Designing Maps

How to make beautiful and compelling maps for your games

Designing Fantasy City Maps

Wherein I teach you how to design and make maps for cities in fantasy settings.

Creating a believable city requires thought and planning. Cities grow organically and that history should show in the map. Cities also require infrastructure: Where is the water supply? Where are the sewers? How is food obtained? What are the city’s defenses? What kind of government runs the place?

These are basic questions you will need to have answered.

City and town scale maps are created very similarly to other outdoors maps. Make sure you’ve read Fantasy Map Design Basics and Designing Fantasy Outdoors Maps before diving in here because, like my father, I don’t like repeating myself.


Scaling Grid

With most outdoors maps, you want to use hexagons for your Scaling Grid. This idea holds true when creating city-scale maps as well.

A Coordinate Grid
A Coordinate Grid

However, it is sometimes desirable to use a square scaling grid and do cross-section coordinates. Many atlases use this method. If you do so, along the top (or bottom, or both) you should label each column with a letter (A, B, C, etc.) and along the side (left or right, or both) label each row with a number (1, 2, 3, etc.). This will provide a coordinate system: any one square can be identified with its letter and number (e.g., square B4, or square C9).

Whatever you select, you’ll want to have a single grid point to be equal to about 1/10th of a mile. Any tighter than that and your map may lose its value, or you’ll find yourself making a blueprint or a battlemap. I highly recommend using a dual-grid strategy (where you have a grid where 1 hex equals 1 mile, and another where 1 hex equals 1/10th of a mile).

Basic City Design

You need to know a lot about your city before you can begin to lay pen to paper, I’m afraid. There are a handful of things you need to know before beginning, and I’m going to go over them now, and then tell you how to include them in the map later.

  • What is the terrain like around the settlement?
  • Does the settlement have walls?
  • What are the important buildings in the settlement?
  • Where does the settlement obtain fresh water?
  • Where does the settlement obtain food and other resources?
  • What are other industries that the settlement engages in?
  • Does the city have districts or wards

What is the Terrain?

Most cities are not built on flat, featureless land. Rome is famously built on “Seven Hills”, for instance, and Florence’s biggest feature is the River Arno. You should have an idea – at least a sketch – of the highlands and lowlands as this defines the flavor of those parts of the city. Cities have rivers and streams and the knowing where the highlands are will help you know how the water flows.

The city’s terrain also helps you know where the city’s districts and wards are going to be.

Highland areas are going to be more residential in nature. The highest hills will be claimed by defensive structures (watch towers and forts) or by the super rich (palaces and estates). Generally: the higher up you live, the richer you are. Since it is difficult to bring heavy goods up hill, they will rarely be locations of commerce.

Lowland areas are going to be working districts. Your bazaars will be in lowland areas, as will your docks and warehouses. Poor residential areas will located here as well.

If your city has a river, be aware of its flood plane, if it has one. Larger cities will have built up walls around the river to prevent flooding, but smaller ones will not have. People do not often reside in flood planes and those that do are generally the poorest to be found. Knowing what your fresh water sources are is super-important, period, as you will see below.

Do not make the mistake of assuming primitive engineering. Humans have known how to move and control rivers for a long, long time. It’s backbreaking work but it can be (and was) done – especially if the government has a supply of slaves and peasants.

Are there Walls?

A common question with regards to cities is whether or not there are walls. Not all cities will have walls and those that do are generally larger and require defenses.

Walls are great defenses and are much desired but they are expensive to build, maintain, and man. Walls will only exist with larger cities – those that have both the economy to support them and the need for the defensive capabilities they provide. A reasonable population requirement is around 4,000 inhabitants before the wall becomes economically viable.

Older cities may have multiple sets of walls, radiating outwards, added as the city grew organically. City walls rarely if ever surrounded local farmland. The largest of cities will have whole wards and regions of growth outside of the walls, along the roads inward.

You may want to hold off adding city walls until you’ve figured out where your important buildings are (see below), but you want to have them in place before you start adding lots of buildings.

What are the Important Buildings?

Before you lay down roads you have to know where the important buildings are. These locations (along with the terrain) will drive how the roads are laid out. These buildings define the center of a ward or region, and the important ones will have larger roads to access them.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of important building types. Some of them (mills, for instance) will be more important to call out in smaller villages, while others will only exist in a larger metropolis.

  • Palaces
  • Forts, especially star-shaped Bastion Forts
  • Major Temples
  • Colleges
  • Government Buildings
  • Military Barracks
  • Embassies
  • Prisons
  • Large Monuments
  • Large Estates
  • Banks
  • Shopping and Trading Bazaars
  • Town Halls or Town Squares (for small villages)
  • Shrines (for small villages)
  • Mills (for small villages)

If your city’s government is democratic or republic, there will be a town hall or a government capitol. Is the city run by a king or dictator? They’ll have a palace or a gigantic mansion – and likely a large acreage of land associated with it, filled with gardens, mazes, and even private hunting forests.

All cities of size will have a police force. They need to have a home – probably several. Does your world have hospitals? Are there more than one? Where are they? Is there a kindly wizard who protects the place but is hermit-like? She’s got to have a tower somewhere.

Where’s the Food?

People have to eat. Most of the food will come from nearby farms, but settlements of any size will have a greater variety of food sources, including hunting, fishing, trading, raising sheep and cattle, and so forth.

