Monday, October 26, 2009

I Hate Mapping

Or rather, I am a terrible cartographer and this makes me hate mapping.

When I was younger, I used to spend hours creating intricate maps of both dungeons and wilderness areas -- and I had a lot of fun doing it. Nowadays, I don't enjoy it so much. I don't think it's because of time constraints, as I'm frankly blessed with a very flexible schedule that gives me a lot of free time to invest in creative efforts (like this blog).

Rather, I think it's because, as I got older, I started to realize I'm not an especially good mapmaker and that realization has made the whole process less enjoyable for me. When I say I'm not good, I don't just mean my technical skills, though that is part of it; I mean I'm not very imaginative when it comes to making maps. My own maps lack both flair and, where appropriate, plausibility. They just seem throw-together, which, of course, they frequently are.

That's why, more than the ability to draw, I wish I possessed the ability to make attractive and usable maps. You'd think, in this day of high technology, that there'd be software that'd let me do that easily without having to learn the ins and outs of a stripped-down CAD program. Alas, there isn't or, if there is, I don't know of its existence. And so many of my creative efforts get slowed down due to my inability to produce maps in a timely fashion. Goodness knows Dwimmermount is a little less ambitious than I'd like it to be, owing to my lack of enjoyment when it comes to cartography, which is ironic, given how important the players' mapping of the megadungeon has become to the development of the campaign.


  1. Campaign Cartographer is a modified CAD program. (I'm teaching myself it at home; it does have a steep learning curve.) But I think there are simpler ones on the market - NBOS's Fractal Mapper, for example, though I'm not specifically familiar with it.

  2. AutoRealm ( is my go-to map making program. It may not have the depth of more sophisticated CAD programs, but it's got a nice shallow learning curve. (My favorite tool is the one that lets you decide how "fjordy" you want a coastline to be.)

    That being said, I don't usually freehand in AutoRealm; I draw my outline map by hand and run the AutoRealm cursor over the outlines.

  3. For line-drawing stuff (like dungeons and interiors), I've been using Inkscape. It's certainly not perfect, but I've found it useful for quickly mapping stuff out for my own use.

    Of course there's always pen and paper too.

  4. I've been using AUTORealm as well and have been pleased with the results. I do have a cartography specialization as part of my undergrad degree and some experience with GIS, but that has made me love AUTORealm all the more.

    I've actually kept my maps simple, using black, white and grayscale. That has made the design easier and it has an antique look to it.

  5. There are some neat dungeon generators online. You can start from there if you are lost and then tweak them at your heart's content.
    If my memory serves me well Chris Gonnermann, the great guy behind the Basic fantasy RPG, has some kind of free dungeon generator on his website.(

  6. I couldn't agree with this more. I've tried many different kinds of mapping programs, and at best I can produce a mediocre map. At some level, you just have to have that creative artistic skill to make a truly interesting and inspiring map. It's a skill I just don't have.

    This is why I've become a great pilferer of maps. My number one use for printed modules is to steal and re-purpose their maps. There are many modules I own that I have not even tried to read, where I simply stole the map and tossed the rest.

    Surprisingly, a good source for these maps is WotC's website. There's a sadly discontinued section called Map-a-Week, which fortunately has archives of its four year lifespan still available.

  7. (I wonder if I'm healthy enough to comment. We'll see)

    I recognize many of the programs mentioned above, but just like Jim I've found that the magic seem to be missing for me.

    What I have realized, though, is that my talent is to take odds and ends and stitch them together. I read good maps and adventure and steal whole cloth a room or a section. Sure the bits are not mine, but how they fit together sure is my dungeon. Sometimes that technique even makes me get a spark of magic. Worth trying.

  8. Its not the size of your map, its how you use it! ;)

    In addition to computer mapping programs, you can always get something like and fill it in however you'd like.

  9. This is an excellent example of a more wide-spread problem with being an adult. It's exactly like saying "I don't draw well, therefore I can't enjoy drawing." I'm not disagreeing--I have the same feeling--but I know that I should resist.

    I've learned to enjoy drawing again by drawing for my kids--they think I draw wonderfully (foolish little tykes). So maybe I need to start making maps for them. Hmn.

  10. Try using Google Maps or some other source of realistic-looking maps that have no words on them. Flip or rotate or mirror to disguise the already-obscure landforms and you're ready to go.

  11. I love writing adventures, but i HATE, HATE, HATE making maps. Like you, I used to love it, but looking back at the maps I did over 20 years ago makes my stomach hurt. They're bad.

    However Giga boy's suggestion is a good one, and one that I have followed in the past. The free dungeon generators always give me a great starting point for decent adventure maps.

