Designing Maps

How to make beautiful and compelling maps for your games

Designing Fantasy Isometric Maps

Wherein I teach the basics of designing isometric blueprint fantasy maps.

The old fogies among us remember the magic feeling of opening Dungeon Module DL1: Dragons of Despair and being stunned by the beauty of its gatefold map: an isometric view of the sunken city of Xak Tsaroth. It was a revelation that maps could look this way. David S. LaForce’s cartography skills opened up new worlds of imagination.

Xak Tsaroth, © David S. LaForce
Xak Tsaroth, © David S. LaForce

I believe that isometric maps can be some of the most beautiful things created. They invite exploration and discussion. They stoke curiosity and imagination. They can be enjoyed as art.

The idea of making an isometric map is far scarier and boring than it actually is. You may have a vision of yourself tediously moving around anchor points, burning away your eyesight, trying desperately to get them to line up with each other while maintaining that ever-present 30 degree angle system that your grid is providing. You may even get desperate enough to futz around with Photoshop’s grid settings, trying to get its points to align with the isometric grid.

An Isometric Underground City
An Isometric Underground City
An Isometric Crypt/Museum
An Isometric Crypt/Museum
An Isometric Shrine
An Isometric Shrine

Never fear! I am going to show you an easy method that can convert any standard blueprint map into an isometric map quickly and painlessly. It’s so stupidly simple that you may decide to use it for everything going forward. I call this method Isometrification. I didn’t invent this technique; I learned it from a tutorial on Fantastic Maps.


Embrace Mistakes

If this is your first attempt at an isometric map, the most important consideration you must have is embracing mistakes because you are going to make them, my friend.

You will spend an hour building a thing and then suddenly realize that it’s not going to work because you laid out shadows all wrong, or your carefully constructed object isn’t rotated right. Maybe you need to change rasterized patterns. Maybe you need to merge whole sets of layers differently. You may get all the way to the end and discover that the entire thing needs re-doing because the canvas is too small. You’re going to vow not to make the same mistake twice and then you’ll end up doing it 10 minutes later.

These things happen and they are discouraging to be sure but they are also learning experiences. I could write six hundred pages about the mistakes I’ve made and how I have corrected for them going forward and I would still barely scratch the surface. The only teachers here are practice and experience.

So: Don’t get discouraged if you screw up. Just take a break, come back later, and fix it.

Sizing Strategies

Two Squares of the Same Size
Two Squares of the Same Size

Isometric maps tend to favor horizontal space, even though they are designed to show vertical space. The reason for this is that when the levels are rotated, they take up more horizontal real estate than they did before but less vertical real-estate. Your long dungeon will end up becoming wide.

You’ll need to adjust your canvas size accordingly, and, like as not, you’ll be modifying it all the way up until you’re done.

Further, unlike normal blueprint maps, isometric maps may have a larger audience than just the Gamemaster. Isometric maps are beautiful constructs, begging for people to ooh and ah over them. You may want to print them out nice and shiny, especially if you go the full color and texture route with your visual style.

Visual Style

I love isometric maps. I love to spend hours being clever with my object creation and adding details. Because I am a narcissist, I enjoy showing them off. This means I will often pick one of two styles: a full “classic” greyscale mode (if I’m feeling nostalgic) or a full-on painterly mode (especially if it’s for consumption beyond myself). My underground city, for example, is intended more as a player aid to stoke imagination than for tracking player location.

You are definitely going to want to go color or greyscale for isometric maps. You will want to show variants in things with different colors or shades of grey.

You do you. For the examples, I’m going stick to greyscale.

Font Choices

Even though isometric maps may be intended to be pretty, you’ll still want to stick with simple, readable fonts.

Scaling Grid

During the initial map construction, you’re going to be using a square scaling grid because you’ll be building your maps in an overhead view first. However, when you move to the isometrification phase, you’ll want to add an isometric scaling grid – either to the entire map, or to just parts of it.

It is important to note the difference between actual size and distorted size of your grid squares. Isometric squares are roughly 125% wider than their corresponding square versions. The distortion is real.

