Designing Maps

How to make beautiful and compelling maps for your games

Fantasy Cartography Best Practices

Wherein I teach you about best practices in cartography.

Any fool can make a map. Whether or not that map is good depends on upon if it is both useful and readable. I want to talk about what makes a map “good”, and a big part of that is following some old, well-set cartographical conventions.

This post describes several best practices when making fantasy maps. I put the word “fantasy” there because fantasy maps don’t have to follow a lot of the Great Unbreakable Rules and have built-in audiences and purposes (this is my disclaimer so that Actual Real Cartographers don’t try to say “well, actually…”).

There are no Photoshop techniques described herein. Much of this information is repeated within individual “Creating Maps” posts, but I wanted to collect it here. Many times, other articles in this series will point you back here (usually about font choice). Some people may find this information dry or may already know a lot of what’s here. I’ll try to be entertaining.

On Information Architecture

Information architecture deals with the organization of information. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you are exposed to information architecture thoughts all the time. If data (of any kind) is presented to you in an organized fashion, there has been some degree of information architecture applied, even if it is as simple as alphabetizing a list.

Information architecture provides hierarchy to the data. More important things are called out differently than less important things. Trivial or non-relevant things are omitted entirely.

Consider this map of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. What does it show? What’s been left out? What’s accurate and what is not? The lines, stops, transfer points, and cities are called out, with the lines being the most visible (because they are the most important).

You’ll notice, though, that the lines themselves aren’t remotely accurate when it comes to distance or direction – they’re scaled to be useful while on the line. Street roads and highways aren’t included, nor are any cities where BART doesn’t stop.

Maps are one of the purest and oldest forms of information architecture that exists. Every map that you have looked at is telling you something and that something is being presented in a specific, intentional way. Even what is not on the map tells you something.

When designing a map, it is very important to know what the information is that you’re trying to display. This information can be derived from the map’s audience and it’s purpose.


A map’s audience is the group of people who the map is designed for. This can drive many decisions about what to include or omit. Sometimes it’s good to think of a map’s audience as a kind of role.

When working with Fantasy maps, you have three basic audiences and they will often overlap. Each audience can (and will) be looking for something completely different.

  • Players. These are the people playing the game – your local crew. They actively require information from the map to help them make decisions during play.
  • Gamemasters. These are the people who run and manage games. Gamemasters need different information than players (usually secret things, like the location of traps, or hidden ruins). They have an active need for information.
  • Enthusiasts. These people enjoy looking at the maps for entertainment purposes. They do not actively require information from the map; in a sense, they are just “browsing”.


A map’s purpose describes what people are going to use the information it provides for.

A terrain map’s purpose is to show its audience where mountains and hills are. A coastline map’s purpose is to show its audience where shoals and coves are located. A dungeon map’s purpose is to show the Gamemaster the layout of the rooms and where the traps are. A battlemap’s purpose is to show the players the immediate locality.

It’s okay for maps to have multiple purposes. For instance, a well-designed battlemap can serve two masters: the players for game-play and enthusiasts who may be enticed to play the game by the map’s beauty.

(You should always try to think about the Enthusiasts. I know people who buy games just to look at the maps.)

For the most part, though, fantasy maps have a small set of purposes:

  • As Illustration
  • As Strategic Aids
  • As World-Building
  • As Story Guides


The primary purpose of all maps is illustration. Maps show where things are! It’s that simple.

Players, Gamemasters, and Enthusiasts all use maps as illustration, if only to know where things are in relation to other things.

Hand out maps – maps that the players pick up along the way, for instance – share this purpose. They are used to illustrate elements of the game’s story to the players (this is not the same as Story Guides, below).

Strategic Aid

Players will use maps as strategic aids to plan their activities.

They use outdoors and overland maps to plan journeys (“we need to get to this city, and there are four roads there, and the short one goes over a pass but the long one looks the safest…”) and they use battlemaps to know the immediate terrain so that they can perform well in combat situations.


