Best way to create maps for a tabletop campaign?

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mwchase
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Best way to create maps for a tabletop campaign?

Postby mwchase » Mon Jul 29, 2013 11:03 pm

Hi all. I recently got roped into GMing a campaign for my RP group, as a way of changing the pace after each session of the current campaign (both so that campaign's DM can take a break and play instead, and to give the rest of us a break from his... style). I'm just now working on setting things up (I believe the plan is to take care of character creation this week), and one thing some of the others want is a map of the region (as I'm improvising a setting).

So, what's the best way to put together a region map for a campaign? I could try doing it by hand, but I'd be interested if anyone can recommend a free/cheap piece of software that runs well under Mac (Wineskin seems to work pretty well for this stuff. It even replicates AutoREALM's irritating bugs/shortcomings!), has a decent library of symbols either included or easily downloadable, no major bugs in the main intended workflow, and a combination of interface and documentation that makes it decently possible to use.

Also of note: I've got a basic outline for the region planned, so map *generator* stuff is only useful for this if I can do stuff like tune it and lay down political boundaries.
Traiden
Location: Traveling

Re: Best way to create maps for a tabletop campaign?

Postby Traiden » Tue Jul 30, 2013 6:13 am

I use what I like to call the "greasy cheese method" which entails placing a napkin on top of a slice of pizza and then transcribing the resultant grease stain to a sheet of paper that will become my map. I then add details on where I think would be mountains and rivers in the world. It is quite simple and cheep and you can use any food stuffs that leave significant marks on napkins.
nikolokolus

Re: Best way to create maps for a tabletop campaign?

Postby nikolokolus » Tue Jul 30, 2013 7:40 am

It's not cheap and it has a bit of a learning curve, but I've always been a fan of Campaign Cartographer.

Beyond that, all I can says it that you should resist the temptation to include too much detail in a map that you will hand out to the players ... especially if you are running medieval or ancient era fantasy games. In such societies, high quality and accurate maps would be rare things, carefully guarded and expensive to produce. The sorts of things available to the players should probably be crude, poorly scaled and missing information.

If you really want to up the verisimilitude, you can even take a paper grocery bag and "fuzz it up" by rubbing it on a table edge and then hand draw your borders, symbols and what-not with a black crayon.
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Lachlan the Sane
Location: I come from the land down under, where women blow and men chunder

Re: Best way to create maps for a tabletop campaign?

Postby Lachlan the Sane » Tue Jul 30, 2013 11:51 am

Here's my process for drawing campaign maps;

1. A blocky sketch of where the major geographic features are.

2. A geological sketch, where I draw the right configuration of tectonic plates to match where I want the major geographical features to be.

3. Several detail sketches, where I refine the map based on the underlying geology. Minor geographic features and city locations are an emergent property at this stage.

4. When I have a detail sketch that I like, I draw it into Inkscape. This is slow and painstaking, because I'm not particularly good at Inkscape.

The maps that I wind up with are not particularly detailed, particularly as the coastlines are represented as sweeping curves rather than intricate wiggles, but they're quite good for D&D. I could probably refine them better if I had a drawing tablet and/or could be arsed to make about five passes along the Inkscape coastline.
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Kavonde
Location: Bakersfield, CA
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Re: Best way to create maps for a tabletop campaign?

Postby Kavonde » Tue Jul 30, 2013 6:29 pm

Campaign Cartographer is very nice, if you can afford it. (Or can obtain it otherwise.) However, the default set of icons is a bit generic, and--at least on my previous PC, when I owned a copy--larger map sizes could cause some serious stability issues.

However, it's easy enough to use Gimp (of most image editors of your choice) and its fractal line tool to create a rough outline of a landmass, and then fill everything in with colored splotches that represent different terrains.
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dudecon
Location: Camarillo, CA. Paul Spooner IRL & blog comments
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Re: Best way to create maps for a tabletop campaign?

Postby dudecon » Tue Jul 30, 2013 7:27 pm

mwchase wrote:Hi all. I recently got roped into GMing a campaign for my RP group... and one thing some of the others want is a map of the region (as I'm improvising a setting).

So, what's the best way to put together a region map for a campaign? I could try doing it by hand, but I'd be interested if anyone can recommend a free/cheap piece of software that runs well under Mac (Wineskin seems to work pretty well for this stuff... I've got a basic outline for the region planned, so map *generator* stuff is only useful for this if I can do stuff like tune it and lay down political boundaries.
The simple answer is, if you already have a good idea of what you want, do it by hand. Start with big shapes (like Mad L says) and work down to the details. Ink it by hand if you're feeling brave! A physical map is way more satisfying than one made by computer.
Plus you can then bake it in lemon juice and burn the edges for that crackly, worn, old fashioned map look. Works wonders for immersion!

