Fantastic Maps and How to Make Them – Part 1

Fantastic Maps and How to Make Them

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

In this series of articles, I will be showing you how you can make your own maps. I will mainly be focusing on creating maps for your own realms. It is my opinion that DMs should learn the tools required to create their own unique campaigns and not allow pre-written adventures to shackle their creativity. This can lead to a mechanical campaign without breathing room. Don’t get me wrong, the books are great, but sometimes it is nice to step out of your comfort zone. I do understand that many people do not have the time or resources, but by learning how to stamp your personality onto a campaign it can make them both more memorable and enjoyable.

Throughout these articles, I will be including images of my maps throughout each stage of the process to give you a clear idea of what your map should look like at a given point. So, let’s get started with the basics. Paper. I will be using Daler Rowney A3 Cold Pressed at 300 gsm. To break this down for those that don’t know, Daler Rowney are the brand that make the paper. Cold pressed means that the paper is textured with small bumps and grooves, I use cold pressed over hot pressed for aesthetic reasons. If you’re unable to purchase this kind of paper, don’t worry about
it. Finally, gsm means ‘Grams per Square Metre’ and more simply put, the thickness of the paper. As for pencils, I’ll be using Daler Rowney sketching pencils and I mainly use 2H, HB and 2B. Throughout each article I’ll let you know why I use each one at each stage.

For this first article, I’ll be giving you a few examples of how to get inspiration for your designs and how to apply that to your own maps. It might seem obvious that looking at other maps will help, but don’t just look, analyze. Ask yourself a few questions and see if you can find the answers. Here is a short list of questions I find myself asking:

+ What are the obvious landmarks? (Forests, mountains, cities, etc.)
+ How are they represented on the map? (Zoned, a symbol, etc.)
+ What does the map show? (A city, country, state/county, a globe/realm, etc.)
+ What is interesting about the layout? (Typeface, compass rose, design of the land, etc.)

There are a lot of questions you can ask yourself when you look at a map, try to find about 10 interesting points and use that to start thinking about what you want to add to your own ideas.

[google-drive-embed url=”” title=”Game of Thrones.jpg” icon=”” width=”800″ height=”521″ extra=”image” style=”embed”]

Figure 1: Map of Game of Thrones – HBO

I have included an image of the map for the popular TV show Game of Thrones (freely available at On this map there are quite a few things that really stand out to me. Firstly, if you look at the way that the sea is depicted you can clearly see large swells, this is a great effect because it gives it a mystical and foreboding feel. The second point is the way the coast has eroded around certain areas, not only does this give the impression of the passage of time, but it also shows what areas have been affected. From these two pieces of
information, you can start to get a feel of how important the sea is. When creating your own map, start to think about what areas has been effected by the sea or a different type of weathering and how you can reflect that within your realm. The next interesting point is how the rivers, forests and mountains are illustrated. The rivers have a distinct ‘vein-like’ quality leading from different directions, the forests and mountains are quite sporadic, however there are a few areas that are either funneled or encased by mountains. From this, you can start asking yourself what kind of people would live in an area like this or how would you travel through these areas.

After thinking about these questions, I came up with a small island that has some of the qualities that I’ve just discussed.

[google-drive-embed url=”” title=”Article 1 Sketch 1.JPG” icon=”” width=”3840″ height=”2160″ extra=”image” style=”embed”]

Once I had drawn the initial idea of the island (with a 2H pencil), I then wanted to get an idea of how the sea might affect the shape of the island.

[google-drive-embed url=”” title=”Article 1 Sketch 2.JPG” icon=”” width=”3840″ height=”2160″ extra=”image” style=”embed”]

After working out which direction the sea will affect the island, I then went over the initial shape with a HB pencil to define the shape. I decided to have a small bend in the river and to connect the lake to the eroded land.

Finally, below is an image of a sketch within a realm setting so that you can see how I have applied the questions I ask myself.

[google-drive-embed url=”” title=”Anchor Isle.jpg” icon=”” width=”1151″ height=”730″ extra=”image” style=”embed”]

On the north-western part of the island, you can see that I have created the eroded effect, a large mountainous region, a forest and a couple of lakes. The outline of the island was penciled in with a 2B pencil so it stands out and I will talk more about how to draw maps in upcoming articles.

To summarize, look at a variety of maps. You could look at an old map of New York, a mystical land like Asgard, anything that will get your creative juices flowing. Start compiling a collection of images of maps, mountain ranges, forests and lakes as this will help to understand how they all interact with each other. If you have the time, I would seriously consider looking at nature documentaries or even heading to a museum, you can find some great maps in the flesh that way.

See you all next week, when I will start breaking down each aspect on a map.

Carpe Geekum my friends,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *