Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Breaking Camp - The Best Part of the Day

UPDATE:  This post has been updated under the title, 'Breaking Camp,' and included in the recently released book, How to Play a Character & Other Essaysavailable for purchase from the Lulu marketplace.

I can remember a fishing trip with my father when I was a young teen into the mountains, a place called Abraham Lake. The lake is really only a wide, deep part of the Athabaska River, the same that flows north through Alberta to join the Peace River, that becomes the Slave river before it flows into Great Slave Lake, and ultimately across the Northwest Territories as the Mackenzie river. But none of that is important right now. I include it only because I’ve always been enamoured with that sort of thing, even when I was very young ... that the water flowing past me at this moment went this far and to this place. But I’ll restrain myself and continue.

Abraham Lake in the late month of May is some 60 miles in length and exists as a ribbon between a solid rock wall and a wide sand flat about a mile in width. The road ends at the edge of the sand flat, and if you don’t want to break the law (my father is a stickler about these things, and so am I) you carry what you need across the sand flat the mile or so to the lake. Except that you expressly do not carry it right up to the banks of the lake, for good reason.

The sand is rippled and hard, and the ridges can be felt even through the soles of hiking boots. The elevation is above 5,000 feet and in May the weather is still cold.

You carry the tent and the stove, your goods and your tools across the sand. To fish the lake, you need a flat bottom boat, and you need to haul this too. You stop and make camp at least two hundred yards from the Lake. This is because, in May, the snow is starting to melt in the mountains above the lake, and the water level of the lake is steadily rising. The sand flat is not quite level ... but it is level enough that the lake swells some 50 to 75 yards every 12 hours.

Thus, the distance you must walk to get water to wash at night is a lot less in the morning.

We were there for the weekend, and we moved our camp three times. The memory of doing that struck me first thing when I hit upon the point of this post – that being, the problems and tribulations of breaking camp, with some notes about how much time it’s likely to take.

Now, most of this is straight off the top of my head. And I haven’t done great amounts of research on every feature, so if I am grossly wrong and the gentle reader thinks so, pipe up. But it seems to me that a lot of things are going to take quite some time ... and that these things are almost always ignored.

For example, horses. I can remember that prior to horseriding lessons – not taken by me, but by a girl I knew – the time that an arriving student was expected to take was 20 minutes before the riding could begin. I can’t say all that this involved; the very least would have to include saddling the animal, arranging the harness, setting the bit in the animal’s mouth, an awareness for any irregularities that might indicate a parasitic infestation or a disease ... which then might mean the animal cannot be ridden at all, or that something should be done at once. When was the last time in your campaign a cleric expended a cure light wounds spell first thing in the morning because a horse's leg was sprained?  Surely the likelihood of this goes up when there's more people in the party, and therefore more horses.

Plus the reference for 20 minutes assumes the horse is in the stable.  What if it has been a windy night and one, or all of the horses have broken free, and must be tracked down?  Ever happen in your campaign?  A horse getting away was not all that uncommon.  Add to it the wear and tear on the saddle, harness and bit - because they aren't hung neatly in a barn somewhere - and the repairs that need to be made that morning because it wasn't noticed the night before, we're talking potentially more time.  It would only take one party member having to jury-rig the bridle one morning to slow up everyone.

Oh, and there's watering and feeding the horses.  If the horse has been kept sheltered all night in an arroyo, it hasn't been out in the field eating, has it?  Seems to me this is going to take time.  Someone has to fetch water ... and no only for the horses, but for anyone in the party who wants to wash, or for cleaning the cooking utensils.

Yes, cooking.  When camping, we used to cook on a Coleman stove; somewhat heavy, but light enough to pack and very effective.  A party doesn't need to cook a breakfast meal, but cold food in the medieval period wasn't especially healthy.  Bread was regularly filled with little nasties, as was the meat, and cooking was a way of keeping a party healthier.

It takes 10 minutes to bring a fire to a place where it will cook food, and during that time preparations can be made.  If you will accept 15 minutes to cook the food (5 or 10 if you're not particular), and 10 minutes to eat the food, wash the dishes in the water someone has fetched, plus another 10 minutes to pack all the cooking equipment up and dig out the fire (depending on what environment you're in), someone in the party is going to spend at least a half an hour doing nothing but being the cook.

