the world population of D&D: notes from the 5e DMG

OK, first of all: as was the case with the Monster Manual, Rory and my names are in the Dungeon Masters Guide! We’re credited as “Additional feedback provied by”. It’s notable that I didn’t review the acknowledgements section, or that particular spelling error would have never gotten through. In fact, since I saw early drafts of DMG sections, a third or more of the book is completely new to me.

Of the core books, the DMG benefits the most from close readings: things that were explained fully in previous DMGs are often presented in complete but compressed form. I’ll probably find things to unpack in this DMG for a few weeks.

Today I’ll be talking about page 14 of the DMG. In the 3e DMG we got, like, a chapter on worldbuilding, demographics, and settlement generation. In 5e we get page 14. This contains the outdoor campaign mapping rules, into which is encoded a lot of world demographics information. From this page, what can we learn about the D&D world? Is it more like a medieval dark age, or the early Renaissance, or is it totally ahistorical?

Page 14 recommends getting hex paper with five hexes to the inch (so about 2000 hexes per sheet, more or less.) Following in the footsteps of BECMI, the DMG recommends maps at three different scales. This time it’s Province (1 mile hex), Kingdom (6 mile hex) and Continent scale (60 mile hex).

First of all, there’s a major error in the section about combining scales: it says that at continent scale, “1 hex represents the same area as 10 kingdom scale hexes.” Wrong. 1 continent hex is 100x times the area. Similarly, a kingdom hex is the area of 30 province hexes, not 6 as claimed. It looks like this was simply an error of saying “area” when they meant “length”, and, with that substitution, the rest of the math on the page works out fine. Still, that will confuse some poor saps when they get around to making new campaign maps.

OK, on to those sweet demographics!

On a province-scale 8 1/2 x 11 map, which takes about two days of travel to traverse, the DMG says that you’d expect to find one town (population generally around 4000, based on settlement size ranges) and 10 villages (population around 500 each), which works out to about 5 people per square mile in settled lands, about the same population density as the Western Sahara. Wow! Fantasy medieval Europe is empty!

The kingdom scale of 6 miles per hex is just about standard for D&D outdoor hex scales (5 to 8 miles per hex, depending on edition). A kingdom map of a settled area will have 10 notable cities or towns; villages are not shown at this scale. Considering that a kingdom map contains 30 province maps, each of which is likely to contain a town, it’s probable that small towns aren’t shown on the map either.

Continent scale is huge. At 60 miles to the hex, you could fit Europe on one sheet of hex paper, plus about a third of Russia. If your continent fills the map, it has the same area as 3000 province maps, and it takes three months to traverse at 25 miles per day. That’d give you a population of 30 million people if the entire continent were settled, but probably it’s half wild. Apparently this matches the demographics of Europe in 650, right after the Plague of Justinian wiped out 50% of the world population.

OK, so D&D demographics match a) 650 AD, one of the worst post-apocalyptic times in world history and b) Western Sahara, a current nearly-uninhabited strip of desert.

We don’t have to do anything with this information. We can run a jolly D&D campaign with dragons, kings, and quest givers without wondering about the number of peasants in a square mile. But we can also find inspiration in the game’s parallels with Earth demographics. Here’s what the numbers suggest to me.

a) There was a recent event, probably within the last 100 years (because population recovers over a few hundred years), that killed a lot of people. Everybody still remembers it and it terrified of its return. What was it?

b) There are a lot of deserted villages. Furthermore, in every village, town, and city, there are a lot of empty houses. Land is cheap.

d) The king is happy to give you a parcel of land and a border fort when you hit name level. Why not? That border fort is sitting empty right now.

e) A lot of abandoned dungeon locations were probably thriving civilized structures within the last 100 or 200 years. For instance, that border fort the king just gave you.

These speculations are borne out by other parts of the DMG.

-Standard city size caps at about 25,000: larger metropolises, like Waterdeep and Greyhawk (or Toulouse!) are rare. These city populations are fairly low for medieval city population, but make sense in the wake of a plague that wiped out half the population.

-In the Wilderness section, a wilderness province contains “ruined villages and towns that are either abandoned or serve as lairs for marauding bandits and monsters.” Wilderness doesn’t have to mean old-growth forest or untamed mountains: it might also mean farms and villages given over to chaos.

7 Responses to “the world population of D&D: notes from the 5e DMG”

  1. Charles says:

    I enjoyed this post a lot.

    I’m surprised that they set such low limits for cities. Constantinople, Nanjing, Teotihuacan, and others all had populations around 100k+ by the early middle ages. There weren’t a ton of cities that size, but certainly several per continent.

  2. bygrinstow says:

    Do the populations include monstrous races, or just humans and the like? Seems like that could explain the low population density, too.

  3. Caduceus says:

    I’m worried that you’ve given more thought to these demographics in the less than a week since it came out than WotC did over the entire course of working on this book.

    But to be fair, bygrinstow has a point. These demographics may make more sense when considered in view of a history of many different intelligent species competing for space and resources, rather than just humans.

  4. 1d30 says:

    When describing the province map, I envisioned a tight cluster of villages with farmland between them, and a larger town somewhere among them, with the rest of the map as wilderness. Like, they need stone walls and hedgerows to keep the lions from eating their children.

    I understand the ideal population graph is exponential and all you need is a little bit lower infant or mother mortality to make things explode after 10 generations, but this could be forestalled (and the population growth slowed) by the sort of thing that happens all the time in the real world: bad winters, natural disasters, wars, disease. Add to that predation by intelligent and organized monsters, and multiply all by the Bunch of Dickish Gods coefficient, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see populations remain at the 650 AD level indefinitely. And as for infant mortality, we’re talking about a society where they probably don’t wash their hands before midwifing because disease is caused by evil spirits.