  12. The excitement of mapping out strange new worlds is what got me into D&D in the first place, and I feel very confident in saying that computer programs for mapping are *very* highly overrated. I like to draw most of my maps by hand these days. It's easier for me to put in all the features I want, I don't need to worry about the features being in a particular library, and unless I'm doing something incredibly detailed, its about three times as fast as doing it on a computer. Plus, artist or not, teaching yourself to draw is good clean fun.

    There are a couple of reasons why I don't like computer maps, but first and foremost is the barrier to entry. It's very easy for a talented expert to use a computer to produce eye-poppingly beautiful maps. For some rather inspiring examples and lots of fantastic tutorials, you can check out the enormous population of *absurdly* talented individuals at the Cartographers Guild Forums. However, it's very difficult for a novice to produce, well, *anything* half-decent on a computer without an expensive artist's tablet.

    MS Paint is easy to use, but drawing nothing but basic shapes and brushes with a mouse is a sure way to end up with something amateurish that looks like a child's scrawl. Campaign Cartographer is relatively easy to use once you get over the AutoCAD learning curve, but frankly, the maps it churns out tend to feel very bland and uniform. Just sketching shapes and slapping down symbols will produce very cookie-cutter maps that lack all of the little individual touches that makes art a satisfying pursuit. If you have ever really used this program, you can easily sniff out a CC map from about a mile away. I can't speak for AutoRealm, as I've never used it, but I would be astonished if it didn't suffer from the same flaw - it's inherent in relying on a small set of premade symbols to make art.

    Of course, Photoshop or the GIMP* can make some utterly jaw-dropping full-color maps, with all the personalization of doing it by hand and all the creative power a PC can bring to bear, but by the time you get to the stage where you are skilled enough with layers and textures to do it, you probably don't qualify as an amateur anymore.

    *Note*: This isn't saying most people can't master those programs or that it isn't worth doing! The Cartographer's Guild forums has some pretty cool tutorials on the subject that I really can't recommend enough for anyone interested in learning how.

    To my mind, though, the cookie cutter problem is the worst thing about PC-aided mapping. Without a significant amount of skill at Photoshoppery, you are relying on the artwork of others to build your stuff. That means that you almost never get an attractive map to come out exactly the way you want it. Maybe their windmill doesn't look quite right, or maybe you pictured the Black Spire just a little differently. Seeing your vision take the wrong shape is a MAJOR turn-off for a lot of creative people.

    So yeah. Try your next few maps by hand. I almost guarantee you'll be happier with them.


    *: The GIMP is a free, open source Photoshop program, for anyone who don't know. If someone reading this wants to learn Photoshop and can't afford it, GIMP is basically just as good, and well worth your time to play with.

  13. Umm, meant to post some links with the Wall o' Text.

    Cartographer's Guild Main Page:
    CG Map Showcase:
    CG Tutorials:

    The GIMP:

  14. Two things in which I have absolutely no talent are drawing and playing music or singing. Nonetheless, I create my own D&D maps using graph paper, hexagonal paper, and colored pens. My maps are improvised affairs, not much to look at, but they are essential to my game. I am into wilderness exploration. D&D would not be D&D without Dungeon exploration. To truly make charcaters come alive, you have to role play everything else as well - going to town, shopping for gear, meeting people, going to country fairs, jousts and parties, making contacts. That's what makes a campaign play, a campaign. Characetrs have to take armor (if they can afford it) off when they go into town. Assassins can and will strike at unarmored characters in taverns. Nobody bothered to take ona jeweler or a gem knowledge NWP and now the players find a gold bracelet with some pinkish-red stones set into soft, crappy looking yellow metal. They take it to a jeweler and he will tell them that its real gold with imitation rubies, worth maybe 50gp due to purity of the gold. Can they believe the old jeweler? Old jeweler stats getting insulted once he sees characters hesitation. 75% of D&D players will act the suckers and will give up a 3-5,000.00 gp bracelet for 50gp. A session can pass wihout combatm but there will be violence and expeditions, and when it come to adventuring, the MAPS are absolute.

    Here is why. I believe that there should be an absolute dungeon site and an absilute location. Players can wander forerver and not find it or they can stumble on it, or they can follow the clues in yuor narrative. The Map and the Map Key are the ABSOLUTE SETTING, which give an absolute criterion for the p;layer success - they will either find the adventure site or they WON'T. It's not up the DM's whim, it's ON THE MAP!!!! That makes game OBJECTIVE and WINNABLE as opposed to DM randomly rolling the enocunters so as to indulger him or herself with the thrill of the unknown, which ought to belong strictly to players, the thrill of ghe DM is in laying out narrative for the layers to succeed. The DMs torment is when players miss that secret door and hence miss the lair treasure trove. Small consolation and a waste of DMs work if the players chose to kill and drive away anyone and not bother to do any reaserch into the dungeon site or getting to know its denizens. But whose fault is that? Missd treasue makes game more realistic than a thousand combat hit location tables, and will the DM give in and yell to the players - The secret door is over there! The secret door os over there!