World-building is something that happens naturally when designing maps. This purpose most often makes itself known during the design phase of a map, usually world-scale maps.

Plop a continent down on somewhere and fill it with jungles and places that have cool names. No one is going there just yet, but as the world designer you’re thinking about it. What exactly is the “Black Water”? What is the “Wandering City” or the “Great Tortoise?” Who knows. I just created some cool places.

Put weird things in and eventually you (or your players!) will figure it out.

The Black Water
The Black Water
The Wandering City of K'Choth
The Wandering City of K’Choth
The Great Tortoise
The Great Tortoise

Story Guide

The Gamemaster is the only one who uses maps as a Story Guide. Story maps are specifically purposed and are intended to be kept secret from the Players because they include details that the Players should not (or cannot) know, but that the Gamemaster must know.

The classic dungeon blueprint map is the best example of this kind of map purpose. Here are the traps, there are the secret doors. This is how high the water will rise when the trap is sprung. Those types of things.

Outdoor and wilderness maps can fall into these purposes, too. A Gamemaster may have an additional, secret copy of an island map that shows where ruins of the Lost City of Arretium are located, or the secret cove where the Pirate Kings of Umbria make lair.

On Titles

A map’s title is one of the most meaningful things to show. The title can provide several key pieces of information to the audience, the most important being what they are looking at. The title reflects its overall purpose.

For general area maps, simply give it the name of the area (“The Island of Atlantis”, “The Free City of Firenze”, or “The Secret Temple of the Dread God Dyoig-Notho”). However, maps with specialized information should call that out (“Trade Routes of Western Terracopia”, “Sewers Under the City of Napoli”, or “Occurrences of Wild Magick Blights between 1200 and 1300 Common Reckoning”).

The map’s title should be large and in charge. It should usually be placed towards the “top” of the map but if space or detail prevents this it can be moved to the bottom.

Additional details that should go into the map’s title can include when it was made (“Drafted in 1345 Common Reckoning”) and any caveats about the information presented (“As Known to the Macedonian Navy”).

(You don’t have to put titles on battlemaps and in fact this is discouraged.)

On Labels

Labels on maps show the audience what a location or object is. How a thing is labeled depends on what it is: road, city, mountain range, river? Desert or sea?

An element’s label, position, and design can reveal additional information to the audience. There are some best practices for this.


Font Dos and Don'ts.The choice of a label’s font is very important. Fonts should be readable. You’re trying to impart information here. Some fonts that are great for websites (Helvetica Neue) are not so great for fantasy maps, while others (Luminari) feel right at home. You don’t want big, thick, or complicated fonts (Cloister Black) for labels, and if you use Papyrus or Comic Sans I will hunt you down and drink your blood.

Note that for one-off, very large labels (like the map title) you can use the complicated fonts*.

* Except Papyrus. Never, ever use Papyrus.

Serif and Sans-Serif Fonts

The word Serif means “feet”. Serif fonts are those whose characters have little feet on them. Sans-serif (literally, “without feet”) fonts do not. Modern fonts, especially on websites, tend to be sans-serif. Typewriter fonts are serifed. Most old-timey fonts are going to be serif fonts.

This is important as the distinction between serif and sans-serif is immediately obvious to the audience and helps them make mental connections between similarly labeled elements easier.


A typeface (or a “font family”, depending) is a collection of fonts that are similar. The distinction between a typeface and an individual font can be messy to the layman. Individual fonts (“Times New Roman Italic” or “Times New Roman Regular”) are part of the greater font family (“Times New Roman”). Most typefaces have four members: regular, italic, bold, and bold italic, but some have many, many more.

When you select a font from a drop down, you’re actually selecting a Typeface. This is usually the “regular” version of the font. When you set it to italic, you’re selecting the “italic” version of the font.

