I need to talk about the different kinds of maps and the kinds of information they convey. In nearly all instances, individual elements on a map fall on a scale of accuracy from representational to exact.
Representational elements convey limited information about a thing. What it is and its relational location but are rarely accurate with regards to size or shape. Circles to represent cities, square icons to mark doors in a building, X marks the spot.
Exact elements convey much more detail about the thing shown. These elements will be accurate to location, size, and shape, and may have more or less detail depending on the map’s scale.
The distinction matters and the choice as to where an element falls on the scale matters.
Take for example a large-scale map – a large island. Here, the locations of coastlines are fairly important and are likely drawn accurately (to the fidelity of the map’s scale). However, cities and towns are usually marked representationally, with dots or squares or stars. Their positions on the island are accurate, but you don’t draw buildings. Likewise, this map will include major roads, and while the routes they take may be accurate, the marks themselves are representational (roads are typically not wide enough to appear on large scale maps).
I’ve come up with a handful of broad categories into which I have discovered the types of maps I make fall.
- Outdoors. Large-scale maps that show large areas of land and the geography of an area.
- Blueprints. Small-scale maps that detail the layout of a building or a dungeon. They can be overhead or isometric (angled)
- Battlemaps. Tight-scaled maps that are appropriate for use with gaming miniatures. They often show single rooms.
These are your classical wilderness map. They can have any scale but typically fall into “world”, “continent”, “island/region”, and “city or town” scales. The map should scale to be just larger than the entire area it is attempting to display (e.g., if your city is 7 miles by 7 miles, the map should show 8 by 8).
Outdoors maps use hexagon grids and are almost entirely representational. This is likely true no matter what scale you use: you’re not going to be drawing individual trees, you’re going to draw the shape of the forest. City-scale maps rarely need individual buildings; blocks are often sufficient.
Some things will be drawn at radically increased size because they need to appear on the map (because they’re important, like a major river) but the actual size of the object would be invisible at the scale. For instance, there are no rivers that are 5 miles across, but have to be drawn at that size in order to appear at the map’s scale.
It’s easy to try to get too detailed. That’s a bad path to head down. Zoom in too much and you might as well make a battlemap. Outdoor maps are mostly about showing geographical relationship. The city of Florence is located on the River Arno. The Sierra Nevada mountain range runs along the eastern edge of California. The business district is south-west of the city capitol.
Note that maps of the underground (or “underdark”) fall into this category as well.
There are two tutorials about designing outdoors maps:
- Designing Fantasy Outdoors Maps: A discussion about the design of larger-scale outdoors maps
- Designing Fantasy City Maps: A discussion about designing smaller-scale outdoors maps
These maps show relational space within a structure. They’re for indoor areas and the classical dungeon map falls into this category. They can have many scales (really it’s just the size of the artboard you’re working with), but there are two major types: overhead and isometric.
Blueprints use square grids. Accuracy is of importance but excessive detail is not. For instance, doors must be shown (accuracy) but they should be shown as simple squares (representational). Drawing wood paneling on doors at this scale is overkill.
A blueprint shows room layouts and building structure. They should rarely describe room contents unless it’s important (e.g., a large fountain, statue, or a grand piano) but important structural elements (where the bar is located) may be included.
Blueprint maps are most often “overhead,” where the details are shown in a flat two-dimensional plane. There is another type of blueprint map, isometric. Isometric maps are useful to show two-dimensional spaces in three-dimensions, and use a diamond-shaped grid.
There are two tutorials about designing blueprint maps:
- Designing Fantasy Blueprint Maps: A discussion about classic-style dungeon and building maps
- Designing Fantasy Isometric Maps: How to work in an isometric view
These are highly detailed, zoomed in maps, intended for printing and use during a game session. Battlemaps can be for indoor or outdoor areas. These maps are intended to show the objects in the area and their sizes and relationships to each other should be as exact as possible. Is there a gap in the wall? It gets drawn. Show where the road’s edge is. Show furniture in rooms.
When you work on a battlemap, you have to be conscious of three dimensions in new ways. For instance, a tree may be a rough circle 20 feet across when seen absolutely from above, but the players are going to be interacting at the ground level, where the tree trunk may only be 3 feet across. In this case, you’d draw the tree’s trunk. If you want to get fancy, maybe add in the shadow of the tree, or a rough outline of where its leaves cover, but usually that’s not necessary.
Because battlemaps have so much detail, it’s good to draw things realistically. This can be daunting if you aren’t possessed of great drawing skills. Never fear! 90% of making a battlemap pretty is handled with Photoshop layer effects and shapes, which are easy and fast to use once you get the hang of them.
There are several tutorials regarding the creation of battlemaps:
- Designing Fantasy Battlemaps: The master battlemap design tutorial
- Making Battlemap Assets: A primer about building individual battlemap assets
- Battlemap Techniques: a collection of multiple techniques for building specific battlemap elements, such as stairs, puddles, and moss