Unearthed Mundana: Archaic Measurements
This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Ten on 11th March 2020.
ROSTRO: Please state the nature of the mathematical inquiry
Lennon: Okay, so I don’t like this any more than you do, but if we both buckle down, we can get through this.
ROSTRO: Nothing you stated constitutes a question
Ryu (angrily sarcastic): I have one: Why is that thing humming?
Lennon: Um, it does that when it’s on.
Ryu: Do you see my face? Do I look like I’m in the mood for that kind of backtalk?
Lennon: Well look, I was trying to figure out the out the shopping list this week, and-
Ryu: Oh again with you and the shopping? Here, gimme.
Ryu (flipping pages): Um…okay. What’s a peck?
ROSTRO: Generally, physical contact as initiated by a creature featuring a beak-
Ryu: Can it, speak-and-spell, I mean why is it listed next to apples? What is a peck of apples?
ROSTRO: 2 gallons
Lennon: What? Why doesn’t it say that then?
ROSTRO: I would assume the primary motivation is verisimilitude.
Lennon: And how many litres in a verisimilitude?
Ryu: No, verisimilitude is believability. Are you saying this all has to do with roleplaying?
ROSTRO: Occam’s Razor dictates that is the most likely conclusion. Please direct your attention to the output crystals.
Though not universally practiced or required for games of Dungeons & Dragons, many Dungeon Masters and players prefer to add descriptors and labels to prose for reinforcement of the quazi-medieval nature befitting most D&D settings. For example, labeling a merchandise store as a shoppe, including an extra p and e in the spelling to evoke an archaic aesthetic.
Ryu: However, in most cases people don’t want to go as far as speaking old english phrasing with “thee” and “thou” everywhere.
Lennon: Technically that’s middle english-
Ryu: I am this close, Lennon!
Lennon: Sorry. Mayhaps thou shalt continue?
Because talking funny makes it harder to actually play the game and understand what’s going on, a lot of people will insert the archaic labels and language in places where it will be noticed but not matter as much. One easy place to do that is measurements. There are a lot of places in D&D where measurements are mentioned; character statistics and equipment are the most obvious areas.
However, unless you’re playing with encumbrance rules fully in effect or trying to set up the D&D equivalent of a ropes course, most of the measurements don’t affect gameplay very often. This means they’re easy targets for doing a little creative replacement.
Weighing and measuring things has been going on for literal ages, but it’s only very recently that a lot of the ways things are measured have been standardized, and even then some people still insist on doing it differently.
Next time you want someone to use the metric system, maybe try winning the war
We were busy with Napoleon and-anyway. If you look back at historical measurements, there are a lot of labels and units that can be used to measure various things in the game. They’ll sound different enough to grab people’s attention, but the conversions are relatively simple and shouldn’t slow down gameplay too much.
One reason they will grab attention is they frequently have an alternative, modern definition much more in vogue. As demonstrated, the “peck” unit of measurement has a concrete definition, but most modern individuals will assume it has something to do with avian creatures, or possibly a sign of affection.
An equivalent example would be that of a sack. While it now describes a flexible cloth container, historically it referred to a specific measure, though the amount varied depending on the material in question. A sack of grain, for example, was officially 280 pounds or 127 kilograms, while a sack of wool was defined as 324 pounds or 147 kilograms.
A perch is not a fish or a place for a bird to be in this context; it refers to length. A perch equals 16.5 feet, or 5 meters and was usually used for surveying land. Land was a big deal in medieval times but standard measures were not, so a lot of the land was measured in terms of who owned it or who was supposed to use it. For example, a “Knight’s Fee” referred to an amount of land that was supposed to support a knight’s lifestyle and income. In practical terms it was about 1500 acres, or 6 square kilometers. Terms like Man-at-arms and Manor had specific measurements to them as well.
If you’re traveling over land rather than living on or selling it, one of the most common terms to use is the league, as in 20,000 of them under the sea. The accepted definition of a league is 3 miles or just under 5 kilometers, but it’s also defined as “how far a person can walk in one hour”, which may be more useful for D&D in case you have a party of halflings, gnomes, and dwarves, or a bunch of centaurs.
Branching off of that, there are lots of measurements we assume are very general, but historically they had specific definitions Someone expecting a a bushel of wheat would be annoyed if you gave them a haphazard collection of plants; they’re expecting 35 litres or 8 dry gallons of material. Similarly a “pace” is often thought to mean any given step taken, but officially it was defined as a length of about 75 centimeters or 29.5 inches. Also consider the bucket. In modern times, it’s any round container that holds liquid. But go back far enough, and the bucket officially holds about 15 litres, or 4 gallons.
Also, for a significant period of time in my neck of the woods, stones had official weights. One stone is just over 6 kilograms, or 14 pounds. And a load of something? That refers to a cartload, specifically, which weighs in at 952.5 kilos, or 2100 pounds.
Further examination of available measures leads into terms that fell into complete disuse over the course of time. The definition of the aforementioned cartload relies concurrently on a consistent definition of a weight known as a fotmal, defined as 70 pounds or 31.75 kilograms. The term “last” was used to define an amount equivalent to 2 imperial tons of weight or approximately 640 gallons or 2,422 litres.
Lachter is a term that may be useful for areas with dwarves. It was historically used as another measure of length, but it was specifically employed in the measurement of distances related to mines. The official definition marked it as 5.91 feet or 1.8 meters, however a less rigorous measurement stipulated it was the length between someone’s outstretched arms. Again, if applied to a dwarven community using that standard, probability dictates the resultant measurement will be shorter.
Oh good, the machine’s racist now.
Anyway, there are a number of other lengths and measures that might sound odd for your specific group, but they’re actually still in use and can be looked up without too much trouble. Hands, for example, won’t be familiar to most people, but if you have an equestrian in your group they’re going to recognize them right away because it’s still a measurement used to determine how tall horses are. And if you have anyone who regularly works in shipping, they’ll be able to tell you that a “ton” can be short, long, shipping, register, or metric depending on who you’re talking to. Or rather, where the boat’s launching from.
In any case, if you want a quick way to add some old-timey flavor to some descriptions in the game, and if you have a conversion table handy, writing down how many stone your character weighs or giving travel distance in leagues is a quick way to reinforce immersion.
ROSTRO: I am of course available for any additional examples of unit conversion that may be required.
Ryu: Or we could just write the shopping lists using the same measurements the stores do.
Lennon: Actually…now that I think of it the last time I went to the fruit stand they did have a lot of signs that said “bushels.” And then there was the lumberjack…
Ryu: What did his sign say?
ROSTRO: Given the nature of the current conversation, it is probable the woodcutter was employing the lumber collection measurement known as-
Lennon: Yes, right, that was it. I know what you were going to say, we’re good.
Ryu (whispering): Hey, I didn’t know.
Lennon: It’s really not that interesting. What probably is interesting are whatever messages we have from the listeners. So let’s get over to the scrying pool.