Itineraria and Peripli: Looking at RPG Maps in a New Way

Happy new year to my fellow fans of all things epic! I certainly hope we all have a better year in 2021. It's been a quiet holiday for me, as can be expected with COVID lockdowns and whatnot. But I've managed to keep things epic with a rewatch of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. (I've always felt those movies are particularly Xmas holiday-themed.)

I've also been running an online Burning Wheel campaign for the past couple months. One of the players, my good friend Tom, recently came up with a great idea which inspired me to write this blog post. I'll just go ahead and quote him below:

"I want to make an epic continent-spanning campaign where the players are from a society that doesn't have the tech for maps and they have to navigate via peripli and itinerania — I guess these are basically just real world node maps." -- Tom 

OK, so chances are you're having the same initial reaction as I did to this and are wondering what peripli and itineraria are. Let me save you the trip to Wikipedia (unless you want to; it's all very interesting) and pull out the important parts for you:

"An iterinerarium (plural: itineraria) was an Ancient Roman road map in the form of a listing of cities, villages (vici) and other stops, with the intervening distances. The Romans and ancient travelers in general did not use maps. They may have existed as specialty items in some of the libraries, but they were hard to copy and were not in general use. On the Roman road system, however, the traveller needed some idea of where he or she was going, how to get there, and how long it would take. The itinerarium filled this need. In origin it was simply a list of cities along a road: "at their most basic, itineraria involve the transposition of information given on milestones, which were an integral feature of the major Roman roads, to a written script." It was only a short step from lists to a master list. To sort out the lists, the Romans drew diagrams of parallel lines showing the branches of the roads. Parts of these were copied and sold on the streets. The very best featured symbols for cities, way stations, water courses, and so on. The maps did not represent landforms but they served the purpose of a simple schematic diagram for the user."Wikipedia

A graphical itinerarium of southern Italy taken from the Tabula Peutingeriana 

The above uses a map-like illustration of the general land shape, but an itinerarium can be as abstract as you like, or even forsake graphical elements altogether. If you can imagine a subway map, with the intersecting lines and waypoint dots, I think you get the picture. Moving on, a periplus (plural: peripli) was similar, but for water travel:

"A periplus or periplous is a manuscript document that lists the ports and coastal landmarks, in order and with approximate intervening distances, that the captain of a vessel could expect to find along a shore. In that sense the periplus was a type of log. It served the same purpose as the later Roman itinerarium of road stops; however, the Greek navigators added various notes which, if they were professional geographers, as many were, became part of their own additions to Greek geography." -- Wikipedia

I find this all very interesting, as I've always been a fan of node maps for adventure writing. A hex map can be quite dull unless you go out of your way to fill every hex with action — which can quickly become overkill as your game world gets more cluttered with foes than Skyrim. A node map, on the other hand, focuses only on the game world's points of interest and can have any arbitrary intervening distance between two nodes. The town might have a few important buildings as nodes, with but a few minutes walk between each, whereas a mountain pass might be dozens of miles from the next node. The characters move at the speed of drama, rather than relying on simulationism — which is better for the story by far.

Since I'm on a Lord of the Rings kick these days, I've gone through the trouble of creating an itinerarium for the main road that runs west to east through the Shire. I used this interactive map as a reference since it has an actual scale, measured everything out with a ruler on my computer screen and did the calculations to get the distances between each node. Now as we all know, people in Middle Earth did have knowledge of cartography, but hey, perhaps this was an oversight on Tolkien's part?

Distances are in miles, read from West to East:
  • The Grey Havens (Mithlond)
  • The White Towers, Tower Hills (Emyn Beraid) — 67
  • The Far Downs (Emyn Beraid) — 90
  • Michel Delving, The White Downs — 56
  • 1st Southfarthing Junction — 38
  • Northfarthing/Southfarthing Junction — 30
  • Bywater Junction — 39
  • 2nd Northfarthing Junction — 26
  • Frogmorton — 13
  • 3rd Northfarthing Junction — 24
  • Eastfarthing Junction — 21
  • Brandywine Bridge — 3.5
  • Buckland Junction — 1
  • Bree — 87

The first thing that jumps out is all the junctions. These are road crossings — the current itinerarium continues on its course, and each new road gets its own itinerarium. Isn't this unwieldy? Of course it is! But this is how things were done back in the day. So, to see how road crossings work, let's have a quick look at the first few items in an itinerarium for the Bywater Road:

Distances are in miles, read from south to northwest:
  • Bywater Junction
  • Bywater — 5
  • Hobbiton & the road to Bagend — 10
  • And so on...

Next notice how the entire stretch between the Brandywine Bridge to Bree mentions nothing of the Old Forest or the Barrow-downs. This is because travellers are expected to stay on the road! However, seasoned travellers would make sure to pepper their itineraria with notes, perhaps interjecting a line after Buckland Junction stating something like "Beware the Old Forest and Barrow-downs to the south. Great danger!"

