Along with my renewed interest in campaign creation has come an interest in making good maps. My map-making skills are okay, at least when it comes to dungeon mapping. But I’ve always felt my terrain mapping skills were a bit… well, bad, if I’m being honest. Since I’m in the process of creating a new campaign world for my players I want to show them the world I can see clearly in my mind. To do that, I’ve been searching the web for help, and practicing the techniques that appeal to me. If you’ve got an interest in developing your mapping skills, I’ve collected a few of my favourite resources in this post to help get you started. This post centers on mapping by hand, without the computer. Later on, I’ll post about getting started with computer-aided mapping, but since I’m currently mapping by hand that’s what I’m touching on.
First I wanted to say something, something I think is important to realize. When you start, your maps are not going to look great. You won’t be happy with them, and that’s fine. Don’t stop. The important thing is to keep drawing maps and keep practicing. The artist Bob Ross had a saying, “Talent is a pursued interest. Anything that you’re willing to practice, you can do.” If you keep going, I promise you’ll get to a point where you’re making maps you’re happy to show your players.
Materials – How you map is going to depend a lot on how you’re using your maps. For reference mapping, you’ll be fine with a pad of graph paper (4 or 5 squares per inch is ideal) and a regular pencil. If the scale isn’t important, or you intend to start with area maps and not dungeon maps, you don’t even need the graph paper. Grab any empty sheet and start drawing. In fact, I often start with a blank sheet of paper even when I’m drawing a dungeon layout because I find the graph paper can be restrictive during the planning stage.
When you’re happy with what you’re drawing, and you want your maps to look a little tidier so your players can read them, it may be time to use pens. You still draw the initial map using pencil, but then go over the lines with a coloured pen, usually black. I use Pilot™ pens for my map making, in four main colours: black for the line work, green for forests, swamps and the like, blue for water features, and red for location icons and to add highlights to other features. If you want to get fancier with the colour you can pick up a box of coloured pencils and use as many colours as you like. Just be careful of making the map too “muddy” with excessive colour use.
If you are running a game which uses a lot of miniatures, you can pick up flip-chart paper with 1”-squares marked on it from any stationary store, making it perfect for transferring your reference maps to the table. Gaming Paper also makes a variety of papers for the tabletop, in a wide range of colours and sizes. The paper quality is also excellent, so you can make some great reusable maps. As with your reference maps, start with pencil, then work your way to felt markers, either black or in as many colours as you prefer.
Cartographer’s Guild – Honestly, I think this should be the first stop for anyone interested in fantasy and sci-fi maps, for any reason, not just gaming. You’ll get inspired by thousands of examples, and the forums and blogs cover a wide range of topics for all skill levels. You can learn a bunch just by looking at a particular map and trying to copy its style, and you’ll never run out of examples here. Plus, it’s just a beautiful site. I’ve become lost down the rabbit hole of looking through page after page of maps, never regretting a second of it.
WASD20 – Inspiration is great, but when I’m ready to make my own maps I need to see the process happening in front of me. Besides being a great general-purpose gaming channel, WASD20 has an entire series of helpful videos on fantasy mapping, collected in their own playlist. He even breaks the process down by terrain types, and offers different style suggestions for your mapping so you can choose a style which works for your skill level. If you’re like me and need to see it happening to do it yourself, I’d definitely recommend these videos. Need a second opinion? Check out the Questing Beast channel for their take on map making.
Those are some of my favourite resources to get started; what are some of yours? What tips would you share with a new cartographer? Let me know in the comments.