By Michael K. Tumey
Gamemasters have a serious, unpaid job on an ongoing basis to create exciting plots and stories for their friends and players. Part of the job often includes creating one or more maps. Maps let players know how their surroundings appear around them. From world to encounter scale, maps let players know where they are in the imaginary worlds of your games. Some people can grab and pencil or pen and create a workable map in a few minutes, some can create artistic masterpieces doing the same. However, not everyone is skilled at drawing. You know what you want to create in your head, but putting it a format that your players will understand can be challenging.
If hand-drawing is problematic for you, then software is your solution. There are dozens of applications available. Some specifically designed as map making programs, many as graphic design or 3D applications. Some are simple to use, but limited in capability, while others have so many tools, it can be overwhelming to try without some familiarity with it.
There is no best mapping software. What works for you, might be impossible for someone else. We are all wired differently and there are many options that offer possible solutions. Below are just some examples of very different software applications that will allow you to create maps for your games.
- Tile stamping programs: Autorealm, Dundjini
- CAD applications: AutoCAD, ProFantasy Campaign Cartographer, Fractal Mapper
- Image Editors: Photoshop, GIMP, Paintshop Pro, Painter
- Vector Drawing applications: Illustrator, CorelDraw, Xara Photo & Graphic Designer
- 3D Software: Bryce, 3D Studio Max, SketchUp
It depends on what kind of software works best for you.
For those who want simple tile stampers are perhaps the easiest to use, but require many pre-made tiles to depict the design you want, but at the same time are limited to those tiles.
For those familiar with CAD software you can do amazing things in your maps, but if you are unfamiliar with CAD, it comes with a steep learning curve. If you have some training from school or work, and have a copy at home, CAD can let you design like an architect.
For those who like to paint, image editors use dozens of tools from brushes to complex curve adjustments to making stunning painterly creations. There are many image editing software out there, from simple to complex. Painting areas are contained within defined measurements of pixels, dots of colour that fill an array of dots to depict your image, however once you set the dimensions changing it’s size to meet different needs can be problematic. As a professional cartographer, I know that the majority of fantasy cartographers in the industry rely on image editors for the bulk of their map work.
Vector drawing applications, on the other hand, rely on a pen tool, working with lines and shapes and image fills. Pixels have no meaning to vector applications, it is just a collection of points connected by lines and containing colours or an image fill. Changing the map to whatever dimension best meets your needs doesn’t have to happen until you complete the design.
3D software is a different paradigm altogether with it’s own steep learning curve. While 3D maps can depict some of the most breathtaking results giving the powers of a scene director as much as a cartographer, it is very time-consuming for even simple structural design.
Every software solution offers different benefits and often follows a different design paradigm. Finding which one works best for you depends on how you prefer to create. From a traditional artist’s point of view, do you prefer to draw, paint, do drafting, sculpt or put puzzles together. Make that choice you can narrow down your choice to one of the categories of software listed.
What software do I use? I prefer to draw. While I appreciate the value of image editors, and use Photoshop almost daily in my day job, I prefer to work in vector applications. I’ve been using vector continuously in my work since 1989 using 3 different applications over that time. My application of choice, today is Xara Photo & Graphic Designer, though it’s vector, on one-hand it has far less tools than Illustrator, many of it’s tools are among the most versatile and powerful. I find it easy to learn and use, and highly recommend. I am only saying it’s the best software for me, it might not be best for you. Note while I prefer to work in vector, I also work with image editors, CAD, and 3D. My day job as a graphic design makes me learn many tools.
Pick your poison and run with it, that’s my best advice. Any software you are willing to invest your time through diligent practice can bring you the results you want. Just find one that works like you do.
Michael K. Tumey is a master cartographer with extensive experience spanning many years and is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to publish 25 Quick & Dirty Map Tutorials Guide Book.
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