Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Battlemat Scale

I'm writing another post about scale because I firmly believe it is something that's difficult for people to grasp, particularly in this modern age.  We don't live on farms, we don't plow land, and when we travelwe either depend upon landmarks that do not convert to actual distance in our heads or we rely on measuring devices that do the work for us.

So in the interest of making area more accessible, I've gone looking for something to which people can relate.

But first I have to make a small pedantic point.

When people say a hex is "6 miles across," this can mean one of two things, which have consequences where it comes to area.  Hexagons are not squares.  Have a look at figure 1:

That's a mighty big difference - 8 square miles per hex.  That's big enough to lose a small town in .  So for the remainder of this post, and every post I ever write, when I say a hex is 20 miles or 6 miles or 5 feet in diameter, I am speaking of the hex on the left.

A six mile hex is pretty big ... but just to we get a sense of just HOW big, let's measure it in something that D&D players are familiar with.  Last night, I dragged out of storage the old vinyl battle mat I used to use when I played with miniatures, before moving to computer screens.  My battle mat looked something like this:

I did not use the really cool 3 dimensional add-ons ...
but nice work there.
Each hex was 1 inch in diameter, and for my uses each hex was 5 feet in diameter.  Counting hexes, the mat was 53 by 34 hexes ... which would represent in real life a total of 39,103 square feet.

This comes out to 0.9 acres per battle mat ... if that helps at all in measureing out the area upon which you usually have combats.  A typical strip of land that a peasant plowed equaled about 1 acre or less ... so if you can imagine cutting your battle mat in half the long way, and taping it together into a much longer rectangle, you'd have a general idea of what amount of land a peasant could expect to plow in the space of a day.

It was a long day.

What this means is that we can now use the battle mat as a unit of measure, rather than an acre.  Thus, it typically required 2.23 plowed battlemats to feed an ordinary person, while a typical family working upon a manor would control something like 8.35 battlemats.

Now, figures like that are highly disputed by the source material.  If you spend even a little time looking over how much land people plowed in the Middle Ages so as to produce how much food, you'll quickly get twenty different figures, none of which will agree on yields or calorie output or ... well ... anything.  Partly, that's because we have really poor information from the period, but mostly its because the information we do have comes from hundreds of different farms in different parts of Europe, all with different soils, sunlight, varieties of crop, etc.  There is no continuity in the numbers because there's little if no work that can ever be done to determine how much manure was used to produce what amount of crop in what periods of history.  If you ever meet someone who tells you they have the definitive numbers for crop output for Medieval farming, kick that moron in the balls.  It's less than they deserve.

So if I use numbers here, please understand that they are not meant to be the right numbers.  There are no 'right' numbers.  I don't really care about the age old debate here, I just want general figures upon which I can hang a generation scheme.  And as long as I'm at it, let's also acknowledge that almost every figure and description we have for farming from the Middle Ages comes from manor houses ... as they are the only people who ever kept records.  We don't know how many cotters and vagabond farmers there were in those times because a family living upon a free farm deep in the German forest for generations never learned to read, did not spend time making their own paper and never thought it was in any way important.  So when you are reading about the great Middle Ages, you might get the sense that everyone lived on manor farms.  Twasn't so.

If we want to look at one hex, just one empty, uninteresting 'civilized' hex as described on this post, as comes up when we are rolling for single civilized hexes among wilderness hexes, then we have to consider that there isn't a manor that's running the show.  The peripheral settlements of society would nominally be under a lord, who might have a tax collector that shows up once a year or so, but the amount of land the peasants are farming isn't dependent upon how much the lord allows them ... they are dependent upon how much they can reasonably plow, sow, weed and harvest in the season.  As it happens, that works out to about 10 battlemats per family.

Suppose we identify a hamlet as 20-80 people, or between 6-18 families, who plow the surrounding country to an amount of 45-180 battlemats per year.  These are groupings too small to be village, too small to amount to any industry, and too remote to support anything like an inn or a stable.  At best, they might manage a water well, which would be of variable quality.  Such hamlets would also need a certain amount of 'wilderness' to support their needs - game in the form of rabbits and birds, the occasional deer (whether or not they were legally allowed to take them), streams for fishing, and if possible wood for firewood and for building maintenance.  A large population will strip a hex bare ... so in addition to the locals, there might be a town or city a few hexes away that visited once a decade - in the form of a wood-gathering party - to cut out a certain toll.

The question is, how much of the hex would really be 'civilized,' and how much would effectively be the same wilderness we were talking about here.

Have a look at this:

The small yellow rectangles, those are the hamlets themselves.  The lighter green area is the usual part of the nearby country that is exploited for hunting, fishing, firewood and materials.  The dark green is 'waste' ... a general term used for land that isn't used.  That doesn't mean it couldn't be used, only that it isn't.  It's simply more land that the locals require.

