Measuring long distances in D&D – time matters

Distances in the modern world are measured quite accurately. Whether you use Google Maps (or whatever your favorite similar app is) or even just wayfinding markers, much of the inhabited world is known. The distance from place to place is precise. But when you’re wandering the wilderness your characters do not need that level of precision, nor would they have it.

A sign indicating a distance of 1/4 mile or 400 meters from the last marker.

Miles, why?

A mile originated as 1000 paces of road and marked off by an ancient fallen empire. It later gets corrupted by locals to mean dozens of dozens of slightly different things. They only make sense in a world where there was a unitary fallen empire that had a vast majority of its residents be of the medium races.

This makes sense in some fantasy worlds, but not many. A single cohesive empire within the primary region is a story that is sometimes told, but only those that marched soldiers would use a mile.

Now, for players, rather than characters, the mile has the advantage of being what Americans use for distance, and the majority of Dungeons and Dragons players are Americans. It’s a handy shorthand for distance.

It remains though a measure of distance with an accuracy that is meaningless. It does not matter if the next village/cave/castle/dragon is 7.2 miles away.

Immersive Travel Distances

What matters is “how long does it take to get there?

That’s what characters need to know. Thereby that’s what DMs need to know. Travel time is the key. How many encounters (social, exploration, or combat) will happen during the journey. Do the characters need to stock up on supplies? Do they need to find a cart or mount due to the distance? Do they need to hurry?

So throw out the mile. It’s unnecessarily precise for your game. Just like the number of minutes you travel don’t matter in the majority of your sessions. Abilities that impact travel are measured in time, not mileage.

Replace miles with a measure of distance that relates to what the characters know. Make it simple enough that your players know what it is as well.

Introducing the League

Borrow from the league. This is a great measure to use in your game world. Yes, it’s also based in that ancient empire. In this case it was the marching distance that a soldier could travel on a road in an hour. It works out to basically 3 miles, which is extra handy, because that’s the number of miles that D&D says a human character travels in an hour.

This means you do not need to convert any of your maps that display mileage. Just divide it by 3 and you know how many leagues separate the two locations – easy.

Throw in some variants similar to Welsh measures of distance with the short yoke, the lateral yoke, and the long yoke, and you can capture the nature of travel by shorter races, pony/dog/donkey, horse. These slightly different names help with immersion because in D&D there are essentially four different speeds that matter.

Photo by Anugrah Lohiya on Pexels.com

Travel Distances Chart

Race, Creature, or VehicleCombat SpeedHourDay
Halfling, Gnome, Kobold, Goblin25′ or 5 pacesShort League (2.5 miles)Short Journ’ or A Daylong (20 miles)
Human, Elf, Dwarf30′ or 6 pacesStandard League (3 miles)Daylong Journey (24 miles)
Cart, Dog, Pony40′ or 8 pacesLateral League (4 miles)Daylong (28 miles)*
Horses60′ or 12 pacesLong League (6 miles)Long Journey (36 miles)*
*animals don’t like being ridden for quite as long as humans like to march.

Introducing the Daylong Journey

That last column is another measurement that matters – the day. In a given adventuring day a party should take two rests and a long rest. They could do those overnight or during the daylight, depending on the party makeup and whether there is a need to hide from baddies.

Take those rests whether or not there is combat. The fact of the matter is that when people or horses march of hours and hours and hours they need to rest. There’s even a mechanic for forced marches (pg 181 of the PHB) if you want to avoid those rests and push through. Those groups run the risk of exhaustion.

There is no historic English word for a daylong journey, so just call it a daylong journey in Common. But also recognize that some societies might abbreviate it. The common perception of halflings in most fantasy worlds might call it a Joun’ or just a Daylong. Those cultures that use carts or dogs or ponies might not use a different word. They just know they travel a tiny bit faster, but not a lot faster than humans.

You can still use the page 182 PHB chart about Fast or Slow travel too. Fast travel is 33% faster than normal travel and harms your passive traits like Perception and/or Survival for tracking. Slow travel is 33% increase in time spent travelling, but you can use Stealth for the group (as a reminder a group check means each player rolls for success and if 50% or more succeed the group succeeds).


To Sum Up

  • Don’t get caught up in granularity.
  • You’re going on an adventure, not a trip to the grocery store.
  • Do use measurements that your characters care about – a league and daylong journey.
  • Use a system that most of your group likes, which could still be the boring mile.

2 thoughts on “Measuring long distances in D&D – time matters

  1. Pingback: Lore Collage: D&D Virtual Weekend signups this week | Full Moon Storytelling

  2. I like the details you have expressed here Dave… In-world, I seldom use overland distances for travel. As you describe, I use travel times: it would take you about a half day on foot, it’s a full day’s ride by horse/cart, etc. Of course, in buildings/dungeons/structures or during encounters, I use feet (since all of the mechanics are built around this). Out-of-character, I do use traditional distances, because, as you mention, it is a frame of reference that players understand. I love the notion of having world-specific terminology based on practical realities as well – it seems like it would add additional flavor/ambiance.

    Liked by 2 people

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