Maps are among the best props you can add to a fantasy game. They provide perspective. When your players look at a map, instead of trying to puzzle out your spoken directions—or simply tuning you out until they hear the words “at the dungeon entrance”—they can see for themselves what’s where and make meaningful decisions about where to go next.
Of course, not all of us have the proper artistic skills to create a good map. If, like me, you can barely draw a recognizable stick figure, you’ll need some help to make maps that will wow your players.
Obviously, one route is to get your maps from somewhere else. You can buy them, find them for free online or cajole a talented friend to draw one for you. The upside is that you’ll get a better product than you could turn out on your own. The downside is that you don’t have much control over the final product!
One great way to put a map together is to design it with a computer graphics program. I’ve been using Adobe Illustrator for this purpose. It’s especially useful because it relies on vector graphics. Instead of creating an image composed of specific pixels, you’ll create a skeleton of shapes that you can apply colors and textures to at your leisure. This means that if you don’t get something quite right, you don’t have to redo it from scratch; you can simply alter the curves of the lines or apply new textures until it looks the way you want.
My map of Glantri took about two hours to make, but most of that time was spent futzing about with fonts and trying to come up with a good way to draw mountains; the map proper came together in less than an hour. The textured background came off a disk that a co-worker lent me, but a quick web search should turn up any number of free textures online. The mountains are just strokes with an angled calligraphic brush. A rough art brush provided the forest borders, while a smoother art brush made the rivers.
The best part is that at no point did pen or pencil touch paper! Illustrator’s brush tool turns even the jerkiest movements of the mouse into smooth strokes, allowing even a clumsy fellow like me to “draw” clean, smooth lines. And there’s no need to scan the map into the computer, as it was on the computer to start with, where it can be modified, copied and mailed endlessly with no effort and no degradation of the image.
It doesn’t hold a candle to professional efforts, of course. But who’d expect it to? As long as the players like it, nothing else matters.