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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

Hussar

Legend
As noted, people seem to be using accuracy and precision interchangeably, and they aren't.

If maps are not accurate, they are worthless. A map can be fairly imprecise, and still of great value.

That's very true. I mean, the Darlene Greyhawk maps use 30 mile hexes. A 30 mile hex is HUGE. That's a LOT of space. You could fit an entire campaign in a single hex without too much problem.
 

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Hussar

Legend
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.

Well, maybe not. It's a 5 mile hex. A river might not be a major enough element to put on the map, but, it might have a bridge. Which might have tolls. I think part of the problem is people have a difficulty picturing size from the scale of the map.

A 5 mile hex is (about) 30 square miles. That's a LOT of terrain. Sure, you could walk across it in an hour (at a very fast pace with a good, flat road), but, you could also fit a reasonably decent sized city in that same space. Manhattan fits in that space, for example.

Something as small as a minor river might easily not be marked on a map at that scale.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
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.
Along the road, sure, roads are fine, and they're usually on the map, or easy to get directions to find. Off that list it's only maybe adventurers that are doing any real exploring offroad, and even then you're likely relying on their verbal account, which will be in very general overall and measure things in days and half days. Lots of room for blanks there. The inconsistency thing isn't a worry. If you add detail it stays. Why would you assume otherwise? Floating geography wasn't mentioned at all upstream, and it's certainly not something I use.

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.
Even the local info wouldn't generate anything so precise as the Phandalin adventure map from above. Some landmarks, some distances, and not much more and you're still off to the races. Unless you leave civilization you'll be able to get better info as you go. All I'm saying is that the ability to locate yourself precisely on a large scale map is a very modern idea, and it makes the world smaller in some ways. There's nothgin wring with maps at all, and in some games I use them, even the exact map above. But in some other games I revel in the chance to not use one.
The experience isn't meaningless but I'm not at all sure the concerns - particularly those around inconsistency - are unfounded.
I don't have issues with inconsistency. Notes are essential of course, but you're not adding all that much at once. YMMV, but I haven't had any issues. The campaign I'm running now has one map of the home base village, but nothing for wilderness that they are exploring. I don't really map anything except where they actually go, and only have some very rough notes for distance and possible hazards written down. I will have more details for the destination of course, but in between? I'm completely fine playing to find out what happens.
 


Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
You were the one who used those specific terms.

If you cannot manage to say what you mean, do not turn that back on others for not getting it. That's unacceptably rude.
Not meant to be rude. From my end it feels like you're willfully misunderstanding my point, which is frustrating. My general argument isn't so opaque that I think it's fair to say that the couple of words you picked out are completely occluding anything else I have to say. Other posters have seemed to get what I was driving at without issue. Is there something unacceptably rude about my response to Lanefan above, for example? I don't think so.

I'll endeavor to be clearer, but you may want to consider being more charitable about language use. You had two options, one, to consider that I might have a salient point, or, two, to assume I'm tilting at windmills and have no actual argument at all. You went with option two, and then called me unacceptably rude for taking issue with that. I don't think that's particularly fair at all.

I'll bow out here I think.
 

lewpuls

Adventurer
Do you live in a major city?
The typical subway map is a connectivity map.
I meant, an example in an FRPG. Of course there are some in modern times. Including many games that use connectivity maps (esp many space wargames). I recall making a connectivity map for my design Britannia once, it might be on my website somewhere.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
A long time ago, ENWorld had a book club of sorts, and (Was it SHARK? Maybe) and others reviewed the book Caesar’s Legions which talked about some of the “life in camp” for the Legions, including their unbelievable conditioning, even by Caesar’s time.
yes those were the salad days of enworld.
 

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?

Distances seldom change significantly. Times vary by season, current weather, and modes of transit.
If, for example, you're going from Eagle River (Alaska) to Muldoon (another township within Greater Anchorage), you're going 10 miles. That's true so long as you take the road and the bridge. If you are going by the bicycle paths, add about half a mile - they meander on a level plain beside the straighter (but still meandering) highway. Go by air, it's about 9.5 miles... but neither has an airport.

