Listen, you don’t need to be a cartographer to make maps. In fact, I’m not a cartographer and the last time I was building a map was years ago if ever. I’m not talking about a regular tabletop grid map. I’m talking about a map that will guide us through the campaign. So, what’s the logical thing to do? To jump head first into cartography but with a catch! To freshen things up, please read through the conclusion of the last post, here. This’ll give you the necessary insight what we’ll do with our very own map.
How does the peninsula of Crognar’s Rock look like? Why is it important for us to know that? Well, it’s fun to do, a creative challenge and in my opinion, a great way to add your flavour.
There are a lot of guides that I’ve found talking about “How to build better fantasy maps” and “How to become a better cartographer“. Fascinating topics but they go a little bit too far for us at the moment. Actually, we couldn’t even use a map right now. We don’t even know how we’ll seed the peninsula with topography, cities, routes and mountains.
I love a good map for my tabletop campaign. A beautifully crafted map is something that benefits every session. I would also say that every campaign benefits from a crafted campaign map. Whether you take a map already existing or create your own is up to you. Looking through other maps I’ve found that making my own gives me the visual cue to understand my own campaign better. And with that: more flexibility, better improvisation.
How else would you know about opportunities like getting to know the landscape and the possible dangers, safe-havens and dungeons? Without that knowledge, I think, our campaign lacks solidity.
A little research goes a long way
So, phew. The first step is to build a continent. It seems like a huge task. Actually, it IS a huge task! What is a continent in the first place? A quick google search reveals this:
any of the world’s main continuous expanses of land.
Ok, so it’s the bigger landmass. Considering our peninsula as a continent is maybe a bit stretched, that’s true. For the sake of argument, let’s say it’s a small continent. In my understanding, that means that it’s the bigger mainland that is not secluded through smaller islands. The actual size of this landmass can, of course, be adjusted if you want to.
We have one keyword that helps us tremendously to understand how we build our base map. Peninsula. You can guess what comes next: Geography lesson! we’ll just look at two links:
Building better maps means that we first have to understand how land is created. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be overly scientific about this. We take the information given as a possible inspiration, not as historic fact.
The quick research shows us a couple of descriptions and visual cues how we could build or campaign map. I encourage you to do the same with Islands, continents and other land formations that you find intriguing. Learning about our world both inside and outside of our campaign is great. I say it makes us more mentally agile. Mental flexibility is a GMs main weapon and tool after all. To become truly proficient within our campaign is to understand the nooks and crannies within it. Places play a big role.
Getting ready to draw
This preparation step seems to be quite tiresome but it’ll carry us a long way. Since we actively connect with our world it becomes easier to navigate. And in the best case, gathering more knowledge also means, you only have to learn it once! This will make every subsequent creation a lot quicker.
We talked a lot about building and drawing but we haven’t done much drawing yet. Maybe you sketched your first map, which is great! Now with the knowledge we acquired, we get ready to make some first serious trials with our map.
The great thing happens here. First, we understand the information of land formation. Second, we realise these are only suggestions. This is not school, remember?
Meaning, that we can base intricacies of our map on natural occurrences if we’d wish to do. Again, having a reference doesn’t make us a slave to it. We’ll use them in a later step to fill our continent with inspiration.
But first, let’s get drawing. In my experience, the biggest holdback is always the assumption that it has to be perfect. In fact, it doesn’t. The beauty of crafting anything is to make mistakes first. Seeing these mistakes and accepting them as a natural step for growth will make our maps better. Maybe some of those “mistakes” will become the cornerstone of the style we choose.
Do it your way. Draw schematically, draw it coarsely. It’s up to you. What I want to emphasise on is to NOT compare. What killed me many times was seeing others doing it better. I first wanted to link you to other pages that show how to draw mountains and sees onto your map. But that would underline the comparison and the possible demotivation resulting from it. Instead, I invite you to do it in your own style. Even if you can’t draw. Especially if you’ve never done it before!
The coarse map of Crognar’s Rock
As you can see, I’m not the most gifted cartographer. I haven’t done it in years and never tried to illustrate a continent. The great thing is, though, this is our visual work map. These sketches were made in a couple of minutes. And luckily, you don’t have to make the same mistakes I did. Since it looks very coarse and not really easy to overview. This really marks the start of our campaign. How the peninsula looks without inhabitants, only landmass and the structures that come with it.
