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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.

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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

Von Ether

Adventurer
Part of that comes from a reasonable desire to be able to run adventures in different settings (arctic, tropical jungle, desert, forest, etc.) and thus requiring all those things to appear on the map. To achieve this the map has to cover a pretty big swath of territory, at least on a north-south axis.

Purely anecdotal, but in my experience new DMs don't even consider putting adventures into other climes until much later. Everything is planned in a temperate clime where the seasons offer pretty much everything but tropical scenarios. The exceptions are when a new GM wants to start their campaign

I've not seen an example from real-world use, but for ordinary people a connectivity map might be more useful than a distance map. Connectivity map: circles for locations, connecting lines with travel time listed. If by river, the line would follow the river, if by sea, the sea, if significant terrain, color the line accordingly.

In listening to an old episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, before common people and merchants had regular access to maps that's how they did land travel. "Follow the coast for a week and you'll get close to Nearsburg. Use the river, or follow the river for two weeks and you end up in Farsville.
 

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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
It sucks a lot of the adventure out of things sometimes.

Um... I disagree.

What results from having poor maps or directions is... wandering around in confusion, frustration, and anxiety. It is not fun or adventurous.

And remember that, in D&D at least, having a map does not mean one does not get lost.

And remember that adventure isn't about wandering around not knowing where you are going, but what you find along the way - if you want adventure during travel, put encounters along the route.
 

Von Ether

Adventurer


Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Um... I disagree.

What results from having poor maps or directions is... wandering around in confusion, frustration, and anxiety. It is not fun or adventurous.

And remember that, in D&D at least, having a map does not mean one does not get lost.

And remember that adventure isn't about wandering around not knowing where you are going, but what you find along the way - if you want adventure during travel, put encounters along the route.
I shall disagree in return. Player expectations when in possession of a to-scale map in part come from the map itself. Much like an over-abundance of lore it can have the effect of freezing things in place. It's perfectly possible to play without them, and there are a number of advantages to doing so, not least among which is the ability to provide geographical complications without need to comply with pre-established map details. Most PbtA games work like this, and so do a lot of my D&D games. So disagree away, I guess.

And remember, I am likely have at least as good a grounding in basic adventure construction as you, and it comes across as more than a little condescending to speak to people like they lack any grasp of the the basics. Put encounters along the route of travel?! You don't say. :p
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I shall disagree in return. Player expectations when in possession of a to-scale map in part come from the map itself. Much like an over-abundance of lore it can have the effect of freezing things in place.

You were talking about "adventure". Now you are talking about uncertainty. You've not shown how failing to know where the bloody town is generates adventure that wouldn't otherwise happen.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
You were talking about "adventure". Now you are talking about uncertainty. You've not shown how failing to know where the bloody town is generates adventure that wouldn't otherwise happen.
I didn't say you don't know where the town is, I'm just saying you don't have a photo-realistic topographic map of the whole countryside between here and there. Blanks on the map generate opportunities, it's not a controversial idea.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I'm just saying you don't have a photo-realistic topographic map of the whole countryside between here and there.

Then do beware that you're probably arguing against a strawman. The typical gaming map I'm talking about looks like this:

1595096750962.png

Not photorealistic. Not topographic. I'd be interested in seeing the maps you think are removing adventure by their very content.

Blanks on the map generate opportunities, it's not a controversial idea.

See above. You may be arguing against a boogeymap.
 

Von Ether

Adventurer
The only fellow I know who is avoiding maps in his campaign is running a Greek era game. But the areas are pretty small compared to regular gaming map areas and there are gods and local farmers to talk to. The GM is also pretty experienced, so if the players get frustrated they'll switch it up to get thing moving.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Huh, you're hanging on specific terms a lot. Oh well. My point was that when the players know where everything is, there is less to discover. That could be feature for some DMs, I'm sure, but it's not one by its nature. Even the map you use an an example locks you into everything being exactly where it is. That's not necessarily a good thing if, for example, you're running a play to find out what happens style game. There's nothing wrong with a game where the players know that city X is about a week away on the coast, but have no other real info about the terrain between here and there. The further away something is the less precise the info. To each his own of course, but I'm not really that interested in continuing to explain how something works for me, and for other people, in the face of your continued insistence that is doesn't, or that concerns are unfounded and experience meaningless.

So thanks for implying I have no idea what I'm talking about and nothing to add to the conversation.:rolleyes:
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I think a lot of players are spoiled by having precise maps and knowing exactly where everything is all the time. It sucks a lot of the adventure out of things sometimes.
IMO the trick there is to not put everything on the player-side map.