That 10 miles, hiked in summer, is 3-4 hours. In winter, 5-6 hours, simply due to snow slowing hiking. Add a decent amount of pack, and the winter can hit 8 hours. Horse is an hour less... because horses actually walk just a bit more consistently
Drive? 20 minutes from the house (on Parkview terrace loop N) to Muldoon Elementary at 06:15 departure. 60 minutes at 06:25 departure. 15 minutes at 14:00. 40 to 75 min the other way at 15:30, but 15 minutes at 14:00 or 17:00, but back to 45 at 17:20....Add 10% in winter, 100% if fresh heavy snow.
During a particular sleet storm, the travel time was in excess of 5 hours by car... crash on the bridge resulted in 1 lane doing 5 mph instead of the 3 lanes doing 65 mph that is marked...
If you didn't get run over, you could shave most of that half-mile by straighlining the course of the road...
The verticality of the road bed makes for interesting construction... they leveled out the road bed a lot, but not the bike path.
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.
Medieval pilgrimage maps often looked like a straight line, with listed towns... They were useful,to a point.
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.
I've seen troops doing endurance marches along the Glenn Highway as recently as 2015.(Fort Richardson).
I measure driving distances in time generally. How far is it? It's a hour away, or two hours away, not it's 125km. I'm Canadian though, so we're about as spread out as you can get.
I only do so for minimum times. Here's why:
Where I sit to Guardian Games in Portland, for example, is 2.5 hours if timed right; it's 4 hours if I catch any of the rushes in between. To Waldport? About 1:10 on a good day. Road destruction can add up to several hours.
To Corvallis, 30 minutes most of the time, but 1-2 times a month I get stuck for anywhere from 10 to 120 minutes.
Corvallis to Albany: 10 to 30 minutes, depending upon which part to which part.
Next door neighbor: 10 minute walk, 5 minute drive.
I don't know the exact mileage, but I know the times, because the times are what matter for being late or not... but I can't make a map of times that has a validity and fits a 2d sheet.... because the distances in 3d space involve a lot of twists and turns, plus the speeds vary by location, traffic, and weather...

Roman Legionnaires did this as a regular thing. No suspension of disbelief required.
20 lbs of that was worn almost all the time - that's the uniform armor. It's quite good for hiking. Wear it all the time, you get used to the mass.
All it takes is someone with a magical no-time-limit flying device, an accurate drawing hand, and a considerable amount of time and you've got as clear a map as you could ask for.

Flyer just goes up every clear day to a few thousand feet altitude and draws what she sees below. Next clear day, she goes to a place above the edge of the last map she drew, and repeat. Half of the second day's drawing will overlap the first day's, allowing for accuracy checks.

Lather rinse repeat until you've got the D&D version of the Ordnance Survey Maps the UK have. :)
Roman maps were pretty decent - and they had theodelites of a fashion, so had pretty accurate maps

"I wish I had a 1 inch = 30 miles scale map of Toril" said the Archmage.
That's cheating!

Fundamentally, Magic makes many assumptions dubious.
 


jasper

Rotten DM
All it takes is someone with a magical no-time-limit flying device, an accurate drawing hand, and a considerable amount of time and you've got as clear a map as you could ask for.

Flyer just goes up every clear day to a few thousand feet altitude and draws what she sees below. Next clear day, she goes to a place above the edge of the last map she drew, and repeat. Half of the second day's drawing will overlap the first day's, allowing for accuracy checks.

Lather rinse repeat until you've got the D&D version of the Ordnance Survey Maps the UK have. :)
Silly mage. You could just ask a boon from your gawd of Knowledge, or the good sea gawd, or etc.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
… I have dragons, wizards, and not a serf to be seen, a….. That is because dragons like serf and turf Umbran
.. A map can be fairly imprecise, and still of great value…. True anybody still use the tourist maps you get in hotels and from the chamber of commerce.
…trivial ease simply by asking anyone - caravanier, merchant, minstrel, adventurer, pilgrim -….. lanefan I can see the pcs Mugging pilgrims not for their gold just the maps.
City wise Thief ‘Hands up. Now slowly with your off hand toss me your maps!”

I have to disagree with Galandris. The map is 5 miles per hex. It will show the major rivers by the small rivers or wide streams may not been shown. And with a 5 mile per hex scale you would not need to list every small town or village.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Another thing that would almost certainly exist but is rarely noted on most maps are waystations, inns, or stopping points for travellers and-or merchant caravans every 10 miles or so along major routes, even where there's no towns; as 10 miles is all a caravan might cover in a day particularly if conditions are poor or the road is steep. The High Road running south from Neverwinter on the example map would be a prime candididate for such.

A 'stopping point' might not consist of much more than a cleared field close to a supply of good water, but if traffic is halfway consistent as time goes on it's almost inevitable an inn or tavern or even some sort of small community or village will develop there.
 

Galandris

Adventurer
I have to disagree with Galandris. The map is 5 miles per hex. It will show the major rivers by the small rivers or wide streams may not been shown. And with a 5 mile per hex scale you would not need to list every small town or village.

Physically, I agree that could have small villages or fords not shown on the map because they would be too small.
But then, what would be the usefulness of such a map ? Landmarks are not selected for inclusion on a map because of their size but because of their interest. (purely geographic maps are more aesthetic, though).

