#WBW – Utility, Clarity, and Beauty; Making Perfect Maps

This instalment of World Building Wednesday is all about maps! Alongside two of the lovely gents and one lovely lady from over at Tinker Tabletop, I’m going to be talking to you about how you can create the perfect map for your purposes, whatever they may be!

What’s in a map?

Some of the best advice I’ve ever read about map making comes from D&D artist Jason Thompson in a great Gizmodo article called 10 Rules for Making Better Fantasy Maps by Lauren Davis.

Thompson describes the act of map making as “freezing it in time” and I really don’t think there is a better way to describe it.

When you map out a location, whether it’s every continent, a small village, or a unique stage for an epic battle, you’re providing anyone who looks at it a glimpse into your world as it is right at that moment.

Thompson gives us three goals to achieve to make maps as brilliant as his. Utility, clarity and beauty. Let’s break them down a bit to help provide some clearer insight.


Utility is all about how the map is going to be used. Considering the function of your map for your readers or players is one of the first things you should think about.

Is your map an introduction to your world? Maps such as these provide us with a perfect snapshot we can refer to as the story progresses, clearly detailing all the important landmarks, cities and other places which our readers are going to become familiar with.

Maps like these examples of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Rowling’s Hogwarts and Lewis’ Narnia, often provide us with a static view of the fantasy world we’re reading about.
But depending on the purpose of your map, sometimes something more dynamic can work.

The map I’ve been creating of my own fantasy world is a dynamic map for my own reference, that attempts to illustrate the changes in ruler ship and power struggles by using faction colours and including the changes to the names of cities in the world, 100 years apart, all on the same map. Here’s a little screen shot of one of the continents.

Elli's Example: Western Continent - Amarantha Chronicles
Very simple map I whipped up for my own reference in Photoshop


Some much more impressive and interactive examples of dynamic maps include the Interactive Middle Earth Map started by Emil Johnson which details the genealogy, the historical timeline and the statistics of the population of Middle-Earth.
An equally amazingly detailed creation was made for the Lord of the Rings Online game. The ruslotoro Map details points of interest and other useful information for players in every area of the game.
There’s also the series of maps referenced in the above mentioned Gizmodo article, which are a great example of a less interactive dynamic map, which serve as a tool to tell the political history of Westeros from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Created by Redditor hotbrownDoubleDouble


Clarity is what you need to show to help people understand the map in its context.
Keeping in mind who and what the map is for are the starting points when thinking about clarity.

Studying real geography and real maps are an excellent way to make sure that your creation isn’t defying established laws of physics! Although sometimes your genre may allow you to break outside of real world limitations, it helps to have a grounding in them first. In some cases, real world knowledge and accuracy might be vital to your story or campaign.

If you’re needing to make maps for a campaign or story set in the modern day, there are different challenges you need to consider to make sure things are clear. Tinker Tabletop Game Master Tyler runs a Call of Cthulhu campaign set in the Cold War, and he offers this useful tip for those of us working in a modern setting;

“Programs for architecture students are your best friend. If you’re running something set in the modern day, or even future, your maps are gonna look a lot like a floor plan for a modern house, apartment building or what have you. Because that’s where your story takes place.”

He recommends the simple to use tool by Homestyler by EasyHome

Clarifying unique locations in your game or story is also something a map can help with.

Shadowrun Battlemap by Jay
Unique locations like this train carriage can be a great tool for engaging players or readers

Tinker Tabletop GM Jay created this map of a series of train carriages for a Shadowrun campaign he made using a program I’ll talk about a bit later, Dundjinni.

Locations like this might not be your first thought when you’re considering making a map, but they can provide an interesting stage for an encounter in your campaign, or a creative way to draw your reader further into your narrative.

Remember, maps are that moment in the world, frozen in time. However we are using them, they should be able to make our story both deeper and clearer, whether we are an author or a game master.


Perhaps a little self-explanatory, beauty is all about turning your map from something simple that serves your purpose, into a bona fide work of art of its own.

Sometimes it’s worth sitting down with a good graph pad and the right tools and drawing your map by hand, but for those of us who prefer to use digital mediums for whatever reason there are plenty of programs to choose from to help create beautiful and functional maps.

My personal preference in terms of flexibility and options is Photoshop, and that’s what I used to create the continent of my world pictured above. I find Photoshop gives me the customization I’m looking for. There are plenty of talented artists regularly creating cartography brushes of everything from mountain ridges to cities. Plus, I used a number of the programs in the Adobe Creative Suite at University, so I’m familiar with the user interface.

But Photoshop isn’t the only program that allows you to create some detailed and interesting maps, and if you feel intimidated working with software like this, there are other programs out there specifically for map building which are pretty simple to use.

The first thumbnail is a simple battle map created using AnaMap. It’s a freeware browser based map building program, but it offers a fair amount of flexibility for something created on a flash webpage, and is very user friendly.

Fractal Mapper is now up to version 8, and has plenty of customization options to create anything from a world map on a real globe, to a detailed dungeon map to use in a tabletop campaign. That’s a really basic island chain I whipped up using the trial version, the interface was intuitive and simple enough but the full version obviously gives you access to many more assets and other options for customizing your creation.

Our final thumbnail was made using Roll20, they have an in-built map creation tool which can help you create detailed and accurate maps of all kinds. This one is another map from Tinker Tabletop’s Jay, created for their Adejager sessions. As you can see, it’s a pretty detailed (and relatively accurate) depiction of the Black Forest region of Germany and was created using some of Roll20‘s paid assets.

Dundjinni, which was used to make Jay’s train map above, is a fantastic option which allows you to quickly create professional looking maps for tabletop, even with the free assets and the trial version. However, I personally found this program a bit limiting for the purpose of creating world maps.

All of the above programs require a little less experience with graphic design software, like Photoshop. But, if you do have some experience with design software, you don’t need to fork out for the Adobe Creative Suite. You can find the same usability in programs like Photoshop Elements, PaintTool SaiGIMP and Inkscape.

Talented artist, and Tinker Tabletop Player, Darby created the following series of maps using some of these tools.

Her first two maps are of a fictional world of her own creation, Aldis, and were created with Photoshop Elements. The final map was made for the regular Call of Cthulhu Campaign run on Tinker Tabletop by Tyler, and was created using PaintTool Sai.

Photoshop Elements and PaintTool Sai are a cheaper option than the cost of the full Adobe CS, but GIMP and Inkscape are both completely free! Although their interfaces are a little different, a graphic designer or digital artist with some experience will find they have a similar level of functionality and flexibility, to paid versions of similar programs.

More resources

If you’re looking for a quick continent to customize it’s worth checking out the GM World Map, Terra Incognito, which is free for anyone to use.

For more tips and tricks check out the resources and advice available at The Cartographers Guild

The /r/worldbuilding subreddit also provides a wealth of inspiration and knowledge for would-be world builders and map-makers like ourselves, and are definitely worth the sub if you happen to be a reddit user.

And of course, don’t forget to checkout Tinker Tabletop on twitch, or check out Darby’s art page, for plenty of gaming, character creation and world-building fun!