All About D&D Maps: An Intro to World Maps (3 Strategies)
Updated: Oct 16, 2018
I think we can all agree that beautiful world maps in our Dungeons and Dragons campaigns make for an amazing role-playing experience.
And if you are like me, then it isn't just DND that spurred this love for maps. For me, it all started with fantasy and adventure books which all seem to have a compelling map in the front or back cover, or a video game RPG where my characters carved through the terrain and encountered all sorts of interesting hazards, monsters and traps.
Maps are interwoven into our favorite stories and in some ways become characters themselves. They add a setting for the narrative, and can shape a character's actions so much, that even small changes to the map could have monumental effects on the hero's journey and the story's outcome.
So it is easy to see why designing a great map is such an important part of a Dungeon Master's job for his/her campaign planning. We need to instill a sense of wonder and mystery into our players to help them become immersed in the stories we craft together. It is no easy feat!
But don't give up!
The great thing about D&D is how we all work together to create the story. The DM can and should have most of the campaign arc planned out, but as the game progresses, new features, directions, and areas for gameplay open up. We discover the adventure together, and that is a great thing!
So how do you create world maps that are as compelling as your favorite fantasy stories?
Below we will go over everything you want to know about making a fantastic world map that is playable for years to come.
These core staples will make any map you create a success.
There is no "right way" to do anything in D&D, but having some sort of framework can help you at the drawing board. The trick is to build wonder, scale, and points of interest in key places, so your adventurers will want to go there.
We do this by incorporating purpose, imagination, and aesthetics into our map-planning.
Build Maps with Purpose
Navigation is the primary reason for why maps exist in RPGs. Players need to know where they can travel, what methods of travel are needed to get there, and how long it will take to arrive. Maps built for utility require a few elements:
Text needs to be easy to read.
Scale needs to be realistic.
Symbols need a Legend.
You can make your maps as simple or complex as you want, just be sure to include the most important parts to make it utilitarian.
First, I recommend that you could go super minimal with it, draw a basic land mass shape, and only show basic names of places connected to routes in order to show distance. When first planning out a map, it might make sense to go this route just to get all your ideas out on a page quickly, then you can build everything around that skeleton without spending too much time on the artwork.
Next, choose a measurement scale to define distance between the points on your map. Your players will need to know how far they are traveling and how long it will take to get there. Try to be realistic with this as it shouldn't take only 1 day to walk clear across your entire world map. Keep this in mind while you design other elements as it will help you plan battles, hazards, and interesting storyline encounters along routes.
Finally, let's also agree that super artistic maps with too many busy illustrations can become difficult to comprehend at first glance. If your party cannot decipher their location and make references quickly, then your map has fallen short of its potential.
Fortunately, it is easy enough if the text used on the map is bold, with the more fanciful fonts saved primarily for notating a land mark's prestige, and your symbols sit in a clearly defined legend somewhere on the page.
Now that you have a basic idea of what a utility-driven map consists of, consider building several versions of the world map to showcase different types of important world information. For example, the super artistic world map could focus on terrain, then you could create a print out of its political borders, maybe a magic aura map, or even on that shows game and trade routes.
Build Maps that Tell an Imaginative Story
If you have managed to define your map's utility, then it is safe to say you are now ready to mold some imagination around it. We want our adventurers to ask themselves a few questions while they look it over, so let that be a guide for your imagination:
What is happening in this area right now?
Perhaps there is a new kingdom emerging in a specific location. So you might put some small towns and a castle being built in the center. This might get our players to imagine how in control this kingdom is if they are putting resources into building castles. What about defense? How safe are the routes in and out of this region?
You see how this can inspire some creativity?
What can we do here?
If this area is focused on building a castle and their armies are small, maybe we can help a neighboring kingdom conquer the area. Maybe we can offer our services to help protect the kingdom in exchange for treasure or permission to travel freely through it.
Does your map make players want to take a variety of actions?
What may have happened here in the past?
This kingdom could be rebuilding after a war with the neighboring kingdom, or maybe a dragon or deity demolished the previous castle. Maybe there was once a thriving kingdom here but it was too close to the shore or a volcano and a great catastrophe destroyed their civilization.
Are there ruins nearby?
Sculpt some adventure plot along your map's routes, so your players are way more likely to stay engaged.
The act of simply expanding the distance between key points of interest can give the DM some room to play. When your players have a long distance to travel, pick specific points on the map that trigger a storyline encounter. The results of well-crafted encounter could substantially alter the party's initial intention for adventuring through the land.
All you have to do is leave some room for encounters, traps, and obstacles. As with everything, the trick is to put in just enough that it isn't boring, but not too much that it isn't fun.
If you leave out places where cool things happen, your map will suck!
Don't make the mistake of rushing through the design of your world map. Build your maps with specific story arcs in mind that your players can discover together. If your party is saying "Ooh! I want to go there," then your map is now compelling enough for artwork.
Build Maps that Look Beautiful
I get it, not everyone is an artist, but that shouldn't stop you from creating something aesthetically pleasing to look at. You might not be able to draw by hand that well, but there are tons of resources online you can use should you choose to outsource this task, from map-generating software to hiring an artist to draw it for you.
It doesn't have to be a supreme work of art by any stretch. It just has to be convincing enough that players want to engage with it.
If you have followed along up to this point, you know that creating a solid foundation or flow-chart is what makes the map useful. Then you crafted some plot-driving elements into it, making your players want to use it. Now make your players believe it is real.
There are many techniques for adding aesthetically pleasing artwork to your maps, and we will go over a few below:
One way is to colorize each region correctly to define the type of environment. For example, a snow-filled valley wouldn't have a lot of browns or greens. Trees in your mountain ranges may have a darker green to them than those in the grasslands. Lakes should be a lighter blue than oceans, but darker than rivers and streams.
Strategically placed lines can define height or shadows. The use of short swirls and curvy lines can create an turbulent water feature, whereas longer wavy lines are more tranquil. Sharp points and jagged edges can create a sense of danger in a mountainous region.
Natural and Unnatural Wonders
Draw in some canyons, farmland, and wilderness. Make the map appear alive. Maybe there are some ruins from an age passed, or a shipwreck signaling a battleground. Construct megalithic structures to make players wonder how they got there.
Creative use of Text
As stated before, placing text on your maps will help your adventurers decipher it, but a really cool way to add story with the font is to make the best locations have the most fanciful fonts, and make the fonts less artistic for less important areas. A town or small village might have a sans serif font.
Isometric objects appear to be 3-dimensional but have view that isn't warped by distance. It adds a perspective that really pops out, since a completely top-down view can be a bit boring. If you want some examples of isometric objects, check out some gameplay screenshots from video games like Diablo or Fallout Tactics.
Take your time
Building your world map is supposed to take a lot of thought and planning. You can make it easier by starting your party in a smaller area within your world and expand it out as you discover ways to interact with it.
The best thing to do is leave finishing your world map for last when creating your world.
We went over a lot of information about making a world map. This is in no way the ONLY way to think about it as there are so many things to consider, but if you get the basics down like we covered in this post, you'll be on your way to some really fun experiences with your party.
Want to know more about maps in D&D?
Check out this guide where we cover an overview of each type of map common in D&D games, as well as the types of paper used to organize them. You'll learn about grids, movement and proper scale.
What are some things you consider when designing world maps? Leave a comment below with some ideas that might help others who wish to make their own maps. I am curious to see what others are doing.