The Lay of the Land: Directions, Maps and Mapping

Had a discussion with a prospective player about maps of the game world. He was new to the world as player and character, and asked if he would be able to see a map “to contemplate character things”. I’m not sure he understood why I told him he had no need to see a map of the realm, and especially the world at large, in order to make a character. This moved me to post the following:

One of the facts that kept the outside world strange and full of threatening unknowns in the medieval world was the fact that beyond the major locations of import to all citizens, most people did not know how to get anywhere else, especially beyond their home shire (“native country”), and in some cases the riding or hundred of that shire. Lacking a need to go anywhere except the nearest market to sell their goods, they remained snug and safe at home in their villages and hamlets tending to cultivating their rows in the fields. Only 3 to 5 major market towns were needed in any given shire, one of which would be the chief town of the shire where the sheriff could be found representing the king’s law.

The average citizens of the more populous shires of the realm know the major routes through their native shires, and most definitely through their native territory (hundred), just as we today know how to get to the interstate(s) nearest our neighborhoods or towns. Nonetheless, it is unlikely the average citizen has used these routes unless they are in his backyard and are used to get to the local market (OR nearest major market town on rare occasions). Most know the general direction such routes lead. The closer such routes are to their homes, the more likely the average citizen knows the next couple villages or towns in either direction from where he would take those roads. In the hinterlands there is far less knowledge of and concern over the more populous regions, except in a general sense, nor the routes to get to them except, again, in a general sense.

All characters, both PC and NPC have knowledge of topographical details such as the locations and general extents of major features like manors and lords estates, rivers and streams, or villages and minor towns, markets, friaries, nunneries, monasteries, churches and chapels found within (Awareness, Intelligence, etc.) miles from the town or village in which he resides, in which he is likely to have been born and also grown up.

The in’s and out’s of small local features like farmers’, cowherds’, and shepherds’ paths, major game trails, small paths leading from the various public facilities like, grange, mill, and manor, common small game trails and especially paths used to get to and around local fields and orchards, also the paths used by Foragers, Huntsmen, Woodsmen and Guides, the downs, cliffs, mountains, knolls, crossroads, creeks, streams and rivers, their fords, meadows and pastures, and especially those with names important to local historic traditions, bogeys, fairytales or cautionary tales, which are found within (Awareness, Intelligence, etc.) furlongs from the town or village in which character grew up should be considered common knowledge for him, also. The lesser paths followed by those of a particular trade (farmers out to the fields and back or among the fields, herders of all sorts of animals to the areas where they are grazed) are also common knowledge but only for those whose business makes them familiar with them (GM’s discretion)

Of places of major importance within (Awareness, Intelligence, etc.) miles, regardless of why they are important, a resident is likely to know the general direction in which they lay and the approximate amount of time it takes to get there, but it is highly unlikely they ever visited there personally. The Huntsman, Woodsman or Guide, on the other hand, is very likely to have been to visit all such sites at the very least a time or two.

The only characters who are more familiar with the land over a larger area are those who are trained as huntsmen, woodsmen, or guides (Rangers, etc.).

If the players’ party intends to travel beyond the scope of their knowledge of the lay of the land, a member of one of these trades, especially a huntsman (Ranger, etc.), is invaluable. Failing this, the characters must stick to the (major, most commonly used) roads and follow the directions of the locals, although hiring a local guide of some sort might be more effective, especially if the characters are ultimately seeking some location off the beaten path. Major important destinations should not generally be too difficult to find, as most people know where they are in general, and the route to be taken, and the local knowledge of the exact route grows among the locals encountered the closer the PC’s get to the destination itself, so the locals can usually be relied on to keep them on the right path, so long as they make a good impression on them and treat them with respect. If the characters are trying to find lesser known places, especially little villages or hamlets or an individual homestead, in the deep country away from the major roads, they had better know what it lies near as far as major landmarks if they want help from the locals along the way to guide them there.

To the overwhelming majority of the populace of the medieval game world, maps are a luxury enjoyed by those with the money to afford them. They tend most often to be fanciful creations of scholars.