Two Shapes with the Same Grid
Two Shapes with the Same Grid

The isometric grid patterns I have provided are named for the width of the square they represent, not the width they show on the map. A 100px square is 100 by 100 pixels; the corresponding isometric square is 125 by 73 pixels (if you try to do the math your head will hurt so don’t). Just remember that they’re labeled for grid size not file size.

As with most blueprints, you will likely want to work with 1 square equating to 5 or 10 feet. Work within that. The 100 pixel grids are probably right for most work of this nature.

If you somehow want to have an isometric hexagon grid: via con dios, my friend. You can do it, but it’s a hack, and I’ll explain how to do that later.

Isometric - 100px
Isometric – 100px
Isometric - 500px
Isometric – 500px
Isometric - 1000px
Isometric – 1000px

Shapes vs. Pixels

Build your isometric maps in shapes as long as possible. Work in pixels only in the last stages or when rasterizing layers for automatic scaling.

Design Steps

  1. Initial Set up
  2. Layer Structure Strategy
  3. Design Overhead Levels
  4. Isometrifize
  5. Post-Isometrifize
  6. Greeblize
  7. Include Call Outs
  8. Include Labels
  9. Style
  10. Do Brushwork
  11. Apply Grids
  12. Finalize

Initial Set Up

The initial set up for an isometric map is no different from that of a standard blueprint map.

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 dungeon floors be visible as you’re working.

You won’t use the grid except when you’re building levels in overhead view mode.

You’ll want to create a layer group inside of each level called “Shapes Backup” and store duplicates of all your working shapes here.

Layer Structure Strategy

You’re going to be duplicating your work a lot and you will need a way to easily revert to previous states, or to re-do fragments of work at a time. You should keep a very well-organized layer structure. At a minimum, I recommend something like this:

  • Templates – a layer group for storing template objects
    • Isometric Templates – a layer group for storing isometric template objects
    • Overhead Templates – a layer group for storing overhead template objects
  • Labels – a layer group for storing all labels and other ephemera, like the Compass Rose.
  • Isometric Levels – a layer group that contains the isometric versions of your levels
  • Overhead Levels – a layer group that contains the overhead versions of your levels

Within each level’s group, create an additional layer group called “Shapes Backup”. Store raw, unstyled copies of your major shapes for the level in here. You’ll be pulling them out and duplicating them often in order to create effects. You’ll be using these differently between the isometric and overhead views as well.

Never throw anything away.

Design Overhead Levels

Step 1: Overhead Dungeon
Step 1: Overhead Dungeon

For each level in your map, design it as if you were building a blueprint map but with a handful of modifications. Unsurprisingly, most of these changes involve making sure that you use shapes for everything.

Create these levels inside of the Overhead Levels layer group. You’ll clone them into Isometric Levels later.

Don’t be an idiot and try to edit all your levels at once. Turn them on and off as you’re working. You should align them so that they stack correctly in the vertical axis (e.g., the stairwells should match up).

Use Shaped Floors

Did you draw your floors in pixels? Sorry, Charlie! Better luck next time. Build your floor layer entirely in vector shapes. You will also find that you want to keep the floor segments (rooms, corridors) as distinct shapes at this time (don’t merge them yet, ya shmuck).

If you know a part of your floor will be raised or lowered from the base floor level (a sunken chamber), make sure to keep that area as its own shape, especially if you’re going to apply a pattern to it.

Use Shaped Walls

You will also want to build your walls as shapes. These you can go ahead and merge, as it’s unlikely that you’ll be using them in the final map. They’re more of a mental guide than anything else.

Door Construction

Don’t draw your doors into the walls. Use icon shapes entirely. Don’t bother with any special door types (locked, etc.) but do worry about double doors. Create a single, simple rectangle shape and use that. As much as possible, try to use the same one. Don’t use a smart object.


If you set a pattern on these, you’ll want to rasterize them (see below). If you created the step effects with shapes and icons, what you’ve done may work perfectly or it may shit the bed. Don’t worry either way. If you can, duplicate these layers so you have spares; you can apply a stair texture later.

