Have you ever came across a beautifully designed world map (perhaps in a fantasy novel or RPG) and thought to yourself, “I want to do that for my D&D campaign“? If you’re like me, you’ve excitedly grabbed a blank piece of paper and a pencil and gotten straight to work on your masterpiece. After an hour or so of diligent work you take a step back and. . . fuck. Somewhere along the line things got a bit jumbled up between ‘thinking it’ and actually ‘doing it’.
Frustrated from my own struggle, I decided to put together How to Make a D&D World Map: A Non-Artist’s Guide. This multi-series post will walk you through the basics: from choosing the shape of the land and placing terrain features, to placing cities and establishing “end-game” material for your party to work towards, as well as converting your world map to a digital copy.
How to Make a D&D World Map: A Non-Artist’s Guide
Part 1: Introduction & The Lay of the Land (you are here)
- Why Make a D&D World Map?
- Software Options
- General Shape of Landmass
- Large Bodies of Water
- Terrain Features
Part 2: Civilizations & Regions
Part 3: Roads, Transportation, & Unique Features
By the end of Part 1, you’ll have created a map similar to this one:
Why Make a D&D World Map?
There’s a handful of reason that you might want to make a world map for your D&D campaign. One reason to make a world map is so that you can give a copy of the map to the players in your party. I know when I’m a player I absolutely love getting physical items, especially maps. This gives your players something to huddle around (err… stay 6ft apart) and plan out some of their bigger upcoming moves for the campaign. Having access to a world map is especially beneficial if the campaign is being ran in an “open-world, sandbox exploration” style.
Another reason that you should make a D&D world map is because the process will improve your worldbuilding skills, both in general and for the specific campaign. As civilizations are being placed, for example, it might become clear why two kingdoms are at war (proximity to resources, limited room for expansion, etc). Additionally, having a map will make your world feel much more complete and concrete than if you didn’t have an established map. It will give the illusion of a fully developed world, while in reality you may only have a sentence or two description for each area (until players start heading there, that is).
Above all else, you should make a map if you enjoy it. I’m a big believer that the purpose of TTRPGs is to get a break from the real world and have some fun. The purpose of tangential hobbies (miniature painting, worldbuilding, map making, terrain crafting) is also to have fun! I find the act of ‘creating’ by itself is enjoyable, rewarding, and relaxing. Don’t feel like you need to limit yourself to only creating maps that will get used. After all, the more practice the better!
A Quick Note
As the name of this series suggests, this post will be geared towards people like myself who are only mildly artistic. Maps created by following this guide will probably not be beautiful or realistic. However they will give players a sense of the world they’re exploring, and that is the main goal we’ll be trying to accomplish here. Aesthetics and realism will come with continued practice and constructive criticism. Consider this guide a jumping-off point for your map making endeavors.
Although the rest of this guide will focus on how to make a D&D world map by hand, I feel that it’s important to give a run-down of different software options that can be used to create maps. As a fellow non-artist, you may feel pulled towards using software so that your maps are polished and professional looking. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and in-fact I’d encourage you to use the software rather than not have a map at all. The major benefit is that you can create high quality maps for your D&D campaign settings, without much artistic ability of your own. The downside is that you may be limited by the software itself and the learning curve associated with it. Additionally, maps made through software will share aesthetic styles with maps from other users, but this isn’t a deal-breaker for most people.
Inkarnate is probably the most popular map creation tool used across the internet. There is a free version, as well as two different paid versions (Pro version is only $25/year). This tool can be used to create world maps, regional maps, town maps, and battle maps. Check it out for yourself at inkarnate.com and be sure to head over to r/inkarnate.
Donjon Fantasy World Generator
Dammnnnn Donjon, back at it again with the useful DM tools! Seriously if you haven’t ever used their site, go check it out. There’s loads of useful generators and tools for both new and experienced Dungeon Masters. Specifically, today, I’m talking about their Fantasy World Generator. This free tool gives you a hex-grid world map filled with cities, ruins, and features of the land. Give it a try and create a world map here!
Worldographer falls in-between Inkarnate and Donjon’s generator, with the ability to sculpt and create your own maps but maintaining the hex-grid aesthetics. There is a free version available to try, as well as the full version which can be purchased for a one-time fee of $30 (check it out here). I honestly haven’t used this program before, but it frequently came up as a suggestion when I was doing some searching so I figured I’d include it.
Speaking of searching, feel free to look around (ie: Google) if you’re set on using software to build your D&D world map. For now, though, I’ll be proceeding to the main event.
General Shape of Landmass
First things first, grab yourself a blank piece of paper and some writing utensils ’cause we’re about to go old-school! I’ll be using blank printer paper and pens/markers, but feel free to use whatever you prefer. Just keep in mind that in Part 4 of this series, we’ll be converting your D&D world map into a digital format (ie: using dark crisp lines will make this process easier).
Second things second (as they say…), you’re going to want to determine the general shape of the landmasses that will be on your map. There’s no right or wrong way to do this. If you already have an idea in mind, perfect! Don’t worry if not; I’ll lay out a couple of different options to get the creative juices flowing.
