gamerpsych, designmumblings , and brainspew

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

baby's first geography

Top-Down Worldbuilding, Fourth Bit: Ludicrously Easy Cartography

But Afniel, you say, drawing is hard and I have two left thumbs and my crayons used to cry when they saw me coming in kindergarten.  What is this bull you are spouting now, about cartography being easy?

Just that.  In seven ridiculously simple steps, you're going to be perfectly able to draw at least some of a map for an Earthlike planet/plane.

Bring a pencil and paper, and maybe colored pens or markers or something if you're feeling really fancy.

Now, as you can see here, we have that aforementioned pencil and paper.  And, well, an eraser, because I'm funny like that, and can't follow my own directions.

It's not a real desk until it has dice all over it.
Now take that sheet of paper in your hand.  So smooth and blank; a ripe canvas for fresh ideas.  But yet, so's enough to give you a horrible case of writer's block.  Freaking paper.  What has it ever done for you?  Let's show that smug piece of future wastebasket fodder who's boss.

It's such a bully because deep down, it knows it's just termite food.
Wad it up nice and tightly.  We want something that's going to be wrinkly as an old goblin's bottom when we're through with it.  The more you crumple it, the more options you'll have a few steps later, and that's a good thing to have.

Who's laughing now?
Unwrap it and smooth it out.  We now have something much more topologically interesting.

...Old goblin's bottom...why did I even say that?
See all those wrinkles?  Those are now your guidelines.  For starters, let's put a coastline on this thing.  Trace along the wrinkly edges until you get something that looks as natural or as alien as you want.  Don't like it?  Erase and try again.  You really can't mess up something that you already crumpled up.  And in this rare instance, a shaky hand can be a great benefit.

Don't judge my pink pencil, okay?  It's indestructible and advances
its lead when you shake it.  Regular pencils wish they were this pencil.
I've inked in the outlines and a few tentative rivers here to make it more visible and to give you an idea of what you can do.  If you're shooting for Earth-like geography, a couple rules of thumb are that rivers 1. flow into larger bodies of water  (including other rivers), 2. carve into the land as they flow, and 3. tend to create inlets and bays as a result of all this carving.  What this means in the simplest terms is to draw your rivers terminating at the little pokey-in bits of the coast.

Rivers don't usually join then split like that, but realism
is pretty overrated anyway.
Behold!  A finished product.  Note the lack of technical skill involved in making a pretty sweet map that you could even use.  As far as placing mountains, forests, and other such things, remember that coasts are usually low (cliffs being an exception) and thus mountains can have a little space between them and the water.  Forests require a fair amount of water and a low to moderate elevation; plains are drier and can really be at any elevation.  The more rivers are in a low area, the more likely it is that the earth is particularly fertile there due to flooding and good irrigation.  Think Mesopotamia.  Settlements go wherever they can get what they need; see the previous articles if you're stuck for ideas on what that may be.

Rad sea monster: majesty not included.
  This is a pseudo-medieval map, but you can apply the same rules to just about any concept and get something usable.  Want to draw a whole world map or a single square mile?  Just change the scale.  It's simple, it's scribbly, but it's enough to game on, and just throwing a little color around it will make it look surprisingly good.  If you're using it as a handout for players, try doing it on unusual paper, or carefully burn the edges to give it an antique look.  Just don't accidentally light your cities on fire.  That doesn't end well.

You can instead use already-created maps if you prefer, and if they suit your concept.  Photocopy some pages out of an atlas, or search for images of historical maps.  Print something interesting off Google Map and white out the details you don't want, then add some new ones.  (Just don't violate copyright by distributing or selling material you don't own.)

It goes without saying that you could also just freehand a map or something zany like that, but that wouldn't be ludicrously easy.

The map I eventually created for Treeworld.  If you needed yet more proof
that I am way, way too into detail, you can find the full image here.
The exact same ideas apply to this map and the pen and ink one I doodled for this article; the only difference is the degree of polish.  If your concept doesn't involve a nice, stable chunk of ground like the one with which we are all presumably familiar, don't throw it out.  You can tweak building floor plans to become space outposts.  You can trace found objects if you can't draw the same shape twice.  Diagrams of old machinery can be reimagined into steampunk edifices.  Circuit boards even look a bit like futuristic cities.  Wheels become side views of rotating space stations or artificial worlds.  And hey, if all else fails, describe it in words, and let your players do the hard visual work for you inside their heads.


  1. Haha, supercool. Love your wit. I'll be trying these on the kids in the cold months to come when outdoor activities are at a standstill

  2. I love any and all ideas on how to do better, more charismatic fantasy cartography, and this is one of the neater ideas I've seen.

    How do you smooth out the paper in the end? I would probably try to scan it and fix it in gimp, but it seems like that would leave too many wrinkles.

    I tend to use gimp to do this kind of thing. Paint any old thick squiggle you want, select it (color select works well) and then Select>distort... a few times gives it a nice fractally jaggedness that feels organic.

  3. Cory, if you use waterfast ink and fairly tough paper, you might be able to steam iron it through a very thick towel and get most of the creases out. It probably wouldn't fix it 100%, but you might scan it into gimp or Photoshop or whatever you have on hand and adjust the levels to fade out the wrinkles. Alternately, if you're good with a mouse or have a tablet, you could sketch over it on a different layer for a totally clean version.

    I'm more of a Photoshop person myself but I might have to give that a try...there's probably an equivalent hiding in Photoshop somewhere.

  4. Great method! I also wanted to let you know I mentioned it/you in my blog post here. Thank you for posting this!