Thursday, November 17, 2022

Dreaming Dromedaries

So, let's talk camels for a minute. For fun.

Per I3: Pharaoh, the players are given the following equipment (in addition to their normal gear):

Enough water for the entire party to travel in the desert for seven days (10,000 gp weight).

Three large tents with poles, 10 feet x 20 feet in size, weighing 4,000 gp each. They require four turns (40 minutes) to set up or take down.

One Writ of Authority granting permission to be in the Desert of Desolation. It weighs 1 gp.

Ten bundles of firewood weighting 20 lbs. (200 gp weight) each. One bundle provides one night's fire.

One old map of a pyramid. It weighs 1 gp.


2,000 sp for expenses.

Two bags containing food. One bag contains one week's standard ration [sic] weighing 20 lbs. (200 gp weight) while the other contains two weeks' iron rations weighing 15 lbs. (150 gp weight). 

Their choice of either a camel or a draft horse.
Earlier in the "prologue" section, the adventure is explicit that the party's escort provides them with "enough water for their party, including their pack animals, to travel in the desert for seven days." Each player is thus allowed to choose either a camel (presumably a dromedary, given the Arabian setting of the adventures) or a draft horse. Here are the movement rates given for both animal choices:

Camel (under 400# load): 21"
Camel (under 500# load): 15"
Camel (under 600# load): 9"
Draft Horse (under 400# load): 18"
Draft Horse (under 650# load): 9"

Per the adventure module, a character with a movement rate of 12" can cross one hex per two hours, and all movement should be adjusted accordingly (for example, a character with 6" movement takes four hours to cross one hex). Each hex is two miles across, so: one mile per hour at standard, unburdened (12") walking rate...with ten hours being listed as the normal limit of walking, that's 10 miles (5 hexes) per day.

This is the same rate given for Very Rugged terrain in the DMG (page 58), at least for a "movement afoot." It doesn't however, jibe with the mounted movement rates...but we'll get to that in a sec. Because the first question is:


Let's start with water: the most important factor in desert survival. How much water does a human need to survive? Well, Ye Old Internets tell me that 3L of water per person per day is pretty much standard for desert survival. Since the party is being supplied with 7 days worth, that means 21L per person, weighing 21kg...about 46 pounds

Of course, horses need water, too: about 5 to 10 gallons per day. Since it's desert, and the horse is working, we could go with TEN, but let's just take the average (7.5). That's a bit more than 28L, so for a week's worth you're talking 199kg worth...nearly 439#. You're going to force the horse to carry almost 500 pounds of water, plus an armored rider, plus food?


You know how much water a camel needs to carry for a week? Zero. Camels can survive up to 15 days without water. Assuming the camels were "gassed" up ahead of time, a seven day stretch is no issue for your standard dromedary. 

And how fast are they? Well, Arabian "baggage camels" are capable of carrying 200kg of weight up to 40 miles per day...and I assume this over desert, as that's the terrain for which they've been adapted. 

Horses hooves, meanwhile, are not suitable for desert sands AT ALL and will be slower then camels regardless of load and hydration; stumbling and leg-breaking is a major consideration if trying to push a horse for "speed" in terrain conditions like that posed by the Desert of Desolation.

SO...dromedary only. 440# of load weight (including rider), 20 hexes per day. Besides our 50# of water (and a hope and a prayer that the party can find an oasis area within 7-10 days), let's look at that OTHER gear we're carrying...we'll consider a party of SEVEN characters:

Food for marching soldiers is 3# per day. Until further notice, that's our "iron ration" weight. This, of course, matches the 30 coin weight given for iron rations in the DMG (p.225) if one assumes this is a daily amount. SO for each character, two weeks of iron rations = 42#...a little more than the 15 estimated in the adventure. Let's forget the "standard" rations completely.

Food for camels: it took me a while to find this, but it appears that a camel can "thrive" on just 5kg (11#) of dry feed per day. Assuming ten days (about the longest a waterless dromedary can travel while maintaining work level), that means 110# of feed. 

Tents are tougher. My internet tells me that a traditional Moroccan camping tent (camel and goat hair) of the dimensions listed will accommodate 17-19 people...which sounds quite large for a party of six to eight PCs. Until you realize that you also have to shelter the camels, especially during a sudden sandstorm. Maybe two would be enough (men's and women's). 40# each, however, sounds extremely optimistic. An ultralight, modern tent of the same dimensions has a carry weight of 106#. Can we just say 110# for the sake of simplicity? Sure, let's do that.