A periplus would follow similar rules. One can quickly see how such lists of waypoints might be useful in preparing a fantasy RPG campaign. For one, it allows non-artistic GMs to create their setting in great detail without the burden of having to draw an accurate (and attractive) map. Secondly, it functions as a node-map, bringing all the benefits that entails. Furthermore, it not only injects an air of authenticity to your campaign, but also serves as a plot device in itself, allowing characters to go astray of their intended path due to shoddy note-keeping, leading to further unexpected adventure,

That said, perhaps itineraria need not only be limited to medieval/fantasy campaigns -- we also use them in the modern world. I use a form of itinerarium regularly in my daily life: I live in Seoul, South Korea, a city famous for having one of (if not THE) most advanced subway systems in the world. There are 22 lines with 728 stations, and the whole thing runs like clockwork. Downtown stops usually have about 2 minutes between each, and there are numerous apps that help riders plan their commute down to the exact minute. The subway map truly is very much a modern-day itinerarium.

One interesting feature of the subway map is that it does not typically follow geographical features, and is instead abstracted to make it easier to read. Come to think of it, despite living in Seoul for over a decade, my knowledge of its geography is shamefully limited. I tend to take the subway everywhere rather than walking. And when I drive, I use my GPS navigation rather than consulting an actual map — our modern navigation apps are another kind of itinerarium, guiding us through a series of waypoints and allowing us to navigate our world without ever having to worry if we are going the correct way or not. In a sense, modern technology has given us the convenience of living as did those from a simpler time.

So, let's take this concept further. If we already use itineraria in the modern age to make our lives easier, how would that apply to future civilizations in a science fiction setting? Most of us are familiar with the hex maps of space subsectors used in Sci-Fi RPGs. But is this actually the most convenient way to navigate the stars? Truth be told, 2D subsector maps are already kind of a stretch when the stars are all spread out in three dimensions — but of course it'd be very cumbersome to utilize an EVE Online-style 3D star map while playing a tabletop RPG (although, how cool would that be?). Why not use a periplus instead?

One way to do this might be to give each star system its own periplus, with a list of possible destinations within warp range (or jump range, or teleport range, etc). Here's an example for one of the planets from the Sword Worlds subsector of the Traveller RPG's popular Spinward Marches setting (see, I'm keeping with the Tolkien theme ^^). Assuming a jump 3-capable ship, with possible destinations and jump distance in parens:

  • Durendal (1: Dyrwyn, Hofud; 2: Tyrfing, Beater, Sting; 3: Tavonni, Gungnir, Gram, Sacnoth, Biter, Adabicci, Rabwhar, Arba)

I'll grant that navigating one's way across an entire sector of space using this method would not be at all convenient. But for a ship captain looking to make a quick jump (perhaps pirates are hot on his tail)? One begins to see how peripli would be useful.

Furthermore, anybody that enters a new star system wouldn't know the first thing about where to go to find what they're looking for. Instead, they'd likely have a list of destinations to choose from that they could pull up from the computer: Candori Starport, Candori II Naval Base, Traveller's Aid Society Chapter 55243, and so on, most likely with a range in kilometers to each destination.

The main way peripli would be most likely to be used in a sci-fi PG like Traveller would be for navigation of established trade routes. Traveller's merchant marine ship captains would likely use peripli most of the time as they traverse their trade routes, stopping at planet after planet in order like a bus driver following his regular route. For example, here's a sample merchant marine trade route periplus for the Lanth subsector, also from the Spinward Marches:

  • Regina, Dinomn (2), Ghandi (4), Lanth (4), D'Ganzio (2), Ivendo (4), Equus (2)

In closing, I do believe that there is ample room to use itineraria and peripli in RPGs in a variety of ways. I hope I've given everybody some interesting ideas for new ways to think about maps and node-crawls. I'll revisit this concept in a future post with some specific game materials to use in play.

A big thanks to my friend Tom for the insipiration for this post. If you'd like to read some more of his good ideas (he's a writer as well), you can visit his website here. Of direct interest to most of my readers might be this insightful article he wrote on the history and evolution of the TRPG hobby. Chck it out!

Do you think you would enjoy using an itinerarium or periplus as a game prop in your campaign? Let me know in the comments below, or drop me a note on Facebook or Twitter!

-- Dean


  1. Sounds like pointcrawls, as I’ve seen them called. I like it.

    1. Pointcrawl = nodecrawl, totally! I'm also a fan of the Octo-crawl -- maybe I'll do a post about that later. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Just purchased (and rea) Aaron Reed's Down Crawl, and was struck by the similarities!

  3. I could see standardised "jump routes" that a captain could buy that would include the instructions for the Nav computer so that you wouldn't need to plot jumps yourself. That'd be the safe way to do it, something that the Subsided liners/freighters did, where you don't need a specialist navigator and just follow the routes you get paid for year after year. And then there's the crazy free traders who plot their own jumps and take their chances with a misjump and other dangers, who actually need full star and planet catalogues and need to understand the things that can go wrong. It'd be the difference between "keep the coast to your left" and "ESE 142nm. White capped mountain visible 6nm north of Port Tragansee."

    1. Ooooooh, I like this idea. I wanna use this next time I run Traveller!


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