Cartography 101

Welcome to the third installment of Everyman Gaming’s GM’s Guide articles. In this GM’s Guide, we’ll be talking about creating maps for your roleplaying game.

I think it goes without saying that mapmaking is among the most important aspects of running a good campaign. That isn’t to say that you need to be a master cartographer in order to run a good game of Pathfinder, but mapmaking is essential to planning your campaign, even if you’re going off of prepublished material because it gives you the opportunity to spatially place all aspects of your adventure in the context of whatever campaign setting that you’re running.

Where is X?

Any GM who homebrews his or her own campaign setting has heard this question. Where is [city]? Where is [person’s house]? Where is [major landmark]? Your players are going to naturally seek to explore the world that they’re put it; that’s part of the fun of playing an adventure roleplaying game, after all! Knowing where things are located in your world is essential to keeping your players engrossed and their sense of disbelief properly suspended. If you fail to answer simple questions like, “Is the kingdom of elves that this NPC is from north or south of here?” then you are probably going to pull your players out of the game.

For a published example, let’s look at Paizo’s Rise of the Rune Lords. Although its now a fancy hardcover adventure, back in the day it was a series of softcover adventures like all of Paizo’s adventure paths. Back then, the Inner Sea World Guide didn’t exist; neither did its predecessor, the Inner Sea Primer. Yet in that very first adventure, Paizo dropped an NPC who was from a far away land to the far east of the quaint town that the adventure began in. The name “Tian Xia” didn’t mean anything to those early Pathfinder players, but the fact that the adventure took the time to say, “Tian Xia is a land far to the east from where you are,” lent itself to the player’s spatial awareness of the world that they were in, and knowing the world is much bigger than wherever you happen to be is a powerful engrossment tool.

Design by Menu

When you read big, encompassing campaign settings like the Inner Sea World Guide, it can be intimidating to think that your world needs to be THAT big. Feel relieved, because it doesn’t. One of the first mistakes that new GMs make is thinking that they are required to have big, expansive worlds prepared before they run a game. No GM is; it’s absolutely impossible. The Inner Sea World Guide took years to create and a team of highly talented designers and developers. You’re just one person looking to run a game night for your friends and most of the time you need your ideas NOW, not five years from now. As a result, its better to create a starting point and then design by menu.

Here’s an example for you. When I started working on my campaign setting, I started my players off in an extradimensional labyrinth, a place that I had absolutely no obligations to ever use again. (Though I certainly did!) We played a handful of sessions in that demiplane until I started getting a feel for my players and from there, I started designing. Simply put, designing by menu means that you observe your players and how they approach their problems and then create your world around how they react to your probing. Using my own campaign as an example, I noticed right away that most of players were quick to roleplay with the NPCs that I provided them in that demiplane. That told me that they were interested in creating a story rather than simply bashing down doors and taking loot, so when they left the demiplane and appeared in the world that I had designed for them I made sure to plop them into a fully developed kingdom rather than a frontier region.

So, what kind of place do you want to drop off your PCs in to learn about them before you start worldbuilding? Demiplanes certainly work, but don’t restrict yourself to extraplanar madness. Favor locations that can be feasibly found anywhere: put your players in the depths of a dungeon and make them crawl their way out. As a matter of fact, any structure works for this purpose: castles, cities, inns, tavers, and so on. Forests can be found on every continent save Antarctica in our world, so as long as you choose an appropriate climate you can start your PCs in a forest without much complaining.

Map Scale

In my opinion, establishing a scale is the most important aspect of mapmaking. Especially, how much space does an inch (or centimeter for you overseas folk) represent on your map? Personally, I always design my maps with kingdom building in mind: I’m lazy and I assume that my PCs want to build nations, so all my maps are written to that scale. In order to keep that scale I make a hexagon grid (about 25 by 26 hexes, or 525 hexes altogether) that I use to connect my maps together. The scale you use is entirely up to you, but you can download my sample hex grid here (Hex Grid – .5 Inches). I put my grid on a flash drive, took it to my local Staples, and had it printed on a transparency sheet. That way I can line my scale up to any piece of paper I want and make it into a perfectly scaled map for my purposes.

Mapmaking

Mapmaking itself doesn’t require much artistic skill: as a matter of fact, the best maps consist of erratic lines that seem stray-like in quality. Take a look at a map of your home country: coastlines are NOT straight, especially if you live in a place like Denmark! The best mindset for mapmaking is a relaxed one: concentrating too hard will result in an artificial product. You want a loose grip on your pencil, a limp wrist, and short, swift pencil strokes. Mapmaking is akin to controlled scribbling.

Now that you’ve got the mindset, you’re ready to look at some sources. There are plenty of guides that explain mapmaking much better then I could ever hope to. Although it seldom updates, Fantastic Maps is the best resource I’ve ever seen on mapmaking skills and tricks although stick to his freehand advice unless you’re looking to use Photoshop to make professional-like maps for your players, and if that’s the case you’re a kinder GM then I. Use it. Don’t be afraid to Youtube channels; you can learn practically ANYTHING on Youtube if you’re willing to look for it. Aside from the blog I dropped here, I’m not going to provide any other links because ultimately, I don’t know what kind of map you’re looking to make. Look up maps you like and study them: see if you can replicate the artist’s style by hand. If you can’t, ping the qualities you want in a search engine and see what tutorials others have made. (DeviantArt is CRAWLING with cartography tutorials if you plug ‘cartography tutorial’ into the search engine.)

And that, folks, is all I have to say about mapmaking. What sayeth you? What sort of techniques do you use when you are designing maps for your campaign? Are they super in-depth and detailed, or do you prefer quick scribbles? Do you enjoy mapmaking or do you think it is tedious? Leave your answers alone and I’ll see you next time for another all-new advice article!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long over 90% of his colleagues. Affectionately called a “budding game designer” by his partner at Radiance House, Alexander is the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series (Radiance House) and a handful of other Third-Party Products. Before founding the Everyman Gaming blog, Alexander gained notoriety for writing the GM’s Guide to Challenging Encounters, which remains accessible to this day. His favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune cavalier, and he doesn’t think that modern cartoons are all that bad. Especially Adventure Time.

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2 thoughts on “Cartography 101

  1. I’ve yet to homebrew my own setting, and I kind of feel it’s unlikely I ever will. I’ve only ever created my own dungeons but even that can be intimidating. So this is something I have, basically, no input on.

  2. I started by drawing a continent with smooth curves in the shape that I wanted. Once I had that I went to the library and got an atlas. Did not take much flipping to find real coast lines in the shapes I wanted and form there I just traced. Nature does the best fractals.
    In general term you only need a space the size of one inner sea country for an entire campaign. It is useful to know what is just beyond the edge of the map but it does not need to be mapped. As an example Carrion crown is entirely in Ustelev. Skull and shackles covers a bit more ground( well sea) but not much.

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