And it won't be one of the spellcasters ... at least, not if the day before was spent in battle.  They'll be memorizing.  I have a rule that for each spell used, the caster must - after resting - spend 15 minutes per spell level regaining the use of the spell.  A 5th level spell can therefore take an hour and a quarter.  I recognize that a lot of readers don't use spell memorization; I, however, am a traditional guy.  It is a very effective way to limit the use of magic, particularly in the outdoors, and for playability reasons I'm not likely to toss it and give spellcasters even more influence over my campaign.  They have enough, thank you.  At any rate, while someone else is cooking and getting the water and making small repairs (not just the harnesses, but of anything that might be found to be damaged), the spellcasters will be praying and studying.

Which is okay.  They can do that while the fighters are getting their armor on.  I've seen estimates for putting on full plate that range from 4 to 40 minutes ... with the shorter time presuming that help is provided.  I won't settle on a number - some show-off will jump in and tell me how I'm wrong, so what's the point?  If people want to give a number, I'll sit back and appreciate it.  In any event, we're talking about some time spent here, that isn't spent taking down the tent.

A square tent of the sort typically seen in most cheesy depictions of the middle ages is about 8 feet in diameter and would take at least 15-25 minutes to empty out, pull down, fold and wrap in a manner that it could be easily unwrapped the following night.  it will make a fairly substantial package, since it would be made of canvas, and would possibly fit on someone's horse ... provided that character's other equipment was dispersed on someone else's horse.  Who gets to carry the tent today, and forgo access to their more delicate equipment?

Very well.  Along with ablutions, which are in any case optional (do your disease rates increase without washing, or are they flat numbers based on no one doing so in the medieval period?), there's always the occasional bit of respect/religious action given to the gods.  A quick prayer, a carpet that needs unfolding for said prayer, the rolling up of said carpet again ... yes, perhaps its only 5 minutes, but in most religions its not only the clerics who are expected to pray.  But most players are woeful athiests, like their DM, so there's usually no reprecussions for disrespect.
So, the water has returned and you water the animals and wash down anything that needs to be washed.  All the equipment used for breakfast, sleeping, waking, changing clothes and so on is steadily repacked.  The order inside backpacks is carefully managed, bedrolls are rolled, spellbooks are placed back in their metal boxes under lock and key, weapons are rehung into their places on the mounts and on the character's own bodies.

Getting dressed for me, real world, is a rush whirlwind that lasts 13 minutes every morning.  The actual putting on clothes time, plus gathering things I'll need at the office, is 6 minutes.  Somehow, I think it takes longer if you have to put on three belts, hang weapons all over your body, wrap your clothing around your special parts and tie everything (not just your shoes), prepare for heavy weather, fit your belt pouch carefully into its place and so on.  It must take everyone at least 20 minutes just to get up to the status of formidable destroyer of monsters ... and of course, in D&D, no one ever forgets anything.  The third dagger on the second belt is always in its place, always, without fail, and the DM never says, "Oh, you forgot to put it there today.  Remember, you were using it yesterday to pick the pits out of the plums you were eating, and before you crashed you tossed it in the back pack by your bedroll so it would stay dry.  It's still there, safe and sound, 20 feet from where you're standing right now."

This never happens.

Another consideration, while everyone else is gathering up all the bits and pieces from last night's debauchery (three plums each and chili peppers in the beans, hoo boy, what a party!), someone might want to get the party's bearings, make some notes about where north is and the angle between north and that distant hill top being used as a reference bench, consult a map or two.  This stuff takes time.  Not only that, while we pick up the camp, we don't dare start through this forest or along this mountain track without someone doing a little scouting ahead, to save time.  So that's potentially an hour to start out, ascertain what the best path is from here, and head back - probably best done by the ranger who eschews armor (smart lad!), since he takes less time to get ready.

While he's out in about then, the last note I'll make goes back to the gathering of things together.  There's always one more thing to do.  It may be bottled things sitting in the nearby river so they'll keep cold, or berries and nuts to be gathered for the long day's travel, or herbs that are needed for a poltice or two on a bad scratch (saving the spells - and 15 minutes work memorizing - for worse things), ropes used to tie back inconvenient branches, strings used to wrap together bundles of branches to help form a wind-break, collapsible baskets or sacks filled with dirt to weigh down the tents on a windy night, etcetera.

The process of breaking down a camp - along with putting one up - is an annoying, tedious process, something the characters go through every day and which gets very little recognition as a plot point in the game.  It is as though the world stops for two, two and a half hours, since that is never the moment the monster attacks, nothing ever gets left behind at the previous camp and nothing ever goes wrong.

Comforting to know that as soon as we get up in the morning, we live in a perfect world.  At least, until we start moving again.


