Designing Maps

How to make beautiful and compelling maps for your games

Designing Fantasy Blueprint Maps

Wherein I teach the basics of designing blueprint fantasy maps.

Overhead blueprint maps are one of the oldest staples of table top gaming. Everyone who has ever played Dungeons & Dragons has probably sketched one out in their lifetime.

For this article, I’m going to create a small shrine with a crypt that has been dug into a cliff side. The shrine needs an ante-chamber, the shrine room itself, a crypt room, and a small room to house the shrine’s caretakers (who have long since abandoned the place), and a well. We’ll include a secret treasure room as well.


Sizing Strategies

Since blueprint maps are designed for use by Gamemasters, they usually aren’t printed out at high resolutions or on large stock. You’ll find that your home laser printer is going to be your weapon of choice. In this case, you’ll nearly always want to create maps on a canvas of 8.5 inches by 11 inches, at 300dpi.

If your dungeon won’t fit in that area, or it has multiple levels, you have a couple of options: you can resize your scaling grid down, or you can use multiple pages. You don’t need multiple documents; just create each level of the dungeon in its own layer group (for structure) and with its own layer comp (for display).

If you’re going to be all fancy and do a lot of painting, you may want your maps printed professionally. If so, I still recommend printing them at 8.5×11.

For this article, I’m going to be using smaller canvases to make things easier for example visualizations.

Visual Style

You should decide on the visual style that you want to use for your blueprint maps. Your style will fall along a spectrum between classical style and a painterly style. This will affect how things are constructed.

Painted maps are going to end up in pixels. They almost always require that you have access to a pen tablet. Classic maps are vectors and can be drawn entirely with Shape tools. Somewhere in the middle lies a medium where details and flair are added with pixels via brushes overtop a skeleton made of shapes.

If you’re not comfortable using pixels or drawing tools, just stick with vector shapes. The Pen tool is easy enough to use.

I don’t recommend using a painterly style for blueprint maps. The reason for this is two-fold:

  1. It’s much, much faster to stick with a simple blueprint style
  2. The audience is going to be one person: you.

Of course, if you’re building this map as part of a commercial product, you’ll want to make it look great, so painting may be on the table then. In general, though, if you find yourself wanting to apply excessive detail, just make a battlemap.

For this article, I’m going to work in shapes.

Simple Style
Simple Style
Classic Style Overhead
Classic Style
Overhead Example
Painted Style

Color, Black and White, or Greyscale

You have the option to go straight black and white (everything is either #ffffff or #000000), using multiple greys (anything between those two), or color (any color).

The use of excessive color in blueprint maps is discouraged. These maps are not intended as works of art and they typically have an audience of one person: the Gamemaster. If you decide to use color (for instance, if you want to use the “classic” blue style), you should still treat the map as if it were greyscale.

Black and white prints easiest. Greyscale looks best.

Font Choices

Since blueprint maps favor readability over visual style, you’ll want to stick with a single simple, sans-serif font (say that three times fast). The “classic” fonts are Helvetica, Futura Book,
and Century Gothic.

Scaling Grid

Scaling grids in blueprint maps can work slightly differently than with other maps. Blueprint maps often have two versions of the same grid: interior and exterior. Both grids match (have the same 0,0 point) but can have different visual treatments.

The interior grid is going to be one that shows up inside of the rooms proper. The exterior grid will be one that applies to the “negative space” (which may or may not be real space). Depending on your design, either one may be more or less visible. These grids will be applied with layer styles, both in the background (the exterior grid) and also on each room (the interior grid).

Blueprint maps use a square grid. Unlike other map styles, the base scaling grid is placed at the bottom of the layer stack, above any background layer, but below all other layers (this is the “exterior” grid). You will be drawing on “top” of this grid.

You should size your grid according to what suits your game and style. Dungeon maps are usually either 5 feet or 10 feet to the square.

Note that it is also possible to create additional sub-grids of larger scale for context.

Shapes vs. Pixels

The choice to work on blueprint maps in shapes or with pixels is going to be one of personal preference and the ultimate style of the map you want to produce. “Classic” style dungeon maps naturally lend themselves to vector drawings.

