Fantasy Map Design Basics
While different map types have different needs, there are a few basic things that apply to all types of maps.
This article discusses some basics that apply to all maps types. Where there are deviations, they will be noted in the individual “Creating Maps” articles.
On File Resolutions and Dimensions
The size and resolution of your map drive many things. It is important to understand these two concepts and how they relate to one another. First, let’s talk about resolution.
The resolution (or dpi) is the number of pixels that appear per inch in the document (“dpi” stands for “dots per inch”). There are two common resolutions for images: 72dpi and 300dpi. 72dpi images are intended for viewing on screens: televisions, computers, phones, etc. 300dpi images are intended for printing.
There is a paradox here, in that 72dpi images are rarely shown at 72 pixels per inch; the concept of an “inch” doesn’t mean a lot with computers anymore. However, 300dpi for printing absolutely means a lot. When you work for print, you know exactly what’s going to print and where.
Have you ever found an old digital photograph, or a graphic on the web and then printed it out? It probably came out either really, really small (a 72dpi image printed a a 1:1 pixel ratio) or it came out really blurry and pixelated (a 72dpi image that was automatically scaled up to 300dpi). Scaling images – pixel images, that is, which is what gets sent to a printer – will always result in blurring. This is true whether you’re printing it or re-scaling it inside of Photoshop itself.
The inverse is not so true: scaling an image down in size will cause pixels to merge and become smaller. If you have a 20×20 pixel white square, if you size it down by 50% you’ll have a 10×10 pixel square. Pixels get merged: not just left-and-right but also top-and-bottom. Downscaling by evenly divisible amounts always works better than odd amounts, and clearly scaling in 50% increments works best.
When creating new maps, always use 300dpi, even if you don’t think you’re going to print it. It costs you nothing and you will regret it if you ever have to upscale.
With most maps, altering the size and resolution can be done after the fact. You want to add more detail to your island? Up the scale, clean some edges, no problem. However, with battlemaps, it is important to start knowing the size of the map. Battlemaps must always be made at 300dpi. Don’t make me come after you. If you set battlemaps to lower resolution, it’s not my fault, and you can’t blame me.
When choosing the actual starting size of your map’s canvas, it helps to know if you’re going to be printing it or not. I suggest that you always assume the answer to that question is “yes” because if you decide not to print it, you’re out nothing. It costs no extra time or effort to work with a file that is prepared for printing versus one that isn’t, and if you ever decide to print a non-print ready file, you’ve got some problems.
Trust me on this.
Accordingly, you should always set you file size to match. Now, the actual size (x by y pixels) is not as important as the relative dimensions of the file (the x to y ratio). A file that is 2400 x 3600 pixels in size has dimensions of 2 by 3. 2 by 3 is the magic ratio so always use that.
I always like to print my maps out to posters at 24 inches by 36 inches. However, you’re not dealing with super-accuracy, so you can select smaller canvas sizes (indeed, I suggest this because working with large documents can become slow). For large, world-size maps, I select 4000 by 6000 pixels but for most others I stay with 2400 by 3600 pixels. I find that they print just fine scaled up or down with that.
Note: With a battlemap, you must know ahead of time how big you plan to print it and set your canvas size to that exactly. If you’re going to print at 11″ by 14″, set the canvas size to 11 inches by 14 inches, with a display resolution of 300dpi. More information about battlemap sizing strategies can be found in Designing Fantasy Battlemaps (see, it’s so important that I’m repeating myself already).
Photoshop has some default canvas sizes you can pick from that may meet your needs but honestly just create a new document of any size and then resize it immediately.
Nearly every map will want to have a Scaling Grid grid. This is an overlay layer that displays a grid of hexes or squares, where it is known that the distance between the two sides is consistent. Spoiler alert: This tells the viewer the scale of the map.
- Outdoors maps use hexes
- Overhead Blueprint maps use squares
- Isometric Blueprint maps use diamonds
- Battlemaps can use squares or hexagons, depending on the game
You may be asking yourself, “Self, why do some maps use hexes and others squares?” Go you! You should congratulate yourself for making such an astute observation. The answer depends on the purpose of the map and the most useful way to display distance.