In the main (market) square of a town on a major travelling route, whether for commerce or religious pilgrims or on the road between the capital and some major port town or center of local government like the chief town of a shire, where travellers commonly meet, and/or outside the gate, in the court of the local premiere inn, or especially posted publicly in the midst of the most prominent group of local inns, a public map may be posted, showing the waterways, the rivers and canals, and the towns and cities that lie along them, as well as the major overland routes (nor necessarily roads as the modern mind comprehends them) and the towns and cities that lie along them. Please note the use of the terms “town” and city” here, expressly excluding villages and anything smaller. Only noteworthy seats of civilization usually of c. 1,000 souls or larger and perhaps also the locations of such noteworthy places as shire towns, abbeys, priories, and castles might have a good sized map of the region, PERHAPS the whole realm. Such maps may be posted for the benefit of travellers in a few of the greater locations marked on the map, in many of those towns, or in all of them, at the GM’s discretion.

These maps look much like the “Gough Map” (c.1360) which is supposed to have been posted for just such a purpose. The most important attributes of these kinds of maps are that the features on it are relatively well-placed in relation to one another BUT they are NOT drawn to any particular scale, because the people of the period did not measure the distances between places. The time required to get from point A to point B with whatever means of travel could be secured was FAR more important. In the same vein, they did not put signs at intersections in town or countryside labeling which roads led to what destinations – when so few can read, what is the point?

Thus, maps available in the game world should similarly lack any attempt to render true to any scale or even in relative scale, one landmass or area to the next, and as such are basically useless for reckoning distances. Medieval maps were simply meant to inform the viewer what places he would come to if he followed a particular stretch of coast, or road, or waterway. While useful in a general way to guide the PC’s along established routes, such maps are not much use in navigating through wilderness areas, especially rough or dangerous terrain. The GM has been advised to follow the same practice for his own amusement and sanity in regards to the maps that are available in the game world.

If the PC’s want to have such a map of their own, it is HIGHLY unlikely that even a merchant character from a wealthy background has one of his own without having to buy it with his starting funds. PC’s must commission their map from a cartographer who has an extensive knowledge of the lay of the realm, who has no doubt travelled the length and breadth of the realm to make his map, or find a cartographer willing to part with such a map which he has already completed. The larger the map and the greater the number and quality of colors used to embellish it, particularly rich greens, reds, and blues, or gold leaf, the more expensive the map, after the fashion of any other illuminated work.

The only other type of map that was available to travellers in the medieval world is an “itinerary scroll”. This is a scroll on which all of the locations of note to be found along the traveller’s route are recorded along a straight line drawn lengthwise down the center of the scroll that represents the road, showing all branchings and intersections where they occur relatively between these locations, with river crossings marked by bridge symbols over wavy blue lines indicating water flowing at right angles to the road (regardless of the physical reality of the setting), but always describing the traveller’s path as a straight line down the center of the scroll.

These sorts of maps are FAR more common and readily available. They can be made by any scribe who has knowledge of the route travelled. Certain scribes and cartographers may keep a master copy of a map of a popular route in store so they can merely copy it over when one is desired. These are part and parcel of the bread and butter of the tradesman’s business, but those kept in stock to copy are likely to be limited only to the most popular routes for pilgrimages and travellers between borough towns (chief shire towns), major ports and centers of government and cathedral cities and university towns and the main cart-service routes between major trade towns, and then only within his native shire or it and those surrounding. The greater the town or city in which the scribe or cartographer is located, the better a picture of the entire realm he is likely to have. When reading this type of map, the physical length of the featureless route-line down the center of the scroll indicating empty road between locations on the route followed have nothing to do with any actual distance between locations along the road’s length. The features and locations marked are actually noted rather close to one another down the length of the route-line in order to conserve paper or parchment. In addition, there are never any orientation marks on itinerary-style maps. The cardinal directions are not given. What bearing do the cardinal directions have on following the itinerary map’s course? As the route is described by a straight line where the road in fact wanders across the landscape, the orientation of the cardinal directions actually varies according to where the traveller is located along the course described by the map. The map is drawn in what is considered admirable detail, and the point is to look for the features marked and follow the turnings indicated at each crossroads, to pass through or by the cities, towns and villages marked as one progresses down the scroll.