There might be a few hermits that live in it; there are probably some persons fleeing the law, or prospecting, or illegally cutting trees or poaching animals they shouldn't.  For the most part, however, that part of the hex is empty.  Not quite empty enough to allow a ruin or a dungeon.  Over the last hundred years, woodsmen, hunters and young lovers have gone over every inch of it ... and probably some of the older people in the hamlets can point to every rock and tree and tell you a story about them.  But if your character happens to be leaning on a tree two miles south of one of the south hamlets, chances are no one is walking by today.  Or this week.  Sometime in the next month you might hear someone a quarter mile away picking their way along ... but I would tend to doubt it.

All in all, this six-mile hex includes 22,172 battlemats.  That's more than enough room for an entire army to fight its way through in one of your campaigns.  Of course that army would probably clear out every tree for firewood if they were forced to stay for a month ... but chances are, for some parts of your country, some army in the past thousand years has done exactly that ... in virtually every hex.  I've mentioned applying this system to Kosovo ... an area of land that remembers tribes long before the Romans, the republic and empire, the Avars, the Huns, the Magyars, a dozen other tribes and lots and lots of war parties moving through the same gap between Serbia and the Adriatic.  Over and over the woods have been cleared of game, and still by the 1600s the land is empty, terribly, awfully empty, in all but a few places.

Something to consider.


JDJarvis said...

A 30 mile hex has about a half million battlemats in it. Lots of room to have lots of room.

My family camped in the same general spot for about a decade. One day wandering near camp a foundation for an 18th century house was discovered that we had missed for years within shouting distance of camp.

Lukas said...

Went on a multi-day hike with my grandparents at one point. We camped one night, got so lost we couldn't find the trail so we camped near the spot we ended up. When the morning came around we looked over a fallen tree near our camp site and saw our last camp site.

Alexis Smolensk said...

The wilderness is so like that.

Being from Alberta, which is about the size of Texas but mostly without all the people, one recognizes the size of some areas even close to the large city of Calgary where people literally can just get lost and die ,,, and no further away from safety than Lukas was. I'm always surprised by people who think they can march straight into a completely unknown hex and "just come out the other side" like it's a saunter down a street.

Keith S said...

Great series of posts, drilling down through the details. Thanks for taking the time to explain the thinking behind it.

I've run a few successful hex crawls, but usually using maps of existing terrain repurposed for my campaign. Being modern maps, they contain too much infrastructure to accurately represent medieval-type settlements and wilderness.

I think I'll have a go at stat'ing out a few areas using your system, to get a feel for how much detail my players are looking for.

YagamiFire said...

These posts are especially helpful to me because I am awful at scale. Honestly, I cannot tell you how far away things are at all. It is something I struggle with constantly in D&D when people encounter one another...I cannot, in real life, discern 100 feet from 1000 feet for..uh..some reason.

Not sure why. Never have been able.

Alexis Smolensk said...

It's because you live in the smallest state in the country. You think Connecticut is a long way away.

Whenever I've had contact with people who live in heavily populated areas, particularly Europe, I've noticed that they consider distances like 50 or 80 miles to be a "day trip," whereas in parts of the world like Texas or Alberta, people commute to work daily from such distances.

Here's what I suggest. Buy a hundred yard tape measure, or access a gridded football field. Take your players out and try standing as far apart in reality as you depict your characters standing prior to combat. Five feet in combat is usually seen as 'proximity' ... measure off 60 feet in whatever way suits you and then try to imagine closing to combat in one round from that distance.

Or if that doesn't soak your toes in fabulousity, try measuring off distances of 30 feet in the outdoors, then loading up your players with 100 lb. of equipment and have them run back and forth over that distance, the way their characters do when changing up between opponents.

I've done this sort of thing. It's enlightening.

Anonymous said...

Funny you mention Connecticut. I grew up on the Delmarva peninsula (, which as can be seen is a thoroughly agrarian region. By contrast, Connecticut ( is mainly a wilderness with sparse population centers. While on Delmarva it is possible to walk the length of the peninsula without ever getting "lost" (the woodlands are narrow, and the fields are broad), in eastern Connecticut the vast state forests and preserves are replete with wild game and scattered tent towns (populated, generally, by disabled veterans, sex offenders, drug addicts, day laborers, and miscellaneous criminals).

In places where agriculture has moved out, the modern country is not really so far removed from medieval conditions. Typical suburbans merely experience their own particular, somewhat unreal slices of that country.

Beta Ray Bill said...

"...when I say a hex is 20 miles or 6 miles or 5 feet in diameter, I am speaking of the hex on the left." Neat. Does that mean a 53x34 battlemap of vertex-up hexes should be used, or side-up ones, scaled at 1 inch equals 5 feet to get the 0.9 acres area? (Sorry for the come lateliness of this post.)

Alexis Smolensk said...


The orientation of the hexes does not matter, the hexes are the same size and cover the same area. I did not consider inches scale in my computation; 1 hex = 5 feet whether the hex is 1 inch in diameter or half an inch in diameter; so that number of hexes (1802) = 0.9 acres.

Beta Ray Bill said...

Ah, now I get it. The formula for calculating the area of a regular hexagon must be more complicated than that for figuring a rectangle's, has to account for hex having two different diameters? And by the way that figure of the two orientations makes a fantastic optical illusion, at least to my eyes. Well, thanks for explaining and for all the labor you pour into this game we play and sharing so much.

Party on.