An observation on the Sea of O’sr
You guys remember that, right? The project launched just about a year ago to create a collaborative seacrawl and possible adventure path for the OSR. It’s still over at Lands of ARA but the last update was a while back.*
So, speeding through the Cycladic islands (larger) in Greece last month aboard the Flying Cat (Athens to the south end of the Cyclades in 5 hours! Eat that, Odysseus), I was thinking about the assumptions of seacrawling and hex size and population and Homer’s wine-dark sea, and my conclusion was:
in Ancient Greece you could see a whole lot more from the mast-head of your pot-bellied trading ship or arrow–galley than you can from an average fantasy cog, knarr or galleon. We weren’t out of sight of land for a single moment through the whole 200 mile voyage. In fact most of the time you could see multiple islands on both sides of the ship, and from the islands themselves the next island over was visible at least as an airbrushed shadow on the horizon, and often as a real presence just across an indeterminate band of ultramarine.
Now granted, these are the “inner islands” of Ancient Greece, the backbone (and doom) of the Minoan Empire – if you go farther east or south things get sparser, but hopping between these big, arid, craggy rocks it’s not only easy to see, it’s pretty much impossible to ignore regular trade and war by oar and sail. It’s a perfect strategy game board, in fact: how many islands can you take and hold? Can you blockade your neighbours? Can you really afford to divert all those farmers into the galleys and rely on Egypt for your wheat? I’d always wondered just how much trade could possibly have been carried on by rowing, despite what I’ve read of coasting and night-harboring in the ancient Med. Now I see it I get it: for many crossings it just wouldn’t be worth the hassle of dealing with the wind.
ETA: so I wanted to check just what the distances were, and I wound up making this quick and dirty map of what I’m tempted to call Pelagia or Minoa – just the islands of Ancient Greece, minus mainlands. The cluster of islands in the upper left are the Cyclades. Athens would be in the upper left corner if I hadn’t excluded it. The small hexes are 6 miles across, the bigger ones 36 miles across (thanks, Greyhawk Grognard for the hex sheet!). The whole of the Cyclades would fit in a couple of 72 mile hexes.
(click on it to embiggen)
If this calculator’s reliable then using ancient shipping technology you probably couldn’t see much beyond 6 or 7 miles from your masthead ETA – NOT TRUE: that’s the distance to see stuff in the water – like sea serpents or sandspits or those tell-tale rocks that mark a reef. Going to Crete (the big flat fella at the bottom there) from Santorini (see doom link, above),
you’d get out of sight of land long before you reached halfway –
oops both Santorini and Crete stick up significantly – the highest point on Santorini is 1850 feet, so assuming perfectly clear air (which it isn’t) you could see it from your mast-head up to about 50 miles away. The highest point on Crete is over 8000 feet so
there’s a band of potentially unknown water maybe 60 miles wide in theory you could see that over 100 miles away, and you should never be out of sight of at least one of them. Likewise in theory you could see Crete from the highest point on Santorini and vice versa, but my sense is that the haze prevents this.
So where’s the adventure? you cry. I want to wavecrawl because I read Moby Dick, not Udovitch – bring me that horizon! My mad wizards demand isolation and wild rumour, not regular mail routes. My inspiration is Homer-via-Star Trek, not Homer-direct: trackless wastes are what I thrive on. Sure. There’s the Indian Ocean for you, and phantom islands of the Atlantic, no worries. But there’s also something good about having contrasts – they make decisions meaningful. It’s fine and useful to stereotype your NPCs sometimes – maybe all your sea captains are grizzled and scarred and missing a limb or two, and maybe Krakens lurk right outside the harbour wall. But there’s another possibility – that you have a relatively tame sea and captains with families and stable occupations who are welcome in port – and beyond that is the realm where brave men fear to roam. And it’s from this safer realm that those rumours of high adventure propagate – because the fisherman who’s been out in a storm once or twice by accident delights in telling of the storm that blew Jason off course, and the pilot who’s had a shiver of foreboding rounding an uninhabited head is willing to believe the stories of a haunted lighthouse, far off the regular routes, which the Phoenicians used to heed.
* Is anyone else interested in working together to get that going again? (I’m intending to add something soon, you see). There’s also a bunch of seacrawling stuff out there… must work on adding it to Links to Wisdom…