Designing maps

NerissaNerissa Registered User regular
edited September 2006 in Critical Failures
Whether it's a complete world for a home-brewed campaign setting or a specific castle or set of ruins, sooner or later any GM that doesn't rely solely on modules is going to need to design a map.

So... how do you do it? Graph paper (hex or quad?), blank paper, computer tools (which ones?), just make it up as you go along? Do you have pre-designed "generic ruined temple #3" that you can pull out when you need it? Do you base on real-world maps?

When designing terrain, especially large regions, to what extent do you take into account geological plausibility? (i.e. jungles & deserts running into each other is pretty unlikely in the real world) If you do include something that is geologically unlikely, do you make sure to come up with a reason for it while doing your design, or wait until someone asks and make something up?

Do you design terrain first, and then add political boundaries, or do you start with the political boundaries and then define terrain around them?


Personally, I prefer computer tools because it's easier to just plop down a row of generic "mountain range" icons than to draw all of those little peaks, and it makes a nicer-looking map. I recently downloaded AutoMap, but I'm not 100% sure that's the tool I'll be staying with. I'm still working on the overall regional map, so I haven't got any of the individual locales set up, but I expect to try to get a few "generic" dungeon / ruin / castle maps designed so I can be ready for my group to go somewhere I hadn't expected.

I try for at least a modicum of geographic plausibility. I discovered the other night that I had a river starting less than 20 miles from the edge of the desert, and had to consider for a while if that was what I wanted to do. I think it's probably ok, I'm thinking about some physical, as well as magical, explainations (the desert is the result of some catastrophe in the distant past, for example, and the edge is clearly defined by the range of that catastrophe). Putting dense forest right there, though, wasn't going to work for me.

In this instance, I had an idea going in about how many political units I was wanting. I designed the terrain for the overall region, then scaled it so that it would reasonably hold 10-12 sub-regions, and finally set the boundaries for the sub-regions along natural lines (rivers, forest edges, etc) where I could, and where they made sense relative to that. I'd wanted the region to be geographically isolated from the rest of the world, but not an island, so I put a significant mountain range along about 1/3 of the border, and a large desert along another 1/3 or so, and made the rest coastline. I also limited the use of long-distance ships to another race entirely (not a terrain feature, so much as something I needed to keep in mind when designing the terrain -- ships give them SOME contact with others, but not enough that they (or I) will need to know anything about the geography of anywhere but this region any time soon).

Personally, I like D&D because I find OCD much more interesting than ADD.
Nerissa on


  • gredavingredavin Registered User regular
    edited September 2006
    I download mine and build adventure sites out of them, or, I have an adventure site in mind and search until one suits my fancy.

    Barring that, I find images online and modify them to suit my purpose using Corel Draw.

    When it comes to battle maps or reference maps, I lay down a square grid image and then use Corel Draw to add all the details on top of it. In short, Corel Draw is my program of choice.

    gredavin on
  • Mongrel IdiotMongrel Idiot Registered User regular
    edited September 2006
    Blank paper and whatever writing utensil is at hand when I start. I usually start with the borders of the major land masses then fill them in from there, plopping down names and details wherever the mood strikes me. Usually something at least pseudo-realistic comes from it. Sometimes I keep a random name generator open if I'm not feeling super creative.

    Mongrel Idiot on
  • zenpotatozenpotato Registered User regular
    edited September 2006
    I usually just draw some random landmass. Picking it's terrain is difficult sometimes, as I try to keep the types consistent. Mountains have effects on the terrain surrounding them, which has further effects etc.

    My biggest difficulty is choosing where to place cities. Cities develop in places for reasons, and the big city states that seem to dominate fantasy RP games (think Greyhawk) have even more particular reasons for being where they are. Trade routes, rivers, lakes, oceans, and even things like ley lines can all have an influence on where things end up.

    Just this morning I wasa trying to figure out why the little valley barony I had designed for my Learn On game was the thriving liitle trading power it was.

    zenpotato on
  • ScooterScooter Registered User regular
    edited September 2006
    Hmm. Speaking as the unexperienced guy, it seems like it might be interesting to start up a Civilization game and see what that can do for you.

    Scooter on
  • Aroused BullAroused Bull Registered User
    edited September 2006
    I draw on blank paper, doing the coastlines first, and then the mountains, then the rivers and forests, and finally the settlements and cities. I try to follow certain rules to make it look more realistic - mountains, for example, mostly run parallel to coasts, and where they don't they shrink down into hills as they get closer to the shore and eventually form islands. I'm sure everyone's aware that rivers don't split going downstream. Draw them from the highlands first, as smaller streams, and then connect them up into larger rivers that widen as they get closer to the coast.
    Big cities are always, always, always on rivers. Major rivers, unless there's some specific reason they can't be. Rivers provide drinking water, trade and transportation.
    To determine trade routes, I place the larger villages and towns, and decide what each one's reason for being is - whether they're a mining village, a town that's the central hub for the region, etc. Then I can easily work out the routes goods need to take to get where they need to be, which in turn suggests which towns and villages become cities.

    When I design towns and cities, I take a pencil, a ruler and an eraser, sit down with a blank sheet of paper and start drawing. Coasts, rivers and lakes go in first. Then, if the town is walled, I draw said walls - normally just a freehand curving line dotted with circles for guard towers, or a ruled double line if the town is small enough to warrent it.
    After the walls come the gates and outside roads, which run in the directions required by the regional map. Then, running from the gates, come the main streets of the town, which I rule but include bends and turns. I always make sure they run from important places - gate to gate, or gate to marketplace, or gate to docks.
    Next comes the lord's castle, if there is one, which is also walled and gated. I draw a major or semi-major road from the castle to the main street.
    After that, I draw the rest of the semi-major roads, criss-crossing the gaps between the major roads. How interesting they are - how much they bend, twist, etc - depends on the town.
    I then proceed to fill in each district with smaller streets and the buildings. A standard building is just an empty square or rectangle, but I put a bunch of spicier stuff in there, too, keeping it birds-eye and fairly simple.
    Once I'm done, I make a high-quality photocopy, and then on the copy I write in the key numbers in red ink. I type up a key for myself seperately, and then hand the map to the players.
    If it's a very important city, where the players are going to be spending a lot of time - I'll go over all the buildings in black ink, and then use other colours to pick out water or grassy areas or plazas and things. Then I get it laminated. This is a lot more effort than it's worth, unless you're spending six months plus real-time in the city.

    Aroused Bull on
  • PkmoutlPkmoutl Registered User regular
    edited September 2006
    It depends. If it's a series of tunnels or a dungeon of some kind, I usually use graph paper. I use the green stuff with the really small squares so that I can give width to the walls.

    If I'm doing something outdoors, I generally do a quick sketch on regular paper, or even lined paper, just to kind of get an idea of what I want where. Then, once I have the main stuff where I want it, I go over the outline in a Fine Tip Sharpie and then trace it onto hex paper. Then, once I have the hex paper basics down, I fill in the details.

    If I'm doing towns or villages, I just kind of have an internal mental map that I use and I just kind of swap things around. That way, I don't have to really fart around with that sort of thing.

    Pkmoutl on
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