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Thread: Scaling a map

  1. #1

    Default Scaling a map

    Map scale in fantasy maps bothers me. Even my own maps bother me a little since most where drawn before I drove a truck for three years and had to come to terms with how big the United States, and by extension a continent, really is. Each hour a truck doing 60 MPH covers 2 DAYS travel for a horse ridden hard, 3 days for one ridden at a more reasonable pace and around 6 days for comfortable walking pace.

    And with that knowledge in mind I see fantasy maps where cities average 200 miles apart or maps span three and four thousand miles. So it bothered me.

    So as part of redoing the maps of my setting I want to seriously pay attention to scale. I like the shapes of things and their positions, but I want to do an accurate topographical map. The setting of the campaign is a volcanic island most similar to Japan's northern island Hokkaido in climate and topography, so I've spent my spare time studying this area.

    I took an old map that had the most detailed version of the coastline - that much I'll keep and worked out that the main campaign area island is roughly 500 miles. This keeps the cities I've detailed in the literature of the setting at proper distances by walking times.

    I chose a resolution for the map of 10px to the mile, 8000w x 5320h total and have ported it into the 64 bit version of Wilbur (I'm pretty sure the 32 bit version would crash and die with a map that size). This means a square mile is 100 pixels. That works out to 6.4 acres to the pixel. A football field is about 1.1 acres not including endzones. A typical medieval village of 10 structures has an acre footprint, the largest of medieval cities were still under a square mile in size.

    What this does mean that though not ostensibly a city map the outlines of the largest cities and manorial estates will be visible at scale.

    The setting has a lowish mean population density of 40 per square mile, about 1 person per 16 acres. To make the math easier, I'll presume one farmed acre can support 1 person. A village of 600 people can occur in each square mile - not necessarily will occur. A city of 6000 needs roughly a 12 square mile footprint of support farms.

    Just thoughts. Anyone else have thoughts on scale?

  2. #2
    Professional Artist Facebook Connected Coyotemax's Avatar
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    Jul 2009


    I've been revisiting the maps of Joan Blaeu lately (the wife got me a book of his maps awhile back). Scale bothers me on occasion, but I usually let it go. I've been paying more attention to small details lately though, and one of the things that really strikes me is the population density. The sheer number of towns and villages marked on the maps is incredible, compared to most fantasy maps. Plus one of the details I've noticed is something you bring up - walled cities and such on his maps actually get a basic layout, he draws in major streets and squares, plus walled outlines, which works at the scales used. Something I've been considering striving for in my own.

    I think another thing to consider with setting density of towns/cities at a particular scale is the population itself. If it's based on historical europe, as so many fantasy worlds are, then is it a human only population, or are there other races and critters to consider?

    Having lived in rural prairies, one thing I noticed is that during traveling there were towns every 15 mins or so along the major highways and roads (60mph or so so every 15 miles) .. which made sense - they were placed along the train tracks and at such a distance that a farmer with a wagon could get to town, exchange goods, and be home by sundown

    Some of this might be seemingly random ramblings, but i *try* to keep things like that in mind, yes

    My finished maps
    "...sometimes the most efficient way to make something look drawn by hand is to simply draw it by hand..."

  3. #3


    Interesting topic. In terms of city / town and village distribution I think much depends on your initial assumptions. If you start with the assumption that your fantasy world is a like for like representation with a medieval society, then yes, the largest cities (mostly European) wouldn't be more than a square mile in area. The majority of the population lived in rural areas so you would have a lot of villages and towns. That's why if you look at many 16thC maps of Europe, they are absolutely chock full of towns and villages.

    I think the reality is that most people who draw fantasy maps find the prospect of labelling hundreds or perhaps thousands of towns and villages on a map too daunting to do. The exception may be Handsome Rob, although even his phenomenal attention to detailed labelling doesn't approach the amount of detail in many real old maps. The result is that many people in the Guild only label cities and perhaps larger towns and the smaller habitations are ignored (or sometimes indicated by a dot with no name label).

    For sure, if you're drawing a fantasy map, you can impose other factors (the existence of monsters etc) which might mean people grouping into larger population groups for security (fewer towns and villages). If you're particularly keen on detail you might want to work out how that population could be fed and the restrictions that would impose on size. Most sword and sorcery fantasy RPGs also depend on vast areas of wilderness for players to explore, usually inhabited by small pockets of creatures or different races. If the driver for your map is fantasy RPG'ing or Storytelling, then the considerations about population distribution will probably vary from 'real life'.

    You might have cities which are 10 square miles in area with impossibly high buildings etc. That sort of hyperbole is common is fantasy and (I believe) is intended to create a sense of wonder in the players / readers.

  4. #4


    Check the scale on the 16th Century map ravells linked to. It's marked in 9 different kinds of leagues (lieiies in french). The towns on the map are about 20km (12 miles) apart. As I'm dutch, I'll focus on Holland. Delft, Leyde and Harlem had a population of about 14.000 each, and Amsterdam about double that figure. However, a lot of smaller towns and villages are not on that map. A lot more are depicted on Blaeu's map of 1664: here (north is to the right). Most of them are about 5km (3 miles) apart, and had a population of a few hundred. And even on that map not everything is shown, groups of more than 10 or so houses or farms usually had their own name. It's mostly a matter of the space available on the map.
    Last edited by Fransie; 08-06-2010 at 07:08 AM.

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  6. #6


    And you thought city mapping could drive you nuts :-)

  7. #7


    France in that period had a population density north of 100 / square mile, even in medieval times it was around 100 / square mile. Britain was about half that.

    Also a fantasy map with large monsters in the wilderness wouldn't have as many cities. To be honest - to match the feel of the situation imposed by intelligent monsters you need to look at colonial America. Most of the towns and cities are on the coast or navigable rivers, with a few holdouts in the wild (which grew over time of course).

    Also, almost all of France is arable land. Not all of Telzoa is, nor is all of Hokkaido that it is patterned on.

    But the map does show how many villages there can be. I don't intend on naming every village on the map, that's not what I was proposing. But I was going to make a layer on the map that shows what land is actively farmed and through simple pixel counting make sure that land is sufficient to support the cities that are on the map.

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