April 29, 2009

Six RPG Map Making Solutions For Your Game

One of the oldest parts of our hobby that is still enjoyed by just about every GM I talk is map making. Heck, since the earliest roleplayers were lovers of wargames, you might even say that the whole table-top roleplaying hobby was born out of a love of maps . Nowadays though, with games like Nobilis and 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy roleplaying games are wide jump away wargames with all those pesky tanks, cannons and other soldiers. But they do have something in common... yep, you guessed it.. maps!

GM love world building and making maps for them. You can't play an RPG without a map. Well, have yet to see one that is played without a map. Whether it is a map in your head, a map on a page, or a map on your iPhone... you just can't get by without them.

So, as a gamemaster... how do you go about making your maps? What software, if any, do you use? How do you share these maps with your players? The fog-of-war is often an issue though, so I'm wondering how other GMs handle it at the table. All too often my glorious maps end up being for-my-eyes-only because ... well, revealing it would spoil the fun.

In any case, I've compiled a list of six solutions for GM's looking for ways to make good quality maps for their games. Let me know what you think; and by all means add to the list by leaving a comment.
  1. CARTOGRAPHY SOFTWARE. This is the obvious elephant in the room. There are some truly awesome map making packages out there, but the best of them often carry a steep learning curve and a price tag to match (Profantasy's Campaign Cartographer comes to mind). On the lighter side - there are more old school options like Hexmapper, HexWorldCreator (my favorite), or RPGMapMaker (Mac OS X)- or maybe you would like something inbetween such as DungeonCrafter or Autorealm. Whatever your preference, there are tons of alternatives - a simple google search is all you need to do - or jsut go here.
  2. REAL SOFTWARE. Photoshop, Illustrator, Inkscape, Gimp, CorelDraw, etc. Why do I call this category "real"? Because you can use it for so much more than just making a map for your game. I mean, the learning curve for these applications is worth it, and honestly the best maps (those made by professionals) are done using one of the above platforms. Once you learn how to use Inkscape (which, like Gimp, is free by the way) you can do all kinds of cool graphics. The same is true for learning Photoshop. How might you use these apps for map making? Start with Illustrator or Inkscape, or pencil something and scan it in, then export your rough map into Photoshop or Gimp and doctor it up. If you hunt around on Google Image search for maps created using this programs you will be blown away - Profantasy is nice, but this map and this map look amazing. There's even a cool tutorial over at GeekSix about how to use Photoshop maps live at the game table.
  3. RANDOMIZED MAPS. There are tons of utilities out there that create random maps of terrain, dungeons, cities, combat maps... even whole worlds. Although I'm not a big fan of the completely random map, I do like using this approach for parts of the maps I design. Also, once a good random map is generated you can import it or copy it into Photoshop to make it look better. Most of the random map generators I know about don't really produce good looking maps. Some notable online random map generators include Gozzy's Random Maps (which include zoomed in battle maps for wilderness and dungeon encounters), Tavern Maker is good for inspiration, and of course there are many more in the googlesphere; I've just linked some of my own favorites.
  4. PREMADE FANTASY MAPS. There are many sources for maps that have already been created. Once great resource is an online gallery at Angelfire.com.There's also the official Wizards of the Coast "Map-A-Week Archive" - which still after all these years seems useful. I also recently discovered RPGMapShare.com which, although somewhat difficult to navigate, seems to have tons of free, community developed maps for use to drop into your campaigns. And of course, there's also hundreds if not thousands of maps in already published adventures, fanzines, and web articles from all the major game developers; I've hacked a published adventure's map for my own needs dozens of times with great results.
  5. HISTORICAL MAPS. It's probably impossible to beat the Perry-CastaƱeda Library Map Collection - or at the very least, the links they provide to other real-world historical map sites on the net. If I lived in Texas - I would no doubt make a road trip up there just to check it out in person. Why historical maps? You're playing fantasy you say? Well, for one, historical maps give you an idea of how people thought about maps back in medieval times. The distortion of continents, shorelines, etc is always fascinating (I'm sure there's a technical term for that, alas it escapes me), but its not something I've ever seen in a fantasy RPG map. Fantasy maps, as least world maps, are nearly always drawn as if the GM has a global positioning system to measure distances; which might not be appropriate given most fantasy campaign worlds. I would love to see a version of the map of Faerun or Greyhawk drawn like the ancient maps of early civilization. I mean, just check out the Roman's road map from the 4th century (above) -- it rocks!
  6. Pencils, Pens, and Paper. The tried and true best technique; at least to get started. It's like sex: so easy anyone can do it. Just draw and go. Of course, some mix of the above software solutions with your hand drawn beauty will often produce the best results. Need some inspiration for hand drawn world maps? Use paint. Try watercolors and let it bleed. For dungeon maps - I like drawing the "key areas" first, and then connecting them with tunnels and other areas second. Sometime some cool new surprises end up in my adventures as a result.
What are your favorite methods for map making for RPGs? Did I miss anything here?


