Making a D&D Setting Map

By RJ on 28 March 2019

One of the best ways to define your world to others is to visually outline it. It also helps you envision it while creating more in-depth details of it. Establishing your world’s tenets (part 1) and its primary gods and/or pantheons (part 2) doesn’t need to be visualized. However, when you begin to draw up empires, talk about countries, discuss factions, cultures, monsters, and peoples, it’s good to have something to reference. It’s good to have a map.

In this next installment of the Worldforge, we’re going to make a map for our homebrew world. Heed this, though: I am not a great artist. I am not a professional cartographer. I am simply a wannabe writer and creator who loves to play DUNGEONS & DRAGONS and play D&D in my own world. The advice below will mainly be about how I create a map in the context of a world. It will not be how to draw a map, how rivers should never split, how plate tectonics form continents, or the intricacies of where deserts should logically be located. My philosophy is simple: We’re making a fantasy world. It need not follow all the laws of nature that our own world abides by. With that addressed, let’s continue to build our worlds.

A Right Proper Map

The first map of our world should be rough, sketched onto a standard sheet of white printer paper or a torn page from a notebook. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It doesn’t need to be final. But, the map should be compelling to us. The odd shapes and faded lines on the paper should cause us to imagine and question, “What’s there? Who lives there? Why is that peninsula strangely-shaped?” For a first map, I recommend you think about how many continents you’d like your world to have. Continents are large land-masses that stretch for hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles. Earth has 7 (6) continents. For a fantasy world, it’s fine to have more or less than that. Listen to your hand; how many land-masses does it put to paper?

After you have your “world map” of 1, 2, 3, 4...continents, set it aside and pull out another sheet of paper. Choose a single continent from your world map and copy it onto this next sheet. Now draw a few islands around it, scattered about. Say hello to your true first map. This single realm will be what we work on to begin because after outlining our world’s tenets and important religions, it’s time to hone in on a relatively smaller piece of it: A single continent. Think about it. How much of all the great, famous settings do we know about? Most adventures in the world of Toril (Forgotten Realms) happen on the Sword Coast on the continent of Faerun. The majority of Eberron’s quests prance about on Khorvaire or Xen’drik. Almost all Greyhawk conflicts are concentrated in the eastern corner of its biggest continent, Oerik. So, once we know about our world in a broader sense, we can focus in on a “tiny” piece of it. Eventually, when we play home games in it, we’ll have to zoom in even further, so this is good practice!

An Aside: How to Proceed?

I’m not an artist. I can’t draw very well. My hand-drawn maps aren’t great and I cringe when I look at them, but they work. Luckily, we live an age when there are plenty of tools only to assist the artistically-incapable folk like me out there. Here are a few different ways to create your map:

  1. Draw it by hand. Maps drawn by hand, if they’re not drawn by a professional, will look a little janky, but they’ll do. It’s better to have a map than to have no map at all.
  2. Use Inkarnate. It’s a powerful, free map-making software that has lots of tutorials online. I used to utilize it for my maps.
  3. Buy Wonderdraft. It’s an incredibly powerful map-making software that can be bought for $30 online. With it, you can make massive maps with tons of customizability. I currently use Wonderdraft.
  4. Use PhotoShop/Paint/et cetera. Kind of like drawing it by hand but digitally.
  5. If you’re not a fan of drawing at all, you can always steal from the real world - or someone else. Well-known Dungeon Masters like Chris Perkins are known to take real-world locations and turn them fantastic. His homebrew setting of Valoreign was simply England rotated and enlarged a tad. You can always lift the Sword Coast and put a massive sea in between the north and south sections. If you’re not selling it and simply using it for your own personal pleasure, you have the freedom to do whatever you want. If you don’t want to draw a map, simply use someone else’s and wait for the next Worldforge article!

One Realm to Rule Them All

Now we have it: The first part of our own worlds that we will polish. In the future, it’ll have fantastic locations, interesting factions, terrifying mysteries, formidable villains, and much, much more. For now, though, we have to draw it. We have to make a map of it. You should already have an outline of the coast; that’s a great start. ‘Tis time to move inland and ask ourselves a few questions.

Where are the poles of my world?

If your world’s shape is based on Earth, which I advise, then the poles will be located in the north and south. This is important because it decides the climate of your continent. If portions of your continent sit among the equator, they’ll likely be covered in tropical rainforests or dense jungles. If the northern or southern lands of your realm stretch close to the poles, they’ll be cold and covered in snow most of the time. For the “polar” regions of your world, lightly sketch over them with a pale color like white or grey or label them as such. Polar regions are important to a fantasy world. They’re often inhospitable to most folk, so they’re perfect places for fierce barbarians, horrifying magical beasts, and outcasted peoples to live. Make sure some part of your FIRST continent is a polar region!

Where are the deserts?

Next up, place a few deserts of varying size across your realm. I’d go with four, one large, one small, and two medium-sized deserts. These regions are very important to a typical fantasy realm; think about how they might one-day incorporate into yours. Did ancient civilizations once rule the desert? Perhaps the desert was created by a magical cataclysm? Why type of entities live here? Enormous citadels, buried holy sites, and strange, savage monsters are common in deserts, making them perfect locations for adventures!

Where are the mountains?

If you desperately want to keep your world up-to-code Earth-wise, do some research on plate tectonics and how mountain ranges form. Otherwise, create four to five mountain ranges across your map. They usually form north to south, but who’s to say they can spring up east to west in our world? One of the mountain ranges could block off one of your deserts from the rest of the continent, leading to its arid climate. Another could lock off one of your polar regions. In some places close to the coast, place a few islands “in line” with the mountains. Most mountains don’t simply end when they hit the water, they continue; these continuations can lead to the creation of islands. If you want, you could only place a single, giant chain of mountains across your realm, with lots of small ranges scattered about. Go wild! If it looks good, you’re doing it right.

Where are the forests?

Now it’s time to create the largest forests of your continent. Encase your mountains in them and make sure they stray away from deserts; you don’t want to be inconsistent. Trees should not bleed into arid wastelands. Ensure the shapes of your forests are odd and unpredictable, as if they were formed by thousands of years of peoples cutting them down, them regrowing, and then being chopped down again. Their borders are irregular and they can go on for many miles. Put maybe seven or eight large forests throughout your realm. Elves, fey, and lizardfolk need somewhere to live. Remember, if part of your realm is near the equator, add a few tropical rainforests or jungles along it. They can be the source of exotic peoples and pulp adventures!

Where are rivers and lakes?

Everyone’s favorite: Rivers and lakes. First draw a few rivers snaking north to south, never going uphill. Some can disappear into mountains, others can weave into and out of forests. After that, add lakes along these rivers, connecting to them. Four or five big lakes that show on your continental map should do. After that, maybe dot the land around these lakes and rivers with marks of swamps, bogs, or marshes. Rivers that go through forests create especially swampy locations perfect for bullywugs and froghemoths.

What About the Rest?

Now you have a plethora of notable features: polar regions and desert regions, mountains and forests, rivers and lakes. At your leisure, you can add smaller pieces to your map. Draw in some hills that lead into the mountains. Dot some tiny forests around your map. Add a few more small lakes, maybe a mountain or two. At the end, the “blank” spaces between the major geographical features are merely grasslands or savannas, farmlands or tundras. Those “bland” features are necessary, too.

Okay, we have the geography of our first map set up; now it’s time to add some labels to it. Alas! That’s where we’re ending this time. In the next installment, we’re going to create a few nations, regions, or peoples and add them to our continental map. Nonetheless, you should be proud. You now have a visual representation of YOUR world. When people ask to see it, you now have something to show them.

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