Object Construction

If you have raised objects (such as platforms, structures, pillars, etc.) draw them as just the base shape – the area it covers on the floor. Keep them as individual shape layers.

Rasterize Pattern Layers

If you want to use any kind of pattern overlays on a layer (say, you want a nice cobblestone effect on your dungeon floor), you will need to rasterize a version of that layer to pixels. This will be the version that is displayed on the final map.

The reason you want to rasterize it to pixels now is that the conversion process will automatically scale and rotate the pattern correctly. If you use the converted shape layer with the pattern, the pattern will still be on the vertical axis.

How to Prepare a Pattern Layer for Isometrification
For each layer with a pattern you want to preserve, assuming it is called “Floor”:
  1. Duplicate the Floor layer as “Floor Pixels”.
  2. Rename Floor to Floor Shape.
  3. Place Floor Shape into the Shapes Backup layer group and turn off its visibility.
  4. Turn off any outer glow, stroke, and drop shadow effects on the Floor Pixels layer.
  5. Right click on the Floor Pixels layer in the layers panel and select Rasterize layer style.


You approach the process of isometrification on each level of your map as a whole. Parts of the level may be higher or lower than other parts, but you will deal with that in the Post-Isometrification step. Basically, if a series of rooms are connected and do not overlap, they should be thought of as a single level.

You’re going to clone each level and then operate on the duplicate. The reason why is that once you’ve got a look at your map in full isometric mode, you may very well need to make changes to its layout. If you have to do this, it is infinitely easier to work in the “overhead” view of the map rather than the isometric view, so you trash the isometric version and go back to the overhead version, and then re-isometrify. It’s a process of editing.

Rotation and scaling must be done as independent operations. Don’t try to do them both at the same time. You will not achieve the desired effect if you do.

Duplicate and Back Up

When you’re roughly satisfied with the layout of your level in overhead view, it’s time to duplicate it into the Isometric Levels folder.

How to Duplicate an Overhead Level
For each level (layer group) you intend to work on, called “Level X”:
  1. Drag the Level X layer group to the “Duplicate” icon in the layers panel. A duplicate layer group will be created called “Level X copy”.
  2. Move Level X copy out of the Vert Levels folder and into the ISO levels folder.


Step 2: Rotated Dungeon
Step 2: Rotated Dungeon

You’re going to rotate the level by 45 degrees. “But hey! The isometric grid is at 30 degrees, not 45!” I know, I know. The magic of scaling (next step) will solve for that.

You can rotate by 45 or -45 degrees, but you need to pick the same one for every level.

How to Rotate a Level in Isometrification
For each level (layer group) you intend to work on, called “Level X”:
  1. Select the Level X layer group.
  2. Activate the Transform tool with <command>t.
  3. In the options bar, set the rotation (the angle icon) to either “45” or “-45” degrees.
  4. Hit <return> twice (once to set the rotation, once to exit the transform.

The layer should now be rotated but still appear “standing up”.


Step 3: Scaled Dungeon
Step 3: Scaled Dungeon

Now you need to scale the level. Isometric levels will be 57.7% as “tall” as their overhead versions. The process of scaling the level will cause the edges to fall along the 30 degree isometric grid.

How to Scale a Level in Isometrification
For each level (layer group) you intend to work on, called “Level X”:
  1. Select the Level X layer group.
  2. Activate the Transform tool with <command>t.
  3. In the options bar, set the height scale (the “H” value) to either “57.7%.
  4. Hit <return> twice (once to set the rotation, once to exit the transform.

The layer should now be rotated and scaled, aligning on the 30 degree plane. Rasterized pattern layers will have been scaled appropriately.

Move and Place

Step 4: Move and Place
Step 4: Move and Place

Drag the level around on the canvas until it’s placed correctly. This doesn’t have to be perfect right now; you’ll be making lots of minor tweaks to position as you go. What you’re really trying to do here is make sure everything fits correctly. You want to isometrify every one of your levels and place them to see if anything needs tweaking.

If something does require editing, delete the isometric version of the level, go fix the overhead version of the level, and then repeat this process. Do this until you’re absolutely certain you aren’t going to mess with the level again.