  1. Some great links there. I didn't know about the historical database, so thanks, and it's nice to see there's some cartography software for OSX too.

  2. Another hex map program I've been creating is Hexographer.
    It is Java, so it runs on windows, mac, unix and more. While it is beta, it is very usable now and it is still getting improvements regularly.

  3. If you haven't seen it, this site generates blank graph and hex PDFs of pretty much any size / shape you want. Useful for doing actual pen and paper maps.


  4. I was just coming here to recommend Hexographer as well - it's a fantastic program and I'm constantly pleased by its progress.

  5. I tne dot do the historical map method. I will search out old century maps of the greek islands, or the west indies, etc and then draw a map nearly identical to that save a few mirror image reversals, then just replace all the cities with my fantasy cities.


  6. @JW : Oh crimy! I forgot to add that one.. Inkwell ideas is awesome! They also did a great review of random dungeon generators - which includes a link to a lost WotC generator that is actually very kewl and oldschooly.

  7. @mthomas768 : Yep~ gotta love that little online app. I actually posted about it way back in the early days of TCM here. Thanks for reminding me - never need to buy packs of Hexpaper again! (remember the old hexpaper you could buy in packs from game shops was blue?... so it couldn't be photocopied back in the day? ooooollllddd school, yeah?)

  8. I am a die hard Pencil and Paper mapmaker, and always have preferred it. Electronic maps lose the organic feel of hand drawn maps, and there are so many creative ways you can design a map's key to create a unique system for showing details about a city or country. I wish I had a scanner to upload more of my maps to my site.

  9. I've found that OpenOffice.org's Presentations can be used pretty effectively. Learning the package takes only minutes and there's all kinds of functionality there (like hyperlinks within the document or to an external source) etc.

    In fact, I was thinking about presenting a set of free 'products' that were (in effect) modules created as presentations...

  10. Just found this post and thought I'd do a little necro-posting. I would highly recommend checking out the Cartographers Guild (http://www.cartographersguild.com/forum.php). There are some really great free tutorials on fantasy map-making, along with an incredibly helpful community that love to support others in the craft.

  11. Fictional Map Maker | How to Make DIY

  12. Howdy. I run RPGMapShare.com. Sorry you find it somewhat difficult to navigate (it's hard to find good web software that will do all things well, so sometimes you have to compromise;)).

    In addition to maps, there are thousands of objects to place on maps you can create (transparent pngs). So if you're using a pre-made map, and need character tokens, monsters, vehicles, debris, etc, you can find them there.

  13. More necro posting :-)

    This may not have been so good in 2009 but google
    image search rocks Try searches like

    "floor plan" castle or floorplan castle (they produce different results) then by setting the image size to "Large" (left hand tab) you can get some really big images sutable to blow up to A0

    (I've found PosteRazor (posterazor.sourceforge.net) good for making A0 maps)


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