  15. Something to consider: if your maps leave you flat and feel uninspired a good solution is to "evolve" the map. For a town, for example, imagine the first settlers of the area. They were probably farmers and needed access to the water, so they will have built buildings within a short walk from a stream or river and had cultivated some land.

    Go ahead and sketch that out. Then think about the needs of these residents and add a few buildings to support those who provides those needs. For example, after a few more farmers are in the area, a blacksmith and general store (probably combined) might crop up. These people need somewhere to live as well. Just think about where they would be likely to build and how (say, making the second story a residence over the shop).

    Continue in this fashion and a remarkably believable settlement will be built in a fairly short time. Some examples of continuing the idea: as the town expands, a road is worn through the land past it. The tavern/inn will pop up there, probably a bit farther from the water than the original settlers (as they won't make a road through their farm).

    Surprisingly this works for dungeons as well. Create some natural caves, thinking about what formed them (lava tubes, water erosion of limestone). Then imagine the kinds of long ago creatures that might make their homes. Some creatures may expand the cave system in various ways. Do so, keeping in mind why they expended the effort and what they used the space form. Evolve the caves as various waves of settlers and abandonment happens, each brining a unique flavor to the system that is being built.

    Finally imagine how the current residents use them. How does food get in and out (or is it found internally). Where does water come from, how are wastes disposed of, etc. Being a fantasy world, some of these can be "hand waved away", but the interesting thing is that by thinking of a dungeon as an underground town, a much more interesting system arises.

    Overland maps... for that I use computer generation. Too much water flow and geology :-P

  16. Making good maps isn't hard but it takes practice and a lot of repetition. How I learned is by taking a few maps that I liked and simply started copying the topography onto a sheet of paper by hand. Draw noting but trees on one paper, then only do mountains on another, rivers the next. In a short time you'll be able to draw this stuff with your eyes closed.

  17. I don't just not enjoy making maps, I suck at it... I use Ye Olde Dungeon Geomorphs for underground environs, and the Outdoor Geomorphs for cities. If they're uninspired, at least they're Gary's uninspired :).

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  19. I've tried to use AutoRealm several times over the years, and every time I've been beaten back in retreat. Do not recommend.

    My personal favorite was the simple, tile-based MapMaker program that came with the 2E Core Rules CD. It even had 3D walkthroughs. Downsides are that it's out-of-print, hard-to-come-by, and had very limited areas to the maps (20x15 squares or so). I really wish someone had the moral courage to make such a simple tool again.

  20. I've used CC3 for a while myself, and I'm pretty pleased with the results:

    It does have a bit of a steep learning curve compared to some of the hex-mappers out there, but it's more flexible and, IMHO, makes a much more beautiful and useful map for inspiring the old creative juices.

  21. If you make maps like I do, I might have a tool for you.

    I make maps by drawing them on graph paper first.

    Apparently I'm not too bad at it, as I won the "Best Retro Use of 30x30 Space" in the One Page Dungeon Contest this year.

    The dungeon level is here:

    You will note that it looks a lot like, well, S1, in terms of layout.

    The thing is, I can't use CAD programs either, so what I did was to write a simple little description language and then a Perl program that translated the description into SVG (which Firefox and Safari, at least, can render directly).

    Although I did this with a text file, it would be trivial to do in, say, Excel.

    The program to generate an SVG map from a description file is at:, and the description file for the sample level (which contains the specification of the description) is at:

    I found this a very easy way to make a map: basically, you number your rows and columns, and then you just type in the features' grid coordinates.

    At the moment, the program only does straight lines and smooth arcs. I think I know *how* to do random crinkly cave-wall kinda things, but I haven't coded it yet, and it will severely bloat the size of the generated SVG file.

    Anyhow, I didn't put a license on the map generator, but let's say it's Artistic License 2.0. Feel free to take it, use it, extend it, whatever.


  22. Dude, just want to say: you're not the only one.

  23. @Delta: I thought AUTORealm was fairly easy, but after I posted my comment I realized that if you are not familiar with cartographic programs, it really isn't easy.

    If I were starting from scratch. I would trace the Baltic countries (Latvia, Lithuania, etc) and then flip the map over and use a variety random name generators.

    Really, anything that conveys the information that the DM or players need to know is good enough. Darlene's map of the World of Greyhawk has given a whole generation of wannabe cartographers a permanent inferiority complex.

