Worlds of Design: Modern vs. Medieval Maps

Moderns are accustomed to cheap and readily available maps that show distance as well as road connectivity. That kind of map is rarely going to exist in a low technology/Medieval setting.


Two views of the same geospatial relationships (part of the Britannia game map)​

“An Englishman thinks a hundred miles is a long way; and American thinks a hundred years is a long time” Diana Gabaldon, Drums of Autumn

Distance vs. Time​

Our opening quote describes how perceptions and experience can make so much difference. This time we're applying this to maps, where we see that people living in a huge (and mobile) country like America think 100 miles is a short distance, while those living in countries with a long pre-technological history may think 100 miles is a long way.

Travel times depend on the state of roads, and we have to remember that aside from Roman roads, roads in pre-technological times tended to be dirt tracks or (in early technological times) occasionally timber. In wet weather they were much slower than in good weather. I'm reminded of Google Maps, where travel times clearly assume that traffic is light and that you don't stop for traffic lights. Weather is assumed to be fine.

One of the keys here is that modern people are accustomed to cheap and readily available maps that show distance as well as road connectivity. That kind of map is rarely going to exist in a low technology/Medieval setting. In days before air travel and satellites, accurate maps of a modern type were a lot harder to make than they are now. What you're more likely to get, and what may be more practical for people of that era, is a map that shows times rather than distances. This would normally be a connectivity map: circles for locations, connecting lines with travel time listed (see illustration of a large-scale connectivity map, though without travel times).

How Accurate Are Your Maps?​

In non-technological times, maps may be quite inaccurate. If you've seen what some 16th century maps of the world look like, you know what I mean.

Some RPG adventure modules include both maps for the GM and maps to give the player characters. There's more detail on the GM maps, and there may be inaccuracies on the player map. The GM map will probably be in distances, perhaps with a hex grid, but the player map may be a connectivity map with travel times rather than distances.

Think of this in terms of a friend telling you how to get to their house. Some will give you directions, a sort of connectivity map: turn left here, turn right at the light, drive 5 miles, and so on. This kind of “map” uses obvious landmarks, such as “turn right at the Walmart”. Others will give you a scale map, whether a map someone else made or a map that they made themselves. Which would you rather have? I would much rather have the map, because if you lose your way and you have a (distance) map you can probably figure out how to get where you need to go. Whereas if you lose your way and you only have directions there's a good chance you won't be able to get back onto the right place in/for the directions, and you'll be lost. My wife, on the other hand, wants the other alternative, because so many “distance” maps don’t actually have a scale of distance on them, and because she judges actual distances (such as “three tenths of a mile”) poorly.

For ordinary people a connectivity map might be more useful than a distance map. If travelling by river, the connecting line would follow the river. For significant terrain you can color the connecting line accordingly, say black if the going is mountainous, blue for a river, etc.

Solving the Mapping Problem​

For RPGs, we can think of magical mapmaking devices easily enough.
  • Perhaps one is a large flat piece of material that draws a map of the terrain of the area around you (you're in the middle). It would be blocked by stone underground.
  • Another device could draw a map on paper or vellum as you travel.
  • Another would track the exact distance you travel, whether by foot, horse, or boat.
  • Another would make a map of where you’ve been, so that you can get back to your starting point.
I suppose we could say that “maps” can include connections, directions, timings, landmarks, distances, or all roads in scale (typical modern map).

There are lots of possible missions in hiring adventurers to make maps. After all, isn't exploring one of the fundamental activities in RPGs? Mapmaking is a good excuse to get player characters into overland adventures rather than dungeoneering. There might be skills that one of the party must know in order to make a map that corresponds well to the actual area. The area may be occupied by hostiles, or by strange encounters.

Your turn: Have you made an adventure out of hiring the adventurers to make maps (whether based on distance or travel time)?

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

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It's been a while, but I'm pretty sure German highway signage still works this way. You don't take a highway, in a direction. You go to Nurnberg. Then to Ingolstadt. Then to Muenchen.
Sorry to disappoint, but our highways do have numbers (e.g. the one from Ingolstadt to München is the A9 = Autobahn 9), which frequently get referenced. You are right, though, that places continue to have relevance when giving directions for travel (and when thinking about them).
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I have no problem with having an option for accurate maps because of magic. If you can see from high above via either flight (via ship, creature or spell) you're going to have a very different perspective.