Take the various Forgotten Realms maps over the years. The first version (gray box) showed just a few basics and left vast swathes of blank space coloured as being a terrain type only (forest, hills, desert, etc.). As the versions went on, more and more detail got added to the maps, which gave a lot more info to the players and thus detracted from any sense of discovery.

With my own campaign, when I did the maps I started with the player-side version. When it got to the point of "this is as much as an educated PC is likely to know" I stopped, and made colour copies for the players. I then continued working on the originals, putting lots more DM-only info in (among other things, adventure sites!) which, over time, has slowly been revealed. Also revealed over time have been lots of small towns and villages that weren't on the original players' maps yet have become quite important in play.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Purely anecdotal, but in my experience new DMs don't even consider putting adventures into other climes until much later. Everything is planned in a temperate clime where the seasons offer pretty much everything but tropical scenarios. The exceptions are when a new GM wants to start their campaign
Depends.

If a GM isn't using a hard-coded AP and really likes the idea of, say, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan and Isle of Dread she might start out in the tropics as both those modules are set there. But then she wants to run the G-series and has to figure out how to fit in the Frost Giants module; or sees and likes The Snow Queen (3e-era third-party module whose title I might be misremembering slightly) which is set in the arctic. Or she sees and likes Pharoah's Tomb, set in a desert far away from anywhere.

To run all these she's going to need a pretty big map, at least on a north-south axis, and be ready to deal with long-range travel either by providing magical assistance or by expecting a lot of in-game time to pass between adventures.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I shall disagree in return. Player expectations when in possession of a to-scale map in part come from the map itself. Much like an over-abundance of lore it can have the effect of freezing things in place. It's perfectly possible to play without them, and there are a number of advantages to doing so, not least among which is the ability to provide geographical complications without need to comply with pre-established map details.
As a player, that's something I absolutely despise: 'fluid' geography, particularly when it comes to scale.

Now if the map is blank or extremely low-detail where the PCs go that's fine, fill in whatever makes sense. But once it's filled in it remains so - if a gorge was introduced as a complication when the party was travelling north it had better still be there when they travel back south on the same route, and when they come back three years from now. And if it takes 20 days to travel 300 miles on a good low-traffic road here it should take 20-ish days to travel 300 miles on a good low-traffic road anywhere.

It's also something I dislike in books. One fantasy series I just re-read has the maps and the narrated travel times in complete disarray; the author just writes what he wants to write and geographical realism be damned, and this bugs me to hellandback. If you can't narrate your setting as beingconsistent with itself, try again until you can. And I only just noticed on this reading that the maps very conveniently don't include a scale.

One of the very first things I learned in cartography (which I took in college) is that for something to be defined as a map two things need to be present: 1) a scale of distance, and 2) something - by convention usually a compass rose or an arrow pointing north - showing which direction is which.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I didn't say you don't know where the town is, I'm just saying you don't have a photo-realistic topographic map of the whole countryside between here and there. Blanks on the map generate opportunities, it's not a controversial idea.
On this we agree.

The only caveat is that the blanks should be in places that the PCs wouldn't reasonably already know about. For example, using @Umbran 's FR map above as an example, if your campaign is based in Neverwinter but one of the PCs is from Thundertree, the route from Thundertree to Neverwinter can be shown in greater detail (and thus locked in) as it's pre-known by at least one PC.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Huh, you're hanging on specific terms a lot. Oh well. My point was that when the players know where everything is, there is less to discover. That could be feature for some DMs, I'm sure, but it's not one by its nature. Even the map you use an an example locks you into everything being exactly where it is. That's not necessarily a good thing if, for example, you're running a play to find out what happens style game. There's nothing wrong with a game where the players know that city X is about a week away on the coast, but have no other real info about the terrain between here and there.
Except that chances are very high the PCs would know, at least in vague terms; or would be able to find out with trivial ease simply by asking anyone - caravanier, merchant, minstrel, adventurer, pilgrim - who's ever made the trip. Either way you-as-DM have to fill it in, either by making it up on the fly or by having a map ahead of time; and having a premade map both makes it easier to give details and makes it nearly impossible to introduce inconsistencies by mistake or faulty memory.

The further away something is the less precise the info.
Of course. Knowing or learning about what to expect between here and the coast is one thing, knowing or learning what to expect anywhere inland from fabled Exotica City across the ocean is another thing entirely until and unless the PCs cross that ocean and can access more local info.