  24. Godeke's comment is essential to some of my favorite dungeon maps, like Caverns of Thracia with its layers of history. A great tool for helping you evolve your maps is Tony Dowler's How to Host a Dungeon - - a solo game of procedural dungeon generation. By playing out successive eras of subterranean settlement, expansion, disaster, and rediscovery, you wind up with maps that have their own organic history built into the architecture. The default mode of the game is a vertical cross-section, which would require some additional mapping to get a traditional horizontal map of each level (but that's the easier part). It'd be reasonably easy to play How to Host a Dungeon with a purely horizontal perspective (although you'd lose some of the lovely layering), or with both a cross-section and a traditional series of grid-maps, so that you would have a D&D-usable map when you were done.
    - Tavis

  25. This is another reason that I look forward to the publication of Castle Greyhawk and Castle El Raja Key: the maps themselves are wonderfully inspiring, and provide a number of concrete examples of varied designs for a campaign dungeon environment.

    Until they are published, you can spend some time with Rob Kuntz's Maure Castle levels published in Dungeons 112, 124, and 139 (as well as in WG5 Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure): the maps in those are comparable in quality and style to the ones from the original castles.


  26. Well, Allan. You can't. Last time I looked they are very much sold out.

  27. I always like making dungeon maps because it requires no real artistic effort. Quite often, my artistic time is taken up drawing the PC's portrait. I never really hit myself over the head with how nice it looks, because its just game notes for my eyes only.

    Even with my artistic skills and a good understanding of architecture & geography, my head still run a blank from time to time - ether because I cant manifest even the simplest layout, or I'm just over-complicating things. When in doubt, I just think of how it would look if I was going to set it up as a HeroQuest adventure.

  28. Andreas: I was thinking generally that those issues were more-contemporary, and therefore folks might be more-likely to already own them (vs. books published in the '70s or '80s).

    That said, the maps for both Dungeon #139 and #124 are available on the Paizo downloads pages @, although issue 124's maps are not also available there, alas.


  29. I greatly admired the overground maps for Dwimmermount. I'd say that if you're discerning enough to know when a design is unsatisfactory then you have the basic tools you need to make good maps: it's just a question of practice.

    If the problem is visual style, then I say steal - there are lots of map archives online now - Perry-Castaneda, the Bleau Atlas, architectural floorplans. My advice to any designer of anything: build a collection. Invest some time in research, and cast your net as wide as you can: try to surprise yourself with where you look. Soviet town plans, Angkor Wat, Petra, Olympic villages, circuit diagrams, factories, Hillier and Hanson's Space Syntax, Spiro Kostof's History of Architecture (which is a great source for site plans, BTW). Get a really big pile and then mash them up: rescale, jam them together, be a bit irrational, not too careful - and then let your critical eye wander over what you have and save the relationships you like. Last of all, lay a hex or square grid over them and retrace their outlines (this is trivial in photoshop, manageable with a photocopier and diacel). Even if this gives you nothing you use directly, it will probably crystallize your ideas about why it's not serving your needs, and that might be most useful in the end.

    My 2d.

  30. Erm, Dungeon _112_'s maps are not available, but 139 and 124 are :D


  31. For me, drawing dungeon maps is by far the hardest and most time consuming part of campaign design -- probably 80% of the time and effort involved in creating a dungeon level goes into drawing the map and everything else is trivially simple by comparison. That said, whenever I finish drawing a map that I'm satisfied with it always feels like a huge accomplishment, and once you've accumulated several it's awfully cool to be able to page through a binder looking at all the dungeon level maps you drew, each of which represents a significant labor of love (with an emphasis on the labor part).

    For non-dungeon maps -- wilderness, towns, castles, caves, etc. -- I either shamelessly steal maps from other sources (both game and RL) or just sketch out the rough features and don't worry about the specific details. It's only in the main campaign dungeon-labyrinth where I actually care down to the level of each individual room and each 10' square.

    As for the tools I use -- graph paper (4x4, 5x5, 6x6 or 8x8 grid), pencil & eraser, ruler, template, compass, colored pencils. I've never even been tempted to use a computer mapping program.

  32. Yeah, my one indispensible bit of advice would be: if the computer isn't second nature to you, avoid it. Even if it is, it's just not as good a brainstorming tool as pencil and paper.

    veriword: caugen. What you have to do before you can start playing Heifers and Hectares.

  33. I'm sorry, Allan. I'm a bit touchy about Maure Castle, since it was first after I became a fan of Rob's work that I realized he had been published in Dungeon just recently. Naturally they were sold out by then. Many thanks for the map links, though! I wasn't aware of those.

  34. No worries Andreas, and I'm glad you found the links useful!


  35. I whole hearty must agree with T. Foster. It's a pain to do at times, but once you have produced a map you're happy with, it's quite a rewarding feeling, and even, a little bit "magical" too ;-)