If you really want it to be digital (especially if your players are remote, or there's a campaign wiki) then map software can help, but the best is to use a graphical program. Inkscape for 2D is great. If you're up to it, I recommend Blender (all my campaigns are planned out in 3d). The advantage there is that you can do exactly what you want. "map maker" software is really handy for quickly generating random stuff, or if you want it to look "map-like", but if you know what you want then it's just going to interfere when you run into the limitations of the software.
That said, I've used several map making packages before, and they all seem to be helpful. The generic symbols and such just seem to kill the "life" of the map for me. Fractal Mapper is good for "real" looking complex maps, though see my comments below.

Okay, a few notes on map-making in general, and for role-playing games in particular.

Keep it Simple:
The map should only be as detailed as you intend to portray the world. If you're going to have people traveling from here to there in a single session, don't put lots of wiggles in the roads. If you don't intend to force them to find safe harbors, or coastal locations sheltered from storms, then leave the coastlines smooth. The extra details may look cool and give a sense of "place" to the map, but if you aren't intending to really treat the world to that level of detail then they are ultimately distracting. On top of that, extra details can give the players false expectations about what they will encounter.
The same thing goes for terrain biomes. Are you actually intending to draw distinctions between swamps and forests? Will the grassland and the rolling hills have a different feel? If so, that's great (but the campaign will be more work). If not, that's great too! Whatever you decide, only put on the map things that you intend to incorporate into the game.

Keep it Clear:
After you've simplified everything to the degree that you're going to support, make each symbol as clear and distinct as possible. Eliminate fine distinctions. The point is to give players an immediate sense of what is where, not to lead them on a maze of symbolic examination. If you absolutely must include abstract symbols, include a prominent "key" to make the representation explicit.

Keep it Secret:
As the GM, you are the universe. This is a huge job, and requires lots of notes. I strongly recommend making several copies of the "real map" and using them to take notes, jot down ideas, and generally maintain the mental state of the world. You will forget important details otherwise, and having these "master maps" around will be invaluable for your sanity.
Then, and this is super important, make a lower detail slightly different version to share with your players. It should include major cities and some of the geography, but little else. Of course, there will be a lot more there that they might never discover. Hidden ruins, tiny hamlets, bridges and landslides. There can also be things that they believe exist which aren't there at all. Illusions, mis-information, outright lies, or things that "everyone knows" which are a bit off... they can all go on the player's version of the map. Then the players can draw in things that they discover. Found a deep dark forest? Cool! Now they see it on the map! Found some loot, but don't have capacity to carry it all? Put an X on the map and come back for it later. Endless fun with a piece of paper!
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mwchase
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Re: Best way to create maps for a tabletop campaign?

Postby mwchase » Thu Aug 01, 2013 1:15 am

Thanks for the advice, everyone. I ended up doing a basic, crappy sketch, then completely ignoring it in favor of putting stuff together in Inkscape. I'm doing kind of a two-pass process here: first, I'm coming up with nations, for the players to base their backstory off of. Then, after they create their characters (which means I've done enough work on the nations), I'm going to work on populating the sea, since that's where the action is going to take place. I said elsewhere: "If they mount a land expedition to the poles, I'm dropping the sun on them." This is actually kind of reasonable, since the one player who expressed an opinion on what should be happening, really really really wanted to be a pirate. So I'm going to put together something pirate-related, and everything... should... be... fine.

Basic lessons I got from my attempts: prefer software that's actively supported, and favor native software over software with a compatibility layer unless you really, really know what you're doing. (I'm using Inkscape 0.48.4, with a Wineskin wrapper, because I'm fucking tired of being two versions behind, and I'd rather bathe in grapefruit juice than follow the OSX build steps myself.*)

*They're probably not so bad if you already have MacPorts installed, but "Why I'm tired of third party packaging systems" is its own topic, and relies on deeply held opinions that I will discard the instant someone pays me to.
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michaelE

Re: Best way to create maps for a tabletop campaign?

Postby michaelE » Thu Apr 24, 2014 1:52 pm

I almost always do things the hard way, so I got out Paint Shop Pro. I liked the old World of Greyhawk hex grid wall map, so I went with hexagons. First drew a hexagon that could overlap itself perfectly to create a hex grid. Using Greyhawk as my guide, I decided the hexes were 30 miles from face to opposite face. I then filled a series of hexes with hex tiles for coastline. Basically, I made a hex for every possible face-to-face line combination that, put together, made a continuous coastline. For the rest of my toolbox, I made hex tiles for forest, hills, mountains, ocean, cities, rivers (also face-to-face lines), desert, swamp and ice. Then it was just a matter of cutting and pasting these tiles over and over until I had a continent, islands, the whole lot.

