Cartography: A Powerful GM Tool


As a ten-year veteran of game mastering, I have played within several different worlds. Although many GMs are satisfied to leave the creation of these worlds to the module and box set writers, I have never been one of them. I feel even with the marvelous amount of detail that goes into these sets, I can never fully envision the cities, sewers and houses and general locales that greet the characters when they roam a game world.

As a ten-year veteran of game mastering, I have played within several different worlds. Although many GMs are satisfied to leave the creation of these worlds to the module and box set writers, I have never been one of them. I feel even with the marvelous amount of detail that goes into these sets, I can never fully envision the cities, sewers and houses and general locales that greet the characters when they roam a game world.

I use several worlds which have great amounts of physics and cosmology already written. I am content to use these philosophies as they form the fiber of the game. After all, to play Shadowrun without magic would seem pointless when Cyberpunk 2020 or a blank slate GURPS Gibson near-future would serve, and with a much less complicated rule set. In certain games, the setting is the game. Even in these cases, the specific buildings and streets require the GM to dream up the details.

In modern-setting games, like Shadowrun and White Wolf's World of Darkness, it's easy enough to fake it. GMs can simply imagine a store, home, bar or university they've visited to get a clear idea of the dimensions and materials of every wall. They can even get blueprints or floor plans to use for spatial representation. However, when dealing with more fantastic atmospheres, it can be rewarding for a GM and the players for the GM to actually map out the cities and locales he will be using.

Experienced GMs may find this article a little obvious, but I've found pulling out the sketched maps of each city the characters enter shows great appreciation in the players' faces. And isn't that what we're all after, anyway? One of the things experienced GMs sometimes forget is "the little things" bring the players into your game. Mood music, lighting, and props are easy tools to keep your players interested and on-task.

The number one rule I follow is to not draw my maps, particularly of cities, on graph paper, hex or otherwise. When you start this way, you limit your creativity considerably. Instead, draw the city as an aerial view, without trying to fit it into a certain unit structure. When you break the habit of molding your cities, you'll find two benefits: your maps will seem more realistic, and your players won't assume you're breaking into a tactical exercise when you try to show them a basic layout of what their character sees.

If you do eventually need to hex out your map for use with miniatures, you'll find it goes very easily when you've already got the major mapping done. You can map cut-away portions with frightening speed having acquainted yourself fully with your world, by building it yourself.

Maps also lend to your believability with NPC's. When you're drawing every street and back alley, your mind will run wild with the subplots and people who populate them. Then, when your characters turn that fateful corner, you can spring a well-planned trap or ambush on them without having to consult the dreaded random encounter chart.

I still map the old-fashioned way, with paper and pencil. But recently I have come across a truly immersive mapping system that inspires me and keeps me from getting too unrealistic in my fantasy settings. Neverwinter Nights, arguably the best CRPG in the last two years, has a DM toolset used for crafting campaigns within the game. Although you cannot print the 3D modeled scenarios, as a GM you can use a screen to map and keep track of the characters' progress and even set up encounters and dialog in advance. There's no rule saying you have to use the tool only for making computer-run D&D games.

Obviously, for games that cannot have a computer running simultaneously, this may pose a problem; to get a feel for a dungeon or city, it can still be a boon for visualization. The paper and pencil way still has that tangible quality however, and players will appreciate the ability to hold and examine a map the characters themselves might have purchased from a local.

Whatever way you do it, maps can only add to the fun of a game, and for most GMs, add to the fun of creating one. While I'm not the world's premiere cartographer, these tips have actually been partially contributed by my players, who wanted to encourage my map-making. With that in mind, thrill your players with a map the next time you get a chance. If it doesn't work, blame this article.


You make a good point in this article. I also note the appreciation my players show when i whip out a map of the town they live in, or a tavern they visit. For a good map reference, go to WotC's site, (shudder .... can't believe i just referenced that ... damn you WotC! damn you!) and check out the DnD section. They have a feature called Map-A-Week, and it's actually pretty helpful. I also agree ... going with paper and pencil on plain white computer paper is the way to go. May i suggest something else? When you make tea or coffee, pour what's left into a small cup. Take a brush and stroke it across your map. Let dry, and viola, you have an "aged, yellowed" map. A buddy of mine did that once, it was slick as dog piss. A little helpful hint from your favorite Japanese Demon, Oni.



For the record, and even though a Google search yielded no results[1], the phrase 'slick as dog piss' is an endearing term and is meant as something to be emulated whenever possible.

[1] Search phrase "slick as dog piss", with quotes.

Slick as dog piss, huh? I tried it in Google and didn't get anything. I even tried images with no results.
Oh well.
Thank you Salvatore for that bit of insight to add to my ever increasing pool of useless knowledge.

There's a tool called ProFantasy Campaign Cartographer 2. I've tried it just once, and couldn't really *use* it. But it looks good.

It can be used to make large world maps as well as dungeon levels.

Instead of Campaign Cartographer (pricey...) you might want to look at an OpenSource (read: "free" as in beer) alternative: AutoREALM ( Hand drawn maps still look better (especially if you "age" them with tea, burn it's edges, etc.), but if you want several maps with a consistent look & feel (like for your binder, etc.)... BTW, I'm not involved in it's development (Delphi is frankly not my language of choice), but I am currently developing a tool for exporting AutoREALM-Maps to SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics), which will allow anyone to use his maps from any computer with internet access without downloading/installing AutoREALM on all of them...

Just yesterday I printed out some of these excellent maps of Seattle someone customized for use with Shadowrun:


Yes. I love maps. If I can't visualize a campaign, then I can't enjoy it. Its just a bunch of thrown together dungeons. I believe that its the map that gives the player the freedom to move around and develop his character. Otherwise he's at the mercy of the GM who will manipulate him from one location to another.

In regards to your point about Using boxed campaigns. I agree that they can be useful. But In general I find their cosmology and politics cliched, stereotyped, and occasionally unconciously racist. So I generally amend these. Their city layouts I accept, inasmuch as they are provided.

Good sources for city layouts are:

1) modern road atlas. Look at any small village or hamlet, small town and the surrounding farms. They are equivalent in size to D&D villages, hamlets and towns. You can lift them direct, even use existing street names if provided.

2) old campaigns you have designed.

3) old campaigns you have bought.

4) free campaigns/dungeons you may have aquired through buying magazines or other sources.

good subject

Personally, I make extensive use of my AAA membership to get free maps and travel guides that are indispensible for and psudo-modern game. AAA also offers major discounts on DeLorma atlases that have some of the best topographic maps out there. The atlases are great even if you aren't running a game in the location. I have often taken them as random wilderness maps.

Maps are an important part of the game. They give the adventure depth and feel, especially if your group of adventurers is having to travel a lot from point A to point B and trying to provision for the journey. As for the out of the box games. It's easy enough to fit into your particular world simply by changing the names of the towns as well as the descriptions. I'm a firm believer in customization of the adventure. I see them as a starting point.

Maps...whether home-grown or pulled from a shelf product...seem to be invaluable.

A week ago, one of my player's blatantly stated that he could focus better on the game if he had something tangible to look at and work with. There's just something about a map that draws people in.

Sorry for the delayed response. Commenting wasn't working for some reason. Thanks for the feedback. Luckily, you all covered the things that I was going to post as a followup, after re-reading the article.

I am a relatively unexperienced GM. (I am still in my first campaign, which somehow actually ended up with two different groups working for the same goals generally, but are in two different parts of the game world and are unaware of each other or the assistance or hinderance they provide for eachother).

Anyway, I have never made a map, and I thought it was no big deal. Then I read this article, and I am like, WOW, I ought to make one.

But then, I realize, wait, I have no idea how, cuz this is overwhelming. So, I was wondering if you had any tips to make map making easier and less overwhelming (or maybe just a starting point)


Hi, there are lots of tips already in this article. Here are my suggestions to get you started.

(1) Do a local map first, rather than try to design the whole world in one go.

(2) Decide the local culture, names , place names, races, monsters, rulers.

(3) place towns villages lairs on the map. Remember some simple rules for placement:
(a) towns require water hence close to rivers.
(b) in dangerous areas a town/ village should be in a defensible position eg on a hill, on an island in the river etc and maybe have a wall.
(c) lairs are often concealed and in inaccessible places

(4) write down a short history of the area, mentioning current status and who is in charge of what.

(5) decide where characters start off. I suggest the major town. Then flesh this out in more detail with a town plan, ruler, factions, powers.

(6) design and play your adventures. I suggest put the first few in the starting town, then let the players dictate and follow their ideas.

Thats how I do it