That said, always keep your overhead versions. Always. You may need them for something else later, or even in the same map. You may find that you later want to change a pattern and need to re-isometrify only a single layer and replace it in the iso versions. You never know. Don’t throw anything away.


Once you’ve achieved satisfaction with your level, it’s time to work on the post-isometrification process. This is where you do things like add vertical texture, stairs, etc. There are several things to do in this step, and not all of them may make sense for your map – or your map’s style.

For instance, on a map of a dwarven city, I might include a “level lip” but maybe not in a dungeon map. My style may warrant that all doors are “isometrified” or not. The two things you will definitely want to do are level adjustment and duplicate your base shape layers.

You probably don’t want a “Walls” layer anymore. You can turn that off in your Isometric version of the level.

Level Adjustment

Are there areas (not objects) on your map that are higher or lower than the main floor of your level? I’m talking floor surface only. Not even raised platforms. The actual floors. You will want to raise or lower these.

You want to set the depths correctly on both the shape layers and any rasterized pixel pattern layers. You can’t easily nudge pixel layers and have it look right. You have to treat them as separate layers already.

How to Raise or Lower Portions of a Level
For each area you want to move up or down:
  1. Turn off visibility for everything that isn’t the floor. It just going to confuse you for now.
  2. Select the Move tool.
  3. Select the layer you wish to operate on in the layers panel. If the area is a whole layer (it should be <glare>>, select that layer. If the area is part of a single layer, select the containing layer.
  4. If the area is part of a larger layer, select the Direct Selection tool (the white arrow) and then select all the anchor points that correspond to the area you wish to change the depth of.
  5. Nudge the area up or down until it reaches the correct height or depth. Holding down <shift> while using the arrow keys will move the layer 10 pixels at a time.
  6. If you moved a part of a layer, connecting corridors or stairs should have automatically updated. If they didn’t, or if the corridors are on their own layer, you’ll have to move the connecting anchor points. This may require that you use the Add Anchor Point tool to add points (like if your stairwell is in the middle of a corridor). Don’t forget to convert them.
    1. Select the Direct Selection tool (the white arrow).
    2. Select the layer that contains the anchor points that require moving in the layers panel.
    3. Select the anchor points to move on the canvas.
    4. Nudge them up or down with the arrow keys until they line up.
Step 5: Only Shapes
Step 5: Only Shapes

Step 6: Lowered Crypt
Step 6: Lowered Crypt
Step 7: Add Anchor Points
Step 7: Add Anchor Points
Step 8: Lowered Stairs
Step 8: Lowered Stairs

Duplicate Base Shape Layers

Now that you have your shapes correctly oriented vertically, you need to copy and merge them all into a single, cohesive shape. This shape can be used for all sorts of things, not the least being the construction of a “Level Lip” (see below).

How to Merge and Duplicate a Base Shape
For each floor you wish to operate on:
  1. Select all of the shapes that comprise the level and place them into a new layer group, called “Original Shapes Backup” (don’t throw anything away).
  2. Duplicate all of the shapes once.
  3. Select all of the duplicate shapes in the layers panel.
  4. Right click on any one of them and select Merge Shapes. Don’t forget to “Merge Shape Components”!
  5. Rename the resultant layer “Base Shape.”

One thing you can do with your Base Shape is use it to create faux walls as a stroke around the entire level, if your layout is conducive to it. Just copy the Base Shape above the floors, set a stroke on it (centered, probably) and your fill opacity to 0%. Bam. Instant walls.


Greebles are details added to things (usually blocky) that add texture and detail and imply greater complexity than may actually be there. For example, all the tubes and struts and piping that you see on the outside of the Millenium Falcon or a Star Destroyer are greebles.

Adding such details is called greeblization (a similar process of adding details to battlemaps is called dollhousing). Greebles are fun things to add to isometric maps but (like everything else) it can be overdone.

You may be tempted to add three-dimensional representations of everything in your map. Depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, this may or may not be a good idea. Excessive greebling can block details from the map.