[***EDIT: Faoladh just pointed out (in the comments) that the original text listed tent weight at 400#, not 40#. That makes a SUBSTANTIAL difference to the calculations below and (if accurate) will limit the party to WALKING (rather than riding) until they can purchase/steal additional camels***]

Firewood is a bit easier. While rate of burn really depends on type and density of wood (and is generally measured in length), this web site gives some simple numbers that are effective: a "bundle" of prepared firewood weighs about 20-27#, will burn for an hour, and should be enough to cook a fast, easy meal (probably the only type that can be cooked on the hardtack/field rations PCs are carrying). I can roll with that, rather than make the PCs collect and dry camel dung.

Finally: 2000 silver pieces for each PC? Ignoring for the moment that "standard" D&D would account this as 200# weight, requiring several large sacks to load (each!)...ignoring that for a second, why would the local ruler would send good silver out into a cursed, magical desert on a probably suicide run? Just what are the characters supposed to buy with this expense money?

Well, anyway...when researching the medieval Middle East for my Five Ancient Kingdoms game, I did some research on the ancient coinage of the region. The silver dihram weighed 2.975g, giving about 150 dihrams to the pound. 2000 dihrams would thus weigh only 13.3#...far more reasonable (though still wondering why His Majesty would want to send silver out into the desert sands on camelback). 

And speaking of camels: 600 Greek drachma seems to have been about the right price for a camel "back in the day." The drachma was larger than the dihram (4.5g of silver), giving the replacement price of a dromedary something in the neighborhood of 908 dihram. Giving each PC enough money to buy two replacement mounts? Still seems overly about 500 silver per character (3,500 total for a party of seven), which is just a bit more than a three pound bag each. Keep those camels safe! Your lives depend on it!


322# of water + 294# of rations + 770# of feed + 220# of tents + 200# of firewood + 23# of silver = 1829# of gear.

Divided by seven camels = an average load of 261#. Each camel would thus be able to carry approximately 178# of additional weight (which should include 6#-8# worth of saddle and tack). Not much wiggle room there, especially if the party includes a lot of Big Boys (my height/weight tables are based on character species and character strength...fighters with exceptional strength are heavy). 

This is the logistics game which, in a forbidding desert wilderness, is a game of survival...even without factoring in dust diggers and bandits and purple worms. Figuring out how to balance the load/gear between party members is important...but FORTUNATELY with an updated movement rate (20 hexes instead of 6-7!) the party should be able to reach an oasis or two within four or five days, depending on how much time they spend exploring various adventure sites along the way. And if they're SMART they'll pick up extra dromedaries from the first camel merchant they come across, extending their range and ability to carry treasure/spoils.

But no horses please. And I really, really don't know what to think of the Symbayan "air lancers" and their pegasi. 

"Ship of the Desert?" Yeah. Absolutely.


  1. I don't have the module to check, but you listed the tents as weighing 4,000 GP each, or 400#, which seems reasonable.

    1. Ha! You're absolutely right! Misplaced a zero there.

      Four times the weight of a modern tent the same size? That's rough.

      Refactoring the tent with a 400# weight makes it impossible for the camels to carry riders...even if you limit yourself to only ONE tent. The best you can do is have the camels carry the PCs gear (armor, weapons, etc.), enabling them to move at 12" (10 miles per day).

      However, that's hardly an optimal speed for traveling the desert...getting lost could prove decidedly fatal!

      Probably need to cut back on food, water, and firewood (no more than a week's worth of each), limit yourselves to a single tent, and press on as fast as you can till you can buy/steal some more camels.

  2. Arabian horses were and are used in the desert though

    1. Yes...but they had (and have) a very different role than camels.

  3. Ha! What a great post.

    Encumbrance and resource management really is what drives the game and is perhaps the biggest sub-system difference between what Alexis Smolensk might call 'kiddie D&D' and 'real D&D'.

    Wasn't there a long thread at Age of Dusk (PoN's blog) on this in the context ofnthe dungeon in the last couple of months?

    Logistics and encumbrance are proper fun killers for a lot of folks and I think that it is no accident that a lot of modern games and even OSR house rules lighten the burden of it by moving to a slots or item system. Even the Appendix N source material was vague about these aspects for Fafhrd & Gray Mouser or Cugel.

    Back in the day I always liked the logistics planning as I was a boy scout and had some context of expeditions, but I was definitely in the minority in my group.

    In the context of these modules, 7d rations and water is really travelling no more than 3-4d between oasis, especially if there's a realistic risk of getting lost or storm-bound.