My recommendation is to work in shapes as much as possible, even if you’re ultimately intending on a more visual map. The reason is that you can always turn shape layers into pixel layers easily, but doing the inverse (a technique described in Designing Fantasy City Maps) is complicated and results in a loss of edge variation (but a gain in edge sharpness and fidelity).

If your map is a “natural” dungeon (e.g., a cavern), then using the Free Form Pen tool will help create more organic shapes. You can also just block in areas crudely with the Pen tool and then convert them to pixels later for finishing.

Design Steps

  1. Initial Set Up
  2. Set the Grid
  3. Create a Templates Folder
  4. Draw Floors
  5. Draw Walls
  6. Draw Doors
  7. Draw Stairs
  8. Draw Pits, Traps and Other Details
  9. Draw Additional Levels
  10. Add Title and Legend
  11. Styling
  12. Finalization

Initial Set Up

Create a new document of your selected size and resolution. The background layer is white; rename it to “Base” and change its color (with the Paint Bucket tool) to something off-white or even grey, say #dddddd or #999999). This is so that you can have your room floors be visible until you can add walls.

Turn on Photoshop’s grid (<command>’). You’ll be switching it on and off constantly.

Set the Grid

Step 1: Base Grid
Step 1: Base Grid

Apply a square grid pattern to your Base layer. This will be your exterior or negative space grid. You’ll use this grid as your markers when drawing the rest of the map. You’ll want it to be visible right now but not overpowering (lower the pattern overlay’s opacity). If you use a dark grey background you’ll probably need to change the blending mode of the pattern as well.

Do not check “Link with layer”. You want this grid to be set with 0,0 in the document’s 0,0 spot.

In this case I’ve chosen to use “Square – 50px”, so that one 5 foot square equates to 50 pixels on the map.

Create a Templates Folder

You’re going to be doing a lot of duplication of layers. You’re also going to want to have a single go-to place to pull styles. You’re going to make templates for doors, secret doors, windows, stairs, furniture blobs, you name it. Many of these things will be smart objects.

Create a layer group at the top of your layer stack called “Templates”. Keep this at the top of the layer stack. Turn its visibility on or off as you want.

Step 2: Dungeon Room Template
Step 2: Dungeon Room Template

Now you want to do draw a “template” room. This is a room that you will set some layer styles on and can then copy and paste them as you go. You’ll also set an initial style of on the shape to display a grid that you can see (otherwise it’s going to be a white shape).

How to Create a Template Room
  1. Set your paint color to something light but different from your background color (#ffffff).
  2. Select the Rectangle tool.
  3. Create a new layer inside of the Templates layer group and call it “Room Template”.
  4. In an out-of-the-way corner of your canvas, draw a rectangle inside of the Room Template layer. Make it a decent size (at least 3 squares in either direction).
  5. You want to apply the grid here. Copy the layer style from your Base layer and paste the layer style onto Room Template. This is an interior grid. The grid should appear and match with the exterior grid.
  6. Adjust the opacity of the pattern overlay as you see fit.

Draw the Floors

Step 3: Dungeon Floors
Step 3: Dungeon Floors

Got your Template Room sorted? Great. Now you’re going to draw the Floors of your dungeon. Just think about where people are going to step. Don’t worry about elevation changes, doors, or stairways yet. You will do this with one of the Shape tools or preferably the Pen tool and probably in multiple layers, so you’ll want to make every room a layer within a layer group called “Rooms”. Apply the layer style from Room Template to the Rooms layer group.

How to Set Up the Rooms layer group
  1. Create a new layer group above the Base Layer called “Rooms”.
  2. Copy the layer style from the Room Template layer.
  3. Paste the layer style onto the Rooms layer group.

Now draw each of your rooms with shape tools or the pen. You should think of each room or corridor as a “segment” that you can move around as needed, so make sure each segment is on its own layer. Name these layers as you wish, but try to be descriptive (e.g., “main temple”, “antechamber”, etc.). Don’t forget to draw the outside, if there is one!

Butt each segment up against each other so that they connect and form a unified shape.