Food production requires a lot of real estate. Most of that real estate is going to be located outside of your city proper, and whether or not you want to include it in your map is up to you – but you have to know where it comes from.

Where is the Water?

A settlement of any size requires a dependable supply of fresh water – even (and especially) if it lies on a coast. Sea water is poisonous to humans (and probably all other land-based creatures), so they need a plentiful supply of it.

Fresh water can come from several sources:

  • Ground-water wells
  • Streams
  • Freshwater lakes and ponds
  • Natural springs
  • Rivers

The larger your settlement, the more water it needs, not just for the populace but for crops and other systems (such as mills). Tiny villages can possibly get by with a single well but they’ll likely want a couple of ponds or streams nearby. Large cities – anything with a population greater than 1,000 people – will need a large lake or a river.

Once you know where the water comes from, you have to know how the citizens get it. Is the water automatically moved around to parts of the city? If so, how is it moved? Canals? Aqueducts? Free streams? Pumps? Dams? Or do people have to carry it in buckets from the well or a stream?

It’s important to know now if you’re going to have canals or aqueducts (or both) as this radically changes how your terrain and roads will be laid out.

Remember that water is driven by gravity and thus flows to the lowest places, but aqueducts are driven by money and thus flow into the richest parts of town.

Stinky Poo-poo

Does your city have sewers? It’s good to know that now. You won’t necessarily be drawing them on your map (or maybe you will make a sewer map later), but it’s good to know that such things exist. Sewers will behave like aqueducts except in reverse: shit will flow to the poorest parts of town.

Other Industry

Does your settlement engage in other major industries beyond food production? Is this a logging town? Is there a quarry? Is there a port? Do major roads come through, meaning trade wagons?

If there is a port, does it have a protective sea wall? Is there going to be chain defense across it? How large will it be?

It’s possible that smaller settlements are devoted to a single industry (the silk dyers of Lorbanery in the Earthsea stories, for instance, or Deadwood in real life) and if so all other industries are set up to support that one.

Thinking About Wards

Larger cities (and even small ones that have grown organically) will have wards or districts. These divisions may or may not be “official” but they will be exist. Over time, “unofficial” wards will become “official” wards, though perhaps with different names.

In my Terracopia setting, the poorest citizens of Firenze officially live within the “North Ward”, but they call it “Shit-town”.

You don’t have to know where these places are right now. Their locations will arrive organically as you work. You’ll discover that you have an area with lots of small dwellings, and realize that’s the poorer part of town, for instance.

It is common for cities to declare certain regions as being districted for certain activities and no others. A “Merchant District”, for instance, may not have any permanent residences, and the “Docks District” may be heavily guarded and have restricted entry.

Learning and Stealing From Reality

A great way to learn about the design of older cities is to study antique maps of real cities. When I set out to create the map of Firenze for my Terracopia Game Setting, I located an actual map of Florence from the 1500s and traced major parts of it for my fantasy version. The “real” Florence isn’t located on the sea, but I adapted.

An Antique Map of Florence/Firenze
An Antique Map of Florence/Firenze
The Terracopian Version of Firenze
The Terracopian Version of Firenze
Antique Map of Naples
Antique Map of Naples

For this tutorial, I’m going to make the Terracopian version of Napoli, so I’ve downloaded an old map of Naples from 1800. I’m going to size it to my canvas and steal a lot of its coastline and structure – though I am definitely going to deviate from “reality”.

Design Steps

  1. Answer Your Questions
  2. Draw Terrain
  3. Draw Important Buildings
  4. Draw City Walls
  5. Draw Canals
  6. Draw Roads
  7. Draw Bridges
  8. Draw Buildings
  9. Draw Other Areas
  10. Draw Vegetation
  11. Draw Wards
  12. Add Labels
  13. Add Grid, Title, Legend, and Scale
  14. Finalize

Answer Your Questions

Make sure you’ve answered all the questions posed above under “Basic City Design”. I will assume that you have.

Draw Terrain

You’re going to draw your terrain through the techniques described in Designing Fantasy Outdoors Maps. Make a “Water” layer and then add your “Land” layer using whatever method you find best.

Draw in (or at least know) the high lands and low lands.

Use the Eraser tool to draw your rivers, lakes, and ponds as normal. If your city has canals, do not draw them yet. That will happen later.

Many, many cities – especially port cities – have built-up shorelines or structures that extend out into the water. Know where those are but don’t worry about being too exact. Later on, when you draw the docks or sea walls (either as additional terrain, roads, or city walls) you’ll duplicate those layers and merge them into your landmass.

Step 1: Draw Landmass
Step 1: Draw Landmass
Step 2: Draw Elevations and Textures
Step 2: Draw Elevations and Textures

In my example, I’m going to be working off an old map of Naples. I put the map into its own layer and resized it to fit (mostly). Since I’m worried about the coastline right now, I’m going to delete everything that isn’t coastline and create a new “Land Mass” layer from that. I’m going to add a river, since it needs one (I’m going to go ahead and “canal” the last part of this river).

