Friday, April 01, 2011

RPG Carnival: Cartography


If a picture is worth a thousand words, I suggest a map is worth ten thousand words because maps put things into context. I do a lot of maps for my world. In fact I do a lot of Types of maps for my world. What do I mean? Well I not only map geography, but I also map plotlines, and story elements. So I have three kinds of maps, Geographic, Story Plot, and Elements maps.

As a general rule I try to keep things simple, and so I try to use reasonably simple tools. Over the years I’ve evolved a few strategies for creating my maps. That said, there are cartography tools out there that do a spectacular job creating maps of different kinds with different styles. I simply don’t use them. I prefer my own homebrew style, for no particularly good reason, other than I like the way my maps turn out.

For each of the three types of maps the first thing to understand is – what is the purpose of the map? I will go through each of the three and offer my thoughts, and methodologies for creating them.

My Tool Kit

I’ve tried a number of mapping tools over the years. Some online mapping tools are very good for certain kinds of maps. However, in the end, I found that using a simple set of tools is my preference.

Outdoor Maps: Pen and Paper – I prefer magic markers, and in particular sharpie pens with the thick tip. After I finish coloring and polishing in the software tools an outdoor map looks like this:

Indoor Maps: I have experimented with using Excel for making Dungeon Levels. I reduce the size of each cell to a square. I set the color of all cells to dark gray. Then I set the grid lines to show using the border tool. Then I “paint” corridors using the cell color format of white by selecting an area (can be one line of cells, or a block of cells) and using the format background color White.  I number the rooms and use letter codes to indicate various things about the room, such as “s” for secret door, “d” for door, etc. I also figured out a way to add icons for stairs and such. The result is a dungeon map that looks like this:

Digital Camera – I photograph my pen and paper map, and put the file onto my computer where I can enhance it with the following tools:

Microsoft Paint – a very simple program that does certain simple things very nicely, such as drawing straight lines, boxes and circles that you can color, and provides several fill options that can be useful.

Google Picasa (optional) – for finishing touches this is a great piece of software. I usually like to do simple things like colorize the image, put a blur on the edges, or a soft glow, depending on the effect I want for the map image. I also like Picasa for adding Text to an image as it provides an easy to use resize and orientation tool. I don’t usually use this tool very much, but when I want an image to have a polished look, it’s free to install, and simple to use. For 99% of what I do in terms of polishing, it’s great.

Microsoft Image Composer (optional) – ok you can be forgiven if you never heard of this tool. It came with the 1997 installation of Visual Interdev (an early development tool for web applications). That said, it is much like Photoshop (which is very expensive for my tastes). However, there is also GIMP, which also has the same kinds of functionality as Photoshop and happens to be open source and free. Anyway, what I use this tool for is either Airbrush painting to put shadows or hightlights into my images, or freehand color them. I also may use (lightly) the Art Filters which allow me to transform an image into a more impressionistic version of the original, using one of a variety of filters such as Watercolor, Sumie, Dark Strokes, Charcoal, etc. Again, I use this tool very sparingly just to provide finishing touches.

That’s it for the tools. Again, most of my work is done with pen and paper to start. I find this gives me a nice way to make organic feeling maps.

Geographic Maps

These maps are intended to show a geographic area, obviously. I usually like to include natural terrain as well as roads, towns, and hot spots (where important things are happening, or may happen). But the main question to be answered for the geography map is – what in this area of the World is important for the Gamesmaster to remember? So I try to make my maps expose Avenues of travel (with consideration of creatures that may travel by various means), Barriers to travel, Focal Points of activity (towns, cities, temples, etc), and Strategic Points (lookouts, passes, choke points, etc). But mostly, the map is usually used by me simply as a reminder as to what the area looks like:

One thing I don’t do is try to make the map too detailed, or too accurate (ie – I like to bake in flexibility so that when Gamesmastering I can shift things around a bit according to need). Remember, we’re usually dealing with Fantasy worlds here, so geographies do not necessarily need to be set in stone. Hehe. Punnish. It’s good to keep in mind that Geography maps in the game are not going to be used the way Geography maps in the real world are used. The players will not be physically travelling using the map (although their Characters may very well be), so there is no need to make them absolutely accurate. Fudging in RPGs is a tried and true methodology for Gamesmasters because you always want to maintain a certain amount of flexibility so your story does not run aground against The Facts. That has been known to happen (ahem). So I keep my maps a little bit vague. Rough sketch is fine.

Story Plot Maps

The purpose of these is to create a story focused memory map that shows an overview of the various characters, places, and things that have occurred, along with any symbolic references I might want to add to remind me of important aspects of the story. It can represent either the story that already happened, or may happen in the future. Again, the purpose is to prove me with a simple, easy to use visual that reminds me what is going on in the Campaign, or inspires me with creative sparks to help with the improvisational aspects of Gamesmastering.  Here is an example of one of my Story Plot Maps:

Elements Maps

Last but not least, this type of map is useful for tracking characters and places in terms of who is together with whom and where. I use a wonderful little online tool at  This wonderful tool makes it handy for me to create what are known as Mind Maps, but I use it specifically for my Game Elements. Again, a picture being worth a thousand words, here is what one looks like:

It’s a fabulous little tool! Love it.

And so those are the different kinds of maps I usually create for my world, and how I create them. I hope it helps to inspire other Gamesmasters with ideas and helpful methodologies!   Happy trails!

Update (May 2, 2011):
The April 2011 RPG Carnival was kindly hosted by 'A Character for Every Game' Blog here:  RPG Carnival - Cartography - April 2011. Elthos RPG is honored to be mentioned therein! Thank you for the kind words! In case you don't know, RPG Carnival works very simply. The author of a topic posts it to the group of interested RPG Bloggers and we all write blogs on the topic. When we post the blog we then go to the host's monthly topic post and comment that we added a post to our blog on the topic. At the end of the month they are tallied up in a summary post. It's awesome! Thanks very much to the hosts!!


Michael Schulz said...

Great Post! Your free-hand maps look a million times better than my would.

By coincidence, I also posted a map generated by for my RPG Carnival entry ( It is a great little tool!

vbwyrde said...

Thanks a lot. :) Glad you like the post! I definitely have made good use of Great piece of software!

vbwyrde said...

Antique Maps and Atlases:

Very nice!