Moving forwards, it can be useful to take a moment to consider “how you want the world map to look”, geographically speaking. Do you want a single large landmass surrounded by vast oceans, a few medium sized continents, or perhaps your world is primarily an archipelago of small island chains? It really just depends what you’re trying to build!
Method A: Tiny Objects
This method is great for brainstorming, as it allows you to play with the shape of your world without locking anything in place. Essentially take a bunch of tiny objects (aspirin, dry beans, elbow noodles, skittles, etc) and dump them onto your paper.
Move them around until you’re satisfied with how the world looks. It’s easy to make small changes, or add and remove islands as you see fit. Once you’re feeling comfortable, trace the outline of your landmasses and remove the tiny objects.
Method B: Stains
This method utilizes stains as the primary shape of land in your world. These stains can come from anything really. For example: grease stains on a pizza box, coffee stains on a napkin, or water stains from a leaky pipe. Once you’ve picked out your stain of choice, try to recreate its shape to the best of your ability on the blank piece of paper. As you’re doing this, feel free to change anything that you see fit. Remove a splatter here, add a peninsula there. Whatever feels good!
Method C: Real Life Inspiration
By using this method, you will be taking regions of places from real life and reshaping, resizing, and rearranging them to make your D&D world map. You wouldn’t be the first to do this! The different regions in Pokemon games as well as Westeros from Game of Thrones are (supposedly) based off of real-world regions. Pick somewhere with a coastline that you like and change the perspective a bit until it’s unrecognizable as the original location.
Method D: Signature Outline
This is the method that I’ll be using as we proceed through this guide. Essentially you will be tracing the outline of your own signature. Of course, you will only be able to generate a single world map using your signature. However if you like this method, you can always write out short phrases or words in cursive an achieve the same effect.
To begin, start by largely signing your name on the blank piece of paper. Be sure to fill up at least 60-70% of the page. Next, trace the outline of your signature. This shouldn’t be a super precise outline, as we don’t want the continents to be recognizable as your signature.
You may want to add in an island or create a break between some of the letters in your name. Once you’re satisfied with how the outline looks, trace over it with a dark marker. The reason for doing this is that we’ll be overlaying a blank piece of paper over your outline and retracing it. This gives us the outline (now the shape of the lands), without having to worry about erasing your actual signature.
Large Bodies of Water
The next step will be to add in some large bodies of water. Primarily, this includes any large lakes as well as filling in the surrounding ocean. Keep in mind that this is a world map, so it doesn’t necessarily have to include every single lake that exists within your realm. Feel free to exclude some smaller lakes from this map; those belong on smaller, regional, maps.
I don’t have any specific tips on where to place lakes. Honestly I just picked a couple of different places and drew a small oval-y shape there. I chose to fill in the lakes slightly with a pencil to make them stand out from the land. However, in the end any of the coloring (and honestly most of the details) that we do in this step won’t matter since in Part 4 we will be touching-up the map with Photoshop.
Next, you’ll want to begin shading in the ocean that surrounds your continents. Begin by lightly shading around the shoreline, and as you get further from the shoreline make the shade a bit darker (deeper water = darker). Again, this is mostly functioning as a placeholder until we get to the final section of this guide.
Finally, you want to add some terrain features to your D&D world map. You want the players to have an idea of what the world is all about, after all. I’m going to be showing you how to use a few very basic symbols to represent different climates and features of the land.
- Forests (trees)
When adding in these features, less is more! Remember that we’re not going for a realistic look, but rather just a representation of what’s there. 3-5 trees may represent a medium sized woods, while 7-10 trees could represent a giant forest. Additionally, be sure you don’t fill up the entire map! Be sure to leave plenty of blank white space. We still have a lot of things that we’ll be adding later on; this is only part 1 after all!
Hills can be represented by little ‘bumps’ appearing in the land
I use three different types of trees in my maps to represent different climates and ecosystems: pine, palm, and (possibly) maple. You can make these as complicated as you’d like, but I prefer to keep them relatively simple since they’ll be pretty small on the world map.
To make mountains, I start off by making a single peak (/\). Then, create another full peak slightly to the right of it (/\ /\). In-between these two peaks, draw two smaller peaks (/\^^/\). Now, for each peak draw a jagged line from the summit to the base. Color in one half of the mountain face for each peak, but be sure to color in the same half every time (always the right, or always the left). This will give your mountains a bit of depth, while still being very simple and easy to draw.
When adding deserts to your map, consider using a simple cactus and a tumbleweed. In Part 4, these areas will also be differentiated by adding in a sand colored background.
Now all that’s left to do is put it all together and add some of these symbols onto your map. I mostly put things around sporadically where ever it “feels right“. It might not be the best theory, but I’ve yet to have any players complain about map details breaking immersion.
A few tropical trees and a mountain range
More trees, some hills, a small desert. Also added a small mountain and an additional lake.
Finished adding some features to the western continent. I’m now done with Part 1!
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