Imagine you're travelling along the High Road. I don't know the lore enough, but I picture it easy to follow, like a roman road. If it is not, it's easy enough to follow the coast line... You are a caravan and you don't really know how much you have travelled. You have an approximation because you know that usually, on a road with such-and-such climate and period of the year, you usually travel around X kiilometers by noon and Y by the evening. The map can answer the question "where will I spend the night, in the dangerous wilderness or at the next settlement". It's a vital info along the high road to show them, so the caravan will know if it can expect to travel to the next village before dusk or not. And if they can't estimate really well how long they moved, having a landmark like "we just crossed the third small river south of waterdeep, the next stop is just over the hill, let's continue insteand of camping here" is a valuable information. Just having a line going from Waterdeep to Neverwinter doesn't feel very useful if theses villages and small rivers exist. I can see overlooking such informations in case you consider traveling in one go from Leilon to Neverwinter. But 70 miles in a day is a long shot (that's over 100 km). I'd expect a five day treck for a cart tracted by oxen. Mentions of those stops would make a lot of sense, even if just pictured as dots and a name.
 
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Hussar

Legend
Yes, but, you're presuming said merchants would have a map in the first place. More likely, they'd have experience that would tell them when and where to stop. Particularly if it's a well traveled route like this. It's not like you can get lost after all.

And, let's be honest, that map of the Sword Coast is most certainly not meant as an "in character" artifact. That's a map for the players of a game. The problem, I think, is that people are looking at these game maps as something people in the game world would actually be looking at. That's extremely unlikely.
 

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?
Oh so true! Quite often, when my players are wondering about how far this place or that is, I'll give them an estimate (from a friendly, knowledgable NPC) based on units of time depending on how or what they're traveling with. Usually, it is on horseback but some of the players have heard that the Tinkerri gnomes are starting to show up in their skyships so who knows how far they'll go?
 

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Yes, but, you're presuming said merchants would have a map in the first place. More likely, they'd have experience that would tell them when and where to stop. Particularly if it's a well traveled route like this. It's not like you can get lost after all.

And, let's be honest, that map of the Sword Coast is most certainly not meant as an "in character" artifact. That's a map for the players of a game. The problem, I think, is that people are looking at these game maps as something people in the game world would actually be looking at. That's extremely unlikely.
One has to wonder though, if the journey is profitable, why wouldn't the merchants have a good, detailed map of the region? After all, even though cartography is a skilled profession, there's no reason to believe that almost no one would have a map of the region. If anything, the merchants would probably be the one's responsible for the creation of and proliferation of maps because it's good for trade and more travel means more markets as well.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
One has to wonder though, if the journey is profitable, why wouldn't the merchants have a good, detailed map of the region? After all, even though cartography is a skilled profession, there's no reason to believe that almost no one would have a map of the region. If anything, the merchants would probably be the one's responsible for the creation of and proliferation of maps because it's good for trade and more travel means more markets as well.
So YOU @Tavavon Farsight SAY you and your thugs Your overly friends who are hugging my guards till they are blue in the face are just adventurers. I think you are a rival merchant group in the pay of that evil hustler Hussar. EVIL GRIN JOKE.
Kidding aside why would merchants give that information away. A mini adventure is there just getting the maps.
 

Hussar

Legend
I'd also point out that since there is only one trade route, and it's a pretty easy to follow one, maps aren't really necessary.

IOW, what would you need the map for if you're traveling along the only road from A to B? It's not like you can choose another route. Or, put it another way, how often do you refer to a map on your way to work?
 

IOW, what would you need the map for if you're traveling along the only road from A to B? It's not like you can choose another route. Or, put it another way, how often do you refer to a map on your way to work?
Work is not a viable comparison. Especially since, when I was subbing, it was about 3 days a week on average... because I knew the locations of about 15 of the 120+ schools in my district... but have wound up working at about 40 of them. And even some I worked at multiple times, I needed the GPS to find my way there.

But that has a lot to do with the nature of modern streets, modern cities. And modern jobs - Substitute Teacher isn't one that fits most fantasy settings.

As for why one might want a map when travelling the "only road from A to B"?
Many roads had side roads; a map would mark many, most of them.

For example, Hiking the Resurrection Pass Trail. It's the only foot-path trail between Seward and Hope, Alaska. But it has a junction with the Devil's Pass Trail. And two other trails. A map, even a simple one just showing which way to go at the intersections is useful.

Also, merchants would likely have a route. It's easier to maintain a route if you have a map. Especially one you annotated for typical travel times. Makes predicting when you're going to be where easier.
 

Hussar

Legend
You're presuming that Mr. Merchant is literate, which, well, isn't a given. Like I said, when there's only one route (you changed the example by providing a multiple route path), it's very likely that Mr. Merchant doesn't really need a map.

Remember, most merchants, outside of caravans on large trade routes, probably aren't traveling much more than a day, maybe two. You go to town to sell your apples. You travel between five or six towns, hawking your wares as you go. The route you're following is probably the same route that your father and his father followed.

Look, I'm not saying maps are impossible. Of course not. But, they are a lot less necessary than today. When you only have one route between A and B, there isn't really a whole lot of need of a map. I mean, sure, if we're going to make examples set in Alaska, traveling through some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet, then, sure, a map is probably a very good idea.

But, traveling from Winterfell to King's Landing? Not exactly a whole lot of options.
 

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