Thursday, March 21, 2013

Scale on the Ground

I thought I would talk about scale for a bit, since I have always been annoyed at pre-made maps like those you find in every module where, in a circle a hundred miles across, there is one town.  Even Minaria, of which I've repeatedly shown the Kingdom of Hothiar on this blog, shows a land of 40+ hexes and yet there are only four towns.  Obviously, that's for a game, but too often D&D representations fit that motif.

The above shot is from a valley in India, Madhya Pradesh province, a region called Shivpuri.  This is a part of a valley about 20 miles wide and 70 miles long ... but the actual image itself is about three miles wide and five miles deep.  That's all.  You're looking at an area that's 15 square miles ... less than half the area of one of the small hexes I only just finished generating on the previous generation post.

Look at the population centers.  I'll highlight them for you:

There are TEN.

I did not cherry pick an area with lots of villages ... in fact, what I tried to do was find an area without any large cities, as well ... there's one just off the right of the map, about four miles.  Everywhere in the Shivpuri valley looks like this.  It the 17th century, it was famous for its dense forests ... which it still has, in the high country surrounding the forementioned valley.

The point I want to make is for the reader to look at the space.  Naturally, it's filled with fields, there are ten villages on the map (the nearest probably has a population of about 400).  But suppose that there were only ONE village shown.  How much of the remaining shot would need to be cultivated?

Answer:  not much.  Rice in particular doesn't cover a lot of ground for the number of people it feeds, but there are grain fields shown, too.  If you had one village for a hex six miles across, that would be a mighty empty hex.  There'd be plenty of room for a party to move through it and never encounter a single human being, even if there was a village just three miles away.

We have a tendency to view the world from motor vehicles, and thus to envision three miles as a negligible distance.  In actual fact, from the perspective of a wilderness explorer, its a considerable amount of ground to walk over.  Remove any roads that might happen to be in the hex and you make travel more difficult, and thus it takes even more time to poke around every heap of rocks and along every river bank.

In a hex 20 miles across, even if there were a sizeable city in it, a large party of people hunting all day could fail to find a herd of elephants, much less something small like a raiding party of half a dozen trolls.  We just fail to recognize how big the world is, even on a tiny scale.

Suppose I gave you a task, as a party member, to find the rakshasa hiding in the image shown above.  He's in one of the villages; we don't know if he's posing as a holy person or if he's a recluse, or he's got the village by the throat and they're terrified to give him away.  Go ahead, find him.

Just don't expect to do it by noon.


  1. As another example of what you've written here, the Pathfinder adventure path Kingmaker focuses on wilderness exploration, conquest, and colonization. The map scale is 12 miles to the hex and the area to be colonized is something like the size of modern day Austria.

    The first two adventures takes place in a quarter of the map (basically, an area the size of Switzerland) and have less than 60 significant locations between them. It's just ridiculously sparse.

    In my head, I reduce those hexes to being only 3-4 miles across and it's somewhat less insane. The lack of understanding of scale still bothers me.

  2. Preach it, Brother Alexis. Demographics are the meat and potatoes of world-building, but every time I try to get people to care about this sort of thing, their eyes glaze over, their mouths go slack, and their minds drift off to whatever stupid/cute thing their cat did this morning. Pretty much every campaign setting I know of, published or private, fails in this regard. Of course, you can't put 20 village icons in each hex, but you can account for the structure of the world in your random encounter tables and in the text that explains how the place functions -- assuming the author ever bothers to think about it, that is.

  3. I have the same concern about lakes. Now I realize that there are places in the world where lakes are few and far between, just like on so many of the fantasy maps I see. That doesn't sit well with my north-central US upbringing though. Imagine trying to chase a band of trolls across the Canadian shield.

    Of course, the parts of the world that look like that are not very populated, for good reason. Glacier scraped bedrock is poor farming.

  4. I wish I'd seen this a few weeks ago. I ran a game in an area about forty by thirty square miles, with one small village in the middle. The village was raided by several bandit and monster fortresses, each fifteen to twenty miles away and separated by huge sections of uncultivated wilderness. It was unrealistic and my players said so, but I didn't want to listen. Scale is a pretty big problem for me in general, so I'm glad you're finally bringing some logic to the process. Thanks.


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