Maps do much more than tell people where to go. Yes, they may include important territorial boundaries, elevation statistics, and directions to the nearest Starbucks, but they can also tell stories. What's more useful in a story about pirates than a treasure map? And look at how more realistic the Maurader's Map that Harry Potter carried around made Hogwarts feel. Whether you're a Dungeons and Dragons game master or an author looking to make a fictionally accurate world, a map is one of the most important and most enjoyable things you can make to do some productive world-building. Here I will show you how I like to tell stories through cartography.
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Step 1: Gather Ye Materials
Every mapmaker needs his or her trusty toolkit of design tools. These materials most often include, but are not limited to:
- A pencil
- An eraser
- A sharpie
- And, one or more sheets of white printer paper (or whatever you want the map to be sketched on. If you want to use 2 yards of canvas like the ancient Nords, that works too!)
Step 2: Conjure Up Thy Names
Brainstorm some names for the locations you'd like to include in your map. Some do this last, but I prefer to do it first so my world comes to life quicker. Names like Adon and the Shivret Kingdom are nonsensical and fun, and let you easily refer to the countries and cities in the future while you create attributes for them (step 3).
Step 3: List Thy Qualities
It's time for these countries and cities to show their stuff. Write down qualities you'd like each territory to have. In order for a country or city to survive, it needs a source of food, materials, and something unique.
You can write down anything you think of, creativity is encouraged! I start with food, because cities need food to survive on their own. Once a city can survive on its own, it can start interacting with the world around it. So, before I think about alliances and enemies, I think about the specific culture of that location, completely unique and removed from the rest of the world.
After this, I write down if there are any alliances or wars happening between countries. Countries with more materials are obviously more sought after by warmongers, but war can happen due to anything from royal rivalries to religion.
If countries are allied, that means they like each other for their shared materials, wealth, rulers, you name it! Literally! This is a blank piece of paper! Use your imagination!
(Bonus step: You may realize that you want to change the name of your locations after the attributes have been assigned. You would do this if a key characteristic of a country or city makes it stand out. For example, a canyon village may be more appropriately named "Kine's Cliff's" than "Kine's Village" because of the critical landmark located there. Coming up with geography-appropriate names bring your world to life even more!)
Step 4: Sequester the Map
Next, it's time to place your countries and cities on the blank piece of paper. This is when you can alter the shape of their territory, their size, and their location relative to other civilizations. I do this with circular shapes for countries and dots for cities.
There can be as much space as you want between countries. If you want a very tribal, ancient world, feel free to spread out the nations more. If your world is more of an urban metropolis, wedge those territory shapes right up next to each other so that it's clear that all the land is taken.
Be sure to put civilizations with ocean resources near the edge of the clump of territories. This way, when you draw an ocean, the water-resource nation will have access to the water and not be barred from it by surrounding civilizations. This goes for other landmasses as well. If you marked any civilization having mountains, rivers, volcanos, swamps, or any natural barriers, be sure to leave space between territories to account for them. In fact, you can even draw a circle around the area where the natural barriers are supposed to lie.
This way, none of the details go unnoticed while you're filling in the artistic detail.
Step 5: Pangaea-ify Thy Nations
Now with all of your nations laid out, you can connect them all in one supercontinent, like Earth's Pangaea. Do this by drawing a coastline around all your nations. Or, you can put them all on their own island. Whatever works for you and your story, do it. Draw in the coastlines where you feel comfortable, although be certain that if countries have to interact over water that they have the resources available to do so (boats, telephones, teleportation, etc.)
Coastlines are not flat. They're bumpy and rough. Be sure that your coastlines have enough randomness to them. It's natural to have some peninsulas or some rivers that open up into the ocean. Each is formed by drawing those jagged coastlines very close and parallel to each other. Rivers open up into the continent. Peninsulas draw out of the continent.
Be conscious during this step to leave a corner of your map clear for a key. Its width should be between 2 and 3 inches, and its height should be between 2 and 5 inches. Anything smaller will not have enough room for the information in the key. Anything larger will take up too much space on an 11x8.5 inch piece of paper. Mark this key off by drawing a box around it.
Step 6: Here Be Dragons?
...And mountains and lakes and caves and just about anything that people don't want to live by. Draw in natural resources and landmarks using a symbol of your choosing to represent each piece of geography. For instance, a mountain can be represented by a triangle, or a tree can represent a forest. Then, by repeating these symbols over an extended stretch of area, you can effectively represent how far that geography stretches over the continent.
Log all of these symbols in your map key. Whenever you have a new landmass, place its symbol and its "definition" (for example: forest) in the map key. Do not, however, over-label your map. Flat areas and bodies of water typically do not need symbols to indicate that they are there. Water can be indicated by waves in the shape of consecutive cursive "c's" drawn over a small distance, but you do not need to add waves to the map key. Additionally, very specific landmarks that occur only once do not necessarily need a symbol in the map key. These landmarks can be delineated by their name alone.
When deciding what regions need what symbols, think of what separates this region or landmark from every other geography out there. A rock may not be a good choice for a canyon, because if you have many arid landmasses like plateaus and cliffs, a reader can get confused. My advice is to think of the shape of the landmass. Usually, landmasses are classified by their shapes, so its a good place to start.
Regions have very specific plants. If you want to specify between regions, try using different plant symbols.
Or, if you have a fun, new idea for a landmark, try it out! You are the god of this world, after all. Use your power!
Step 7: One Does Not Simply Draw a Map...
Without outlining it in black sharpie to make those lines POP! A clear continent is a happy continent. Bold those country names, and draw dotted lines around their territories. Don't forget to outline the key either!
Also, now would be a good time to erase away any stray pencil marks.
Step 8: Thou Art a Good God
Celebrate the work of your majesty! Hang it on a wall, or use it in a story, but DO NOT just put it in a drawer. I've fallen victim to this result far too many times and left untapped creativity literally in my desk. Then much later, when I'm trying to brainstorm, I forget that I have tons of maps already hidden in my drawers and that I don't have to make another one.
Making a map isn't easy, so let it be its own trophy for your hard work. Use it in the future for a story, or maybe even the centerpiece of your room if you're confident enough. Nothing looks better than a fantastic map that can actually be interpretted.