In the tabletop world, the use of cartography is often inherent to running the game. Many boardgames use them as their main playing arena or to situate the contestants as they work their way to some form of victory.
In role-playing games, maps are essential tools for the Game Master. They allow him to plan the adventure, determine where events are to take place or how the adventuring party will get to their destination. Depending on the game you play, battle maps can also be tied to an essential aspect of the game: encounters!
When purchasing and running a published adventure, maps are included and serve their purpose as intended by the authors of the module. But what about when one decides to run a home brew campaign? How do you go about getting or even making your own maps? Well, to be honest, nowadays it's not that hard, and fortunately, there are many ways to go about it!
One of the big differences between gaming now compared to just 20, never mind 40, years ago is that so many online tools are here to assist us, if we feel the need for them. In terms of map making, there is a vast array of online or downloadable apps available, and some of them are even free as well.
Fantasy cartography software can definitely gift you with magical powers, especially if you have little interest in drawing a map of your own by hand.
Three major players stand out, they are: Inkarnate (free version or monthly subscription for feature rich pro version), Wonderdraft (one time purchase of 30 USD), and Dungeondraft (one time purchase of 20 USD). The big advantage of using dedicated software is that it does not require its user to have any artistic or drawing skills whatsoever. The downside is that you are limited by what the app can do and the images and styles it can integrate. The result will not have much artistic flair but it will definitely be functional and look quite convincing for the amount of time invested. Game masters with no drafting or drawing inclinations who are looking to create their own maps should definitely check these three apps out. If you wish to dig deeper for more software options, you will want to look at this comprehensive list by Roll20.
Pen and Paper
The alternative to digital tools is of course to simply use pen and paper. While this might seem daunting in many ways, even for someone who likes to sketch and doodle in their free time, it’s in fact more straightforward than you’d expect. Many artists, including myself offer tutorials and other resources designed to help beginners to get started and aficionados to improve.
Among the books you can find in your local store or online, I can recommend “How to Draw Fantasy Art and RPG Maps: Step by Step Cartography for Gamers and Fans” by Jared Blando. It offers everything you would hope to find in a book from a professional fantasy cartographer and it’s definitely great inspiration for Game Masters, even in the event you end up using map making software.
If it is dungeon maps you are after, then be sure to check out Dyson Logos Cartography. The artist is known for his dungeon cartography and works for many big names in the TTRPG publishing world. On his website you will find regular blogs as well as an extensive archive of maps, ready to use.
On the Patreon side of things, you can find many artists offering monthly maps in exchange for your modest patronage. You should have a look at my friend Raznag, aka Le Paysagiste de l’Imaginaire. He is very prolific, offers lots of free maps (some gigantic) and is available for commissions. He specializes in town and dungeon maps. Being a long time avid player and DM, Raznag knows the requirements of a good RPG map better than most!
I should also mention that I offer map making tips and tricks on my own Patreon. Last year, I did a series of step-by-step tutorials focusing on drawing a world map and at the moment I am posting an isometric town map tutorial. You can check them out for a month, starting at $3 and stick around for more monthly goodness if you find value in it!
Commissioned maps are a great way to add a personal touch to your games and to acquire a unique piece of art.
Hiring a cartographer
Finally, there are GMs who would rather focus on writing and developing the best adventures they can imagine while entrusting the creation of a map to a professional artist. Many cartographers and visual storytellers can be found online and finding the right one for your needs often comes down to budget and artistic sensibilities.
ArtStation and Instagram are good places to look online and asking anyone you trust for recommendations is also a good way to find the right person. In case you enjoy my art, I am of course always available for commissions of many kinds. In terms of map making, I specialize in world maps but the freelance projects I have been hired for over the last year have had me explore other kinds of fantasy maps, including 3D building maps, top down battle maps and more. My own experiences as a GM and a player greatly contribute to how I go about putting maps together and how they can help you tell a story that matters to you. You will find more information regarding map commissions here, or simply by using the contact page and letting me know what you have in mind. It costs nothing to ask!
Old school, new school, any school
At the end of the day, creating or commissioning fantasy maps should be as much of an adventure as the stories you and your gaming group are experiencing around the table. Choose whichever method attracts you the most or step out of your comfort zone and try something new! Either way, you will find it adds tremendous value to your hobby.
We all have our own ways of playing TTRPGs, using a variety of immersion tools that fit us as a group of players. Don’t let anyone tell you how you should do it but be open to suggestions on how you could approach it. Also remember that playing these games is a journey, and as a map maker, you have to discover what’s out there before you can commit it to paper. Hopefully this little overview of fantasy map making will be helpful to you in some way.
Wouter F. Goedkoop is a multi-faceted designer, artist, cartographer and storyteller who, after living across Europe decided to find his home in Nova Scotia where he lives with his wife and kids. He helps people and companies connect with their audience in meaningful ways by telling relevant and impactful stories. For commissions and freelance inquiries, please use the form on the contact page.