Wednesday, August 19, 2015

How I Make City Maps

1. Make a list of locations for the city and don't worry about where they are in relation to each other yet. Pretend you're writing a travel article about the top must-see places in the city and come up with a name and a one-paragraph blurb for each one.

2. Write each location on a strip of paper (or make it a text element in a program like Adobe Illustrator) and arrange the locations in relation to one another. The feel and function of each place will suggest its proximity to several others.

3. Once you've got the locations set, draw bubbles that enclose two or more locations that seem to share common themes. The thieves' guild, the pawn shop, the illegal fighting pit, and the not-quite-legitimate surgeon might make a good group. Congrats, you just made a neighborhood. Let's call it Lookout Alley, as in, look out if you go there at night.

4. The narrow spaces between the bubbles suggest borders between neighborhoods, defined by natural or human-made structures: main streets, canals, walls, chasms, rivers... Go ahead and label them as such.

5. Any big empty spaces between bubbles must be empty for a reason. Are they lakes, swamps, royal palaces, market squares, burned-out areas, cemeteries, hills, harbors?

6. Where are the shops, inns, guard houses, etc.? Who cares? Legal amenities and public services usually don't make a secret of themselves. You can just add them to the map whenever a PC needs to find one. What's cool is that if the inn or guard house is in Lookout Alley, you already have some idea of what sort of character it would have.

7. Last thing, make a map to the best of your ability that corresponds to your schematic but don't label anything. That's for the players to explore. Fancy lads like me will scan the map and superimpose the schematic on top of it.
Schematic overlaying city map.


  1. Re: 7, I usually label EVERYTHING so the players know every location of interest by name up front and can explore them at their choosing. What's your opinion on exploring a labelled vs. unlabelled town?

    1. Hi John, honestly it depends on how casual the gameplay is. For younger or more casual players, I would use a labelled map for more guided play. For more immersive play, just a blank map that the players could annotate as they explored.

  2. That's actually a good method for me to collect my jumbled ideas for a city. Thanks a lot!