A Hexagon is the same distance from edge to edge on six sides and give a much more accurate depiction of distance within a 360 degree arc (a total of 6 directions are accurate). However, while hexagons stack very neatly, they are not as useful for defining architecture (no truly “straight” lines to follow) and they’re impossible for use with a grid coordinate system.
A Square is the same distance from edge to edge on four sides and gives only 4 directions of accurate distance. This is extremely useful for blueprints. They stack neatly, but diagonal distance is almost impossible to calculate easily. They are very useful for defining architecture, and are perfect for coordinate systems.
Basically you want to use hexagons when the fidelity of distance must be preserved over larger areas (islands) and squares when the fidelity is important over small areas (rooms and buildings). For accuracy’s sake, in the really real world, distance between places on maps was determined by using a protractor and if a map had a grid, it was a square grid with lookup entries. But games do not require perfect fidelity.
In some games, especially those that use miniatures, the game’s “playing field” is defined by the use of hexes over squares or vice versa. If your miniatures rules use hexagons, use hexagons even if squares make more sense.
When using hexagons, you have to make a choice to use vertically stacking or horizontally stacking hexagons. It doesn’t really make much difference but the choice determines the initial hex layouts.
Here are several grid patterns (1 each at 1000, 500, 300, and 100 pixels). They are a default grey in color. If you want different colors, there are ways to do that with color overlays (which I’ll explain later) or you can save them off and change the colors manually and re-import them.
- Click on each to open the full resolution image. Save them to your desktop and then open each in Photoshop.
- For each one, type <command>a to select all pixels.
- Go Edit -> Define Pattern and give each one an appropriate name (for example, I use “Hex – Vertical – 300px”, “Hex – Horizontal – 300px”, and “Square – 300px”).
Applying a Scaling Grid
You’re going to make a master grid layer and then duplicate it several times. You will want to have a version that will be useful even if you have layer effects turned off, for one. Other duplications may come about if you choose to include multiple grids.
Make an initial, “master” grid.
- Create a new layer named “Grid Master” and move it to the very top of the layer stack (you want the grid overtop everything, at least while you work). You can change the grid’s stack order later, to move it below a title or legend, for instance.
- Using the Paint Bucket tool, fill the entire layer with white (
- Double click the layer to open the Layer Effects dialog.
- Under “Advanced Blending”, set the layer’s Fill Opacity to 0%
- Add a Pattern Overlay:
- Select the grid pattern you wish to use (“Hex, Vertical, 500px”) (see below about scale).
- Set blend mode to “Normal”. You will do blend modes on this later.
- Set scale to 100%. If you’re doing half-size, set it to 50%.
- Set “Link with Layer” to true. This causes the grid to follow the layer, which you won’t need, but is good to set here.
- Click “Reset Origin” just to be sure. This resets the 0,0 of the pattern to 0,0 of the layer.
- For “Scale”, you’ll want to pick the right size (see below). When in doubt, default to 100.
- Click Okay
- Recommended: Set the opacity of Grid Master to about 25% while you’re working.
Setting Grid Scale
Here’s where you have to do some math. The patterns I provided are scaled at different pixel resolutions (this is so you get less blurring if you scale up or down). You’ll have to choose which pattern to use and what scale to use it at.
If your map is 3600 pixels wide, and you want that to represent a distance of 500 miles, and you want to show hexes where each hex equals 100 miles, you’re going to want 1 hex to show up every 720 pixels (3600 / 5 = 720 pixels). The closest hex to that size is a 1000 pixel hex (always start larger). So you select that one as your pattern and you set the pattern’s Scale to 72% (72% of 1000 equals 720).
It’s usually best to stick with whole numbers, to be quite honest, but we do what we must.
Scaling Grids Without Layer Effects
Now, this grid will only be visible when you have Layer Effects visible (see Photoshop Layer Styles and Effects). Since you’ll probably be working a lot with them turned off, you want a grid that remains.