    AD&D does allow you to nerf these effects through magic. Bags of Holding, Create Water and Create Food & Water are all likely to be available to the party with a 5th level cleric.

    1. Oh, are inspiring a whole post the subject of "fun killing" mechanics. Let me see if I've already addressed this issue in a prior post.
      ; )

  4. A non-RPG comment. Lack of detail or hand-waving encumbrance (& fatigue) is a flaw in a lot of computer and console games. Nintendo's Breath of the Wild is an immense game, probably the best I've ever played, but where it falls down is a Lack of robust systems for both encumbrance and fatigue/rest. The easiest thing to do would be to introduce these as hard or very hard modes. They'd have more influence on game difficulty than changing save check points in that they'd force the player into more decisions on planning and resourcing main quest and side quest goals.

    1. Interesting. I don't play CRPGs these days, but I played a lot of "Bards Tale" back in high school and its encumbrance system was one of the most limiting (8 equipment slots per person)...though it did not calc treasure weight.

      But aren't CRPGs more akin to the popcorn movie? Something fun to be experienced for a short time, fridge logic ignored, and then forget about later? I remember playing the first "Mass Effect" game, and I just ran through the whole thing with a shotgun, blasting baddies at close range, and not giving a rip...and it was enjoyable.

      For tabletop, I prefer (these days) a deeper experience.

    2. RE: popcorn CRPGs

      It's sad that this is frequently the case, since computers (even old ones) have the ability to simulate some really complex stuff. The most complicated RPG rules should be trivial to even and old PC.

      As for PC games in general, Dwarf Fortress is preposterously complicated, I myself never even attempted playing it.

  5. In David Lean's film, Lawrence of Arabia, the Arabs do not do raids with tents. They dress warmly and ride at night, sleeping during the day. Comment?

    1. I own Lawrence of Arabia and have watched it multiple times, but not for 20 years. I considered pulling it out and rewatching it (for this post) but then thought, “maybe I should walk to the library three blocks from my house and just check out some good reference books.”

      Except, instead I punted and just spent a couple hours doing google searches.

      Lawrence of Arabia is one of those films I need to show the kids anyway. My wife is always moaning and groaning that I want to watch “old” films “all the time.” Bitched about having the kids watch Karlov’s Frankenstein on Halloween (and the follow-up Bride). I don’t know…constant struggle around my home sometimes.

    2. RE: old films

      Just tell her Titanic was 25 years ago, that should shut her up

    3. Doubtful. First off, she's seen it. My wife's not a person very interested in watching films more than once, so that argument wouldn't hold much water.

      But secondly, and more importantly, she's just not a person who gets "shut up." Oh, she'll listen to others (assuming they're making an intelligent or compelling argument) but she's going to express her self...usually in a well-reasoned (if acid) response. Unlike me, she's not a person to bite her tongue...something about the Sagittarius rising sign, perhaps.
      ; )

  6. Medium weight camelhair cloth is 0.263 kg per square meter; we can double this and assume 0.526 kg = 1 square meter of cloth.

    According to this page (link), a cylinder tent that's 4 meters in diameter and 2.1 meters high would have a surface area of 44 square meters.

    That should weigh 23.15 kg., or 51.87 lbs.

    I'm really not up to do the calculation for the size of tent you've described, nor do I care to suggest how much the poles should weigh. But there's the data if you want it.

    1. Yeah, fabric weight is measured in some sort of “gsm” (grams per meter maybe?) thing that I’m not familiar with. The pole weight is, I imagine, the bulk of the weight.

      Nomads travel, but there’s a difference between portable shelters and more permanent homes. Historical observers are generally not so much interested in logistical considerations when documenting things, but you’d think that generations of a culture would have refined the camel-portable pack-shelter to a manageable art, right?

      Still…it ain’t necessarily Bedouins supplying shelters in these modules.
      ; )

    2. Modern lightweight tent canvas might be 260gsm, heavyweight is 340+. It's incredibly bulky. To a first approximation, you might think poles are a similar weight, and for the tent at that link you'd need a 5m long center pole, which is pretty awkward to carry on your camels - more likely a couple of 2.5m poles and a metal sleeve to join them, or use a different tent design. Ropes are modestly bulky, and the ironmongery is also quite heavy to keep a tent that size upright in high winds and poor footing.

    3. Excellent info. Thank you!

  7. Literally Just read Skeletons in the ZAhara by Dean King which goes over this stuff AND is an amazing source read for desert adventure... US sailors in the 1815 era taken prisoner by arabs in The Western Sahara and forced into slavery living the camel nomad life...

    1. I will have to check it out. Thanks for the reference!