5 Steps to Create a Map

Maps come in multiple forms. They help explorers keep track of where they’ve been and relay that to those who couldn’t make the trip, they help tourists navigate New York City, and help orient players in your Dungeons & Dragons campaign. After all, who doesn’t want to know the best path to hunt down the dark lord that’s been plaguing the realm?

In a recent post I discussed world building and the importance a map can have, so i won’t go into why it’s important to have a map here. Instead, I’d like to focus on the map aspect of that article and present a few ways you could go about digitally creating your own map, should the pen and paper not be enough for you, using my own files as well as examples done by others. So, without farther ado, let’s talk about cartography and the 5 basic steps I take to make my maps.

1: Sketch

I will always suggest that you sketch out a design on paper, such as this one by Reddit user arrakchrome. There are ways around this by generating terrain randomly, but I prefer to sculpt my maps rather than work with randomness. By doing this I can critically think about the way land works. For example, just knowing about how mountains affect weather can drastically change a map. However, fantasy can mess with real-world nature. For example, perhaps the elves have a spell that gives life to a region that should (geologically speaking) be a desert.  Perhaps deforestation turned a thick jungle into a field of stumps, or maybe a dragon burned a village and it was never rebuilt. These things would impact the flow of citizens, and thus must be considered as you design your map.

All that said, this stage is best for creating a map design you find aesthetically appealing. The details can come later. Once you have something you’re happy with it’s time to move over to the computer (or tablet, if thats what you enjoy).

2: Pick a Program

Photoshop seems to be the go-to program for many who enjoy designing maps, and for good reason, but it’s not the only program available. When designing your map you’ve got a few of options, each offering different levels of customization. I’ll go through a few I know of here, but this list is not the extent of available programs. There are surely others I don’t know of, plus the readily-available MS Paint (which as a Mac-user, I can’t comment on too much).

Photoshop looks to be the primary tool that serious cartographers use. It’s also rather expensive, but the quality of Photoshop maps cannot be ignored. You can find all sorts of guides on Photoshop and making maps in it, though I would recommend this one from the Cartographer’s Guild by forum user Ascension. It takes you through step-by-step from opening a new document to typography. Because of that it’s a very long guide, but it’s the best one I’ve seen.

I switched from Photoshop Elements (a lite version of Photoshop) to Affinity Designer about a year ago. Affinity Designer and the company’s other products were Mac-only programs, though a Windows version is about to enter a beta. By the time you read this it might be available or fully released. The program is very much like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator put together. It’s both a vector and bitmap program put in one package. There’s still a cost, but without the subscription model that Adobe uses. The maps created with Affinity Designer and Photoshop are very nearly identical, though you may need to go about things in different ways to get similar results. That said, Affinity Designer doesn’t have all the tools required to make a map in the style of Ascension’s on the Cartographer’s Guild. Affinity Photo might, though I haven’t been able to test it out since I down’t own that program (at least for now).

I saw Inkarnate pop up recently, and though it is in beta the app is rather good. It’s is free and has expanded its tools rather significantly since its first version and it can be used on your computer or tablet (though I wasn’t able to find specifications on what tablets are compatible). The downside is some limited customization, but the app makes it incredibly easy to make a map. I suggest you watch this youtube video if you’re interested in Inkarnate, since it’s difficult to know what it’s like by reading about it.

Finally, we have Campaign Cartographer 3. This, like Inkarnate, is a tool I’ve not gotten my hands on, in part due to its Windows exclusivity. That said, it also looks to be a tool designed to allow easy map creation. It has a one-time fee just like Affinity Designer, though it has many pre-made assets that are of use to those creating maps.


3: Transfer the Sketch

Bring the sketch you did back in step 1 into whatever program you’ve chosen to use. If you’re using Photoshop or Affinity Designer you can take a picture or scan the sketch, then trace it. Or, just estimate and re-draw it. This step should only consist of a base layer. I usually create a red border of what I want to create, do the base as a flat tan field, and the outline that with a smooth black border (getting rid of the red). That’s just my usual start, though. You can see a stripped-down version of my map of the Bluelands to the left (created in Photoshop Elements, shown in the image as an Affinity Designer document), showing my base layer, which accidentally got some of the forest layer on it. I was almost done the forest and grass by the time I noticed. That aside, important things to take note of are where you will put things like mountains and rivers, since you (probably) want your map to follow real-world physics. These will be detailed in the next step, but you’ll need to have the base layout done before you add those details.

Of course, if you use programs like Inkarnate or CC3, you will be restricted by their tools and textures. Because of that, your process will be different than that of anything people do on bitmap programs like Photoshop. The tools are relatively simple on these programs however, and a quick google search will get you all kinds of guides on both Inkarnate and CC3 (and surely the other programs that must exist which I’m simply not aware of).

4: Add [Geographical] Details

The detail layers in my process are that of the forests (which i mostly already had on the base layer of this map because I’m bad at things–learn from my mistakes) and mountains. In the images to the right I add the forests and mountains, indicated by marks of paint of appropriate colors. Of course, these are not the only detail layers you can have, but they apply to most maps. Make sure to include deserts, snow, or any other terrain appropriate in your maps!

Another method to indicate terrain would be to use icons, such as small trees and mountains. My personal favorite brush set (available for bitmap programs) comes from StarRaven on DeviantArt(here). They’re completely free to download, though she wants to be asked permission for commercial use, and work really well for a sketchy style of map.

When you have all the layers down look the map over. Surely it’s changed since your first draft, and if my own process is any indication, you’ll have to make some changes because something just feels off. When that’s done, it’s time to start labelling it.

5: Label Your Map

With the everything about the land in place, it’s time to consider civilization. Perhaps you already did and took note of where you want specific towns or cities to be–that may be for the best–but if you hadn’t until just now keep in mind that different locations promote different societies. A seaside city might make a bulk of its profit in trade, whereas a town on a crossroads might make its profits through taxes thanks to those passing by. Indicate your locations clearly and keep in mind that somebody in your world decided to build there, then ask why. If you wish to flesh out your world you cannot simply close your eyes and place your settlements wherever your hand blindly goes.

Also consider the use of a compass rose and scale. Not every map needs these, though both (especially scales) can be incredibly important for consistency with travel. These can be assisted by a legend, informing the viewer of what each symbol means. Other tools may be useful, and you can include them (or not) in a variety of interesting ways, but they are useful parts of a map.

Finally, consider the typography. Color may change depending on what it’s labelling (ie: pale blue for water and dark brown for land), so keep the theme in mind as you address that. You can reference other maps as a good source for ideas on how to approach this part of the process, though generally I suggest black text and a simple font–you want your map to be legible. The text size you display will likely change a few times between towns, cities, regions, and bodies of water (among other things). When using text make sure it fits the theme of the map. For example,  map in the image of a hologram wouldn’t use Goudy Old Style and one in the style of a decaying old scroll wouldn’t use Times New Roman This is another example of something I regret, though I never really intended to use the map of the Bluelands. It was always supposed to be for my own personal reference, so I was okay with it. Funny how things turn out.

You’re [Probably] Done!

I only throw the “probably” in there because if it were me I’d have to go back and tinker for a few hours at least. If that’s not how you work though, congratulations on your new map! With the base, detail, and extra aspects all finished you’ve got a new map. I wish you best for whatever you decide to use it for.

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