Saturday, December 3, 2011

[Map] How I do Maps

This schematic represents the DungeonTeller campaign world I've been working on. The starting city, Stormgate, is at the lower left. Blue lines mean sea routes, and brown lines mean land routes. The color of each zone indicates its relative level of challenge. Green is safe even for starting characters; yellow a little challenging; orange quite challenging; and red is nasty indeed.

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.
Of course, schematic maps are of no use for adjudicating hex-crawling wilderness travel -- but that has never worked for me as a DM. I remember buying the Judges Guild Campaign Hexagon System booklet (1977) and then literally getting bogged down drawing tiny swamp/marsh symbols, making sure streams didn't flow uphill, carefully lining up the details in adjacent hexes... None of that made any difference to my players, but the rallying cry of the day was "realism!", whatever that was supposed to mean in the context of a fantasy game, and golly, if I just drew my maps down to the smallest detail, then my campaign would have the ring of truth.

So here's my process in more detail, in case you want to try it, after the jump:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Once you get it right, connect the zones with lines.
  4. 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.
  5. 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."


  1. Of course, I'll publish descriptions for this map when they're ready. Stay tuned!

  2. Replies
    1. I really enjoyed reading it. Thanks for the link, Brendan!

  3. Love the article! You may find these two templates to be useful follow ups:

    1. Thanks for pointing me to those articles. The location template is just my style. I like that you give each place a very brief history -- a reason to be there beyond just waiting for the characters to raid and loot it.

  4. Nice idea to color-code the danger zones.


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