As a general rule, you should have no more than three Typefaces on your map. This does not include capitalization, bolding, or italic treatments, nor does it include things like font stroke or color* (I usually stick with Trattatello, Crimson, and Copperplate Gothic).

*You can make an exception for the map’s title. Title fonts don’t count against your font count.


You can choose to use ALL CAPITALS when defining a label style. This makes that style distinct. Capitalized labels are generally used for large or ethereal things (the labels for states or nations, for instance), to indicate hierarchy (ward names and districts), or relative importance (major thoroughfares vs. alleys).

Alternate Ligatures

Some fonts (like Trattatello) have additional alternate ligatures. Think different versions of specific characters that may have additional swoops or lines or can connect to other letters differently.

These variants are great for adding flavor to your maps and make them pop. Feel free to use them but don’t go overboard.

I’ll discuss how to use them in Photoshop Typography but you should be aware that they exist.


Hoo-boy. Label positioning.

How labels are positioned depends on the kind of element. In many cases (forests and lakes) the labels should be centered inside the area. For others, the label should be spread and rotated over the element.

Drawn Mountains with a Light Label and Stroke
Label on a Verdant Area
A Plateau
Labeling a River
A River
Labeling a Lake
A Lake
Labeling a Sea
A Sea
Label on a Simple Block Forest
A Forest

Settlement labels use special rules and have a hierarchy:

  • Settlement labels should never cross a shoreline, river, or boundary line.
    • If the boundary is to the left of the settlement, the label goes on the right.
    • If the boundary is to the right of the settlement, the label goes on the left.
  • Settlement labels should almost always be horizontal. Never curve a settlement name.
    • An exception is for highly detailed, zoomed maps where labels can be placed at angles if the situation requires it.
  • For settlements inside the land, the label should be placed in the following order, given available space:
    • Top right, left aligned
    • Right, left aligned
    • Top left, left aligned
    • Bottom left, left aligned
    • Bottom left, right aligned
    • Left, right aligned
  • For coastline settlements, the label should be located in the water, and to the top or bottom corner as makes sense given the coastline.
Top Right, Left Aligned
Top Right, Left Aligned
Top Left, Left Aligned
Top Left, Left Aligned
Bottom Left, Left Aligned
Bottom Left, Left Aligned
Bottom Left, Right Aligned
Bottom Left, Right Aligned
BAD: Crossing coast object
BAD: Crossing coast object


Labels for elements should be sized according to their relative importance. Larger cities or islands should get larger font sizes. Seas and oceans should have very large fonts.

It’s best to pick the smallest font that you’ll be using and work upwards.

Island Labels
Island Labels
Island Labels Showing Relative Size
Island Labels Showing Relative Size

Curves and Spreading

Labels can and should be curved and spread to follow along an element on the map if the element warrants it.

  • Labels for Roads should not be spread out but should follow the path of the road.
  • River labels should curve and spread along the river. Do not spread the label over the river’s entire length; instead use multiple labels.
  • Mountain Range labels should curve and spread along the length of the range, if possible.
  • Sea and Ocean labels should be large and spread out to as much space is allowed. The size and position of the label should give a rough indication of its area.


In nearly every case labels should be read left-to-right (or right-to-left in languages like Hebrew or Farsi). The main exceptions to this rule are for rivers, seas, and mountain ranges, but also for some things like plateaus. Rivers have special rules; see below.

In the case of mountain ranges, seas, and plateaus, the label direction should be as much as “left-to-right” as possible. This may mean rotating the text in one degree or the other. The text should not be “upside down”; you should still be able to read it (this may be unavoidable, though, so be kind to yourself). Consider the center of your map and rotate around that.

The exception to this rule is for rivers and other running water. With rivers, the direction the text flows imparts additional information: the direction the water runs. The start of the text should be towards the river’s source (e.g., the mountains) and run towards its mouth (usually the sea).


You’ll define the color of your labels when you define the style of them. Colors should be readable. If there is a chance it won’t be, add a stroke to it.