How to Create Landmass from an Another Map
  1. Get a map of the area you wish to use and load it into your document on its own layer named “Trace Map”.
  2. Using the Transform tool <command>t, re-scale and possibly rotate the Trace Map contents so that it fits the canvas.
  3. Duplicate Trace Map as “Working Map”.
  4. Turn off the visibility of Trace Map; you’ll use that later.
  5. Select the Working Map layer.
  6. Select the Magic Wand tool and tap in the canvas where the water is. Holding <shift> while doing so will select multiple areas.
  7. Hit the <delete> key to erase lots of the stuff, giving you a closer idea of what the shoreline is going to look like.
  8. Select the Eraser tool. Starting with a large (100px+) hard round brush at 100% opacity, and working downwards in size as you get closer to the shore, erase everything, getting as close to the shore as possible.
  9. Turn off visibility of Working Map
  10. Create a new layer underneath your two map layers called “Landmass”.
  11. Set your paint color to white (#ffffff)
  12. Select all the pixels in Working Map by holding the <command> key and clicking the preview icon.
  13. Switch to the Landmass layer.
  14. Using the Paint Bucket tool, tap inside of the selected area of the canvas. You should see your landmass appear.
  15. Optionally, switch to the Brush tool and clean up any weird bits that stick out.
Sea Selected with Magic Wand
Sea Selected with Magic Wand
Selected Pixels Deleted
Selected Pixels Deleted
Landmass Cut Down
Landmass Cut Down

Once you have your landmass shape, go ahead and add some styles to your Water and Landmass layers. Draw in your elevations or at least sketch them in on a throwaway layer. Don’t worry about getting them perfect or beautiful at this point; you’ll go back and mess with them again later.

For my map of Napoli, I’ve drawn in some cliffs and highlands. I modified the river to flow between two hills. I’ve also scootched the landmass down on the canvas so that I have more space to work with (the map I traced had too much water). I’ve also made a sketch of where I want various wards and walls to be (Napoli is the capital of an empire, so it’s going to be defended).

Draw Important Buildings

Now you’re going to place your important buildings. The larger the city, the more important the building should be for you to draw it here. Important buildings are centers of activity for the citizenry. Draw them in now so that you know how the city has grown.

Note that not all “important buildings” are actually structures. A bazaar, for instance, will be a wide, open surface.

Create a layer group called “Structures”. Inside of the Structures group, create another group called “Important Structures”. This is where you’re going to store your important buildings.

If you’re tracing from an existing map, place the Trace Map or the Working Map at the top of the layer stack and give them a lowish opacity (so that you can see through them. Work underneath what you’re tracing.

How to Draw Important Buildings
For each important building:
  1. Create a new layer inside of Important Structures and name it after the building you’re creating.
  2. Set your ink color to a light grey (#dddddd) (or any other color that contrasts with your landmass).
  3. On the common x/y-axis, draw the building using one of the various Shape tools or the Pen tool. Don’t worry about its rotation yet; draw it straight on (if you’re tracing an existing structure, go ahead and use the map’s rotation).
  4. If you created a building using multiple shapes, make sure to merge them and also “Merge Shape Components”.
  5. Move and rotate the building into place (using <command>t).
Step 3: Sketch
Step 3: Sketch
Step 4: Important Buildings
Step 4: Important Buildings

In my version of Napoli, I’m going to create a bastion fort at the top of the central hill, the Imperial palace, a harbor fort, the Senate building, and a ziggurat temple.

I’ve already deviated from reality, so I’ll have fix my coastline in some places (select the shapes of the building layers and use the Paint Bucket tool on the shapes inside the Landmass layer).

Hint: To create a quick bastion fort shape, use the Polygon tool, set the side count to 6 or 8, and in the options menu check “star” and set the “Indent Sides By” value to between 10 and 15%.

Styling Buildings

When styling your structures, you’ll want to apply any styles to the highest parent layer group (in this case, Structures). I’m going to warn you now that you never want to style individual buildings if you can help it.

The reason why is that I’m going to show you some techniques later about crunching these layers, and to do so well you’ll need to be able to flip on and off styles across all elements quickly.

Feel free to add some styles now so that your buildings stand out. Don’t go crazy yet.

Draw City Walls

Step 5: Walls
Step 5: Walls

When adding city walls, the quickest way to do so is with the Line tool, which can be found in the Shape tools menu. The Line tool allows you to set specific widths and will create a shape layer for that. You can draw your walls with the Pen tool but you’ll likely get inconsistent widths. City walls are rarely wider than 20 feet, so set your line width accordingly.

Lay out each wall segment and make sure the ends overlap. Don’t worry too much about sloppy anchor points – we’re going to cover them in a moment. You’ll discover that the Line tool wants to make new layers for each line. That’s fine. It helps you move them independently until you merge all the shapes together.

Make sure to leave gaps where the gates to the city will be. Walls will sometimes go out into waters, but not far unless the land has been built up around it. Walls can cross thinner rivers, but will typically have large grates to allow the water to flow through unimpeded (if they didn’t, they would be dams).

When you have the basic wall structure, it’s time to cover up those unsightly corners. We’ll put towers there. Using the Ellipse tool, add circle layers over top where the walls connect and bend. You’ll want to use circles of the exact same size for each. These are guard towers (you can, of course, just fiddle with the points so that they match up if you want corners without towers).

