Whether you’re a book illustrator or a young adult fiction novelist, a board game enthusiast or a history buff, a graphic designer or a gamer with ambitions to create your own role-play games, fantasy maps are a useful tool in your creative kit.
Fantasy maps chart and illustrate places that don’t really exist. If you’re in the business (or hobby) of creating imaginary worlds, then creating a fantasy world map or town map is a great way of transferring your imagination onto a page in a visual format. You may choose to keep your fantasy map to yourself or include it in a published book or a game.
Whatever your aim, making a fantasy map can be a fun and deeply creative exercise. As graphic novelist and fantasy map maker Ira Marcks says, “For me, a map is more than just a chart. It’s a close-up view of an extraordinary time and place.” Here’s how to make fantasy maps of your own.
How to Make a Fantasy Map
Before you begin making or even conceptualizing your fantasy map, it’s essential to realize how fantasy maps differ from real maps. Aside from the obvious (that they depict places that don’t exist!), fantasy maps also contain certain types of images and design conventions that set them apart from other maps.
Prior to putting pen to paper or naming your imaginary world, study some of the best fantasy maps already out there, and even real historical maps. You can find these online, in books of certain genres (fantasy, sci-fi, history), and in games. Don’t know where to begin? Grab a copy of The Lord of the Rings trilogy or The Hobbit.
Study the elements that make up all of the best fantasy maps:
- A framed title
- A scale marker
- Projection style
- Compass rose
Step 1: Plan Your World
After studying some other fantasy world maps or fantasy town maps, it’s time to plan your own. An important part of learning how to draw fantasy maps is learning how to conceptualize fantasy worlds. Before you put pen to paper, you need to have a clear idea of the world you’ll be mapping.
Whether you do this through notes or sketches, be clear about the type of land being mapped (island, mountains, city, forest, etc) and the landmarks to include that are symbolic of other aspects of the fantasy world (these might be caves, an underground river, a shipwreck, a castle, etc).
Step 2: Sketch an Outline
You can either work in a computer program like Photoshop or Procreate or on paper. If the latter, it’s a good idea to start with some large pieces of sketching paper so you have space for sketching out the nooks and crannies of your fantasy world. You can refine your design onto a smaller piece of paper later if you wish, once you’ve fine-tuned the details.
Once you’re happy with the outline, fill it in with ink, paint, or another medium.
Step 3: Add Topographical Details and Landmarks
Thinking back to your planning stage, what were the most important elements you wanted to include to represent your fantasy world? An uncrossable mountain range, a coastline pockmarked with whirlpools, a haunted forest? It’s time to add these now.
Be creative, but also remember that your landmarks, symbols, and topographical features should be easy for others to interpret. How you draw mountains may be different from the next map maker, but the viewer (user!) of the map needs to know that what they’re looking at represents mountains. Complicated keys are distracting, and the visual impact of the map will be lost if the symbolism isn’t clear.
Step 4: Finish With a Legend, Compass, and Scale Marker
Once you’ve completed the main part of the map, adding the details of a legend, compass, and scale marker will finish it off and really make it look like a map. A scale marker doesn’t need to be accurate (unless you’re a mathematical whiz!), but including one will cement your fantasy map’s authority as a map.
The same goes for a compass. Instead of simply writing north, south, west, and east, you could use the opportunity to point toward places and landmarks that are significant in your story.
Online Fantasy Map Makers
If you don’t want to create your fantasy world maps from scratch, would like some more help with the process, or just want to save time, there are several sites that can create them for you. These can be used for fantasy world maps, fantasy town maps, and smaller or more contained areas. They’re an easy way to learn how to draw fantasy art and rpg maps: step by step cartography for gamers and fans.
Dungeon Fog is targeted at gamers and game creators, who use its software to draw dungeons, buildings, or overland terrain. Their library of high-resolution assets allow map makers to create highly detailed fantasy worlds to use on screen or to print.
Inkarnate is an online map-making platform targeted at gamers as well as authors of fantasy books and map enthusiasts. It allows you to create fantasy world maps, fantasy city maps, and more detailed battle maps or interior maps. It has a free and a paid pro version.
Worldspinner claims to make it easy to make a fantasy world in just minutes. You don’t need any particular artistic tools or skills, so this is a good option if you want to create fantasy world maps but aren’t confident in your artistic ability. You choose a style and the elements you want to include, and Worldspinner automatically renders a high-quality map.
Azgaar is open-source software that automatically and randomly generates maps for users, which can then be edited. They even come up with creative names, which you can change to your own if you prefer. Azgaar is an easy way to generate a relatively simple but realistic-looking fantasy map for your own use in story or game ideation.
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