Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Real-life Hexcrawl Manual

Randolph Marcy by Matthew Brady,
Courtesy Library of Congress, Public Domain
     About 30 years ago, on a Permanent Change of Station from San Diego to New York City, we traveled via Old Fort Laramie on the Oregon Trail.  Not much left but some foundations being cleared by archaeologists, a nice diorama and a gift shop.  Oh, and the wagon ruts left by travelers over a century in the past.  Have the Polaroid of the boys standing in them somewhere.  My souvenir was a reprint of Captain Randolph Marcy's guidebook The Prairie Traveler - it turned up today when I was looking for something else.

     Captain Marcy was an experienced frontier hand with the pre-Civil War US Army.  In 1859, he published his travel guide for settlers, providing them with information on the routes to the west, practical tips on overcoming obstacles like rivers and broken wagons.  How to tell if the horse tracks were a group on Indians moving their lodges, on a hunting or war party or just wild mustangs, snake-bite remedies, how to pack mules and make a horse stretcher, etc, etc and may I say etc yet again.  In less than 300 pages, with illustrations, he packaged up as much knowledge as he could to keep the migrants alive across the prairie and mountains.

     What catches my eye now, because of some posts I'm working on concerning the Wilderlands trade routes and boundaries, is that he includes itineraries for a number of routes.  Stop by stop distances, descriptions and information about forage, wood and water.  In gaming, most systems assume that overland travel proceeds at a constant rate day over day - and on average you can say that.  However, the rates of movement are based on the speed of the mount or walker, with a multiplier for terrain that increases or more usually decreases the daily movement - generally about 25 miles/day when mounted.  In reading through the actual itineraries, and doing some back of the envelope calculations, I find that the average journey between camping spots was 14-16 miles.  But depending on the availability of forage, wood and water, any given leg of the journey varied between 2 and 52 miles.  In hindsight, it's obvious "Professionals study logistics" - a hexcrawl should  take this into account.

Questions and Notes:
     How accurate are the distances given?  Pre-Civil War West Point education was very civil engineering and land survey oriented.  One of the lessons of the Napoleonic wars that the European militaries had picked up and transmitted in the writings of von Clausewitz and Jominie to America, was the importance of accurate knowledge of the terrain.  Indeed in reading about the Civil War generals, it's remarkable how many of them had left service to work on the railroads where their knowledge was critical in driving the rail lines through as cheaply as possible.

    Horses vs Oxen - he addresses both, as well as mule teams, but the itineraries do not differ based on your choice of draft animals.  Again, the logistics of where you can stop determines how far you will travel, you just might take an hour longer to get there.

    Could an ox team really go over 50 miles in a day?  While that's the first impression, I think it's a bit erroneous.  The itineraries aren't really explained well, almost all of the stops are less than 25 miles apart, 8 hours at 3 MPH pretty much gets you there in a single day.  But in a separate section, he talks about how to cross long distances between campgrounds like the 78 mile Journado del Muerto in New Mexico.  There the journey is done over two nights, there simply isn't any place to camp and there may not be water.  He recommends traveling at night, resting the animals every couple of hours, longer the second night.


  1. Amazing! And it's even still in print. Blackwell's has it for a tenner. Or Project Gutenberg for free http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/23066

    The route descriptions have a certain Roman itenerary feel about them.

    Thanks for pointing this one out.