Everything you need to know about drawing your own Maps for DnD
Updated: Oct 16, 2018
So you want to learn about creating cool maps for your Tabletop RPG? Look no further, D12 has you covered!
We will go over different styles of drawing maps, as well as some different types of maps you can draw for your campaigns, and what sorts of things you might want to include within your maps.
Remember in D&D, there is no single right answer, but everyone has preferences. So if you want to deviate, then please do. This is merely a compilation of common practices I have seen DMs use for their games.
First, let's take a look at ways to measure scale and movement within your map environments.
We can identify space between objects on our maps using rulers commonly referred to as grids. Our realms are separated into various grids and each has their own purpose.
Square Grid: Helpful for tracking close quarter and encounter movement while showing scale to players.
The tried and true widely acceptable top view for most maps and terrains, square grids are great for organization, building rectangular buildings and interiors, while also maintaining a believable frame of distance between points for a party.
They make for quick and easy dungeon map outlines and are one of the most common tabletop and board game surface types. Movement is somewhat restricted to 4 cardinal directions, which lends itself more to a tactical movement type.
Hex Grids: 6-sided hexagonal meant to grant freedom of movement in all directions
Hex maps are an older type of tool on which DMs can rely, allowing players to make a long journey over a large area. Hex maps are not meant for every situation, nor do they make sense for every environment, but they certainly have reason to exist in the right setting, even in close-quarters.
The standard grid map in tabletop RPGs consists of squares or dots to provide players with a vantage of distance in a given space. Some may argue that square shapes make it easier to draw maps on a small scale, and are easier to traverse for players in small areas. They also have a different aesthetic to them which seems to have taken precedence for most situations.
So why should you make a hex map?
If your world map is distorted or complex and doesn't follow straight cardinal paths north, south, east or west, but may require angular changes at specific points, a hex map may make sense. More importantly, they work well in identifying terrain zones where movement may be stifled or political regions where encounters and allegiances may change. So in essence, beyond the freedom of moving in any direction, your party has to plan for these other variables while traveling.
If the party must move stealthily through a castle, traveling in only 4 directions would not be as believable as also being able to travel diagonally.
Hex maps call for a different type of game, where the focus is on getting from point A to point B. Think of stories like "The Lord of the Rings." This particular setting would do well with a hex crawl because the journey itself is the primary focus, and the entire world is going through political shifts, so our heroes must remain on their toes and be willing and able to change directions, especially if being chased.
Isometric grids: consisting of or having equal dimensions.
Typical grid paper consists of a bunch of identical squares, and the view is generally in two dimensions, a top view or side view.
Isometric grids differ in that they have an orthographic view, a depiction of a 3D space on a 2D surface where everything seems equal in size, there is no vanishing horizon, and the parallel lines never touch. So we can define “isometric” as having or consisting of equal dimensions. This is different from an actual 3D image because there is a three-point perspective that warps the dimensions as things appear at different distances.
Objects that are closer seem larger, while distant objects seem smaller. Their actual dimensions could be equal, but showing that on a 2-dimensional plane can be difficult in a grid, so we use isometric grids to depict 3-dimensional space on a 2-dimensional plane.
I hope that makes sense.
Dotted grids: much like square grids in shape, their design is meant to allow for to-scale artwork, or to reveal more complex textures or information that might be obscured by lined grids. There are also variations that allow for isometric shapes.
They are often used to help organize information visually. For example, if I have a small scale map, and I want to also draw a larger scale map on the same page, I can scale with the dotted grids, allow for the art to expand to the right size, and not have it appear obscured by the squares.
Blanks: freeform with no inherent organizational structure
Blank sheets offer the artist complete freedom to draw or write whatever they want. These are also sometimes referred to as scratch pages. One can quickly note something for later, but they are increasingly difficult to organize, and it is preferable to use lined paper.
Blanks are great for creating intricate artworks for your game. From character drawings to large-scale maps, it is debatable that blanks may be the most useful paper type.
Types of maps
One of the most enjoyable parts of being a dungeon master is creating maps.
When creating maps for your games, pay attention to scale.
Some common map types are world, kingdom, region, town, point of interest, dungeon, and dungeon room maps. Let's take a look at each one!
The function of the world map is to give an overview of the world, show the kingdoms, their shapes, sizes, and provide a geopolitical understanding of what might drive a particular kingdom’s interests. The idea for this scale is to make moving across this map take weeks of travel. Large maps can be daunting because there is so much to fill in and so much to think about.
One tip for making this easier is to draw the world map last.
If you want to expand upon the map, consider having misty regions or areas affected with perilous terrain that cannot be easily traversed until some sort of large-scale event clears a path, opening new regions to your players. Don't go too much into detail or provide information that is arbitrary to the game. Let the world come to life organically.
What is on the World Map?
Kingdoms Water Bodies Mountain Ranges
Natural and Unnatural Wonders
Scale 1” = 300 miles
For a more in-depth look at world maps, check out this post where we talk about how to make a world map compelling.
This map shows major cities, roads, lakes, rivers, and farmlands. It has a bit more detail than the world map and is the most referenced. It is one of the most involved maps when it comes to the time commitment, but it should be. Take your time thinking about how you want your kingdoms to be organized. Outline political reasons why borders exist.
Take care of incorporating environmental variables into the kingdom. For example, one kingdom could be a forest kingdom where elves rule.