R said...

I love all your posts that are like this one and hate all your posts that aren't like this one.

Andrew said...

Love this post as well and am forwarding as an FYI to my players.

bighara said...

You forgot the inevitable "We hide all traces that we camped here so we won't be followed." factor. ;-)

Great post. I tend to assume most of the things you mentioned get done, but that the party doesn't actually get underway until mid-to-late morning. Although now I'm imagining a roll to see if some minor mishap/delay occurs. hmm...

Alexis said...

Shit, R, you're not going to compare me to Glenn Beck too, are you? For the record, I answered you in the last post, and in the comments section. Sheesh.

Thanks fellas for the praise. It sounded like a good post in my head as soon as I thought of it.

Symeon Kokolas said...

tl;dr version: yes, you are right.

So this looks like 1h45m to 2 hours worth of work for each person in addition to group efforts like cooking, tending animals, etc. Having been in boy scouts for many years, I can confirm your estimates as reasonably accurate for an experienced and motivated group. Add in exhausted spellcasters, inexperienced people, petty arguments or crucial repairs and breaking camp might not happen until noon.

This makes 8 hours about the longest a group could expect to travel in a day if they are going to take rest breaks, scout, etc. A hard march might run 12 hours, but you'll be skipping a lot of comforts to do so and you will be more vulnerable both in travel and while in camp. A double march is still possible but you'll be dead tired, hungry, and sleeping on the ground wherever the party happened to stop. I hope you don't get guard duty.

For people with more generous magical object rules (such as 3rd ed.), consider that since so much of a person's time is tied up in these activities while traveling, devices to streamline the process are highly likely to be developed and sold. If I played in such a world and my DM imposed realistic travel rules, I'd be hunting for an instant tent and a portable shower/water source before I bothered looking for magical weapons.

This is also a place where having a porter or hired hand would be useful (and was common for traveling knights, merchants, etc.), freeing up more time for the character to check their equipment, exercise, etc. They won't fight for you, but they save you an hour or three of work every day. What adventurer honestly wants to wash bowls and bury horse crap every day?

Anonymous said...

I really like these types of posts, where you force the reader to consider parts of the game that generally get glossed over. Even though I have hiked and camped, I never thought to include what a bitch it is to pack up and get moving. I don't believe that I would break my players balls every morning, but taking a moment to assign duties and occasionally have the PCs track down the horses isn't unreasonable. Also, the fact that they're leaving 2 hours later every day would mean they don't cover as much ground as they were.

PS- Glenn Beck's idiotic TV show has been cancelled; soon you'll only have to see his wretched mug at the bookstore.

R said...

Hey, if I don't nag you, how am I ever going to get my way?

Alexis said...

That is legitimately funny.

Thanks R, I needed it.

5stonegames said...

Good article though camping is not my cup of tea it is in the words of an unknown comedian and (shudder) Kate Goeslin, its too much like pretending to be homeless.

As for the memorization rule, funny in my old school games I use the same one. Great minds or something ...

It has the unintended consquences of increasing the use of magic items. If thats not what you want, beware.

Last re: armor, the Higgins armory museum says it takes about 15 minutes to suit up in plate armor which isn't too bad but that comes with a caveat that it requires someone with proficiency to help you.

That means if there are say two heavy armor guys and no helpers, thats half an hour.

In old school games a squire/armimg lad/man at arms is a great asset. Take one of these guys for each plate user and you can save a lot of travel time.

Lastly I kind off assume plate being hot (it breathes poorly) and less than comfy to wear all day long, most people forgo it when traveling for a buff coat or mail if its not too hot or hard on the shoulders . Those offer decent protection and are easy to put, taking not much longer than clothes and needing no helpers.

Zzarchov said...

I use more abstracted rules than this, basically boiling down to you take damage as you travel and heal slowly while going through the wilderness without creature comforts (rules for losing items were vetoed after a short trial), as well as different terrain types having different "Miles per day" ratings.

This lead to two things:
1) an increase in taking the longer route if it passed through civilization, roads and inns.

2.) No more "rushing through the wilderness", the bean counters came out and "frontier living" was replaced with carefully planned expeditions.

I don't know if thats a good thing or not, it changes the dynamic as there are fewer climatic battles of a handful of adventurer's in the middle of nowhere and more expeditionary forces in small skirmish actions.

Talysman said...


Actually, it would be six hours travel time; eight would be pretty exhausting.