How to Draw and Place Rooms
  1. Create a new layer inside of the Rooms layer group, naming it something descriptive.
  2. Set your paint color to something light but different from your background color (#ffffff).
  3. Select the Rectangle tool, Pen tool, or any other shape tool.
  4. Draw the room in the layer.
  5. Make sure the layer butts up against the other rooms, forming a connected shape.

Since the layer style is applied to the Rooms group, each layer inside of it automatically gets the grid.

You should now have a basic layout. All of the rooms are on their own layers, though. If you’re a gambler, and you like to live on the edge, feel free to merge all those into a single shape (don’t forget to merge shape components) but I wouldn’t recommend that. You may find that you need to alter the layout as you go.

Draw the Walls

When you’re happy with the layout of your dungeon its time to add walls to it. There are three main strategies you can use for this but they really only vary in degrees of tedious-ness in application.

Approach One: Let the Background Speak

Step 4a: Background Walls
Step 4a: Background Walls

This method is terribly simple. Just let the background color serve as your walls. This has the benefit of being really quick to implement but it has a drawback in that unless you left gaps in your floor shapes, all of your walls and doorways are going to be really thick (e.g., 5 foot doorways). Don’t worry! I’ve got a solution for this which will be explained later.

This method works best for things that are completely surrounded by stone or earth. Maps of structures (like a castle or an inn) don’t cotton to this method well. This also uses a lot of ink when printing.

How to Use the Map Background as Walls
  1. Set your paint color to a dark color (#222222).
  2. Select your Base layer.
  3. Select the Paint Bucket tool.
  4. Click anywhere on the canvas.
  5. Edit the layer style of the Base layer and change the pattern overlay’s blending mode to Screen at 50% opacity.

Approach Two: Using Strokes

Step 4b: Stroked Walls
Step 4b: Stroked Walls

You can fake walls using strokes. This has the advantage of being quick and appearing more realistic, but you can find that your walls don’t meet where you want them too. This, too, has the problem of door position fidelity, but I’ve got a solution for that, which I’ll explain later.

This is my preferred method, mostly because of its speed.

How to Use Strokes as Walls
  1. Edit the layer styles on the Rooms layer group.
  2. Add a stroke: 2 to 4 pixels in a dark color (#222222) at 100% opacity in Normal mode. You can choose center, inside, or outside; I’m using center here.

Approach Three: Drawing Walls with a Pen

The most tedious method of drawing walls provides the highest fidelity. I don’t overly recommend using this method because it’s terribly, terribly slow and requires a lot of patience. However, this method gives you a great deal of control over the styles you can apply to the walls (such as those used when creating battlemaps.

Step 4c: Shape Walls
Step 4c: Shape Walls

You’re going to draw the shape of your walls with the Pen tool.

How to Draw Walls with the Pen Tool
You’re not stupid, though, so you’re going to start with a resize trick. I’ll assume that your rooms are all in separate layers inside of the Rooms group.
  1. Duplicate the Rooms group.
  2. Select all of your room layers.
  3. Right click on the Layers panel and select “Merge Shapes”. Don’t forget to “Merge Shape Components!” You’ll now have a single layer.
  4. Pull this layer out of the copy of the Rooms group and name it “Floor”.
  5. Duplicate the Floor layer twice. Name one of them “Walls”. Your stack should be, top to bottom: Floor, Floor copy, Walls.
  6. Set the color of Walls to something dark (#222222).
  7. Switch to the Direct Selection tool (the white arrow).
  8. Working in the Walls layer, select each anchor point and nudge it away from the floor by 4 pixels or so. You want to create a dark outline around everything.
    • You can select multiple anchors at once (like through a corridor).
    • Curved surfaces are tricky so you’ll probably have to play around with the bezier handles.
    • If your floor goes to the edge of the map, ensure that the walls anchors are go off the map.
  9. Once that’s done, select both the Walls layer and the middle layer (Floor copy).
  10. Go Layer -> Combine Shapes -> Subtract Front Shape
  11. Rename Floor copy to Walls (guh, Photoshop, really?).
  12. Set the color of your new Walls layer to a dark color AGAIN (#222222).
  13. Using the Pen tool, create new layers that draw interior walls and bits (doorways, etc.)
  14. Merge all interior wall layers and the original Walls layer, setting the color and name AGAIN.

