RPG-ology #5: Country Roads

This is RPG-ology #5: Country Roads, for April 2018.


Of course, role playing game referees almost always have maps, and many of us make most of our own maps. The fact is that you don’t really necessarily need maps, and we’ll probably eventually talk about running games without them, but for most of the kinds of games most of us play, maps are an important part. I even belong to a Facebook group dedicated entirely to game referees making and sharing their maps. Honestly some of them look more like aerial photography, but that’s useful too. Questions often arise about how to make maps, and having been a Boy Scout and having taught Cub Scouts a few Scout skills over the years, I’m pretty good at maps. So we’ll probably return to them from time to time. One of the questions I often hear, though, is how do you design the roads on your maps. If you don’t understand how roads work, you can do some pretty silly things with them.

This article is going to talk about what we’re dubbing “country roads”, with apologies to John Denver, but we’re including wilderness roads, desert roads, pretty much any road that is outside the confines of a city—the long roads that take you from one major place to another in your adventure setting, the road on which your adventurers set out when they began that took them somewhere else. Some of what we’ll talk about applies to city streets as well, but they have their own complications and issues, so maybe we’ll come back to them in another article.

As one of my characters once said, roads always go from somewhere to somewhere, even if it’s only from the house to the barn. Once you know that, the second thing to realize is that a road will always make the straightest line it reasonably can—unless there is a good reason not to do so. The rest of this article is about those good reasons.

We expect that the Yellow Brick Road goes in the straightest possible line from Munchkinland to Oz. Why would it not? Well, that’s what this article is about, but let’s begin with the assumption that it does. Because it’s a reasonably well-traveled road, places are going to spring up along it. You don’t build an inn in the middle of nowhere and expect that people are going to wander into it. You do build an inn roughly a day’s travel from Munchkinland toward Oz, because after traveling all day travelers are going to want food and a place to rest. The presence of the inn is going to mean the innkeeper lives there, has a stable for horses of whatever colors, and hires a few people to help care for customers. That creates the beginning of a town, a dry goods shop, maybe a vegetable market for the local farm goods. These will recur periodically, as long as there is a water supply (a well will do, or even a cistern if there’s periodic rain) and a way to obtain food.

What, though, if the Trick River lies between Oz and Munchkinland? That becomes an obstacle, and what the road does depends very much on how we are going to cross the river. Now the road does not take the straightest route from Munchkinland to Oz; it takes the straightest route from Munchkinland to the crossing of the Trick River to Oz. There are three kinds of crossings, and because they are different they will be in different places, different kinds of places, and it might mean that there is an old road and a new road.

The simplest crossing is a ford. You can’t ford a river just anywhere. Where the river is deep, you will have trouble getting horses across and more trouble with carts or wagons, livestock or people. You need the river to be shallow. But where rivers are shallow, generally the water is moving very swiftly over uneven rocks, and if it’s shallow and narrow you have rapids, which are hazardous crossings in the best conditions. Thus fords are almost always at points where the river widens out on an open plain, so that it can be wide, shallow, and moving at a moderate speed. When the Scarecrow is looking down on those three roads, the oldest of them is probably the one that goes straight to the ford; it is also likely the center of the three roads at Scarecrow’s crossroads, because it was originally the straight route to the only crossing. The other two were created later. Of course, the diverging roads need not form a perfect cross–after all, the roads to the ferry and the bridge are going to go as straight as they can to those crossings, so they might both split to the same side of the road, we might have a fork here and another fork in one of the roads farther along the way.

The second goes to the ferry. The crossing here does not need to be so shallow—in fact, if it is too shallow the boat will run aground. The ferryman will have provided a dock on both sides of a wide, deep, slow section of the river. He probably doesn’t want it too deep, because it is easier to pole across than to row across, but rowing is an option, and in some places so is hauling the boat across the river by rope or chain. Ferries tend to be downstream from fords, because you need a deeper, slower river, and rivers tend to get deeper and wider as you follow them downstream. Of course, some people will still take the ford, even if (not necessarily the case) the ferry is the shorter and faster route, because you have to pay the ferryman.

Eventually someone will decide that there is enough traffic between Oz and Munchkinland to warrant building a bridge. Bridges have entirely different requirements. The best spot is a very narrow space with high solid banks, such as a narrow rocky gorge. You want it to be narrow enough that you can build a single arch supported on the banks that will span the rushing river below. The wider the river is, the harder it is to build such a bridge. If the river is too wide, then you have to look for a place where you can build support structures from the riverbed to uphold the roadbed. There is a great deal of work involved. Because of the erosive force of the river, the pilings will almost certainly have to have their roots buried in the earth some distance. Bridges have weight limits, of course, but the architect will make every effort to make his bridge as strong as he can imagine needing it to be. The owner of the bridge will probably charge a toll, unless the local monarch pays for it from other tax monies to encourage taxable trade.