For my isometric map of an underground city, I greebled up the buildings vertically so that they stood out. This was not so much a bad effect if all of the buildings were the same vertical height; the layout of the streets between them was still visible and understandable. However, if the buildings were of different heights, this detail was lost. A different, but similar problem appeared on a level where canals ran between the streets: they were lost entirely, and I had to include a call-out.

The answer to whether or not to greeble a thing depends on the map’s purpose and the information that is both gained and lost by doing so. In my city’s case, the purpose was more about producing an impression rather than accurate fidelity; the audience was the players. I felt that the layout was sufficiently described and that the impression of building height was of greater importance.

Level Layout without Greeblization
Level Layout without Greeblization
Greebled Buildings of the Same Height
Greebled Buildings of the Same Height
Greebled Buildings, Different Heights
Greebled Buildings, Different Heights

Rebuilding Objects

Step 9: Objects Returneth
Step 9: Objects Returneth

Now that the floor plan is mostly set, it’s time to start working on the objects it contains. This part is 100% chicanery. You’re creating an illusion of depth but it is no more real than a movie set.

Note that you don’t have to do this. Your map may be perfectly fine without it. In fact, this little dungeon looks great as is – I just had to fix the stairs (see below).

How this works is you duplicate the object you’re building as many times as it has visible “sides”, slightly changing the appearance of each of those layers, and then adjusting the anchor points of each one to create a three-dimensional version of the object. Each visible “side” of an object is going to be its own extra layer.

Pulleys in an Underground City
Pulleys in an Underground City
Completed Pulley Objects
Completed Pulley Objects
Exploded View of Pulley Construction
Exploded View of Pulley Construction

Ellipse objects are the easiest because they only have one visible “side”.

How to Draw an Isometric Ellipse or Column Object
For each ellipse or columnar object, named “Column”:
  1. Rename the Column layer to “Column Base.”
  2. Create a layer group named “Column” and place the Column Base layer inside of it.
  3. Add a single pixel inside stroke to Column Base so that you can see what you’re doing.
  4. Duplicate Column Base as “Column Top” and place this above Column Base
  5. Using the Move tool, nudge Column Top upwards to the height of the object.
  6. Switch to the Add Anchor Point tool.
  7. On the Column Base layer, add two anchor points to either side of the top. It’s possible there is a center point there; ignore it if so.
  8. Switch to the Convert Anchor Point tool.
  9. Tap each of the anchor points you just made (and if there is one in the center, that one, too). The shape should change subtly.
  10. Switch to the Direct Selection tool (the white arrow).
  11. Click and drag each of your two new anchor points up to meet the edge point of the COlumn Top layer.
  12. Optionally add some gradient overlays to both layers to create depth.
Step 1: Column Base
Step 1: Column Base
Step 2: Stroke Column
Step 2: Stroke Column
Step 3: Raised Column Top
Step 3: Raised Column Top
Step 4: Add Anchor Points
Step 4: Add Anchor Points
Step 5: Drag Points
Step 5: Drag Points
Step 6: Completed Column
Step 6: Completed Column
Step 7: Styled Column
Step 7: Styled Column

For objects that aren’t rounded, the process is pretty much the same except that you create a layer for each “side” and color them differently.

How to Draw an Isometric Polygon Object
For each object, named “Object”:
  1. Rename the Object layer to “Object Base.”
  2. Create a layer group named “Object” and place the Object Base layer inside of it.
  3. Add a single pixel inside stroke to Object Base so that you can see what you’re doing.
  4. Duplicate Object Base as “Object Top” and place this above Object Base
  5. Using the Move tool, nudge Object Top upwards to the height of the object.
  6. Duplicate Object Base twice as “Shadows” and “More Shadows” and place them both above Object Base
  7. Turn off visibility of Object Base (you may want this again).
  8. Change the color of Shadows to darker than your object’s color (say #999.
  9. Change the color of More Shadows to something even darker (say #777777.
  10. Switch to the Direct Selection tool (white arrow).
  11. Working in the Shadows layer, drag the two anchor points from the far edge of one of the sides up to the corners of the Object Top layer on that side. You may have to adjust all four anchor points to get a straight line (the isometrification stage will often move anchor points from perfect pixel points).
  12. Do the same in the More Shadows layer, just on the opposite side.
  13. If your object has multiple sides visible (like a hexagon), you’ll have to do the same for each additional side.
  14. If you like, add some effects to give it depth. I find that boxy objects don’t typically need this, however, and it tends to muddy things up.
Step 1: Object Base
Step 1: Object Base
Step 2: Stroked Object Base
Step 2: Stroked Object Base
Step 3: Object Top Raised
Step 3: Object Top Raised
Step 4: Drag Points on Side
Step 4: Drag Points on Side
Step 5: Finish Side One
Step 5: Finish Side One
Step 6: Completed Object
Step 6: Completed Object

