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
If I call it miles, then I can convert if the players come up with something different than foot/horse.

But then your still have to convert it from miles each time.

If you start with time, at most you have to convert sometimes.

It's more intuitive and immediately useful to say that from Cambridge to Oxford the distance is 2 hours by car, than saying it's 100 miles. It already takes into accounts all the terrain/road details. Time is a resource, distance isn't.

If you have different means of transportation possible, it's still easier to use multipliers. For example, with horse being the standard, you could say that carriage takes 2x and caravans take 4x time (to account for lower speed and extra delays). It's still easier than having mph speeds for each of them.

Waterborne and aerial vehicles take different routes than roads, so you have to calculate using different speeds AND distances. Why not just say how many hours in the first place?

I am thinking about published adventures here... I think it's just easier to read travel times directly, because they already take into accounts things like elevation, terrain, obstacles etc. as well as different routes (the only remaining variable would be weather).
 

SkidAce

Hero
Supporter
But then your still have to convert it from miles each time.

If you start with time, at most you have to convert sometimes.

It's more intuitive and immediately useful to say that from Cambridge to Oxford the distance is 2 hours by car, than saying it's 100 miles. It already takes into accounts all the terrain/road details. Time is a resource, distance isn't.

If you have different means of transportation possible, it's still easier to use multipliers. For example, with horse being the standard, you could say that carriage takes 2x and caravans take 4x time (to account for lower speed and extra delays). It's still easier than having mph speeds for each of them.

Waterborne and aerial vehicles take different routes than roads, so you have to calculate using different speeds AND distances. Why not just say how many hours in the first place?

I am thinking about published adventures here... I think it's just easier to read travel times directly, because they already take into accounts things like elevation, terrain, obstacles etc. as well as different routes (the only remaining variable would be weather).
I understand, but see it from the opposiste side, not really a wrong or right, and your idea has merit.

For "me" if I published adventure said 5 hours to Nextdale....whats the assumed mode of travel? I mean I hear yah, your way is doable.
 


univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
In my current 3.5 hexcrawl/sandbox that I GM, the party did a significant amount of travel, traversing half a small continent. Doing so took a long time (four sessions). Their journey ended at a city, the first city they have been to since the campaigns beginning. The joy and relief they experienced once in sight of the city walls was palpable.

Travel as a central element of your game can be an annoyance though. Long distance space flight in Travaller can be quite annoying as you go into a mode of just playing a spreadsheet to track all the moving parts. Some people enjoy that. I do not. The specialized rules or "mini-gaming" of long distance travel are sometimes too abstract though. Anyone familiar with the caravan rules for the Pathfinder Adventure Path Jade Regent knows what I am talking about.

A great novel series that gets into the details of using multiple horses to travel long distance is Morgaine Saga by C.J. Cherryh. The characters use multiple horses with periods of rest, over working the horses a constant danger.

I enjoy the troupe of a wilderness journey in my RPGs but I try to strike a balance so that the players can make choices, not be bored, but still value the achievement of arriving at their destination in one piece.
 

Von Ether

Adventurer
I see the inverse of this in new GMs making their first maps.*

Invariably, they make the continents huuuuuuge, thinking they need all that distance of untamed terrain so locations are suitable marching (and random encounter) distances away from each other. Years of rpg books that made the same assumptions not only in their maps but also their estimate of travel times as if forests where just slower roads. (And why I preferred hex maps where the general size of the hex was the slowest land speed a party could travel.)

As a side note: Educating said new GMs on this is tough and many of them aren't a fan of the news.

*One newbie wanted to run a West March, but give each participating GM a couple of continents to work with. I could already see how much potential content was never going to see the light of day (or the table.)
 

DMMike

Guide of Modos
Trade was of course done by sea whenever possible as it is much easier and cheaper to transfer large amount of goods by sea (something still somewhat true today).
And then...pirates!

Thanks for the post, @lewpuls! I now have a little less anxiety about unruly players wanting to travel somewhere that I haven't prepped. Although, now that I think about it, PCs thinking they're special and all: aren't PCs likely to have the magic and means, more than the average NPC, to travel much faster and farther than 3 MPH?

Tenser's Floating Taxi Service:
Two casters load up their Floating Disks, 20 feet apart, and sit on the other caster's disk. Each caster then grasps a rope, tied separately to two riding horses. The riders of the horses sprint on cue, and each disk moves forward to follow its caster, 20 feet away. Once at sprinting pace, the casters release the ropes and sail forward. Both casters begin casting a new disk before the current ones expire, and hope there is somewhere soft to crash when they run out of spell slots.
 

aco175

Hero
The U.S. Army 30 years ago would periodically send their troops on “12-mile road marches,” carrying about 80 pounds of equipment; that really wore out the guys I knew, who of course weren’t doing it every day, and did not look forward to it. I think the farthest I’ve ever walked in one day was 7 miles, without a backpack, and it sure ruined me for a while (thanks partly to flat feet).
We were still doing it 25 years ago. Typically the standard was with 35 lb packs though. Although the most I ever carried was 120 lbs when we were going to invade Haiti. That was shortly after the Black Hawk Down incident and we only needed to go from the helicopter to the fence a few hundred yards away.

I remember hearing about Roman infantry walking 20 miles each day and then building a compound each night. Complete with a wall and ditch.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
As the article says, travel by horse would not be really faster than travel by foot, unless you can change horses frequently.
Or use spells to boost performance. Bulls Strength could easily be read to make the rider effectively lighter from the perspective of the horse, allowing it to move faster for longer. Likewise, good berries and lesser restoration might get rid of the strain on the horse.

Or, spells specifically for beasts of burden and horse or cart travel might exist in a fantasy world.

But also, you can get somewhere faster on a horse, depending on terrain, weather, and how much you’re willing to risk the horse.
 

Theo R Cwithin

I cast "Baconstorm!"
Very interesting article and links. It can hard to make players appreciate just how slow walking is, and how big the distances walked can get. And any attempts I've made to do so feels somehow punitive.

Any pointers on how to address these sorts of transportation issues in-game? It's easy enough to handwave away in a high-magic game, but what about low-magic or even historical campaigns? How do GMs exploit the hazards, distances, and even tedium to make richer game experience? How do you play up just how valuable those folding boats or boots of longstriding actually are in such worlds?

(Oh, and a related issue: distances in sci-fi!)
 

lewpuls

Adventurer
Travel times instead of distances are a common mode of expression today. I always talk in road mileage, my sister (who travels with her husband far more than I do) always quotes time, and rarely knows the actual distance (her husband does the driving, I do most of the driving for my wife and I). Sources like Google Maps regard the shortest route as shortest time, not distance.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
But then your still have to convert it from miles each time.

.....

It's more intuitive and immediately useful to say that from Cambridge to Oxford the distance is 2 hours by car, than saying it's 100 miles. It already takes into accounts all the terrain/road details. Time is a resource, distance isn't.

......
Hmmm no. It is two hours plus some change to get from my house to the international airport. However it is always 33 minutes from the airport to the downtown hotel where dragon con is held if you taking the train. Depending on the traffic your travel times vary. From my house to local game store ranges from 10 to 20 minutes by car. So miles/km/leagues/dead adventure lengths are much more clearer.
 


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