So. Tedious. But you’ve got your walls now.

Draw Doors

Doors are important! You’re not making a battlemap, so you really only need an indicator of where the door is. However, there is a lot of detail that you can show in the iconography of a door simply by changing its shape or fill.

For each type of door you have in your dungeon, you will want to create a template. Remember that Templates folder? Here’s where it really starts to shine. Make several layers and layer groups within, designing the types of doors you will have.

Example Door Icons
Example Door Icons

Common door types are:

  • Normal wooden doors (just a square)
  • Iron doors (a square with an interior stroke set)
  • Secret doors (a square with an “S” set in it, or just an S)
  • Locked Doors (one of the other door types with a lock symbol)
How to Make a Door Template
For each type of door, you’re going to make a template object. Start with a “simple” door and then clone that for changes.
  1. Create a new layer group inside of the Templates group for your door. This will be in several layers. Name the group “Simple Door” (or whatever kind of door it will become).
  2. Set your paint color to white (#ffffff).
  3. Create a new layer inside of the Simple Door layer and call it “Door”.
  4. Using the Rectangle tool, draw a door shape, about 3 feet across.
  5. Add a stroke to the Door layer: 2 pixels, inside, color #222222.
  6. Create a new layer inside of Simple Door below Door and call it “Wall One”.
  7. Set your paint color to the same as your walls (#222222).
  8. Using the Rectangle tool, draw a wall to the left of the door, as thick as your walls are.
  9. Duplicate the Wall One layer as “Wall Two” and nudge it over to the right side of the door.
  10. Make sure that the door fits inside your corridors and the door holes, filling it edge to edge.
  11. For other door types, duplicate Simple Door and modify it as needed to create additional templates.
Step 5: Add Doors
Step 5: Add Doors

It’s your choice as to whether or not to turn these into smart objects. I recommend not; if you clone the layer groups, you can modify the wall edges later if you need to when placing them.

Once you’ve got your door templates created, it will be time to place them in the map.

How to Place Doors
  1. Create a new layer group above the Walls layer named “Doors”.
  2. For each door on your map:
    1. Clone a copy of the appropriate door type from your Templates folder.
    2. Pull this layer into the “Doors” layer group.
    3. Rename it something useful, like “antechamber door” or “crypt door” or whatever makes sense.
    4. Drag it into place and rotate it to match and fit.
    5. You may need to extend the edges to match in some places.

Draw Stairs

If your map has stairs, you’ll want to add them as well. Like doors, you’ll be creating stair templates. Stairs are easy to draw; the most difficult part is the tedium that comes from making the “step” lines.

Example Stais
Example Stairs

Stairs on blueprint maps usually have an indicator as to the direction the stairs run. There is a “bottom” and a “top” of a stairwell. There are several ways to indicate this:

  • With a triangle shape. The “fat” part of the triangle indicates the top of the stairs.
  • With an arrow. The arrow points “up wards”.
  • With a “u” character placed at the top of the stairs and a “d” character placed at the bottom
  • Multiple combinations thereof

If your stairs are shorter than 2 squares, you’ll have to cut them down when you place them, which is why I don’t recommend turning these into smart objects.

How to Make a Simple Stairwell
There’s a lot of layer cloning in this.
  1. Create a new layer group inside of your Templates group called “Stairwell”.
  2. Set your paint color to something dark but not as dark as your wall color (#444444 works)
  3. Create a new layer inside of Stairwell called “Step”
  4. Inside of the Step layer, use the Rectangle tool to draw a rectangle that is 2 pixels wide and as tall as an entire square (note that depending on your scale, you may want these to only be 1 pixel wide, or possibly wider).
  5. Now you’re going to clone this layer many times and then move each copy so that they are spaced out evenly (3 pixels space between). You want to fill two squares worth of stairs.
  6. Merge all of those Step shapes together and call the new layer “Steps Full”.
  7. Create a new layer below Steps Full and call it “Direction Marker”.
  8. Set your paint color to something much lighter (#999999).
  9. In the Direction Marker layer, use the Pen tool to draw an elongated triangle inside of the two square area. The sharpest point is going to be at the bottom, but that doesn’t matter in a template.
Step 6: Add Stairs
Step 6: Add Stairs

You can get much more complex or fancy with your stairwell designs. Add shapes, play with opacity values, duplicate things. The important thing here it to make sure it’s easily readable on the map.