Styling Stairs

It is entirely possible that your stairway already look how you want them – especially if you rasterized them. If they look like crap, however, you can apply one of these patterns to the stairway and it should work out. Pick the right pattern for the direction that the stair runs in.

You may find that your stairs are part of a larger corridor shape (as in the case of my dungeon). In this case, you’ll have to clip out the stairs into their own layer and then style them.

Stairs with Patterns
Stairs with Patterns
Stairs - Isometric - EW
Stairs – Isometric – EW
Stairs - Isometric - NS
Stairs – Isometric – NS

Rebuilding Doors
Isometric Doors
Isometric Doors

If you want three-dimensional, isometric doors, you’ll build them in the same way that you build an isometric object (described above). You will want to only create a handful of doors (one for each orientation) and then turn them into a smart object templates.

Clone specific door templates and place them where ever you need to.

Making a Level Lip

Dungeon with Level Lip
Dungeon with Level Lip

If you don’t like the way your rooms and corridors look floating in two dimensions, you can make them three-dimensional fairly easily – even if you’ve applied a pattern to them that you’ve rasterized and already scaled. Level lips are “vertical” – they are slices of the floor.

You do this by duplicating the base shape layer twice, shifting one down by 10 or 20 pixels, and then deleting the “top” one. You can then apply the same layer style (the one from the “overhead” layers) and it will lay out vertically.

How to Create and Style a Level Lip
For each floor level of your map, called “Floor”, with a saved Floor Base shape:
  1. Duplicate Floor Base twice, naming them in this order: “Lip Top” and “Lip Bottom”.
  2. Select the Move tool.
  3. Select the Lip Bottom layer.
  4. Nudge the Lip Bottom layer downwards by 10 pixels or so (whatever you think will look good). Holding down <shift> while using the arrow keys will move the layer 10 pixels at a time.
  5. Select both Lip Top and Lip Bottom in the layers panel.
  6. Go Layer -> Combine Shapes -> Subtract Front Shape. Don’t forget to “Merge Shape Components”.
  7. There may be artifacts you don’t want in this shape. Manually delete them with the Direct Selection tool (the white arrow).
  8. Rename the resultant layer to “Level Lip”.
  9. Set the color of Level Lip to something different (#777777).
  10. Switch to the Direct Selection tool (white arrow).
  11. Go around the edges of the Level Lip shape and lift corners in places where it doesn’t connect in a manner similar to building a side on an object.
  12. If you floor layer has a pattern, copy that pattern from the floor shape in the corresponding “overhead” layer and apply it to the level lip.
  13. You may also want to add a couple gradients running from either side to give depth to it. I find that this rarely works well, and usually end up skipping this or adding depth freehand with brushes later.

If you edit the layout of the floor layer later, you may have to rebuild your level lip.

Water Elements

Water elements can be tricky to get right if you’re trying to apply several styles to them – especially if you want to crate shorelines. You will nearly always need to rasterize them to pixels before isometrification in order to get the correct visual distortion.

Water Example
Water Example

If you want interior shorelines, you’re in for a rough time. While it’s easy to create them using strokes on the outside of a layer (as described in the outdoors maps article), inner strokes always overprint one another. The solution is to make a second shape, larger than your lake or waterway, duplicate the water shape, cut it out of the larger shape, and then apply strokes to that.