    And what if population is kept low because of fertility issues caused by the Rain of Colorless Fire? Or what if fairies kept stealing scads of babies and replaced them with (in their minds) appropriate replacements like tiny elephants or fruit baskets?

    Finally, imagine that the disaster occurred, but humans didn’t emerge from their vaults / land the space ship / reopen the portal back home for some years. The small number who emerge represent our starting population, which means the explosion because of an enriched environment doesn’t start until Groundhog Day. You could delay the emergence 200 years post-cataclysm, shift the pop growth graph because of various negative events and pressures, and say the 650 AD population represents 1000 years of growth.

    The question then is whether growth is slow enough that it’ll take another few thousand years to “fill in” the map, or we’re at a tipping point where humans are controlling their environment enough to reduce mortality, magically kick fertility up a notch, clear the wilderness of threats, and seize the world. If that’s the case, you could see the world “fill in” within a few dozen generations. Alternatively, intelligent monster societies could finally decide that the human threat is real enough to go to war against, possibly decimating them back to the Stone Age they just recovered from.

    I guess it all depends on whether Lucy the Wizard survives past 1st level and has the scratch to independently research the right spell back in town.

  5. Collin says:

    The population density seems similar to modern day Australia. Maybe they reflect a land recently settled from another continent.

  6. Xaos says:

    I’ve read from the “Notebook of the Planes” in my recently ordered “Random Dungeons”, and I found myself agreeing with the notion that having lots of powerful good creatures around creates “areas of stability and safety which” disrupts the tone of some campaigns.

    Having Gold Dragons around is sort of like having “Q” from Star Trek start solving all of the Enterprises problems. Which is terrible entertainment, but if these creatures are supposed to be good-aligned, and not neutral-aligned, then isolationism doesn’t really suit them. So, the question why any other monster threatens civilization becomes kind of a strange psuedo-theodicy question. But if they do start chasing off the Ogres and bringing an end to the age-old Drow-Surface Elf conflict, then what will they do about that world’s equivalent of the Hundred Years’ War?

    If nothing else we need a reason why the D&D world remembers historical HUMAN Kings and not historical Storm Giants.

    Maybe the plague (or other disaster) hurt more than just the mere mortals. Maybe the humans were actually the lucky ones. A great, terrible plague that infects all the enemies of Evil concocted by….who the hell knows? Liches? Drow? Chromatic Dragons? Fiends? An ascendant evil god? The Kuo Toa “invented” and called out to an S-class extracosmic diety who actually existed? A neutral aligned something-or-other that got tired of all those meddling fairy tale creatures turning the Prime Material into the Hundred Acre Woods? (*death glares at Copper Dragons and their 5e regional lair effects*)

    Well, whoever it is, they made an attempt to wipe out the races of good, including humans and other “adventuring” humanoids who are usually listed as neutral, but overall cause more problems for the forces of evil? Is it a Solar or an ‘Ent throwing the One Ring into Mount Doom? NO! Its a friggin’ Hobbit!

    Of course, its kind of interesting to note how few powerful good creatures there are aside from a handful of humanoids:

    Flumphs and Deep gnomes: Actually pretty good to have around, littering the dungeons and underdark territories with questgivers. The plague doesn’t have to reach beyond the surface world.

    Guardian Nagas: Rather like Sphinxes and Couatls, they mostly sit around one little area, mostly a mystical Shangri-la out in the jungle.

    Sylvan Creatures: oh no. Faeries, magical vanishing dogs, and goatmen. I am. SO. terrified. Treants are kind of an okay target, though.

    Celestials: See Slyvan Creatures (Pegasus, Unicorn), Guardian Naga (Couatl), and Empyrean (Angels)

    Empyreans: From the MM description, while 75% of these guys are Chaotic Good, the remaining 25% are Neutral Evil are the only ones who “fall from heaven”, and become tyrants on the material plane. The ones that are still in heaven don’t seem able or willing to dominate large parts of the average DM’s game setting, possibly because of the reason the world isn’t dominated by Gods and Outsider Lords.

    (Subidea: Fallen Angels and Empyreans, as part of the divine treaty between gods, are allowed into the mortal world, as a compromise. They cannot survive on the darker outer planes -even the neutral ones!-, but they can’t stay home either, so they are contractually banished to the prime.)

  7. ogre says:

    consider all the little 1st-5th level bad guys trying to make a name for themselves. atrocities on a local scale help keep populations low. “we got problems of our own” attitudes which also lead to further atrocity and depopulation. refugees turned away and then slaughtered by monsters, rise as undead and attack those who turned them away.
    Depopulated village? perhaps drow slavers struck the area, or a cult round up for mass ritual, bored dragon flexing his muscle, or even giant army ants. my favorite is aggressive druids warring upon civilization.
    the reason why the area is depopulated could be fear of something that isn’t even there anymore, such as a temporary spell effect that frightened everyone off and now ‘ghost stories’ keep up the fear of whats out there.
    also consider natural disasters, flash floods wash away part of town and changes rivers course leaving townsfolk with no reason to stay and now external support to help rebuild (duke won’t waste the coin on a lost cause).
    sinkholes are not given enough attention in a game world where there are massive cavern systems, and numerous burrowing monsters.
    magic also can cause numerous depopulation events, such as ‘phasing’ out of the prime material plane, or arcane pollution turning people into mongrelmen.

    an underpopulated area is open for exploration and adventure. exploration and adventure in an overpopulated area is just trespassing and criminal mischief.

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