When you’ve done that, you have to add gatehouses. Gate houses are usually weirdly shaped as they are designed to have multiple doors open and close as a defensive measure. I recommend building these as their own shapes (in the standard axis) and then rotating them into place.

When you’re satisfied, merge all the shapes together into a single layer called “City Walls”. Don’t forget to “Merge Shape Components”. Give the City Walls shape a dark color for now (say, #222222).

If you know what you’re doing, you can draw your walls with a brush and then convert the pixel layers into a shape layer (this method is explained below in How to Draw Roads) and goof around with the points. This is what I did.

My version of Napoli has grown over the years so it has several sets of walls. Additionally, it is the Imperial capitol, so it has a lot of defended roads and gatehouses. Wards and districts are heavily drawn and security between them will be tight. There are a lot of gatehouses.

Draw Canals

At this point you’ll want to draw your canals, if you have any. There are two kinds of canals: free-form and directed. Directed canals will have straight edges (think Venice); free-form canals can twist and turn (they’re more like lazily directed streams). Directed canals will be bounded by brick or stone for their entire length; free-form canals will have such bounds when the natural flow of the water requires re-directing.

You “draw” canals with the Eraser tool, just as if you were adding rivers to an outdoors map.

How to Draw Canals
  1. Select your Land layer for editing.
  2. Select the Eraser tool. Set the brush to Hard Round, 100% opacity, and with a decent size that depends on your scale. If in doubt, try something that will give you a canal around 40 feet across.
  3. For free-form canals, just draw the shape of the canal with the eraser. When you reach a point where the water will be directed, use the next two steps to create a straight line.
  4. For directed canals, click the start point of a canal segment.
  5. Holding down the <shift> key, click the end point of the canal segment. A straight line should have been erased.

You will draw over these with roads later to indicate where you need to set bridges.

Draw Roads

Step 6: Roads
Step 6: Roads

When you’ve figured out where your main areas of traffic are (important buildings, wards, gatehouses, etc.) it’s time to add roads. We start by drawing the major roads and then add in sub-roads and eventually we get to arterial paths. It’s best to think about a “road” as a thing that is treated as such: it’s cobblestoned or at least paved with gravel. We’re not going to worry about walking paths unless we’ve got a tight scale (village level).

We lay down roads with the Brush tool.

I know what you’re thinking: “I can’t possibly draw a straight line to save my life!” Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered with the magic of the <shift> key.

Roads have three basic widths. You’ll have to pick the size of your brush based on how well it matches your map scale.

  • Major roads are between 50 and 100 feet across. These roads often define the boundaries of city districts or wards.
  • Normal or Secondary roads are between 20 and 40 feet across. These roads provide connections between major roads and each other.
  • Minor roads are 10 to 15 feet across. These roads are alleys and pathways, and delve between normal roads.
How to Draw Roads
  1. Create a new layer above your Landmass layer called “Roads” and select it.
  2. Create a selection mask of your Landmass layer so that you don’t draw outside of it by holding <command> and clicking on the preview icon for the Landmass layer. If you need to draw over a river, just deselect everything (<command>d) and then reselect this when you’re done.
  3. Set your paint color to something light. I honestly will use pure white (#ffffff).
  4. Select the Brush tool. Hard Round, 100% opacity, and with a decent size that depends on your scale. You’re making Major roads first, so pick something decent.
  5. On the Roads layer, click the start point of a road segment.
  6. Holding down the <shift> key, click the end point of the road segment.

Voila! You now have a straight line. Repeat the process, adding in your major roads. Feel free to draw roads freehand if you can! Roads that come into a city are rarely straight so keep that in mind.

When you’ve got your major roads laid down, decrease your brush size by 25% and start adding in secondary roads. These roads will branch from the main roads and often connect them. Normal roads often lay out in a grid pattern.

Once you’ve got your secondary roads, decrease your brush size again and add in all your minor roads. These ones will run between normal roads and often result in dead-ends.

When laying down roads, remember that some of the oldest and most used roads probably began life as hunting trails. Eventually these paths became formalized and paved with gravel and eventually cobblestones. This can make your roads look like a rat’s nest but that’s okay. Consider the mess that is the city of Boston.

If your city has canals, know that roads often run right alongside them. Where there will be bridges that cross canals, streams, or rivers, draw the road over the water way. You’ll add a bridge underneath it later.

If your city has walls, know that roads also often run alongside those as well. Feel free to draw into the areas that the walls cover; your concern is coverage and not fidelity right now. You will obtain fidelity when you turn them into a shape.

For my version of Napoli, I’m going to start with 15 pixel roads and work downwards. I intend for the harbor and wharf areas to appear as “roads” but I’ll merge that in when I get to drawing the harbor. For some places – the road up to the palace, for instance – I created a shape layer with the pen and then rasterized it and merged it in with the roads pixels.

Converting Brush Roads to Shape Roads

Okay! You’ve got your brushed-in roads. They’re probably pixellated in place. You won’t want to use them as they are; we want sharper edges on them. The sharpest edges come from shape layers. You’re going to convert your Roads layer to a shape layer, do some fiddling with it, and then use that going forward.