You’ll want to rasterize the stroke later before isometrification. There will be cruft; just delete that with an eraser.

Include Call Outs

A Level Call Out
A Level Call Out

Isometric maps can often benefit from call outs which describe similar things in a different way, or show exploded versions of the map. A call out can be an overhead view of the element in question, for instance. This is when you add those.

Don’t allow your call out markers (the lines that point to things) to obscure details in the map. You may want to create them in two layers so that you can use different blending modes to avoid this problem if you absolutely must run the line over some map details.

Include Labels

Add your labels, legend, title box, and compass to the map. You may or may not want to isometrify labels; this is often dependant on the label’s function. Labels for individual levels should not be isometrified, but labels on objects inside isometric levels should be.


Step 10: Stroked Dungeon
Step 10: Stroked Dungeon

At this point you should have a mostly serviceable map. What you want to do now is go over it and do things like add strokes, glows, gradients, and shadows to things to create depth (or the illusion thereof) and to pull out important features.

As with all maps, being subtle is probably more useful than being heavy-handed. Less is more and all that.

Do Brushwork

If you have a pen tablet (or a lot of patience), feel free to go over your map and add details here and there as you feel are needed: vertical seams on level lips, for instance, or water flow lines in canals and the like. Again: less is more. You’re transmitting information first and making pretty second.

Apply Grids

Dungeon with Grid
Dungeon with Grid

Say you want to have an isometric grid on your levels. This is easy to do. Pick the right pattern and apply it to either the top-most layer, or duplicate Base Shape with a fill of 0% and place it. You may have to move it around in the layer stack to avoid unfortunate clashing with things like stair patterns.

You could, of course, rasterize a square grid layer inside of your overhead version of the level and it will automatically scale and size for you. I don’t like this method, however, as it can have some unpredictable effects. If you use an applied isometric grid pattern, you can turn off “link with layer” and the grids will all sync up.

Isometric Hexagon Grids

You may find that you want to apply an isometric hexagon grid in some places. This is doable, but it’s not easily done via patterns. The reason why is that, like the surface of your map, the hexagon grid will distort as it goes. Isometric grids are on a 30 degree rotation. If you rotate a horizontally stacked hexagon grid 30 degrees, you get…<drumroll> a vertically stacked hexagon grid.

Example Isometric Hex Grid
Example Isometric Hex Grid

To get a proper isometric hexagon grid, you’re going to have to rasterize it and then isometrify it. You’ll need to make the initial grid shape larger (at least taller) than the area you’re going to apply it to. It’s best to just do this on a layer that’s the size of the entire canvas, unless you’re going to apply the grid everywhere, in which case you should do it on a layer that’s twice as big for safety’s sake.

How to Make an Isometric Hexagon Grid
  1. Create a new layer and call it “Isometric Hexagons”.
  2. Set your paint color to anything (#ffffff).
  3. Using the Paint Bucket tool, tap anywhere in the canvas. The entire canvas should turn white.
  4. Apply a pattern overlay with the hex grid of your choice.
  5. Set the fill opacity of Isometric Hexagons to 0%.
  6. Right click on Isometric Hexagons and select Rasterize Layer Style.
  7. Select the Isometric Hexagons layer.
  8. Activate the Transform tool with <command>t.
  9. In the options bar, set the rotation (the angle icon) to either “45” or “-45” degrees.
  10. Hit <return> twice (once to set the rotation, once to exit the transform.
  11. Activate the Transform tool with <command>t.
  12. In the options bar, set the height scale (the “H” value) to either “57.7%.
  13. Hit <return> twice (once to set the rotation, once to exit the transform.
  14. Move the Isometric Hexagons layer into place and clip as needed.
  15. Set the blending mode of the Isometric Hexagons layer so that it stands out.


Isometric map finalization is pretty straight forward: there isn’t anything special you need to do to finalize these beyond making sure any Templates are no longer visible. You will want to re-rasterize any outer glows or drop shadows (or actually turn those on instead of rasterizing; you’re finalizing now). You likely applied your grid in an earlier step so you’re good to go on that front.

Just go and print it.

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