- Duplicate the Grid Master layer, naming it “Grid Pixels”.
- Turn off the Grid Master layer.
- Right click on the Grid Pixels layer and select “Rasterize Layer Style”. This will burn away the layer effects and create a layer that looks exactly like it as raw pixels.
- Mess with the opacity of that layer so that it doesn’t get in your way but is still useful (say, 50%)
Now you have a “working” grid. Turn the visibility of this layer on or off as required.
When it comes time to finalize the map, you’ll end up doing a lot more with this grid. I’ll discuss that later, but for now you have something you can work with.
When working with grids (especially with hexagons), it is often desirable to break a larger grid up into smaller bits. You’ll want one large grid, where a hex equals 500 miles, and then an interior grid, where a hex equals 50 miles. Generally, the smaller-scale grid will be the “main” grid and the larger-scale grid will be used for, well, scale.
This is easy to do. Just create another layer and apply a new grid, with a different size and scale. If you’ve got a “large” grid that uses a 1000 pixel pattern, make a smaller grid using a 100 pixel pattern. Make sure to use the same pattern “type” (e.g., don’t mix and match vertical hexes with horizontal hexes).
You’ll want to give them different opacity values until such time as you apply layer styles or colors to them.
I absolutely recommend that you get yourself a pen tablet and learn to use it. Drawing things is infinitely easier and faster to do with a pen than with a mouse. Tablets can be expensive, however, so they may be out of your budget.
If you do decide to get a tablet, I recommend one with pressure sensitivity. You won’t be doing a lot of pressure-sensitive work, but when you do, oh boy does it make a difference.
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.
I always design and build your compass roses in separate files so that I can easily pull it into a new map. I also try to keep the rose as a single shape – but that won’t be possible with more elaborate designs. Where possible, use shapes instead of pixel layers so that it can be resized and retain its fidelity.
If your map has a legend you will want to add that. There are two kinds of legends that maps normally have: numeric legends and icon legends. Legends have two parts: the legend key and then their corresponding icons or numbers on them map. Legends should be readable and easily discoverable, so place it front and center.
Numeric legends are the kind most often associated with dungeon maps. They are often numbers placed within rooms, with a master key that explains what they are. Icon legends match icons to their corresponding labels, explaining what certain symbols mean.
Numeric Legend Keys
If your legend is entirely numeric, creating the key fairly straightforward.
- Create a new layer group, high in the stack, called “Legend Key”.
- Inside of Legend Key, create a layer, “Backing”.
- Inside of the Backing layer, create a shape of any style (usually with the Rectangular Shape tool or the Rounded Rectangle tool) and fill it with a lightish color of your choice (I use
- Create a new layer above Backing called “Legend Text” and select it.
- Switch to the Type tool.
- Set your paint color to a readable value (I use
- Click in the upper left corner of your Backing layer shape and drag the cursor to the lower right corner. You have now created a text area that spans multiple lines.
- Type your legend key into this text box (e.g., “1. Bridge, etc.”) with a return character between each row.
- You may have to resize the text area and/or the Backing layer shape.
- You may want to play around with the “Character” and “Paragraph” settings in the panels: turn on or off hyphenation, change the font, the font size, or kerning, etc.
Bam! Now you’ve got a legend key. See below for styling tips.
Icon Legend Keys
Icon legend keys are a bit more complicated to create because you have to account for the icons themselves. In this case, the process is the same as above except you’ll need to resize the text area inwards to account for the icons you’ll be adding.
Make copies of all the icons you use and pull the copies into the Legend Key layer and align them next to the associated text. Use the alignment tools to center them, etc.
If your legend is numeric, you need to place the numbers where they go. You’ll need to create a ton of new layers for this.
- Create a new layer grouping inside of Legend Key called “Legend Numbers”.
- Inside of Legend Numbers, create a new layer and select it. Don’t change its name; that will happen automatically.
- Switch to the Type tool and click on the room or area where the first number is going to be. You’ll see a cursor.