How to Convert a Roads Pixel Layer to a Shape Layer
  1. Select your Roads layer in the Layers panel.
  2. Sharpen the edges by going Filter -> Sharpen -> Unsharp Mask, amount 50, radius 2.0, threshold 1. This smooths edges up.
  3. Holding down the <command> key, click on the preview icon for the Roads layer to create a selection of all pixels in the layer.
  4. Switch to the Paths panel (next to the Layers tab).
  5. Click the Make work path from selection icon.
  6. Switch back to the Layers panel.
  7. Go Layer -> New Fill Layer -> Solid Color.
  8. Name the layer “Roads Shape” and set the color to the color of your roads (probably #ffffff). You now have a shaped layer of your roads.
Shaped Roads Losing Fidelity
Shaped Roads Losing Fidelity

You’ll notice that the transition to a shape form may have caused your roads to behave funky in some places. Go over your roads using the various Anchor Point tools (especially the Convert Anchor Point tool) and the Direct Selection tool to clean them up. This will likely involve a lot of converting anchor points. I recommend putting a 1 pixel stroke on the inside of the Roads Shape so you can see what you’re doing.

This part is really tedious and comes with a lot of eye-strain but in the end you’ll thank me for it. Once you’ve modified a single point on your Roads Shape layer, you can destroy your original Roads layer as it is no longer the Source of Truth for the city’s roads.

Now you’ve got a Roads Shape shape layer. However, it’s going to make your map a pain in the ass to work with because it’s got a zillion new anchor points. Duplicate it as Roads Pixels, copy its layer style, clear the layer style, rasterize it, and re-apply the layer style.

How to Rasterize your Roads Shape Layer
  1. Duplicate the Roads Shape layer as “Roads Pixels”.
  2. Turn off visibility of Roads Shape and store it in a backup folder.
  3. Select Roads Pixels in the Layers panel.
  4. Right click on the Roads Pixels layer in the Layers panel and select Copy Layer Style.
  5. Right click on the Roads Pixels layer in the Layers panel and select Clear Layer Style. The styles should disappear.
  6. Right click on the Roads Pixels layer in the Layers panel and select Rasterize Layer. The layer is now transformed to pixels.
  7. Right click on the Roads Pixels layer in the Layers panel and select Paste Layer Style. The styles should re-appear.

You will find that you have to come back to your roads shape fairly often and fix minor errors as you go about painting in your buildings. Simply trash your Roads Pixels layer, fix the Roads Shape layer, and then re-rasterize a copy of Roads Shape in to a new Roads Pixels.

But I Really Want Trails!

Alright, you’re working with a smaller-scale map and you want to include hunting trails and the like. You don’t want to elevate these paths into roads, so you want to display them different. For this, we use the Pen tool or the Freeform Pen tool. However, we’re not going to be creating solid shapes with it.

How to Draw Trails
For each trail you intend to draw:
  1. Create a new layer (call it by the trail’s name) and select it. Don’t use your Roads layer; it won’t work.
  2. Select the Freeform Pen tool.
  3. Draw your trail on the map. You’ll see path marks and anchor points appear. Do NOT close the shape (unless you want a closed path).
  4. In the options bar (at the top of the Photoshop window), click on “Fill” and select the white box with the red line. This will stop it from drawing any “fill”.
  5. In the options bar, click on “Stroke” and select the black box with the red line. This will draw a stroke. You can set the color of the stroke here as well.
  6. Select the correct width for the stroke (3 pixels is good)
  7. Select a dashed stroke style from the pull down.
  8. Style the layer with layer effects and blend modes as you see fit.

You’ll likely want to draw multiple trails in multiple layers. Merging them may have… unintended consequences.

Special: Aqueducts

Aqueducts tend to follow roads but are raised high above them. They are tricky to represent because they can obscure your road. The trick here is to draw them with different opacity values and strokes styles so that they are visible but not overpowering. Depending on your visual style, you may end up with multi-stroked canal-like aqueducts or simple shapes.

I recommend laying out your aqueducts as shapes, in a manner similar to that of how you create city walls (described above). This allows you to keep perfect corner fidelity, which you will discover is a problem with brush-drawn roads.

Draw Bridges

Draw bridges as if they were important buildings. Do them as shapes, drawing them on the 0,0 axis and then rotating them into place. Do one layer for each bridge, and store them in a folder called “Bridges”, set below the Roads layer in the layer stack (you want the road to cross the bridge).

Draw Buildings

There are several techniques you can use to draw buildings and whichever one you choose depends on your map’s style and the amount of time you have available. Drawing buildings can be brutally time-consuming or it can be fairly painless.

If you want to draw detailed buildings, replete with hatched roofs and the like, feel free to pull out your pen tablet and go to town. If you’re the type that can or will do this, there’s nothing I can teach you here – via con dios – though I recommend using Overlay for the blend modes.

Painted Buildings
Painted Buildings

I’m going to teach you a method for painting buildings with a brush. This method is similar to the sparse forests technique in that you will deal with brush shape dynamics, but that’s about the extent of it. I originally learned this technique from Fantastic Maps, which is a site you should fully read cover to cover. My way is a bit different, though.

First, you need to create a “Buildings” brush shape. Don’t worry! Creating a brush is actually very easy. Any complexity comes with playing around with your brush dynamics, but – and I swear to whatever deity you hold dear that this is true – the hardest part is saving it.

