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.

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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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Hussar

Legend
An Arab cartographer (I do not know his name) heard that "The Nile flows down to the sea" so that is how he oriented his map.
North is at the bottom.

Heh. Yes I am perfectly aware that Middle Ages and even renaissance cartographers put North in various orientations.

But again this gets back to my first point. Is your map meant as an “in world” artefact that the characters would be looking at or is it a game piece where accuratecy and ease of use are probably more important?

A map where North is not at the top is a bit confusing to use when you are trying to describe things to players for example. Doubly so in a VTT environment where everyone constantly has to reorient their comments if talking about directions.

Obviously it’s not advanced calculus, but it can get confusing.
 

DrunkonDuty

he/him
The campaign idea, getting the PCs to work as cartographers, reminds me of a tale I read. (I can't remember the title of the history book but it was something like The Making of France.)

During the reign of, I think it was Louis XV so sometime in the early 1700's, it was decided that the government needed better maps of the country. They sent out a pair of surveyors. I think I have this right, 1 pair of guys to map all of France. o_O Fast forward a few months and the surveyors are working somewhere out in the countryside when the local yokels, seeing these 2 men standing on a hill side surveying. Looking at the "weird, unnatural" surveyor's tools, they decide that the surveyors must be witches and set on them with torches and pitchforks, killing one of them.

Another danger inherent to cartographers: maps are vital to invading armies. Countries jealously guarded their own maps and considered people making maps of their country to be spies and dealt with them very harshly.

People who travelled regularly, especially merchants and sea captains, would have their own maps too of course. Maps they would have literally drawn themselves, or inherited. These were prize possessions. Things well worth stealing.
 

Hand of Evil

Adventurer
Also, maps were very well guarded, trade routes were a highly prizes secret for goods and knowledge. So, some may lead a party 'off the map.' Map icons become important, telling readers what to expect.
 

Danny Prescott

Explorer
I would have expected some pictures of medieval maps...

Anyway, we vastly overestimate the usefulness of maps until way later in history then what D&D uses at base.
Try navigating to this (thats England if you can't recognize it)
matthew-paris-map-c02049-04.jpg

And that assumes you even have a map.
Maps like the one above are works of art and not handed out to some adventurers. If they can procure any kind of map it will be even less accurate and useful to use it for actual navigation.
Later in history in the Age of Sail maps became much more important and accurate. But also closely guarded secrets.

Navigation was done going by landmarks. Town A, then town B, then town C.
If you go into the wilderness things get way harder. If you are lucky you have landmarks like keep the mountain on your right till you get to the lake.
If you do not have luck you only have time and direction like 3 days towards the rising sun.
The latter method is especially inaccurate. One day of heavy rainfall or running away for a few hours from an angry dire bear and your whole plan is screwed up and in the worst case you are lost.

Now D&D of course ignores all of that. Even in exploration themed campaigns the PCs always know exactly where they are and where they are going (most likely on a 100% accurate hex map), meaning they will never need a local guide or having to worry about finding the dungeon they are looking for and thus have to stock up on supplies for a longer search (if you would need supplies in D&D anyway)
Looking at that map image suggests to me that in the 12th century (or whenever) the British mainland was actually the shape of an adolescent Geiger-designed Alien.. (which I've always suspected).
It also hints at population and political power being prisms through which pre-modern societies view thier geography. I live in the tiny bit squeezed in between the coast of North Wales and Western Scotland, which had few settlements and little bearing on national politics and is here represented about 1/3rd scale.
I've also seen maps of the same region recreated from Norse/Viking trading settlements which orient East at the top and West the bottom - I agree that messing with the familiar North/South orientation could be confusing, but it could make an interesting (if short lived) challenge in terms of PC's reading a captured map etc.
 

Hussar

Legend
Looking at that map image suggests to me that in the 12th century (or whenever) the British mainland was actually the shape of an adolescent Geiger-designed Alien.. (which I've always suspected).
It also hints at population and political power being prisms through which pre-modern societies view thier geography. I live in the tiny bit squeezed in between the coast of North Wales and Western Scotland, which had few settlements and little bearing on national politics and is here represented about 1/3rd scale.
I've also seen maps of the same region recreated from Norse/Viking trading settlements which orient East at the top and West the bottom - I agree that messing with the familiar North/South orientation could be confusing, but it could make an interesting (if short lived) challenge in terms of PC's reading a captured map etc.
That's the point I was raising earlier. Is the map you're using meant as something the characters are directly seeing or is it meant as a "game board" (for lack of a better term) where precision and whatnot is more important?

if it's the former, I remember seeing some sort of Aztec or Mayan (was a very long time ago, so, I don't exactly remember) map that was all just pictograms. Almost more like what we would consider written out directions than an actual map. Totally cool, very evocative and all that, but absolutely useless as a game level map. :D
 

jasper

Rotten DM
Have seen some copies of medieval maps, those are great freaking props. But totally useless if I am creating a map of the kingdom. While I don't want something detailed as Google maps, I at least want 1 mile per hex on the general map, and more detail as necessary.
 

Hussar

Legend
Have seen some copies of medieval maps, those are great freaking props. But totally useless if I am creating a map of the kingdom. While I don't want something detailed as Google maps, I at least want 1 mile per hex on the general map, and more detail as necessary.
Exactly. It's always a bit of tension between art and function. Really starts to hit in when making adventure maps too. Tiny rooms syndrome in dungeons is such a massive PITA, but, if every corridor is 10 feet wide and every room is 1500 square feet, it gets a bit ... boring.
 

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