On the other hand, having a map that just shows distances between travelled locations is kind of cool if you want to go to that much trouble. Personally I just make big maps for myself and share sections with my PCs because I'm lazy. :)


I'd say that there are several factors being mixed up in the original post. That maps can show the distance between locations, the direction between places, and the shape of the territory. The map that shows the real structure of the world as the one at the top of the nation with the provenances shows these three. However the one of the right could be redone to not show the direction as well as distance, however it doesn't show the territory shape.

However the one that is marked as modern, is very much like the Roman maps, that where produced in long strips, and showed travel time and distance between places.

Maps exist to tell a story, the question comes what story is being told. Also it depends on the extent of the area being mapped. Historically local area maps where quiet common in history (such as a town, or a set of fields), this was mainly around land ownership, rent payment and inheritance. The 16th century world map is accurate - to tell the theological truth of the world being centred upon Jerusalem and how the lands relate to it. Though at the same time there where very accurate coastal maps used by sailors.

So again it comes down to what we want to do with the map, for most rpg settings we need a map that puts things in the right place and in the right direction. So we use a modern style of map, rather than one that is there to tell a different story.


...I thought that was Westeros.
To be fair Westeros is England + an enlarged Ireland glued together and then mirrored.

One thing to keep in mind is that maps have different uses and they change over time and with technology.
Many maps were only intended to show what exists and not for actual navigation. Those are the picture book maps with illustrations but way off proportions.
I am not totally sure, but I do not think that maps were intended to be used to navigate on land. If you want to go somewhere on land you followed the road or river to your next stop. So the only thing you needed to know was which towns you had to visit in order.
And for zoning purposes you placed physical markers with a increasingly elaborate system.
Maps for navigation were at first only for coastal and later sea travel and could get quite accurate and detailed, especially as the importance of sea travel increased in the age of sail. So much that maps were often considered state secrets.
Still, keep in mind that a map isn't either completely accurate or completely i accurate, but the accuracy decreases the further away you get from where the original creator lived, unless they have a very good system to transport and store information so that they can make accurate maps from faraway lands.
So when arriving in a foreign country it might be a good idea to occasionally get a new map.

Detailed land maps only came later once kingdoms centralized and mathematics and measurment instruments increased (and sometimes had disappointing results as the first detailed maps of France apparently showed that the country was 1/3 smaller than what tve king thought).
With such detailed maps zoning also stopped relying on physical markers and could be done by mapping.
This made also overland travel apart from roads much easier (not that many people wanted to do that, but it could be a shortcut when you are in a hurry).

Later as cannons started to dominate warfare elevation became more important. It wasn't enough to know that there was a middle sized hill, no generals wanted to know exactly which hill is higher and how steep they are. So elevation lines got added to at least military maps.

And as the maps became more accurate the question of projection came up. While not a problem for local maps, larger maps had the problem that you cant accurately represent the round earth on a flat piece of paper. So some inaccuracy had to be accepted. Most commonly maps use a mercator projection. Meaning the size of land is distorted, but you can draw a straight line between two points on the map and actually arrive where you intend to go by following that line.
Other map types exist where the sizes are correct, but the shortest path between two points on the map would be a curve.
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This is all very interesting, but everyone is ignoring the real reason why maps were invented in the first place:

"Here Be Dragons".

One addition I made in my Eberron is a conspicuous absence of maps. House Lyrandar and house Orien have been competing friendly sharing the transportation business between them for centuries. They have the weight and interest to keep those maps a carefully guarded house secret. They have been purposefully offering transportation at a low enough price to key actors (Galifar Kingdom, notably) that the incentive not to rely on them and make a competing cartography effort was inefficient. You want to go from Sharn to Wroat? You have the Lightning Rail, or the Orien Coach, or a Lyrandar air galleon... or you can know that it's vaguely along the road north and ask for direction in each village, good luck with that.

This lack of maps tells a story, as well. The alternative is a very exactly mapped world, not unlike ours, given the tech level of Khorvaire.

I love this. Might be this is another element missing from my prior attempt at a 5E sandbox hexcrawl— the default rules and assumptions in 5E kinda kill the mystery of exploration

Hand of Evil

One of my favorite things to do, maps made by different races. Distance to a dwarf was in a different measurement than humans and elves and landmarks were more exploitable. Elves, tend to focus on beauty, humans the tallest thing they could see.

You also have to think about 'change'. If there is a large settlement in the area, roads will be built for logging and getting to new places. Unified road signs and their location on the road did not get started until the car got invented, before that, think it was only Roman that had them.

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