So, three years ago I wrote about Points of Light and Points of Darkness as campaign styles. In running Lost Mine of Phandelver I’ve realized just how present I find the issue in the Starter Set as written (and, by assumption, within the 5E Forgotten Realms setting).
Many people have made the observation of how LMoP is set up like a Western – frontier mining town, bullying bandits, lost treasure mines, hostile natives, people to rescue from said hostile natives, etc. But there are problems in translating a “wild west” setting to both a somewhat generic fantasy Europe as well as the Forgotten Realms.
For one, just as simple size comparison, think about “Ye Merry Old England” and the time and trouble it took to travel around, as well as the concept of distance in that setting. Now understand that England is about the size of Illinois. On a standard hexmap sheet with each hex set at 30 miles (ala the old Greyhawk scale), it covers less than a quarter of a page.
The issues of scale between Europe and the societies that developed there and America simply cannot be understated. To this day I have had friends come visit from Europe who simply don’t get the sheer size and scope of the United States/North America until they get here. They fly into NYC and then talk about catching a train out to Chicago while they are in the States to have dinner (like you reasonably could, and do, in Great Britain) and having to explain to them that that would be like taking the train to Berlin for dinner (from London). That the driving distance from New York to Chicago is roughly the longest distance between two points in the whole of the United Kingdom…
But I digress.
In LMOP I am supposed to believe that Thundertree is a day’s journey from Neverwinter (vying with Waterdeep for the status of the “New York” of the Forgotten Realms), maybe two if we want to be a stickler on terrain difficulty, and is still in the shape that it is. Similarly, that Phandalin, clearly three days from Neverwinter but is a hardscabble frontier town, and that this wonderful Forge of Spells was utterly and completely lost after the goblins trashed the countryside.
This makes no sense.
Just to support the population of Neverwinter (be it 20,000 or 5,000 inhabitants) the whole area would have to be cultivated – certainly based on the setting map provided. It’s the only non-forested areas around. A decent rule of thumb for modern agriculture in the United States is to assume 1 acre of land can feed one person for a year. There are 640 acres per square mile, so figure… lets say 8 square miles if it’s 5000 people in Neverwinter or 32 square miles of solid crops if it is 20,000 inhabitants.
Except of course that this doesn’t cover the food needed for all the people growing the food itself (same, 1 acre per person), nor does it cover space needed for grazing livestock (a very complicated question but, again, modern systems could safely call it 4 acres per cow, or 6ish sheep), nor does it cover the amount of land needed for proper crop rotation (either double it or increase it by a third), or…
About now is where I plug Pendragon for having the absolutely best domain level game out there in my opinion. Detailed where it is fun, abstracted where you need it to be. In that system (which is essentially supported in spirit if not the exact numbers by all my other research on this over the years) every town (or city) will have three, yes three, people living in small villages and hamlets around it for every one person living in that town (and manor). It’s also worth noting that a “small town” is between 120-360 people in size. A large town taps out at 1440 people, after which you are talking about small cities (which are no larger than 2400 people at most) and in a days travel you’d probably pass through a handful of these towns, plus their associated villages – and all of the knights and men-at-arms protecting them!
For another take on this, with equally as “that’s not what the Forgotten Realms looks like” numbers there is Medieval Demographics Made Easy by S. John Ross as well (and free!). In either case, there are still large amounts of “wasted space” simply because, well, that is what population density looked like.
The problem with making this a “Points of Light” setting is that the “wasted land” is “wasted” for a reason – it simply won’t support more people (that means goblins too!). Yes, it dangerous because of wolves and bears (and some level of fantasy analogues), even the odd bandit gang (or humanoid band) – but it’s mostly dangerous because of the lack of food, medical care if injured, and foul weather. Not to mention the risk of simply getting lost -it’s not romantic, or particularly heroic, but it has a fair sight more verisimilitude.
I am kind of lost in my rant. I guess that I’m saying that if you want “Points of Light” then you really have to question your base assumptions on how urban populations are supported. Similarly, the “Sea of Darkness” isn’t there because of hordes of monsters it’s because it pretty much won’t support a population. Alternately, if it can for some reason support all those monsters, then civilization needs to be capable of protecting itself (certainly not the case in Phandalin).
Oh well, it’s late and I should get to bed.