Once you’ve got your templates, clone and drag them into place. Cut them down if you have to (if the stairwell is less than 2 squares) and double them up if need be (the stairwell is wider than 2 squares, or longer than 2, etc.).

How to Place Stairs
  1. Create a new layer group above the Rooms layer named “Stairwells”.
  2. For each stairwell on your map:
    1. Clone a copy of the appropriate stairwell type from your Templates folder.
    2. Pull this layer into the “Stairwells” layer group.
    3. Rename it something useful, like “south corridor stairs” or “crypt stairs” or whatever makes sense.
    4. Drag it into place and rotate it to match and fit.
    5. You may need to double it up or reduce it in size in places.

Draw Pits, Traps and Other Details

Now is the time to draw and add in other details. For unique items, it’s probably okay to skip making a template, but for things that appear multiple times you’ll want to make one.

Step 7: Add Extras
Step 7: Add Extras

For my little shrine, I’m going to need:

  • A well, which is just a circle shape (color #555555, with multiple exterior strokes to draw the edges).
  • Several statues for the antechamber, which are stroked circles surrounding star shapes.
  • Several sarcophagi, which are going to be stroked rounded rectangles inside of stroked rectangles.
  • The shrine itself, which is just a set of platform shapes with strokes on them.
  • A small pit trap in the crypt chamber, which is a square shape with no fill and a dashed stroke shape attribute.

Draw and place these objects as needed. There isn’t a great need to get too detailed. Excessive detail is the enemy. You want just enough of a sketch to serve as a reminder to the Gamemaster about where things are.

Draw Additional Levels

If your structure or dungeon has additional levels beyond the main one, add them in as well. Ideally you can fit multiple levels of a place on a single canvas.

If you can’t fit everything into the single canvas, start putting each level into its own layer group and use layer comps to switch between them. You can probably re-use common layers, like the Base layer.

The process for adding additional layers is the same loop as above, except that you’ve already created all your templates. Haven’t you?

Add Title and Legend

Add your title in a decent, readable font. It can be anywhere on the page. Include a simple scale mark.

Step 8: Add Labels and Legend
Step 8: Add Labels and Legend

Aren’t you glad you made a Templates layer? Use that to construct your legend. You’ll probably have to make individual text layers for the legend labels in order to get them to line up properly.

Also remember to add in any room labels or numbers. These should be placed where they are readable, ideally in the center of the room. If there’s an object in the center (say, a pit), offset it to the top, right or left as much as you can where the label does not blend in with other objects.


Classic Style Filter
Classic Style Filter

With most blueprint maps, you won’t be doing much styling beyond that used in the construction of the map (strokes and grid patterns). If you like, you can add some outer glows around things but honestly too much styling becomes what Edward Tufte calls chart junk: extra details that do not serve to provide information but instead muddy things.

Before applying any style effect, ask yourself “does this provide information?” If the answer is no, it’s probably best not to use it.

If you want to give your map the “classic” style colorization, you can easily do so.

How to Duplicate the Classic Blue Style
  1. Set the color of your Base layer to #18769d with the Paint Bucket tool.
  2. Create a new layer group called “Everything” and put all your layers and layer groups into it.
  3. Edit the layer styles for the Everything group and add a Color Overlay, color of #18769d, a blend mode of Color and 100% opacity.
  4. You may want to darken or lighten some of your shape colors to adjust.


Blueprint map finalization is pretty straight forward: there isn’t anything special you need to do to finalize these beyond making sure your Templates group is no longer visible (and it shouldn’t be). Just go and print it.

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