How to Create and Set Up a Buildings Brush
Do this in a new document just for funsies.
  1. Create a new document, 100×100 pixels, with a background color of white (#ffffff)
  2. Set your paint color to black (#000000)
  3. Create a new layer called “Brush Shape”.
  4. In the Brush Shape layer, using the Rectangle tool, draw a 30 pixel square (hold <shift> while dragging the Rectangle tool to keep perfect proportions).
  5. Select all the pixels in Brush Shape by holding <shift> and clicking on the preview icon for it in the Layers panel.
  6. Go Edit -> Define Brush Preset and give it a name, “Buildings Basic”. Photoshop will automatically switch to the Brush tool with the shape of your square. The brush is not saved yet.
  7. Open the Brush Settings window with F5 or Window -> Brush Settings or just click it open because you docked it to the side like I told you to do about seven articles back.
  8. Click on Brush Tip Shape and set it up like so:
    • Set Size to 20 pixels.
    • Set Angle to 90 degrees.
    • Set Roundness to 90%.
    • Set Spacing to 50%. Adjust this higher or lower for more or less dense buildings.
  9. Click Shape Dynamics and set it up like so:
    • Set Size Jitter to 10%. This controls how large the buildings can be in relation to one another.
    • If you want to use a pen tablet, this is where you’d set control to pressure.
    • Set Minimum Diameter to 70%.
    • Set Angle Jitter to 0%
    • Set Angle Jitter Control to Direction or Initial Direction (I prefer initial direction because I’m only ever drawing straight lines; if you’re going to curve them, use direction).
    • Set Roundness Jitter to 100%
    • Set Minimum Roundness to 25%.
  10. Click Scattering and set it up like so:
    • Set Scatter to somewhere between 20 and 100%. Increasing this will cause your buildings to be further away from the baseline. A low number (20-25%) keeps them mostly inline.
    • Set Count to 1.
    • Set Count Jitter to 100%.
  11. Click the teeny-tiny “Create New Brush” icon in the bottom of the Brush Settings panel.
  12. Name your bush “Buildings Dynamic”. Ensure to click “Capture Brush Size in Preset” and “Include Tool Settings”.
  13. Optionally, you can delete the Buildings Basic brush.
Brush Tip Shape Settings
Brush Tip Shape Settings
Brush Shape Dynamics Settings
Brush Shape Dynamics Settings
Brush Scattering Settings
Brush Scattering Settings

Now you have a brush that can paint buildings. Goof with the brush settings whenever you want differences in size, scattering, density, etc. Maybe even save those changes as presets as well.

Paint some buildings. You want to do this in a layer above Walls and Roads, but you don’t want to draw over the roads or through the walls. Don’t worry if you do – you can always delete the shapes of the roads or walls from the buildings – but it’s best to set one of them (the Roads) as a cage.

You draw buildings through the magic of the <shift> key.

How to Paint Buildings Using a Brush
  1. Create a new layer inside of the Structures layer group (above your Roads and Walls layers) called “Buildings”.
  2. Set your paint color to whatever you like (I use #dddddd).
  3. Select all the pixels in your Roads shape by holding down the <shift> key and clicking on the preview icon for the Roads layer in the Layers panel.
  4. Go Select -> Inverse to reverse the selection, so that you can only draw inside of the “blocks”.
  5. Change to the Brush tool and select your shiny new Buildings Dynamic brush.
  6. Working inside of the Roads layer, pick an edge of a block. Click the canvas inside of the road to the outside, and inside of the edge.
  7. Holding the <shift> key, click on the other side of the block, in the road again. BAM. Buildings appear.
  8. Work your way around the block, clicking in opposite sides, always sticking within the road and ending within it (or inside of other buildings). You can do long blocks this way that cross multiple streets; you don’t have to stay within one block.
  9. You can go back over the same lines multiple times. This will thicken the area and create more jitter.
  10. Clean it up with smaller, hard round brushes and the Eraser tool.

You cannot create such beautiful chaos by hand. I find the randomness produced by this to be excellent, especially for old-world cities and areas where buildings were erected quickly and haphazardly.

Step 7: Buildings
Step 7: Buildings

You will probably want to go through and spot-fix lots of places with smaller, round brushes and the Eraser tool. Fill in areas with denser buildings. If your district has larger buildings (say a dock warehouse area) just increase the brush size. If you’re working in slums, make it smaller and decrease the spacing.

For my version of Napoli, I decided that it was thick with buildings and that people are living in areas that extend far beyond the boundaries of the map. I was originally planning to put farms there but I realized that they’d be much further out than the walls of the city proper, so I built it out that way.

Optional: Crunching Buildings into Shapes

This is an optional step that you really should only go into if you’re preparing this map for publication or have been given a commission. It’s very tedious and reeks of masochism. I will warn you: Once you start down this dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.

If you’ve got your buildings mostly laid out, you may find that they end up being a bit goofy around the edges in some places. Cleaning up those areas with a brush, pencil, or eraser can create unsightly halos and opacity issues.

As with roads, you can to convert your buildings into shapes and then fiddle with them.

How to Convert a Buildings Pixel Layer to a Shape Layer
  1. Select your Buildings layer in the Layers panel.
  2. Holding down the <command> key, click on the preview icon for the Buildings layer to create a selection of all pixels in the layer.
  3. Switch to the Paths panel (next to the Layers tab).
  4. Click the Make work path from selection icon.
  5. Switch back to the Layers panel.
  6. Go Layer -> New Fill Layer -> Solid Color.
  7. Name the layer “Buildings Shape” and set the color to the color of your buildings (probably #dddddd). You now have a shaped layer of your buildings.

