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August 31, 2007, 10:13 am

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Systems of Measurement


Systems of measurement might not sound like the most interesting of things, but they can be used to good effect in a role play campaign. There are three main ways I can think of: 1) Adding colour; 2) Culture shock and 3) Archaic systems.

This seems to be one of the few subjects that hasn’t yet been covered in this forum (unless I’ve missed the post and it has), so I thought I’d write something about it.

Systems of measurement might not sound like the most interesting of things, but they can be used to good effect in a role play campaign. There are three main ways I can think of: 1) Adding colour; 2) Culture shock and 3) Archaic systems.

1) Adding colour.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with doing a campaign using standard imperial (or metric) units. However, inventing your own system can be used to add a bit of colour to the campaign and, unlike some other things you can do (such as inventing your own language), is incredibly easy. If you don’t want to complicate things too much you can quite easily make the new measures reasonably similar to the others (after all, a foot was based on the length of a foot, etc. so it’s reasonably to assume that other cultures might have similar measurements). Even if you want keep some of the basic measurements such as feet and inches, why not change the length of a mile, or always work in leagues? There are also plenty of ancient imperial measurements which you can resurrect, such as chains, furlongs, roods, etc. However, its once you’ve decided on a measurement system for your culture that things can really get interesting. Points 2 and 3 are equally useful whatever system of measurement you’re using as your basic one.

2) Culture shock.

Suppose the PCs travel to a different continent. What makes you think that that continent will use the same system of measurement. After all, Britain uses a different system to the rest of Europe, the differences could be even greater in a world with much less rapid travel and communication. By using a different system of measurement, you can really bring it home to the PCs that they are not just in another port town, but in a totally different part of the world (of course, there are lots of other things you can do in conjunction with the measurement thing). This is something that should hit them every time they ask for directions or walk in to a tavern. Whilst you can continue describing the scenery in normal measurements, if every NPC they speak to uses the new one, they’ll initially not know what anyone’s talking about. "So, how long is 1 Kheldam? Yes, I know its 7 Onacs, but how long is one of those?" After a while, of course, they’ll start getting used to it, but they will keep having to think about it (and to translate "normal" measurements in to it if they speak to anyone), which should serve as a constant reminder that they’re "not at home".

A potentially much more interesting thing you can do is to keep the system the same but just change how big one of the units is (whilst keeping the same name). Again, there is precedent for this: in the US, 1 pint = 16fl oz but in Britain 1 pint = 20fl oz (this also causes the gallons to be different sizes). More significantly, in Norway a mile is 6 times longer than a "conventional" mile (i.e. the one used in Britain and America that is about 1.6km)

Imagine springing this on your PCs. They ask directions to a nearby town and get told it is 10 miles away.
Easy, they think, "We can make that in a day. So, they set off and, 18 miles later, night is falling and they’re forced to make camp in the middle of the wilderness. As well as setting up a situation for any kind of encounter you might wish, it will also totally baffle them. They will probably start wondering why the person they met lied to them. If they read the distance off a map, they’ll wonder what is going on. When, on the eve of the next day, they still haven’t reached it they may decide to return - potentially costing valuable time and, depending on the nature of your group, may react in all kinds of ways to the NPC who "lied" to them. Of course, no-one else will understand what they’re getting worked up about, particularly as they (probably) won’t get what’s wrong either. Incidentally, this happened in reverse to a Norwegian friend of mine. Fortunately, as she had come to England, she had a pleasant surprise (she was told somewhere was 1/3 of a mile and decided to walk it, thinking it was about 3km when actually of course it was 500m).

3) Archaic measurement systems

In the past, society probably didn’t use the same system of measurement as now. Furthermore, since these old systems are now dead, there was probably something wrong with them (in that maybe they weren’t so easy to use: think of the way metric is gradually superseding imperial). It’s quite nice to give your PCs a set of directions to the treasure that they don’t understand because the units are archaic. This can spark interesting side-quests to find someone who can translate it. Another thing is to let them find a map of the dungeon they’re in which marks all the traps, but in an old measurement system. Of course, they’ll figure it out eventually (and then the map will be very useful), but until then things will be fun. For some reason, having a map you can’t understand which tells you where the traps are seems to be much more infuriating than just having to look for the traps without a map.