The bridge might put the ferry out of business. It is likely also significantly to reduce traffic to the ford. Businesses which appeared along the previously well-traveled roads to the older crossings will struggle and may fail; old towns might become ghost towns.  Eventually the ferry road becomes a dead end, a road to nowhere but the bank of the river, or to the small town that still survives alongside the waterway but no longer has the commerce it once boasted.  It might become a chore to find someone willing and able to ferry someone across the river, particularly with horses and wagons.

Perhaps Rock Candy Mountain is also between Munchkinland and Oz. Mountains pose several other problems. Nobody wants to go straight up a mountain, and really nobody wants to go straight down a mountain, either. That doesn’t even take into consideration that mountains often have slopes that are nearly vertical, which only rock climbers and mountain goats can negotiate.

Our Yellow Brick Road is not going to take us directly over Rock Candy Mountain. It probably isn’t even going to take us directly to it. It is going to go around it, and it is going to aim for going around it all the way from wherever it was we crossed the Trick River. But lone mountains are rare—volcanoes can cause them, but most mountains are caused by continental drift over eons creating upthrust, and so form ragged mountain ranges. That means we either go a very long distance around the mountain range, or we aim for a mountain pass. A pass is simply a low point between two peaks where the upthrust mountains did not go as high. Passes also become temporary streambeds in heavy rains or spring thaws, as they are the obvious path for the water to wash downhill; if, as is almost always so, there are mountain springs, outlets where upthrust water under pressure escapes to return to the dominion of gravity, these streams become permanent and merge into rivers and lakes in the low points of the uneven terrain. The road that runs through that pass is going to follow the best ground, which means looking for a gradual slope of reasonably solid wide ground that probably winds its way up one side and down the other, frequently alongside these waterways. Absent that, the road might take a ledge along the side of a mountain, sheer wall to one side, sheer drop to the other. Here the natural terrain dictates a less than straight path to reach the other side.

Those terrain problems occur in other places as well. Sometimes in hilly country roads will meander a bit to stay relatively level, avoiding the tops of hills and the bottoms of dales as much as possible. Marshes often have natural causeways which become roads as the locals enhance them, and these might not run exactly straight across the swamp. Where there are huge free-standing boulders, roads often go around these. Terrain features can cause roads to wander, too, by the location of necessary natural resources, such as waterholes or oases along a cattle drive or a caravan route.

There are also roads leading up into the mountains, because people live up there or work hunting, foresting, or digging rock candy out of the mines. These roads do not go straight, for two good reasons. The one we’ve already noted: it is difficult to go straight up the slope, and by having the road zig-zag up the side we make the climb longer but easier. The other is erosion. We learned a long time ago that if you create straight trails down the sides of hills or mountains, when it rains the rain turns them into streams and rivers and washes away the soil carving them into deep steep gullies. Thus we design such trails, and primitive roads, with what are called switchbacks, zig-zagging paths which move across a wide stretch rising only slightly, then turn sharply to do the same in the opposite direction. The water still runs down the trails, but not as fast. Curbing on the downhill side helps contain runoff and keep the road from washing away. On dirt trails we also install crossbeams periodically to catch the silt and slow the destruction, creating what to the uninformed look like giant stairways, but that doesn’t work as well on roads.

We also have to take into account the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West and the surrounding Haunted Forest. We don’t want to pass through her territory if we can avoid it. Thus our Yellow Brick Road veers away from it and curves around it, taking us to Oz by the most direct route that does not cross her land. There might be other areas of private property we skirt, although in most cases the Wizard will simply decree a right-of-way, that travelers are permitted to cross that private land as long as they stay on the public road. Sometimes roads veer toward local landowners, if their presence predates the road and they want it to serve their transportation needs.

You also have roads that branch off roads. That road that comes off the mountain does not head straight for Munchkinland—it heads straight for the town at the base of the mountain, and roads run from there to connect to the Yellow Brick Road so travelers can take it, the most direct route, toward Munchkinland or toward Oz.

There is one other reason why the Yellow Brick Road does not run perfectly straight from Munchkinland to Oz: it’s a very long road, and you cannot see the one place from the other. When you are leaving Munchkinland, you cannot even see the Scarecrow’s cornfield, the Tinman’s orchard, or the Lion’s forest. You cannot see the ford, the ferry, or the bridge; perhaps you cannot see the mountains well enough to aim for the pass. So when the first travelers began creating the road, they said, “Oz is that way,” and they went that way for a day or so, until they could see the Trick River well enough to know where the ford was, and then they turned the road slightly to aim for the ford. From there they could see where the mountains were, and they headed for the mountains, but as they got closer they turned the road to aim more directly for the pass. Coming down out of the mountains, they then had to aim away from the witch’s wood, the Haunted Forest, and they weren’t entirely certain where the boundary was so they went a bit wide, and then again corrected their course once they had a bearing on Oz.

With modern roads we’ve been known to dynamite the sides of mountains, drill tunnels through cliff faces, build causeways over swamplands and waterways, suspend bridges from pilings, and evict private citizens from homes where we want to build highways. Our surveying techniques have improved such that we can draw straight lines from wherever we are directly toward where we want to be (although at least the Greeks and the Egyptians had these abilities). Even so, many of these rules still apply, and the roads in your worlds which connect the major points should be built with them in mind.


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