Your computer is now groaning because of the sheer number of anchor points you have.

Anchor Point Strategies

When you convert your pixel buildings into shapes, you’re going to find yourself with a couple thousand new anchor points. This is going to be problematic as you work because your machine is going to slow down something severe.

I recommend splitting your building shape layer into several layers, each one representing a single ward. Duplicate the main building shape layer as many times as needed and then delete all the buildings from the ward’s layer that do not belong in the ward. Then you can go about manipulating the shapes of the buildings there more easily if you turn off visibility of all other wards.

Fiddling with Building Shapes

Now that you’ve got your buildings laid out as shapes, you’ll want to fiddle with them in the same way that you worked on your Roads Shape layer, above. This will be even more eye-burning and frustrating than the roads, I’m afraid.

I recommend putting a 1 pixel stroke on the inside of the buildings so you can see what you’re doing. You may also want to temporarily move the buildings up in the layer stack so you can see them over the roads while doing so.

When you resize and reshape your buildings, feel free to pull anchor points into the area occupied by the roads. This will look really funky as you go, but don’t worry: you’re going to rasterize and clip them later.

Rasterizing and Styling Buildings

When you’ve got your buildings set out the way you want them to be, you will want to rasterize, clip, and style them, especially if you’ve manipulated your buildings so that some of them have edges that cross-road boundaries.

You turn off all styles on the shaped buildings, rasterize them to pixels, cut out the shape of the Roads and Walls layers, and then re-apply your style.

How to Rasterize and Clip Buildings
For each layer of shaped buildings, called “Buildings Shape”
  1. Duplicate the Buildings layer as “Buildings Pixels”.
  2. Turn off visibility of Buildings Shape and store it in a backup folder.
  3. Select Buildings Pixels in the Layers panel.
  4. Right click on the Buildings Pixels layer in the Layers panel and select Clear Layer Style. The styles should disappear.
  5. Right click on the Buildings Pixels layer in the Layers panel and select Rasterize Layer. The layer is now transformed to pixels.
  6. With the Buildings Pixels layer still selected, hold down the <command> key and click on the preview icon for your Roads layer (use whichever layer is going to be visible). The shape of the Roads layer will be selected and you’ll see the marching ants.
  7. Hit the <delete> key. The buildings are now clipped to the shape of the roads.
  8. Repeat the previous two steps with the Walls layer.

You may be asking yourself, “Self, why do I want to clip my buildings if the Roads layer is above them, and already clipping them?” That’s a good question, and the answer is styling. If you apply a stroke to the building layer, the stroke will continue under the roads, and you’ll get a weird pattern effect. Clip the buildings, and your stroke will appear uniform. This only works for inside strokes, however; outside strokes will be hidden.

If you don’t want your buildings to go right up to the edge of the roads, you can increase the area the roads shape will clip by going Select -> Modify -> Expand and setting the value to about 2 to 4 pixels. This will increase the clip size of the roads layer, but be warned: you will likely end up with some rounded corners.

There are also ways to do this using layer masks, but that is outside of the scope of this tutorial.

Draw Other Areas

Step 8: Add Other Areas
Step 8: Add Other Areas

In addition to buildings, roads, canals, and bridges, cities have other features as well that you will want to block out and draw. The design and drawing method for each of these can be different but typically you will want a shape that you can then apply styles or patterns to.

A non-exhaustive list of other areas can include:

  • Bazaars – wide, open places that are paved with stone and have small kiosks.
  • Corrals – open places surrounded by fences used for containing livestock.
  • Docks– wide, open places that are paved with stone. Docks can be drawn as wooden shapes or be constructed from stone.
  • Gardens – smaller areas with heavy verdancy and trees.
  • Graveyards – open areas with verdancy and tree clumps, or maybe just raw earth.
  • Parks – wide, open areas with heavy verdancy and clumps of trees. These may also have small plazas as well.
  • Plazas– wide, open places that are paved with stone and do not have kiosks. These areas often have large statues or shrines in them.
  • Quarries – sunken, blocky shaped areas that you will flesh out using techniques described in the drawing mountains tutorial.

Create these layers above your Roads layer since they may overlap. I like to keep all my area types in their own layer group. You may find that you need to merge the shapes of your new areas in with the Landmass layer; the best way is to select their pixels and paint in the Landmass layer.

For my version of Napoli, I have blocked out docks that are built from stone. I have merged these shapes into the Roads layer so that they are seamless. I’ve also added a few plaza areas and marked out the palace grounds (a layer with a stroke but 0% fill opacity). The central anchorages are heavily monitored, so I’ve also added several smaller docks, either for private use (to the west) or for poorer fisherfolk and smugglers (to the east).

Draw Vegetation

Cities are filled with vegetation even though we don’t often think of them that way (just look at any city from the air; they look like gridded forests). Trees and verdant areas are everywhere. Of course, if your city is located in an arid region, there won’t be a lot of verdancy or large clumps of trees; there will, however, be lots of scrubby plants and bushes that are difficult to kill.

