I have been mapping this way for years, rather than with the usual method of drawing a continent and then filling in all the bits. I don't make a traditional Tolkien-esque map until the end of the design process, and that's mostly as a prop for the players, not for me.
I see each zone as a room in a dungeon, with one or more exits, and a list of contents, including monsters, NPCs, and locations. Often I'll rate a zone with a number that indicates how many days' travel it takes to cross it. Some places (and exits) might require the equivalent of a Spot check to find -- this makes rangers VERY useful during overland travel.
|A big time sink.|
So here's my process in more detail, in case you want to try it, after the jump:
- Keep a notebook with you for a week or so and write down evocative-sounding names for different zones/lands. Make some basic notes about what's in each zone.
- With your notebook in front of you, make a 3 x 5 card for each zone and try different layouts in relation to each other. I actually do this digitally in Adobe Illustrator.
- Once you get it right, connect the zones with lines.
- If you're ambitious, you can write a flavor text snippet for each zone, to read to the players as they cross it. I did this for Northern Crown: The Gazetteer and it makes wilderness travel actually workable in a way that hex crawls never have for me.
- Hardass DMs will require that players make their own world maps as they explore. Softies like me will likely provide players with a Tolkienesque map that provides just enough evocative detail to make players point at a spot and say, "Let's go there."