- Type the number (e.g., “1”). Do not hit the <return> key as this will insert a hard line.
- Click any other layer in the layers panel to formalize the text layer. You’ll notice the name of the layer changes to the value of the text.
- For every other number:
- Duplicate the previous number layer (so you will have “1 copy” or summat) and select it.
- Drag it to the next number’s position.
- Switch to the Type tool and click the number.
- Change the value to the correct number (e.g., “2”). Again, don’t hit the <return> key.
- Click any other layer to formalize the text layer.
- You can now easily move and reposition your numbers.
Styling Legend Keys
You don’t want you legend keys to look like crap. Apply some styles to them. I usually end up having styles on individual layers within the Legend Key group and then one that applied to the group. Here are my favorites:
- For the Backing, a dark stroke around the entire thing with a color overlay to give it some oomph
- For the whole Legend Key group, a drop shadow and a noise pattern set to Linear Light
Styling Legend Numbers
Legend numbers need to be readable, so choose a good, readable font, size and color. You may want to add strokes or other effects to help call the numbers out.
A Scale Mark tells the viewer the map’s scale. You’ve already determined that when you set the map’s Scaling Grid but that information needs to be imparted to the user. This can be done very simply: “1 Square = 10 Feet” or “1 Hex = 50 Miles”. I like to include icons to indicate this, but there are nice line styles that can exist as well.
Scale marks aren’t usually necessary on battlemaps as the scale is assumed by the game (e.g., “5 feet per square”). When writing numbers, use the number itself and not a word for it (“10 feet” versus “Ten feet”) as humans recognize numbers faster than words.
You can place your scale mark wherever feels natural and is easily findable. I like to keep mine associated with the Legend Key or the map’s Title. Humans are trained to look in the bottom left and bottom right corners if the scale isn’t immediately visible, so those are also places.
A map’s title helps people create the context for what they’re viewing. This is especially important if there aren’t any other identifying marks on the map. A random island shape without any title could be anywhere (which may make sense for pirate treasure maps). So mark a Best Practice: Always include a map title.*
Titles can convey other information besides what you’re looking at (“The Island of Tuscan”), such as the time period that the map is viable for (“c. 1256 Pompeii Reckoning”), or implying that the map is imperfect (“As Known to the Kraith Oligarchy”).
There is additional information that should be shared in the title are if it is not included elsewhere, such as the Scale Mark.
Pick a nice, dramatic font that is readable at a couple of sizes as your title may consist of multiple weights. I liked to center the paragraphs, but this is totally up to you. You’ll want to have a contrasting font color (unless you apply a good stroke to the text).
I always apply a light noise pattern, a bold stroke, and a shadow or outer glow when I stylize these. Again: your map, your style.
* An exception to the best practice here is with battlemaps. In these cases, the narrative of your story will usually provide the player’s the context they require, and if you’re building a whole dungeon as a battlemap, you don’t want them to know that the room they’re entering is called “Pit Trap Room.”
There will come a time when you realize that you’re just noodling on the map, moving pixels for pixels sake, for instance, or doing nothing more than dollhousing. This is when you’re probably done and it’s time to finalize the thing. There are a handful of steps here but none of them are overly difficult.
Different map types have different finalization needs. These difference are elaborated on in the individual “Creating Maps” entry for the map type.
Scale Grid Finalization
Battlemaps have special concerns for finalizing the Scaling Grid. See Designing Fantasy Battlemaps for more information.
Pick a blend mode for your grids. Overlay usually works very well, but play around with it. You may want to experiment with applying a color overlay, rasterizing that, and then selecting a different blend mode, even.
If you want to re-color the grids (for example, you want to have red large hexes and blue small hexes), you have a couple of options. The first is to “Rasterize Layer Style” on a grey grid and then apply a color overlay to it. The second is to put the grid inside of its own layer group and apply a color overlay to the group.
Place the grid layer in the stack where it works best. You probably want the grid “high” in the stack but below the title, compass, and any legend boxes, certainly. Depending on your various blend modes, you may want to re-order other things.