Another little twist of history the player should be aware of is the fact that, being most pious and devout followers of the Light in the game world, the people revere the sun after a fashion (it being the brightest light in their daily lives) and believe that “Paradise” or “Heaven” lies beyond the Uttermost East, whence dutifully rises the glorious sun every morning, and so scrupulously lay all their maps out so that the East (or Paradise) can be found at the top. Finding east on a map on which the east is placed at the head is much easier than finding any other direction. The reader need merely face the rising sun or put his back to the setting sun and hold the map up before him. Hence, the practice of “orienting” one’s self on a map (“orient” meaning “east”), regardless of the fact that North now stands at the head of modern maps. trying to find north on a north-headed map would be an exercise in frustration for the great majority of people. Only the huntsmen, woodsmen, guides and mariners (Rangers, etc.) would have no trouble with it.

The common purposes of the maps available is to show the positions of places relative to one another, in the order in which they occur while travelling by road, or by water, NOT to quantify the actual distances between them. If the characters want to know how far it is to the next location on their road or to their final destination, he should ask the locals, and be prepared to get an estimate not in miles, but in the length of time it would take to walk there using the 3-mile per hour standard of the mileway, which is based on the average man, assuming one is travelling only during daylight hours and accounting for regular meal breaks along the way. This is assuming that the one approached knows where the destination is or someone who has travelled that road before. The player is simply going to have to get used to this and accept it. It is how people whose world is rather small express distances, and is likely to be the best and only type of concept or view of the GM’s fantasy world the character is likely to get.

The detailed and accurate modern-style map(s) the players may see glimpses of now and then as the GM consults them during play are for his sanity, so he can keep close and accurate track of distances, terrain types, vegetation, and locations of villages, towns, and other significant locations for the sake of accuracy in continuity and fairness. Regardless of the “strange” period-style maps the PC’s have to use, the GM always has a copy of the true game world reality, physically accurate maps.

The players can either ignore the maps available, or try to redraw them according to their own experiences over the course of their travels, as desired. The latter is recommended as the best way for the players to explore the game world and define it as their knowledge of it expands. There is little, if any, remedy for it, except perhaps by the use of magic.

Practitioners of magic may well be able to hover high above and draw accurate maps with rough scales related to travel times between points of interest, BUT are they likely to allow such knowledge to pass outside their own orders? That smacks of giving out trade secrets, a crime that can easily lead to death at the hands of brothers in the Arts, for those receiving that knowledge as well as those violating the trust of their fellow practitioners. Accurate maps actually fall within the same category of knowledge that individual trade members would keep to themselves. Only those that have the skills to rise high enough to make such maps should really have them. Receiving such a map as a bequest from another practitioner, perhaps the master under which the character originally served his apprenticeship, presents a great gift and opportunity.

The only characters who are going to get any real sense of the actual lay of the land the way modern folk know of it are irdanni and Huntsmen, Woodsmen, and Guides, unless some Witch or Wizard figures out a way to survey and measure the whole thing, and comes up with a scheme for getting a bird’s eye view from a single stationary point that will allow him enough time to render it, or get an artist up there to render it (much less likely), then put the measurements to use on the bird’s eye view and create a map in some sort of useful scale with true relationships of distance between all features. The only thing left is to account for the curvature of the planet – OR perhaps the GM’s world really IS flat ….