The archaic measurement of one league -- 2.5 to 3 miles -- was based on the distance someone could travel in one hour. Double it and you get either 5 miles or 6 miles, which just happen to be two competing standards for the size of one hex. The LBBs and most other older editions give travel distances as 3 hexes in 1 day, which means they're assuming six hours of travel per day. Add 2 hours to break camp, 2 hours to make camp again, that's 10 hours.

The Roman legion was supposed to travel about 15 miles a day, too, so that seems to meet a reality check. Unless you're special ops, train to sleep in horrible conditions instead of a full camp, or take some other measures like magic, you're not going to be able to push that extra two hours to make 20 miles a day on foot.

Arduin said...

Very keen post. It makes me ponder just what other moments of possible RP opportunity most of us wind up glossing over.

I want to fix this.

SupernalClarity said...

I find I must concur with the general consensus: a very interesting post indeed. I actually think I might bring this matter up with my players, just to see what they'd think of it; I know I have at least one who'd be open to adding another layer of realism to their adventures.

Alexis said...

I truly like the idea, Zzarchov ... but I probably would have ignored the veto. Still, I haven't implemented it, either.

I think I'll write about this today.

TrentB said...

Good post! Agree with all of that.

Just as a balance, its also perfectly possible to wake up in the middle of the night, pack your things and be walking in 5 minutes, given the following:

- Simple shelters
- Each person carrying their own gear
- Being organised and professional
- Having experience with such things
- Being half dressed when sleeping.

Achievable in almost-freezing temperatures with rain, but probably not much worse than that (since your shelter will need to be more significant).

Also, travelling without excessive gear/retainers/people allows for much faster movement.

Obviously Armour, Maintenance, Feeding, all the stuff you wrote will need to be done later or on the move.

Alexis said...

You sound like a military voice there, Trent.

I don't know how much you're taking into account that this is a Medieval/Renaissance setting, and that many of the things that are time saving devices for travelling don't exist.

A Medieval tent can't be taken down in five minutes. Nor can a horse - using Medieval methods - be saddled, mounted and ridden five minutes after you wake up.

If you don't have a horse, armor, any heavy tackle or equipment, the weather doesn't change through the night, you don't want to eat, you don't need to be clean and you sleep in your clothes, yes, perhaps.


Eric said...

@Symeon: When I was playing Necromancer Games' Rappan Athuuk module (3.5E) we used the Mount spell a *lot*. Wouldn't have been much of a timesaver with Alexis' memorization rules, but "create riding horse" is a handy handy spell for wilderness adventure. Wasn't Mount originally from the first Unearthed Arcana?

Alexis said...

Works out about the same, Eric. First level spell = 15 minutes. Slightly less than the time taken to saddle and ready a horse.

Alexis said...

Incidentally, I have an upgraded version of the mount spell posted here.

Symeon Kokolas said...

@Eric: The one and only time I have ever used summon mount was as a kinetic weapon (line of sight straight above my target). My DM at the time wasn't big on realism, so there was no point in having the spell otherwise.

@Alexis: Would you allow a spellcaster to ride one of those mounts without training? More to the point, how do you determine if a character knows how to ride a horse or not, let alone something more exotic?

Alexis said...

Since it's a magical mount, Symeon, it wouldn't fight the rider, but would instead 'coddle' the rider ... that is, the animal moves its body in such a manner as to make the ride smooth as silk. That is why no riding equipment is needed.

Anonymous said...

@Trent, Alexis,

The definition of sleeping "rough" may vary widely ... my wife won't camp in our soft, grassy backyard. I have hiked and camped the Great Smokies, but not the Rockies. Some of my buddies from OCS literally have bedded down with a mylar blanket on frost-hard sand.

It's certainly easier to move fast when your only shelter is a rain-tarp that doubles as a cloak. Surviving under that shelter requires a great deal of skill in positioning. This is something that, as Alexis' post reminds us, could be much more considered than it is. Even as narrative flavor, the different character class standards of "rough" could add a lot.

e.g. that scraggly, somewhat shifty ranger - does it annoy her when the pampered paladin takes nearly an hour, and demands the ranger's help, to break down that reediculous canvas pavilion? Of course the ranger does not recognize how essential that tent is to keeping the elements off of the paladin's armor, saddle, regalia, and so on.

TrentB said...

@Alexis, Sigilic,

Correct and good replies =]

I like where you're taking it in your last paragraph Sigilic. Certainly these things may differ between individuals and I think that could be interesting to play-out or quantify. Will think on it.