Fantasy Maps and Travel

Posted: 22 April 2011 in Reflections

I’ve had a lot of fun lately drawing maps for the Irongrave setting; but I’m not going to use any of them for the campaign, because the exercise has brought me to a deeper appreciation of the simple brilliance of WHAA strategic movement.

It’s extremely fast and easy, requires almost no maps, and I would argue is a realistic simulation of how the Middle Ages saw travel.


Gamers are used to maps that mimic the detail and accuracy of contemporary ones; these are created using post-Industrial Revolution survey techniques, and satellite imagery.

In 10th or 11th century Europe, the sort of map you could get hold of looked more like this:


That makes the WHAA map of Talomir, or the ones in the end covers of fantasy novels, look pretty good.

As an educated person, you knew that Scandinavia existed, but you weren’t sure if it was an island or not. You knew that Africa, China and India existed, and roughly where they were (“Directions to China? Sure. Go to the Holy Land, then walk into the rising sun for three years.”). You had no idea what shape they were, or how big.

Arguably, you could simplify the ancient and early mediaeval world map even more; at the strategic level, the part from Byzantium to Beijing is a straight-line corridor with the Silk Road running along it.


A one-month strategic move in WHAA takes you about 100 miles. (Five moves to cross a country, and most of Talomir’s countries are based on European ones about 500 miles across.)

That’s less than five miles per day, on average. Consider, though; there’s no universal currency or credit arrangements, no universal language, no maps to speak of, bandits everywhere, not much in the way of roads and a limited choice of where to stay overnight.

Estimates of how far the Roman legions marched in a day range from 5 to 20 miles or more, depending on whose calculations you believe. At the low end of that scale, 100 miles per month looks reasonable.

It took Marco Polo three and a half years to travel 4,000 miles overland along the Silk Road. That’s pretty close to 100 miles per month on average. It took him two years to get back by sea.

In Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s trip from Hobbiton to Mount Doom is about 400 miles and took him a little over six months; 100 miles per month on average is still looking good. (I’m using Karen Wynn Fonstad’s Atlas of Middle-Earth as a source, and fighting back the urge to base a campaign on it because the maps are so pretty. No, Precious, we mustn’t.)


It’s realistic in a fantasy campaign to have little or nothing in the way of maps. It’s realistic for travel to take longer than you would think.

It’s dangerous, too; of the 600 people who set out with Marco Polo to return to Italy, 18 of them made it. That makes even the casualty rate in my adventuring bands look quite reasonable.


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