When introducing a new part of the kingdom it may serve you to put paragraphs of information about each region within the kingdom in order to make traveling to new areas exciting for players and to offer DMs story elements around named areas. Having a document with culture, trade information, demographics, politics, etc., can add an extra dimension to the believability of your kingdom, and increase your players’ immersion into your world as a whole. Traveling across this map will take days up to a week or so by foot.
What is on the Kingdom Map?
State Boundaries Cities Major Outposts Major Villages Holy Lands Legendary locations Caves Names of Natural Wonders
Scale 1” = 30 miles
The larger the world, the more these maps will need to be created to scale down the world. Fortunately, region maps aren’t nearly as involved as Kingdom maps and aren’t used as much given once the areas within the region have been conquered by the party, there may not be any reason to revisit it.
A tip if you want to keep and recycle your region maps for later is to create a world-changing incident
For example, a magic user made a huge mistake and extremely powerful beasts now roam what used to be a more peaceful area, or a cataclysm opened a new hidden area to powerful enemies who now roam the region which makes them great for sandbox and one-shot adventures. Travel across the region map is delineated in a span of hours or days. They are great for starting new campaigns. Try to make traveling within the region more interesting by incorporating skirmish battles, tests of courage, terrain challenges, role-playing encounters, etc.
What is on the Region Map?
Edges of Cities Minor Outposts Minor Villages Holy Places Legendary locations Cave entrance / exit points Natural Wonders Adventure locations Ruins Shipwrecks
Scale 1” = 3 miles
Town maps are useful for heavy roleplaying and are needed for intricate and interwoven storylines, especially when party members are split up yet their actions still affect each other throughout the town. They are great for introducing NPC storylines and side-quest opportunities.
Towns are often revisited. Your party members may even take over a town or village from a pack of barbarians! Travel within the town should take no more than a few minutes to an hour or so, depending on size.
What is on the Town Map?
Mayor’s Home Town Square NPC Homes as discovered Pubs Inns Orphanages Shops Temples Entrances to sewers or ruins Other points of interest
Scale 1”= 30 - 300 feet
Point of Interest / Interior Maps
Interest point maps include interiors and facades like homes, temples, inns, pubs, shops, castles, etc., and serve as great role-play encounter locations and can really open up players’ imaginations when it comes to interacting within the area.
What is on the Point of Interest / Interior Map?
Interior identifying items Rooms Furniture Altars Bars Shop Wares Stairs Secret passages to dungeons
Scale 1”=3 - 30 feet
Similar to Town maps as far as scale, though sometimes this map is hidden from players and used only as a guide for the DM to keep tensions high for encounters. This type of map is often drawn on gridded paper with scale delineations to reflect player movement restrictions to the DM only. Successful dungeon builds rely heavily on hazards, surprise, and encounters. Be creative when it comes to what could potentially harm party members. Jot notations and key info about environmental details like water level, air quality, how wide tunnels are, how tall ceilings are, story elements, encounter details, etc., on a separate reference sheet.
Generally, the artwork for the main dungeon does not have to be that complex. Save the prettier artwork for dungeon rooms, forest and ruins maps.
A good tip if you are having a hard time designing a dungeon is to draw a random shape and place interactive things within that shape and build the room around that shape on this specific map.
Build other rooms around that first room. Nobody has to see it, but dungeons are not supposed to be square and boring.
What is on the Dungeon Map?
Cliffs Notations Quick Measurements for scale Exits
Scale = DM discretion
Maps of interiors and points of interest within dungeons, forests, ruins, and other potentially hazardous regions. Create a large enough room for encounters and easy movement within the encounter, unless the goal is to prevent movement.
These rooms should be planned around the encounters and role play events within the dungeon specifically.
Not all dungeon rooms should or need to have a map, otherwise creating dungeons might take a very long time and become very tough to organize.
What is on the Dungeon Rooms Map?
Interior identifying items Wild elements like poison, water, acid, lava, ice, webs, trees, etc. Passages and tunnels to other locations Elevation changes, ladders, stairs Legendary items
Scale 1”=3 - 30 feet
Don't feel limited by cliche map systems. Get creative! For example, you could build a dungeon within the body of a large beast, or in a candy factory, where the environment can have more of an effect on your players. Don't feel obligated to make every dungeon an underground cavern, sewer, or marsh.
Don't be afraid to change any of your maps to better suit a campaign. Learn from the campaign, edit and adapt your maps to your story preferences. I know it can hurt if there are issues with a map you spent hours drawing by hand and while there are places online where you can easily generate maps to print out, some people prefer drawing them by hand.
Instill a Sense of Mystery
It is perfectly fine if the party does not travel to all map locations within a given map. Leave some room for mystery, and see if there are areas your players naturally want to gravitate toward as they help you build the story.
Allow your players to freely roam the areas of your maps. Don't bog them down with sluggish travel mechanics. Make your areas inspiring and full of story elements, so there is never a dull moment while traveling. Use character backstory, NPCs, and world stage events to keep things interesting. After all, your player's party can't be the only party in this realm, right?
Protect your Maps
Especially if you draw maps by hand, it is recommended to protect your artwork in a sleeve of some kind, and maybe use a grid transparency overlay and a non-permanent marker to indicate movement.
Take it easy
As much as I shouldn't have to mention this, it bears repeating because some people take this way too seriously. The point of playing tabletop RPGs is to create entertaining stories with friends. There is no right way to do things, just make sure you are having fun!
Maps are fun to create but can take quite a bit of time to draw. There are plenty of online map creation softwares out there, some free, some cost money. Use whatever tools you feel make this part of the game fun and interesting for you.
What are some tips you have for creating maps? Comment below about your favorite map type, how you create them and share any resources you may have.