The next step (for me since I sketched it on a far too little piece of paper with a pen…) is to transcribe it. A bigger piece of paper and erasable pencils. That’ll help tremendously to actively work with our campaign map. What I’ll use are coloured pencils to draw the sketch based on the coarse sketch we’ve made.
The Map of Crognar’s Rock
You don’t have to make the map this colourful or detailed. While making it, it just felt natural to leave some parts out and concentrating on the important aspects we defined in the last post. A lot of jungles and mountains to set the tone of the map. Actually, I didn’t find the right colours for the raw un-forested fields. We’ll add that to the next step once we get to civilisation. Right now, our focus is to have one usable map. Our base map. From here we’ll navigate the whole campaign.
I suggest that you document your map for every major step. That way you can differentiate between the map you will give your players and yours. To make sure, to prevent secrets from being spilt. If you have a scanner, even better. Unfortunately, I don’t have one… Leading to, showing the mistakes I will make while drawing the cities. A valuable lesson for all of us. At least, I tell myself that!
If you created the map yourself you probably found some edges and constellations that seemed particularly interesting. Perhaps that one coastal line you drew looked a bit like a face. Or the islands look like blades. And boom, you have created yourself a well of inspiration. While drawing I’ve seen so many little things happening on the map that I grew restless of modifying the map even more. Not now though. First, we need to let it rest.
I hope, looking at your map you see the place and not the lines that were drawn. It’s of utmost importance that you don’t judge the map right now. Especially if it has been your first time drawing a map. It was my first time as well. Beating yourself up because it doesn’t look like some of the amazing map artists is no shame. Mine doesn’t look that great. But! Beauty happens in the process and the map is far from done.
The next steps will include, defining fauna and flora, including civilisation and drawing trading routes. This map will become even more colourful while serving a distinct purpose. Its purpose will be, to show us what we know about the world. It will reflect directly where things are hidden, where what will happen and how we’ll navigate our players through it. As you probably seen, Crognar’s Rock is very heavy on mountains. I wanted to make it difficult to travel through the unpaved mainland. Since it’s difficult to access by foot it yields a lot of possible treasure and mysteries.
That’s exactly the base we wanted to build!
What we did today is something that breaks a bit from the map creating narrative. Instead of building playable maps, we spend some time to learn about geography. Instead of jumping right into the story of our campaign, we took the expense of drawing our own map. The goal in mind is to spend a little more time preparing to be truly more involved in the world we create.
Using this as our background and the preparation aspect of asking ourselves what we want to do, gives us this. The map and a clearer vision where we want to go with it. If you look at the map, you surely see islands. The right upper corner is covered with three islands. Why? A whim. When drawing, I thought to myself: “what about some islands? but doesn’t that make it more inviting for the players to explore them?”. Yes, it does! absolutely. When we defined our “what it is/isn’t” pirate adventure was on the list for me. Now, it’s not anymore. Suddenly, it seems appealing to have the option of sending them on naval adventures.
All we do is based on suggestions. Nothing is set in stone if you let your creativity unfold. I would advise against changing everything just because of a whim, though. The guidelines we create for ourselves are here to help us. To break the rules we first must establish those rules. The earlier we practice that the better. As a matter of speaking, this is already a bit of GM-flexibility that we can show.
Our showmanship in storytelling correlates directly with our ability to school our creative expression. If the rules say you can’t but you obviously see that it would be the best outcome, would you do it? Chances are, you would. So, why not do the same with our map and our campaign?
What we did today, was to school our expression with experimentation. Stopping to compare yourself to artists that make it better. Starting to do something for our players and ourselves. Honestly, I love the maps made by pros. I do. But now, after creating my own, I feel more at home. More in control over where I want to go with the story and mystery. For exactly this matter we had to build an understanding for our own campaign. It didn’t take that long to create the map either.
Searching for the right map, sometimes takes even longer. Create your own! And reap the benefits of total control. When we’ll go to use actual gridded maps, it’ll be a different story, though. Then we will need the help of those who are better and specialised in doing that. But for now, the campaign hasn’t started, yet. We are still preparing. That is our strength right now to figure out where we want to go in the first place.
With this, let’s concentrate on our map. No comparison, no distraction, just our creation. This is actually less about mapping and more about visualising our campaign. That can’t be bought. That is your individual expression.
Please let me know on Twitter what maps you have created and what inspired you to create yours. I’d be immensely grateful for it.
In the next post, we will look into the map with more detail. Adding flora and fauna and maybe even the civilisation.
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