Back to the bad old 6-mile hex
So the topic of the enormous howling waste of the 6 mile hex has come up again. Here Steamtunnel remarks that all of Bethsoft’s Oblivion fits in a 4 mile square. Commenters note that verisimilitude for computer games is different from what you’d expect in an RPG.
Anyway, it is true: settlements and incident are distributed very unevenly across the land. Monsters and Manuals made this point cogently with some one-mile rectangles around Britain.
Behold Brielle. I know I’ve mentioned it before but that’s because it’s such a great little DnD one-horse town, with room for a blacksmith and a chemist’s and a mill and not much else. We can see from the still-standing 17th century fortifications exactly how big the place was 400 years ago. It’s about a third of a mile long by a fifth of a mile wide. It could probably support itself on… 2 square miles of good farmland? (that would provide 640 people with 2 acres each, which J. P. Sommerville thinks is reasonable and right now I’m too lazy to disagree). So it occupies one small corner of a 6 mile hex.
Leiden’s a more respectable candidate for a “hex of city.” That jagged square of canal-moat gives you an idea (though the boundaries of the city are less certain in fact, since successful towns always break their enceintes). At the time of its great ditch digging, Leiden was a successful linen-weaving town and trade hub, big enough to support some organized crime and intrigue with nearby cities – an ideal place for a major expedition to set off from. It’s about a mile on its long axis by 2/3 of a mile across. Not very different from burgeoning powerhouse Amsterdam in 1600, which would grow to about 4 times that area by virtue of becoming NW Europe’s major entrepot in the first era of global trade.
And between the two, if we were to lay a 6 mile hex grid down, what would we find in the roughly 5 hexes that separate them, during the 17th century (for which we actually have good maps, even if they do show west as up)?
On a fairly straight line, representing a reasonable route of travel, 11 noteworthy communities (let’s call them Brielle-sized, more or less) including the regionally important city of Delft. And within convenient reach, two cities of comparable size with Leiden but greater importance: the shipping center of Rotterdam and The Hague, seat of power for the entire Dutch Republic.
My choice of the Dutch Republic is not accidental for this experiment, since it was one of the most densely populated territories in Europe at the time under consideration – it’s a good upper limit for your pseudowhatever.
Now check out the fortified palace district of the Khiva, in Khorasan (Islamdom’s Northeast Frontier province in the 10th century). You can make out the jagged line of the wall fairly clearly there: it’s a more or less N-S rectangle, about the same size as Brielle but with a totally different population profile since it represents the ruling class’s bolthole, surrounded by the unprotected city of the lower classes.
Alas we don’t have any particularly good idea of how big the whole of Khiva was in the 10th century, nor how much (far from good) farmland was required to support it. But check out the density of settlements around it. The much smaller town of Qoshkopir is about 2 hexes away (10 miles), the comparably-large Urgench rejoices in its control of the Oxus river trade route about 3 hexes away. But once you’re out of that oasis and you’ve said farewell to the meagre orchards of Hazorasp, you’re in for a 33 hex journey through friendless desert to Bukhara (more like 36 of you follow the river) or 42 hexes to the Abode of the Mad Archmage at Ashgabad. Or, for that matter, 40 hexes to Merv. Here you have to use your imagination a bit more, since the city is buried under desert scrub. But take my word for it – well over 6 square miles of dense, Ankh-Morporkian/Vornheimian urban life, with a wall around it and a separate fortified ruling quarter within (and another within that), home to (maybe) more than a million people – one of the 12th century’s premier destinations, graced by the astronomer and sometime poet Omar Khayyam, seat of the (latter, diminished) Great Seljuk sultans – it’s truly a hex full of city. On its own oasis, with a whole lot of desert around it in every direction.
What’s my point? Maybe that the 6 mile hex encourages a certain uniformity that’s not very naturalistic – or, rather, that the real world is not always very obliging in providing regular encounters. But also I think the size of hexes isn’t really important in itself: it’s really what that size implies about the world that I find interesting. Hexes tend to represent one unit of interesting stuff, for which it’s worth dropping out of fast-forward travel mode. As such they represent the degree of compression of the narrative (and the overall dangerousness of the region, since hexes also represent repetitive risk of random encounters). In the garden of the Netherlands perhaps a village is hardly worth mentioning – you could trip over a dozen on a day’s hard march. In the open steppe/desert of Khorasan, however, a string of hexes represents a logistical challenge. And one lonely watchtower is worth a playable detour.
I guess I’m saying make your hexes the size you want dramatically. And if you don’t have much to say about a certain tract of country… well, hexes are useful for tracking all sorts of stuff: gun ranges, use of supplies, visibility. I don’t advocate ditching a uniform scale to speed up desert or sea travel. But how about this: when you roll for random encounters, the number you get is the number of hexes until you have to roll again (minus one, so if you roll a 1 it’s an encounter right here). Then the density of encounters can be represented by the size of the die you roll: d4 along the river, d6 across country, d10 across the desert, d20 across the sea.
ETA: oh yeah, some other stuff I wrote about 6 mile hexes: how far you can see across the Greek Islands, and a correction to that post, which shows you can actually see pretty much the whole of the Minoan saltbox from a couple of places.