To each his own of course, but I'm not really that interested in continuing to explain how something works for me, and for other people, in the face of your continued insistence that is doesn't, or that concerns are unfounded and experience meaningless.
The experience isn't meaningless but I'm not at all sure the concerns - particularly those around inconsistency - are unfounded.
 

Galandris

Adventurer

Not photorealistic. Not topographic. I'd be interested in seeing the maps you think are removing adventure by their very content.

Somehow, it feels it has many more details than needed. I always tell the player that maps are what their character could have access to, and warn that cartography is not always faithful, even in "wide magic world" like Eberron. So I can add things.

On this map, the player will now they won't cross a river between Neverwinter and Phandalin. It's not important, but if you want to make a toll bridge as part of your adventure, some players will say "a bridge over what exactly?" It seems detailed enough that an important landmark would be on it.

It's, after all, unless I am mistaken with the scale, 120 miles wide and 160 miles long. That's 50 000 square kilometers, around of what is roughly depicted on this map (ca 1750) : Hispaniola from the British Library. It might be a question of style, but I tend to consider that the latter map allows for more surprise than the Phandalin one. Same with this one (mid-17th century Livonia, around the same size:
LIVONIAE_NOVA_DESCRIPTIO_1573-1578.jpg

That and maybe (it's linked to "scale" I guess) the lack of population (small settlement like Phandalin featured on a map of this size makes one think he won't find any settlement between Leilon and Neverwinter, which is very strange for a road 70 miles long. Neverwinter to "feel medieval" should be surrounded by small farming villages to support the population. That wouldn't feel off on the above maps, but it's not the feeling I get from Phandalin's. So, as maps are "gaming tools" first and foremost, either the map is accurate and I can fully expect not to see a single village along the High Road (and as a GM, I'd have to take that into account if I wanted to introduce a "night at an inn" event) or the map is inaccurate enough not to mention everything, and I feel the art style doesn't fit.

I don't say it's just because of the art style, but there is still something that strikes me as "off" with the "typical map" (though they look better).
 
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Von Ether

Adventurer
Depends.

If a GM isn't using a hard-coded AP and really likes the idea of, say, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan and Isle of Dread she might start out in the tropics as both those modules are set there. But then she wants to run the G-series and has to figure out how to fit in the Frost Giants module; or sees and likes The Snow Queen (3e-era third-party module whose title I might be misremembering slightly) which is set in the arctic. Or she sees and likes Pharoah's Tomb, set in a desert far away from anywhere.

To run all these she's going to need a pretty big map, at least on a north-south axis, and be ready to deal with long-range travel either by providing magical assistance or by expecting a lot of in-game time to pass between adventures.

I agree, but the new GMs I bump into usually don't think this far ahead, they need a magical carpet /time jump just to travel to around their faux Europa in a reasonable amount of time once they figure out how big they made their landmass. By the time they want to run the Icy Caves of the Frost Lich, they need full-on teleporters.

And none of this is even touching on how many of these homemade maps of huge continents are placed on a globe by default and thus are victims of the Mercator projection.

So if you use your adequately sized north-south axis continent from the near equator to lower arctic zones , your "huge" pseudoNetherlands are actual quite small and your mid-sized faux Africa needs many more cities or it's going to be miles and miles between towns.
 

R_Chance

Adventurer
I've not seen an example from real-world use, but for ordinary people a connectivity map might be more useful than a distance map. Connectivity map: circles for locations, connecting lines with travel time listed. If by river, the line would follow the river, if by sea, the sea, if significant terrain, color the line accordingly.

Not a real world example, but a game example. M.A.R. Barker had vast empires in his world (Tekumel) with three tiered raised fortified highways, known as Sakbe Roads. Merchants used connectivity maps which indicated the time needed to travel from one city to another. There were no large scale exact maps with precise scales. The other form of cartography (High Cartography) in the world utilized a three dimensional object with materials inlaid in it and symbols inscribed on it which had to be "read" tactilely. The physical map stood in for ancient technological versions which projected map views and information iirc.
 

Hussar

Legend
Exactly. Most people did engage in, for that time, ling distance travel (travelling for several days) several times in their lives even the serfs.
And a few professions travelled a lot.

Religious tourism was a huge factor in that, but that often gets overlooked in worldbuilding.

Ahh, ok, now I see what you're saying. Sorry about the misunderstanding.
 

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