If you’re GMing a group which enjoys puzzles and riddles (which I am at the moment), you can have a lot of fun with the fact that old measurement systems might have been rather illogical. For example, we use logarithmic scales to measure sound and earthquakes: maybe an old system used a log scale for distance. Perhaps the most bizarre one I’ve created was the Karn system of measurement. In this, the length measurement had the zero point at 62 and went up in 4 increments (i.e. 54’ was actually -2 Ka). This might sound crazy but we all accept it in temperature without a second thought. Of course, strange things happen when you start adding things up. Anyway, there were only two clues I left to figure this out (figuring it out was fairly necessary to their having much chance in the abandoned ruins they were in): the first was a broken ruler that showed the difference between 2Ka and 3Ka, and 1Ka and 2Ka was 4; the second was a scrawled statement saying 2+3=20. They did manage to get it in the end.

Additional Ideas (6)

Some intriguing ideas, Iain! I think in a fantasy world the differences between systems of measurement would be even more exaggerated. For instance, a hobbit mile would be less than a human mile which would be less than a giants' mile. Also, some creatures, like trolls, have difficulty counting because they're so thick, so their system of measurement might be less easy to follow...

Hathalfar holds the writhing troll down with his gloved fist and sword. The beast squirms at the touch of metal. "How far is Kolm?" he demands for the third time. "I said! A long way away," replies the troll.

Trollish measurement:
Despite their inability to quantify distance, trolls are nevertheless very good at judging it. Their small minds cannot cope with the metaphor of describing lengths with numbers. They simply have a good intuitive grasp.
# "Near" corresponds to ~ 20m
# "Not far" corresponds to ~ 1km
# "A fair way" corresponds to ~ 5km
# "Quite far" corresponds to ~ 10km
# "A good walk" corresponds to ~ 30km
# "A long way away" corresponds to ~ 100km
# "As far as the eye can see" varies with visibility
So a city that's about 150km away would be described as being "A long way away and then a good walk after that" which isn't too useful till you know how trolls think about distance...

2005-11-25 01:48 AM » Link: [1782#8311|text]
That's a great point Ephe! I hadn't even considered non-human-sized races having systems of measurement. Remind me never to ask for directions from a troll. I guess flying races (dragons, gryphons, etc.) could have even more different measurements - they could just be a lot longer, or maybe they count the distance between a mountain-top as 1 unit, no matter how far that is (or something like that).

2005-11-25 01:49 AM » Link: [1782#8312|text]
"You just go to Silverpeak, then two west, one north, and you will find it." - an eagle describing the way.

2008-10-02 05:13 AM » Link: [1782#67590|text]
Great article. Thank you very much for sharing. Yet another thing I find I neglect in my games. I am a horrible DM.

The easiest way that I do it is just call the distance by time. Judge it on a brisk walk or a horse's trot (now, again, we have differences in breeds and or races) and we have 1/2 days journey or would take till midmorning or 2 days and till breakfast type distances.

Could also make the distances based on landmarks. Say the distance from the Glory rock and the Chair of the King is about 2 miles so that can be translated to 1 Glory.

"It be 5 glorys to the next town" type thing. Could use any great landmarks for that or use many different types.

"It be 2 glorys and a chapel to get there." Could have some fun with that. Might be some universals but maybe each region has adopted their own measurements.

Anyway, I now have a dream of putting together all these great articles into something I can use as reference for world building so I don't miss a trick.

2005-11-25 01:49 AM » Link: [1782#8313|text]
A real life tidbit: In the area where I live, we actually measure distance by how long it will take to get there. I have said to people asking for directions: "Yeah, that's about thirty minutes going that way."

2005-11-25 01:50 AM » Link: [1782#8314|text]
Same thing as Ria. I measure major distances by time traveled, not by actual units of distance. After all, that's honestly what matters to me when making a trip: how long will it take? I'm quite sure it'll be the same way in most fantasy realms.

2008-03-18 03:13 PM » Link: [1782#64324|text]
I think even in a big country where they basically use the same metric system, you can play around with it.

In medieval days when Europe wasn't so "organised", every single guy that thought he meant something, would have coins made with his face on it. Not only that, since there were no approved central weights yet, a pound or a gold bar would weigh more or less depending on where you were and which weights they used. So things can get quite interesting just shopping on the market.

Not only that but some rivals might not allow eachother's coins in their area.

Also think of all the merchants that try to take advantage of the chaos and make much lighter or heavier weights.