Use the same color for the same types of elements. If you pick #222222 for settlement labels, then all settlements should use that color. This is not a hard and fast rule; for instance, settlement labels on land can be dark, but over water maybe you want to use #dddddd. Consistency is the key: if you make a change, make sure it’s applied everywhere (e.g., don’t set all of your labels over water to a light color except one).

Natural vs. Created Elements

It is important to understand the distinction between natural elements and created elements. Your font treatment should be different between the two and consistent within the type.

  • Natural elements are those that were not created by human (or dwarf, or elf) hands. Forests, mountains, islands, rivers, seas, deserts, lakes, and the like. Lakes created by dams also fall into this category.
  • Created elements are those built by people. They did not come into existence naturally. Cities, buildings, ruins, roads, and bridges all fall into this category.

Classically, natural phenomena are labeled with italic fonts and created elements are labeled with non-italic fonts. This has blurred a lot in modern times, so that specific rule doesn’t apply. That doesn’t mean you are off the hook, however.

What you should do is pick one of your font families for each type. The font families should not be similar; they should be obviously distinct. You can (and should) use different treatments (italics, bold, all caps, etc.) for different things as well.

I label my natural elements using Trattatello (a handwritten style font) and my created elements with Crimson (a good serif font). I label settlements in Crimson Semibold Italic, while roads are labeled with Crimson Roman. Both fonts are in the Crimson family, but one is a fleshy oblique font and the other reads more like a typewriter font.

You may be asking yourself, “Self, I’m allowed three font families, but he’s only described using two! Where’s the third?” Good question!

Use the third font family for ethereal, informative things that do not have specific locations. Things like state or nation names (This is where I use Copperplate Gothic).

Alternate Names

Some places have multiple or alternate names. This is most common when a place is known commonly in one language by one group of people and in another language by others. These are called “Alternate Names”.

Alternate names should be placed below the main label and de-emphasized. They are usually surrounded by parenthesis or brackets. You can de-emphasize an alternate name in several ways (or multiple ways):

  • Using a Smaller Font
  • Reduced Opacity (tricky with the Type tool; you’ll have to make two labels)
  • Using a Different Color
  • Using a Different Font
  • Using Different Layer Effects (tricky; you’ll have to make two labels)
Label on a Simple Block Forest
A Forest with an Alternate Name
The Black Water
The Black Water with an Alternate Name
Label with Alternate Name on a Desert
A Desert with an Alternate Name

On Compass Roses

A compass rose is that part of the map that shows which direction to orient the map. They are incredibly important for all maps except battlemaps (which don’t need one).

Like everything else on a map, the compass roses should provide meaningful information. The most minimal bit of this what direction to orient the map.

Compass roses also point to the principal winds or directions (North, North-East, East, South-East, South, South-West, West, and North-West) using color and size on the points to differentiate between major and minor winds (some societies used different names or had many, many more winds). Advanced roses can show the difference between true north and magnetic north.

Compass roses can take many forms. The most basic of them simply point to the North. A single north pointer is sufficient for blueprints and battlemaps, but you may want to get more elaborate when it comes to outdoors maps.

Compass roses can be part of your mythology. The one I designed for my Terracopia fantasy setting includes hints to some of the deeper secrets of the setting in its design, for instance (a style choice that required a significant simplification of the rose). Other times, you’ll want a more “standard”, multi-point star.

An Elaborate Compass Rose
An Elaborate Compass Rose
A Stylized Compass Rose Used in the Terracopia Setting
A Stylized Compass Rose Used in the Terracopia Setting

On Key Maps

An Example of a Key Map
An Example of a Key Map

A key map is a map-within-the-map. Key maps are useful to provide a greater context for the map’s audience. They show a larger scale map with the area of the current map highlighted for context.

Key maps are most often used for sections of a larger world map. They are of negative value with battlemaps, so don’t use them there.

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