Updated: Aug 12
This is the master guide (with multiple links to related reading and guides for each step) for creating your own map from scratch, this can also be applied to anyone working in a program but If you are looking to get into the art of cartography then look no further, this guide is going to answer one simple question: How do I create a fantasy world or region map from scratch?
Currently, I have decided (after a little poll on discord) to release each guide one at a time, any names in RED will be a future guide on a subject!
I get asked this question all of the time and it’s a really simple question! I know tons of people that want to make their own maps and so this guide/article is going to be an in-depth look at the steps you can take from the beginning of conceptually thinking about mapmaking to drawing the mountains and rivers and finally finishing the map itself!
Firstly, before we start getting into any details, you need to understand that creating a map from scratch can be both extremely simple and very complicated at the same time. Sure, you can throw some beans on a bit of paper to make a basic map, with some nice random lines for the coastlines and draw some mountains and forests in random places. But that’s surface-level mapmaking lacking any true understanding of the process. Making a map from scratch is a little bit like making an entire fictional world from nothing and that is of course a daunting and challenging concept. If you want to make a map with more details, interesting concepts and more accuracy, there are a ton of subjects to consider, think carefully about and then act upon in deliberate ways. Below are just a few of the subjects you should read about before continuing.
Thankfully, I’ve written out separate little guides for all of them, each one has further links to other articles and information as well, so just click on each and have a read-through to bring yourself up to speed. Remember, you don’t need to be an expert in any of these subjects! Making Things Up
The information in the above links will help guide you through some steps and makes things much easier but you are of course more than welcome to break the rules and make things up, or change things around so that they match your imagination. It’s perfectly okay to make something up and say “it’s magic!” (That is all part of making a fantasy/fictional world) but understanding what rules and systems you have broken can make your maps more believable and easier for people to grasp. This idea is actually called “fictional consistency” when instead of just making everything up, you pick bits and pieces and apply your own rules and systems to them. If you decide that your map is going to have wacky and weird geography, maybe some awesome gigantic crystals mountains you then need to come up with a reason for that. They might have been created by a magical cataclysm, or as a result of natural processes that infused them with magic. Whatever the reason is, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Let’s say for example that you have come up with a world setting and a magic system that only affects the humans in your world, giving them the ability to move objects with their minds with great effort (like the force from Star Wars). Then, when drawing a map you decide it would be cool to have floating islands that hang in the sky. Now that’s fine, except it breaks your setting and magic system rules. You can easily fix this by going back and rewriting your magic system to say that the “force” is capable of being generated by planets as well, which can cause gravity to change dramatically in places.
Be careful when going back and rewriting things or changing things in fictional settings and maps and try to do such these very early on if you do decide to change things around. Otherwise, you will start creating retcons and issues with your fictional consistency that becomes unmanageable and your worlds be far less believable and relatable.
It’s also important to remember that just because something happens on earth doesn’t mean it will happen in a fantasy world. You don't need to add realistic ocean currents or tectonic plates to every fantasy map that you make. Knowing exactly how a system works and using that in a map might not necessarily make the map better and being aware of every little detail in the above subjects might not necessarily make you a better mapmaker. But it can help you break things on purpose to make better maps.
Historical Mapmaking Before we go any further we also need to talk about maps from a historical standpoint and how they were typically made. A cartographer was not necessarily somebody that created a functional chart or map for navigation (although of course, some were!) and many maps in history were made for artistic purposes to show the general landmass or area. These maps were also horrifically biased, making supposedly important places larger and less important or unknown areas smaller. Many ancient cartographers would also make things up about the areas that the barbarians or enemies came from, inputting made-up monsters, making the areas look more barren or dull and it would often be used as a form of propaganda.
Historical cartographers would also very rarely travel and map out areas themselves, they would in most cases take data and information from ship captains, traders and travelers, analyze that data and then draw out a map based on what they thought the world or region looked like. This would of course make very inaccurate maps and ancient maps didn’t really look anything like the satellite maps we have today.
You should always try to think about this when creating a map for a fantasy or fictional world as well, as you could easily draw the map, not from a satellite viewpoint (perfect accuracy everywhere) but from the perspective of someone living in your world. That means you can add a ton of missing parts or blank areas, exaggerated details, made-up phrases and symbols. This is a purposeful twisting of the worlds knowledge, that can make your world uniquely special and yours. If you want a waterfall going up a cliff, go for it, or a river flowing from the sea into a lake (which pretty much never happens on earth) go for it, but understanding these decisions and working out that they are fictional, made just for your world is a very important step towards making good maps.
So let's talk about a few of the practical things that you can do if you want to start making from scratch the first thing you can obviously do and you really should do is do some research you should look at the map makers you should study the styles that you want to try and emulate. There are tons of styles out there that you can try to copy and make your own, from top-down to perspective, old school line is drawn, fully coloured and conceptual but the purpose of this guide is not to go over all of them in detail.
Just make sure you find yourself comfortable and inspired to draw in that style, put together a folder/save somewhere the artwork you have found to look at later for reference and ideas.
Now that you have some references and knowledge behind your mapmaking we are going to talk about actually sitting down with the tools in front of you to start drawing your map. There are two major ways of looking at mapmaking these days, and the tools that you use to create your maps will either be Digital or Physical.