Fantastic Maps & How to Make Them: Mountains & Rivers

Fantastic Maps & How to Make Them: Mountains & Rivers

An instructional, in-depth look into the worlds of fantasy cartography.
By Craig Simpson    Twitter

Hello again my cartography-minded friends. Last week we were talking about forests and how to plant them into your map. This week we will be working on mountains and rivers. I have decided to bring both of these areas together as they are two aspects that really affect one another. I will try not to get too bogged down in the geology behind all of this, but some of the information is pretty vital when trying to create your own realm.

Mountain Ranges

When you are thinking about where you are going to add your mountain ranges, what you are actually doing is creating the history behind your world. You are thinking about what has happened in the millions of years before your campaign has even begun. Of course, you may have chosen some kind of freak incident which rapidly increased events (I am not trying to use this as a copout, but this is fantasy after all!).

If you think about the Himalayas, possibly the most iconic mountain range in the world, it was formed by India breaking off of what was Gondwanaland and crashing into Asia. It moved at 4000 miles in 30 million years, which is actualy remarkably quick. As the Indian tectonic plate continued to hit Asia, the land folded up under the pressure and eventually caused faults. These faults are basically part of the land that move close to the Earth’s core and is pushed back up because of ‘channel flowing’ as granite. This is a very simplified version of the events, but I hope it gives you a good idea of how these things occur. There are other ways for mountains to be formed, I’ll leave it to you to discover.

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With that information in mind, lets get back to base camp. In this first image I have drawn the line where I would like to put my mountain range and started drawning the outline with a 2H pencil.

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In this second image, I added a few bits of details with a 2H again and then retraced my original outline with a HB pencil.

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You can give your mountains a range of different shapes, sizes and density. In the above image I have given you a range of ranges that I hope gives you a good idea of the types of things you can make.

It is also interesting to think about the towns and villages that might be near by and even the weather that affects those regions. Going back to Game of Throne, if you think about the Eyrie and how difficult it is for people to visit. For those that haven’t read the books or watched the series, do it… Seriously. However, if you don’t have the time, just do a Google search on the Eyrie.


There are a variety of ways in which a river starts. They can range from marshes, melting glaciers, lakes and headwaters (springs and streams) which start in the mountains. You might be thinking that this is all well and good, but what does that have to do with making maps? Well, once you have your mountains placed on your map (and the lakes, which were added in the initial design), you have your source for rivers.

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In the above image, I have outlined where I am going to place the rivers and please note that I place the origin of the river tucked inside the mountains. Again, with the initial sketch, I always use a 2H pencil. I added some bends and curves, but I never caused the river to bend back on itself. The two biggest reasons for this is a mixture of gravity and errosion. I am no expert on the subject, so I will encourage you to watch documentaries once again.

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In this next image you can see that I have now added deltas to give the river that vien-like appearance. I also followed some of the rivers directly back to the ocean. You can now retrace over your rivers with a HB pencil to give it more definition.

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Here is a final image of the overall look of our mountains and rivers, I really hope this have given you a good insight. It will be quite difficult to poll this week’s topic, so if you could think of some river and mountain names in the comments below, I’ll stick up a poll later this week with some of the suggestions.

The winner of last weeks poll was forest type A, which was the elongated teardrop style! Thank you again for voting, it is great fun to work on this with you. Until next week, Carpe Geekum my friends.


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