10 Rules for Believable Fantasy Maps

So here`s the first recommendation: don`t worry too much about the realism of your world. It`s fantasy, after all. Tolkien, for example, is known to ignore the geographical laws we know in our world. His stories have become pretty good. Thompson refers to one of his specific pets compared to maps in fantasy books. “It`s always bothered me,” he told us, “that in the cards on the back of fantasy novels, the world is always vaguely rectangular, so it fits into the space available to the person.” Creating a map for a fantastic setting involves a lot of detail – most of them are fun! Art styles, fonts, and symbols must be selected. But some mapping concerns go beyond mere aesthetics. If you`re building a major continent on an Earth-like world*, you need to keep an eye on the geology. It is up to you to decide whether or not you change the rules of your world.

What we`re going to look at below is about more realistic mapping. It`s important to learn these details, even if you plan to deviate from them. Plus, you can get new ideas and inspiration. If you look at the fantastic maps beautifully illustrated on posters, in books and on the Internet and wish you could make such incredible pieces of world-building, then you are in luck. We have some guidelines to make your cards better, more beautiful and more understandable. Another way to create a fantastic map, as we will see in the next section, is to turn your drawing into a thinner digital version using an online map. There are a number of lakes on land. About 117 million, to be exact. They litter the earth and invariably find their way into fantastic maps.

“Creating a map is like taking a snapshot. They freeze it in time,” he continued. Thompson notes that in fantasy games and worlds, the map is sometimes treated as a static world. But sometimes cards can go beyond that. The desert is a unique environment full of challenges. They appear quite often in fantasy books. The sand town of Dorne from A Song of Ice and Fire comes to mind. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you include them: It`s one thing to know how to create a fantastic map, it`s another to draw it. If you are a good draftsman, you can enjoy the design process of your MP. You might spend so much time designing your fantasy world that you`ll never be able to tell the stories that take place in it. Thompson particularly likes maps that convey basic information about the world remotely, but then offer “meaningful up close detail.” There are several ways to do this. On the one hand, you can add heraldic symbols to your map, small illustrations of monsters, representations of events.

But you can also do it in a smaller way, with the style of your legend and your compass rose, your font – even just with the way you draw your geographical features. Consider how different Boston, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C. are when drawn in the style of J.R.R. Tolkien. Are you stuck in a drawing track of huge continents full of forests and mountain ranges? Try drawing a map of a city or village. Thompson notes that he doesn`t see enough maps representing three-dimensional space — towers, connections, and representations of cities that capture not only their layout, but also their horizon. Challenge yourself: See how well you understand the different types of space and geography. Even if you don`t get it quite right the first few times, practicing different types and techniques of cards can make you a better card maker. Roads must connect important centres of housing and commerce, and they also follow some of the same rules as rivers – but not as strictly. Roads often follow a river or coast because they are easy places to build roads* and most people will live there anyway. Unlike rivers and coasts, roads sometimes have to cross mountains. People will find the lowest and easiest possible routes through the mountain ranges, and these routes will be significant bottlenecks for defense.

However, as a geologist, I have a fundamental problem with advice of this kind applied to a fantastic setting. This advice presupposes that the normal laws of physics and geology apply. However, a fantastic setting assumes that they do NOT. Magic, by definition, violates the laws of physics as they apply to our world. It is extremely naïve to assume that this will not affect geology. A great example was discussed earlier in the comments: Middle-earth. The Misty Mountains annoyed me at school because they are not natural. Then I read the Silimarillion, and it made sense: it was a shield wall built by Morgoth, not at all something created by tectonics! The purpose of this guide is to teach you the basics to help you create a fantastic map.

As I mentioned earlier, there are a number of fantastic card makers online that you can use to put your world in digital form. Some of them are free, others you may have to pay, but either way, the results can be particularly impressive. As we will see below, there are many considerations, such as the realism you want it to be. In this guide, we will look in detail at how to create a fantastic map. The most important thing to keep in mind with cards is that they are a way to convey information. You want your viewer to understand your map – and you want your viewer to want to see your map in the first place. Mike Schley, who draws maps for Dungeons & Dragons games, as well as other games and books, told us via email that it`s always in the foreground when he starts a new map: sometimes the cards offer the ability to convey more than just information. When Thompson talks about his map of Lovecraft`s dream lands (shown above), he says, “The area outside the map is just as important as the area inside the map. Making sense of all the decorative bells and whistles and giving them the same weight was really hard, but it was really fun. Tolkien`s map of Middle-earth always bothered me, even when I was a kid, because of how the mountains of ash and the mountains of shadow form this strange kind of rectangular shape that doesn`t look natural at all. I know it`s a fantastic world, but it still annoys me.

Jason Thompson, an io9 contributor who owns some truly spectacular D&D cards as well as maps from H.P. Lovecraft`s Dreamlands, points out that just looking at a map can spark a person`s imagination. He told us, “You`re looking at a map and this area is waiting for you to go. Look at this whole country! It`s helpful to add your personal touch to cards, but you should be careful when adding ornaments to your cards. Ornaments can be fun and add valuable information, but you should keep in mind Schley`s warning to focus on utility, clarity, and beauty. Mountains accompany rivers in their meaning when it comes to learning how to create a fantastic map. As we have seen, rivers start here. Before you get involved in the process of creating a fantastic map, it can be helpful to plan your world. But if you`re interested in creating a realistic fantasy map, study the rules we`ve covered here and do your best to follow them.

If you decide to deviate from it, make sure there is a logical explanation – or at least one explanation that you can explain with the laws of your world. It is also important to remember that this is only a guide. Much of the fantasy writing revolves around the creation of new worlds. Creating fantastic maps is only part of this process. But in short, it can help define the physical parameters of your world – whether it`s a desert, a wetland, etc. And it can also be helpful to look at some of the cultural aspects of your fantasy world. So where are the cities and how they have grown and evolved over time to shape the landscape around them. There are wonderful communities for cartographers on the internet, places where you can share your maps, get feedback, and see the types of maps other people are working on. There`s the Cartographers` Guild, a community dedicated to creating maps and helping other cartographers improve their craft. Reddit has communities like r/mapmaking and r/worldbuilding.

These are places where you can get reviews of your own maps, see what new styles and techniques other cartographers are trying, and find resources to improve both your map creation and world building. Other people can be valuable in helping you develop your skills. But not only that, mountains can help shape the climate of regions so that they can have a great impact on the nature of your world.

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