2005-11-25 01:53 AM » Link: [1782#8315|text]
Exotic races could be made a bit more exotic by simply thinking in a different numeric system - how about binary for the math fans?

But let's take octal, for instance, which can be so easily confused with decimal. Especially spider creatures or spider-worshipping cultures are likely to use octal, though others can be imagined, too.

(Remember: 10 octal ~ 8 decimal; 100 octal ~ 64 decimal; 1000 ~ 512 etc. Now see how those old maps and markings lie to you...)

2005-11-25 01:54 AM » Link: [1782#8316|text]
Along those lines, the arcane population could have its own system, and what about the different guilds? In my world the magic users often are the ones with the octal system, and I have one of the major multi-national religoins us a base 12 system (N.B. Most of this only aplies to the OLD maps and the like...but only a few of the oldest people in a the guild/temple/school know that.)

2005-11-25 01:58 AM » Link: [1782#8317|text]
Things I have discovered

Upon researching weights and measures while doing the Gamer's Dictionary of Measurements, I have come to several conclusions.

1) Most measures are based upon a human body. In a poly-species environment, there might be Elven Feet, Dwarven Feet, and Human Feet.

2) Beer and to a lesser extent Wine and Spirits are very important. There are more measurement systems for these, that are seperate or parallel with the standard ones, than anything else.

3) Standards endure: Once someone sets a standard and it is enforced for a while by tradition or necessity, it sticks. The English measurement systems are proof of this. The reason the space shuttle is the width it is, is because of the stadard width of a Roman chariot (it determined the width of roads and the average length of a cart axel (ruts in road), which determined the width of mining cars, which determined the width of railroads ties and rail size, which determined the load length of launch pads.... )

4) Any field of study or area of endevor will have its own special measurements, both formal and informal. These will either be flippent, based upon where they came from, or the name of the person who created them. If you don't have the appropriate skills, you should have no clue as to what you have bought. Folio is a good example of this.

5) If magic is studied in groups, there should be units like the Gandalf (unit of pyrotechnic width), Flambeu (measure of magical fire), Nortons (measure of illusionary quality), etc. these names will come from historic practioners OR the guy who came up with them. This way "effects" can be measures; so contests, bets, and the occasional measure of progress can be resolved.

6) Some scholar will come up with an "odd unit" to quantify what ever they are studying. Of course others might use the unit, no matter how stupid it is, just for the sake of argument/ discussion.

2005-11-25 02:11 AM » Link: [1782#8320|text]
Remember too, that the very thing you're measuring might be called something wierd, particularly when you're talking about things that are outside of what the traditional boundary of normal sciences.

In modern particle physics, we talk about things such as the 'color', 'charm' and 'strangeness' of a particle. A magician may talk about the '415 Gandalfs of pyros' a spell gives off when referring specifically to the visible light a it generates, while it may be powered by '712 Kreskins of psios'.. And remember, this usually all gets abbreviated. And possibly metricced. So, what happens when your adventurers get into the mighty wizard's lab? Five thousand pages of equations and furiously scribbled notes like: '17 kK insuf contmt. Need H2O, 17 c, STAT, else 1000 mHB!'

Yes. Laboratory notebooks really do look like that. It irks the lawyers to no end.

2005-11-25 02:12 AM » Link: [1782#8321|text]
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Comments ( 14 )
Commenters gain extra XP from Author votes.

Voted MoonHunter
November 25, 2005, 2:13
I do so like this article.
Voted manfred
November 25, 2005, 7:12
Only voted
Voted Pariah
July 28, 2006, 23:08
Only voted
August 31, 2007, 10:26
BUMP to the great article!
Voted valadaar
August 31, 2007, 10:34
No idea why I didn't vote before when I last read it...
Voted Michael Jotne Slayer
February 24, 2011, 16:55

I seem to remember viewing this in the forums before the transfer in 05, am I right? Anyway, a great article.

Voted axlerowes
November 1, 2012, 17:27
I like this idea, particularly the culture shock section. But DMing can already be so surreal and the idea that "Furdoor" pint, would be ten times the size of a "Doorfur" pint would make for classic in game gags. Particularly when the PCs get the bill. I also like the suggestion about using the riddles. A Nicely developed take on this,
Voted Chaosmark
December 10, 2015, 23:57
Only voted

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