Lay out your verdant areas before you add your trees so that you have an idea of where vegetation wants to grow. When laying out a verdancy layer, use the technique described in the outdoors map tutorial except lay it in about twice as heavy. As usual, you will end up clipping your verdant areas (Buildings, Walls, Roads, and eventually Trees). Set your Verdancy layer directly above your Landmass and Elevations layers (the ones where you drew cliffs or mountains, if any).

You remember how to draw forests, don’t you? You’re going to do that now. You are likely working at a scale where individual trees may be seen, so you want to use the sparse forests technique. Your Trees layer goes above Verdancy and below all buildings and structures.

Paint trees where trees grow! They grow between buildings – the block interiors – but sparsely. They will grow thicker along city walls that don’t have abutting roads and in areas where there is no construction (cliff edges and steep inclines). Know where the trees will be cut back as well. Secure areas will not have trees. These are the insides of castle walls, fortifications, or military parade grounds, or close to walls that may lay up against secure areas. Dock wards and districts are unlikely to have trees, nor will areas of pure commerce. Trees grow thickest in lands owned by the wealthy and thinnest (and sickly) in the slums.

Lay them in lightly inside of blocks and then when you’re done, set the scattering and spacing on your brush to pretty high values and then just run around the map dotting in areas. Once you’re done with that, clip the Trees layer: remove Roads, Walls, and Buildings. And then clip your Trees out of your Verdancy.

Step 9: Add Verdancy
Step 9: Add Verdancy
Step 10: Add Trees
Step 10: Add Trees

Draw Wards

Step 11: Draw Wards
Step 11: Draw Wards

If you want to mark your city’s wards or districts, now is the time to do so. City wards are nearly always bounded by walls or flowing water of some kind. Areas outside of a city’s walls are often named or thought of as “wards” but are rarely considered to be so “officially” so you don’t need to mark them.

Create a new layer group above everything and call it Ward Bounds. You’ll define each ward shape inside of here. This is a multi-step process that involves creating the ward shapes and then deleting segments from those shapes so that you are left with partial paths. You’re going to use the Pen tool and some shape options to mark them.

How to Draw Wards
For each ward in the city:
  1. Create a new layer inside of Ward Bounds and name it the name of the ward (I’ll use “Docks” for this example) and select it.
  2. Switch to the Pen tool.
  3. In the shape options bar at the top:
    • Set the Fill to transparent.
    • Set the Stroke color to whatever you like (I’m using #910000)
    • Set the Stroke Weight to 3 pixels or so.
    • Set the Stroke Type to a dashed line.
  4. Draw around the ward’s boundaries with the Pen tool. It’s okay to not be precise; ward definitions rarely are. Don’t go right up against walls or roads; you want to be able to see this.

Add Labels

Labeling Wards

Wards and districts are a created phenomenon. Pick your font accordingly (see Natural vs. Created Elements). Use a nice, simple font that can be readable at low opacity and large size. You want to decrease the opacity of these labels and make them large. You don’t want them to be overpowering, but you need them to be useful.

Ward names tend to be very generic and often have historical context. Wards are often named for geographical features (“River Ward”), position (“South Ward”), or function (“Merchant’s Ward” or “Docks Ward”). Further, as the city grows, the name of the ward may lose its original meaning. The “North Ward” may end up being surrounded by additional wards to the north, but it’s name won’t change.

For my Napoli map, I’m using a 16pt Crimson Bold Italic font with the color set to #910000 – the same color I’m using for the ward boundaries. On the layer group that contains the layers, I’m setting that to a Multiply blend mode with a 50% fill opacity and applying a 3 pixel outside stroke of #eadcbc in Normal mode. That way, the stroke color is solid and strong but the text itself multiplies into the map.

Labeling Roads

Label roads exactly the same as you would do with any outdoors map, as described the outdoor map tutorial.

I don’t tend to label roads inside of city maps because I find that they add a great deal of clutter. You do you, though.

Labeling Buildings

Don’t. Unless your map is of a certain scale, building labels will get lost. Instead of labeling important buildings, use a legend and numbers.

Labeling Water

Label water exactly the same as you would do with any outdoors map, as described the outdoor map tutorial..

Add Grid, Title, Legend, and Scale

Finished Map
Finished Map

Add your grid, title, and scale marker. If you are using a coordinate grid system, remember that you can drag the grid pattern location around from inside the Pattern Overlay effect dialog. This is useful to set your 0,0 point to somewhere deeper in the map.

It is sometimes difficult to place titles, legends, and compasses in a way that does not obscure parts of the map’s drawing. You can try resizing these elements if you like, but don’t make them too small: they still have to appear strong and visible. If you can’t avoid overlapping elements in your map, don’t worry: it’s a problem all cartographers have had. Just do your best; I’m certain it will end up looking great.


You’ve drawn all your drawings and you’ve set your grid and legend up! You’re done! As with other types of outdoors maps, there isn’t a lot of finalization to be done unless you’re using a lot of glows and need to re-rasterize them. Make sure your layers are stacked correctly.

When you’re done, you’re on to Printing Maps.

Comments on Designing Fantasy City Maps

  1. Thank you so much for this tutorial. It’s incredibly helpfull. No idea how there are no comments yet, this is by far the best I’ve seen on the internet.

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