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Making Maps

February 11, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

In my previous post, I talked about some of the ways that I think about map making and the sort of mental hows. In this post, I’m going to talk more about what tools I use to make a map, some techniques I’ve used that have had good results and some resources I’ve found useful. But, before we get quite to those points, I want to ramble philosophically a bit. What I’m about to be talking about mostly applies to Big Maps because it applies to things prepared in advance, which is a major determiner for me. When I’m thinking about making a Big Map, I always try to make it in-character, if I can. If it’s not literally something the characters have, I at least try to make it look like something that could exist in the game world.

For the ski resort map that I mentioned before, I made a cheap-looking tri-fold brochure thing from one of the hotel chains in the valley. This was not only in-game, but meant I could excuse it looking bad and also not having any sense of scale whatsoever. For the tunnels under Niagara Falls later in the same campaign, I drew myself a map and then took a sharpie and drew a different map for the players. This, too, was an in-game prop. It was inaccurate and looked the part, so it was neat. For Kjemmen, I don’t imagine the PCs carrying around a map of the city with them everywhere, but I implied its existence in the game world by selecting a thematic font at least.

Disclaimer: You Do Not Have To Be A Great Artist

The two examples above of the ski resort and the tunnels also illustrate something which I think is important: a GM’s main job is not to draw things. As such, a lot of GM’s aren’t particularly skilled artists (I contend that most people are more capable than they think they are, but that’s another issue). The trick, I’ve found, about wanting to make a map yourself and not being a great artist is to find a reason that the map should look crappy. Just because you’re running a modern campaign needn’t mean that you have to produce maps as good as the United States Geological Survey.


The GIMP is a cross-platform image editing suite akin to Photoshop. The upside is, it’s free. The interface is a bit clunky for some tasks and it isn’t quite as powerful as PS, but man could I use that $700 for something else. There are a couple of the tools within the GIMP that I’ve found stunningly useful (regardless of what I’m doing in it): Layers, Layer Masks and Paths (click those links for some tutorials that’ll hopefully get you started). With a solid grasp of those, you can get a whole lot done.

Pen, pencil and paper are seriously not to be underrated. If the PCs want directions somewhere or are buying a map made by someone in a fantasy world, it will have been drawn by hand. Don’t be afraid to do it yourself. Sometimes fiddling with transparency in the GIMP takes more time than just drawing something lightly with a pencil.

I have only recently come across Google SketchUp in a serious way. I played around with it when it first came out, but it didn’t change my life. Recently, I messed around with it again and, once you get proficient with it (it’s easy to understand and learn from the program itself), you can make pretty detailed CAD-type models fairly quickly. You can then turn on “parallel projection” and use the top view to print out a map of your area. If you want, you could put the map markings on a different layer so you could use your model for other purposes, as well.


Google Maps is good for two things, really: inspiration and theft. If you’re looking for a rural town in England, you might could use it to get a feel for rural English towns and make your own from scratch. Alternatively, you could just use an existing one by taking screen grabs of your browser and piecing them together in the GIMP. You could then trace over the roads or make modifications if you feel the need.

map of Moscow

Click to embiggen.

For my map of Kjemmen, I needed a city that wasn’t on a coast and didn’t have a river. Those are really hard to find. I ended up piecing together screen grabs of Moscow, which does have a river, in the GIMP (pictured at left).

map of Kjemmen without markings

Click to embiggen.

I then used this as a basis for the major road network of Kjemmen, tracing the beltway and radial highways, then moving to smaller streets. I had to make up much of it on my own, especially since I was erasing the river and adding in the large chasm in the center of the city. You can see the end result at right and if you compare carefully to the Moscow map, you can find the blank spots I had to fill in with streets.

Finally, I made a version with a compass rose, the city’s name and other markings. Specifically, I made a version that indicated what territory was controlled by which noble house without assigning specific boundaries. If you’re terribly interested, you can look for yourself.

Other Resources

The folks at the Cartographers’ Guild fora are really friendly and there are some seriously awesome tutorials over there. I’ve learned a lot about how to leverage the GIMP from this place. A good place to start is the Tutorials subforum. in particular, I found this tutorial about making artistic regional maps useful, and this one about making coastlines (which is similar to the below-linked tutorial from Zombie Nirvana). Note that you have to create an account and be logged in to see the images in the forum.

Also, the Cartography tag at Zombie Nirvana Games has some really nice (though Photoshop-centric) tutorials, complete with videos. In particular, I got started with their post about using clouds to generate coastlines.

I hope that this gives some inspiration and direction to those of you who have maybe refrained from getting too into mapping in the past. Because I have a lot of fun tinkering with them, I tend to pour a lot of time into maps, but that needn’t be the case and I really think something good enough to be useful is way better than not making anything just because you can’t make a life-altering map. Have you had any interesting inspirations for maps or cool styles? Any resources you’ve found useful that I should know about? Talk about it below.

Categories: Tools and Techniques
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  1. February 11, 2010 at 12:32 pm
  2. July 1, 2010 at 9:11 am

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