With the scale I'd chosen, it didn't make sense to try to show every little hamlet or roads (again, much like the Greyhawk map), so I came up with a way to create smaller scale maps using the same hexes. To do that, I made a hex grid using the same hexes, but with larger hexes indicated. So, on these grids, the small hexes were now 5 miles from face to face, and the larger hexes were the 30 mile ones. When I needed to 'zoom in' for an adventure, I would decide which of the 30 mile hexes were involved, then use my 5 mile hex map and fill it in with greater detail, using the exact same feature tiles, but adding ones for roads and features like towns. My rule was that, if the 30 mile hex held a forest tile, then the same area on the finer scale map had to be mostly forest, but not necessarily all forest. As long as one 5 mile hex more than half in the bigger hex total was forest, it was good, but I could put in areas of fewer trees like clearings, swamps, hills, whatever.

This was a very labor intensive way to get a world map, but it was very satisfying, too, and the end product was cool in that old World of Greyhawk style.
nikolokolus

Re: Best way to create maps for a tabletop campaign?

Postby nikolokolus » Mon Apr 28, 2014 1:47 am

I strongly recommend hexographer from inkwell ideas. There's a perfectly serviceable free version and the "pro" version is eminently affordable and well worth the money if plan to do a lot of mapping.
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Santa_Jaws

Re: Best way to create maps for a tabletop campaign?

Postby Santa_Jaws » Mon Apr 28, 2014 1:59 am

I keep it vague and ever-changing, so they can use nothing against me. I am the law. Me. Me!
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Ygor
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Re: Best way to create maps for a tabletop campaign?

Postby Ygor » Mon Apr 28, 2014 7:26 am

Santa_Jaws wrote:I keep it vague and ever-changing, so they can use nothing against me. I am the law. Me. Me!


LAAAAAAAW!

On topic:

I use photoshop myself with these videos as learning tools. It should basically work with Gimp too.

Obligatory link hidden behind text

They are techniques that are pretty easy to grasp, and they look really good. (I used it only once in a playthrough though, since it is somewhat time consuming)

As for how I do it most of the time, I just use a simple map drawing- I draw it by the hand, and then paint the big cities where I want them. If I have a character that traveled a little bit, I copy the map and on this new copy I give more detailed info about places and towns he should know about/he visited.
Then, for those uneducated "farmboy-turned-hero" I make seperate map that looks pretty vague and the places are slightly off, sea and mountain looks way different, roads are bigger, cities are somewhere else, etc. This way, they know where these things lie a little bit, but for a farmer who never went out from his home is the concept of "The capital is two weeks of riding away to the west" pretty much alien, since he never traveled so far. My players like this kind of stuff, and it's not that time straining, if you want to add more flavor to your adventures.
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michaelE

Re: Best way to create maps for a tabletop campaign?

Postby michaelE » Sun May 18, 2014 8:21 pm

I guess I was too proud of my world map (especially considering how long it took to finish) not to share it with the players. There's always that conflict between player knowledge and character knowledge, but my group is pretty good about playing it straight and not gifting their characters with knowledge they couldn't possibly have. And, I did remove important locations from my master map before sharing with them as I didn't want them to know about these as-yet-undiscovered locales.
Steve C

Re: Best way to create maps for a tabletop campaign?

Postby Steve C » Wed Aug 19, 2015 9:06 pm

I have found the best way to make fantasy maps is to look for other people's then use those. So basically I google. I generally want something general and will find some .jpeg that will do. There's so much stuff already out there on the internet that I can always find something better than I could ever make.

I do not normally edit the file unless there's a really good reason. Typically that is to crop something off another map and throw it onto the map I want to use. Most of the time if I want to add something, (like gridlines for scale) I'll throw it through the printer an extra time and add it that way rather than altering the file.

For something where players can't see the environment until they are in it (dungeon fog of war) I draw it out on my vinyl battlemap. (Which is my go-to everything.) If I wanted to get fancy I could print out various individual features, cut them out and stick them onto my vinyl map as I draw it. I've thought about it, but never bothered.
Ivellius

Re: Best way to create maps for a tabletop campaign?

Postby Ivellius » Mon Aug 24, 2015 6:41 pm

It's in beta, but Inkarnate is an outstanding new tool for regional / national maps.

http://inkarnate.com/
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Cuthalion

Re: Best way to create maps for a tabletop campaign?

Postby Cuthalion » Thu Aug 27, 2015 2:32 am

Oooo, I may have to sign up for the beta on that! Do you know what their long-term plans are? Free? Paid? Subscription? Ads?
Ivellius

Re: Best way to create maps for a tabletop campaign?

Postby Ivellius » Wed Sep 02, 2015 4:47 pm

No idea. I would assume the basic functionality will be free given how it is right now, but I don't know.

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