When the characters begin to explore and use their own means of looking at and even measuring the world around them, they may be able to slowly change their own map(s) to make it/them more accurate. While they may never get it to be exactly accurate (who knows? maybe they might), it is certain that they gradually improve on the standards of the period, or at the very least amend what they have so it provides more useful information. The players can always pencil in the time it takes to get from place to place, if they like, down the length of an itinerary map, work out their best guesstimate of the distance, then perhaps transfer it to a national or regional map of the Gough-style and slowly build up a composite of their own over time. They may well end up with a map that is more accurate and useful than those available from the professional cartographers, which might be worth some money to them if there are any artistically inclined Scriveners or actual Artisans in the party interested in making copies to put up for sale. Alternately, they might make a copy and look for an established cartographer’s shop interested in purchasing it for use in producing their own maps. If the practitioners of magic are indeed trying to keep this knowledge to themselves, the PC’s might be in for a fight in trying to capitalize on spreading the knowledge they eventually are able to gather.

The slow process of exploration and the definition of the gaming environment by the players’ characters to the standards that will satisfy the modern curiosity can become a challenge in and of itself. Perhaps the players will be the next “Christopher Columbuses” of the GM’s world. Another reason to get those characters out and involved in this sort of activity.

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About mythwriter

I first started role-playing in 1979 when I happened upon a neighbor/friend playing AD&D with his brother. I was fascinated. We stuck with it until I left for art school in 1980. Within a few months there I had discovered an on-going game that appealed to me, and a couple months after that I started running my own. The creativity of that atmosphere was highly charged. I was bitten and bitten BAD, lol. We couldn’t help tinkering with the rules, being creative types and soon accumulated a notebook full of homebrewed rules. When I came home from school, my attention shifted to the historic basis for the game and I started reading everything medieval I could get my hands on. That started 15 years of research that included spending an entire month plumbing the secrets of our nation’s Library of Congress. THAT was an amazing experience. I and my gaming buddies took the much-polished homebrew (“Realms of Myth”) to a few conventions in the early late 80’s-early 90’s. The last game I ran continued for almost 5 years, during the time I lived in Ohio, one of the most gratifying gaming experiences I have had. A few years ago I pulled the game out of mothballs and looked it over, realizing that MUCH of the research I had done had been neglected. The last couple years have been spent integrating all that information. The latest rewrite is what we are playing now, but stripped down to the basics. The “crunchier” rules are being held in reserve, to be implemented as the game progresses and everyone gets more comfortable with the system. A couple aspects were implemented during character generation to accommodate a few of the players’ needs in creating characters that had a bit more scope to them, however. Realms of Myth will appeal to gamers who appreciate grit and local color in their medieval-based fantasy. The emphasis is definitely on character development and roleplaying. The setting is fantasy but firmly based on England, early to mid 1300's, High Middle Ages. The world IS the way the people of the period believed it was, with a modern fantasy sense of verisimilitude thoroughly integrated.
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2 Responses to The Lay of the Land: Directions, Maps and Mapping

  1. It’s possible that he understood, but thought, “I can separate what I know from what my character knows, and what if I want to play a foreigner of some kind – I have no way of doing that without knowing the world. And, for example, Viking graves from the 10th century were found with goods from Egypt, Iceland and the Ivory Coast, so some civilizations and some members of some civilizations had massive knowledge of their surroundings pre-medieval period.”

    If this is a provincial exploration adventure, it’s totally cool not to give the players maps….

    • mythwriter says:

      Don’t confuse knowledge of the existence of other lands, especially by dint solely of widely circulating trade goods, with knowledge of what the actual physical layout of the world was. The bestiaries of the period should give you an idea of what a fantastical and even mythical place the world was — physically. “The East” was a grand mystical fantasy, as evidenced by the tales told of the origins whence a number of valuable spices came. Take a look at the world maps of the period. Even the MUCH more accurate portolanos used in the Renaissance, even well into the Age of Exploration, had nowhere near the accuracy seen in most maps provided for fantasy roleplay.
      BUT, do not get me wrong, Pol. If any of you guys creates a character whose skills/background warrant having seen a map or having had enough exposure to any number of them or perhaps even wealth enough to own one, maps that are appropriate to the period will certainly be supplied. If anyone wants to play an ALIEN (the proper term for a foreigner-in-residence) that is a special circumstance that needs discussing. The same range of european cultures are all available to choose from, and is up for discussion with that player.

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