Wednesday, April 3, 2019

It Doesn't Have to be Big

Here's something I've been thinking about thanks to these recent posts over at Monsters and Manuals. No, it has nothing to do with this month's A to Z blog challenge (you can find my latest post for that here).

Somewhere, waaaay in the way back past, I remember learning in some history class or other that until relatively recently (maybe the last century or two?) the vast majority of human beings lived the entirety of their lives within a ten mile radius of the place of their birth.

Or something like that...I don't remember the exact quote (and I really am feeling lazy today, as I mentioned in my A-Z post). But while I thought to myself (at the time) sure, that makes sense, I never really considered the implication for my Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. Because, hey! This is D&D we're talking about! People wander all over hill and yon! They're like Conan! They travel to The Isle of Dread! Or whatever!

But that doesn't have to be the case. I mean, I really need to get out of my 21st century mindset here. Yes, I have personally traveled thousands and thousands of miles in my life. I've been as far west as Japan, as far east as the Czech Republic, and as far south as Chile-Argentina-Paraguay (I'd have to look at a globe to see which city is the closest to the pole...and I'm feeling lazy, remember?). But within my own major metropolitan city? There are definitely areas and neighborhoods within ten miles of my home that I've left unexplored over the decades I've lived here. And without my access to modern transportation (buses, bikes, cars), I probably would have explored even less.

And what if I was living here five or six hundred years ago, when this was still just "seven hill" region with multiple tribes (towns) of indigenous people divided up with miles of wetland, thick forest, and mountain.

[heck, if I wanted to walk a bit and see a volcano, Mt. Rainier is less than 100 miles from where I live. Per my map of Middle Earth, that's a shorter distance than traveling from the Shire to Rivendell (imagine Mt. Doom smack in the center of Eriador!)!]

Given a truly unsettled area with a low population density, one really wouldn't need much territory to detail a huge amount of adventure. We've been watching this show on the History channel Lost Gold of World War II (because it's about treasure hunting and WW2, both subjects being right in my son's wheelhouse), and it's fascinating to watch just how difficult it can be to find specific sites (like a filled in mine of treasure) in an undeveloped wilderness, even when you know the general location (in this case, a specific mountain in the Philippines). Such secrets can stay buried for long, long periods of time...even from people living right down the hill.

Oh, sure, we like the idea of "traveling to far off lands" but it's not especially needed...and "far off" is really just a matter of perspective. Man, just trying to get to eastern Washington on horseback (let alone on foot) would be a hell of a trek with the Cascade mountain range between my region and the "Inland Empire." Hell, if only our region was a little warmer, I could easily set the jungles of "the Forbidden City" out on the Olympic's still a pretty dense rainforest out there.

[maybe after a century or two of global warming]

Yeah, how much space do you really need? How many baronies could be carved out of a 10 or 20 or 50 mile radius? How many kingdoms? Washington State's about the size of Great Britain, south of Scotland. Seems to me that land had several rival monarchs at one time. I suppose your campaign setting only really needs to be as big as the Known World or Oerth if you have easy access to flying transportation (airships, griffon mounts, whatever).

Wasn't Terry Brooks's Shanarra series all set within the boundaries of post-apocalyptic Washington State? I'm sure I read that somewhere (I haven't read any of those novels myself, so someone will need to explain that to me). Seems like a pretty good idea for a D&D campaign setting.

Then again, Karameikos is about the same size as Washington State, too...

What scale hex map should I use?


  1. I want to write a blog post about the same topic just to use the title "Size Doesn't Matter".

  2. The story about people living within a few miles of their birthplace is largely based on old evidence that has been revised. Even early medieval serfs were often traded, sold or made to migrate. Serfs would marry across villages with their lords permission. Certainly they would have gone on pilgrimage, sometimes hundreds of miles away, and may not have come back.

    But the virtue and value of seeing the world was largely absent for most of the time between 500 and 1500. Security was more valuable than excitement or mobility.

    This is fine for D&D by the way. Even the most extravagant setting has only a small percentage of people who are adventurers. 98% of everyone is either a commoner, local noble or local religious figure, which is not too different from actual history.

    Looking at the demographics in the 14th and 15th centuries, Europe was incredibly depopulated by the plague and little ice age. Having a 50 mile journey to a market town would be reasonable, even if in most of the Middle Ages it would have been more like 15 miles at the most.

    So your instincts about small maps are correct I think, but in my opinion you should keep the population low as well to keep things feeling very wild. I do a 240 x 180 mile map with 12 castles. One hex could have several villages while the next one would have none. Your mileage may vary.

    1. Re-reading "The Year 1000" right now- I'll have to take a look on the 'radius' of most rural folks' lives, I think it is discussed there, as well...

  3. I've seen a lot of Pacific Northwest as setting campaigns- this is far and away my favorite:

    1. Ha! That's pretty awesome. Thanks for sharing, Eric!