Not a geography buff? Getting lost in the details? Leave it up to me!
But if you want to design a fantasy world yourself, here are a few
tips, tricks, & things to keep in mind:
Maps - fantasy maps especially - are both tools and works of art, balancing the need to communicate information with an aesthetic desire to represent a world beautifully. They're an immediately accessible way for an audience to grasp, at a glimpse, the core aesthetics, themes, and form of a world. Not only do they communicate geographic forms and city placement, but they can also embed culture, history, and symbolism, adding depth and realism to your world. While you create your map, keep a few basic goals in mind: that your map should be pleasing to look at, easy to decipher, and useful to your audience.
You wouldn't think that drawing a squiggly landmass would be too tricky, but it can be difficult to create a landmass that looks natural and fits your story. Try to avoid having your landmass conform to the shape of your paper or digital canvas - nothing looks more unnatural than a rectangular continent. Avoid simple shapes like circles, squares, and triangles when it comes to large continents - these can be a good starting place, but try to pull the shape out in places and push it in in others to make it appear more organic.
If your map is being created for a publishable project, you may want to keep formatting in mind! Two-page spreads can fit a lot more text and detail than single-page maps, so long horizontal worlds may be a better choice than tall vertical maps, unless you're happy to rotate the map in print.
A few methods:
The Blank Slate: You've got this! Decide how many core landmasses your map has, draw a general squiggly form for each, and then scatter a few islands around the coastlines. Don't be afraid to have your continent expand off the edge of the map - uncharted territory is always a fun feature!
The Fantasied World: Drawing inspiration from real-life geography is a classic and oft-used method in fantasy mapmaking. The British Isles alone have lent their general shape to a number of famous worlds, like Game of Throne's Westeros. Go on Google Maps, see what areas spark inspiration, and then edit the shape slightly (adding islands, cutting it off from the mainland, erasing and adding to the coastline, etc) to make it your own. For less recognizable geography, try zooming in to small island clusters and scale up those shapes to create vast fantasy worlds.
The Bean Method: This works best on physical paper. Take a handful of dried beans (or lentils, or rice), drop it onto the paper from a small distance, and then trace around the clusters. Edit as you see fit.
Generated Geography: Similar to the Bean Method but digital, there are a number of mapmaking programs available online that will randomly generate a world for you at the click of a button. Try Wanderdraft, Inkarnate, Flowscape, Campaign Cartographer, or Azgaar’s Fantasy Map Generator.
A list of ideas (not every map will include all of these):
- sandy desert
- rocky desert
- polar desert
If you have cold & hot regions in close proximity, try altering the height of the areas to justify the temperature difference! Higher altitudes tend to be colder; lower altitudes tend to be warmer.
- inland sea
Topography is the form and features of a landmass - its highlands and lowlands, rivers and lakes, and varied terrains. These are arguably the most important elements of any map, and serve to add form and character to your world, establishing how inhabitants would see and navigate its space. Think about the cultural impacts of your topography: are the tallest mountains, most active volcanoes, or deepest forests enshrouded in myth and legend? How are the great cities of your world shaped by the surrounding topography? Certain features may act as natural barriers between regions - mountains, deserts, swamps, and deep forest may be difficult to traverse, and can be used as natural borders between different cultures or kingdoms.
Rivers: Flow from high places (mountains, hills) down into lakes, seas, or oceans. If your river cuts coast to coast, it's not a river - it's a strait. Smaller tributary rivers will flow from highlands and join with the main river. It's much rarer for rivers to branch outwards. If you're aiming for realism, keep river deltas to a minimum.*
Lakes: Your lake may be fed by a river or drain, via a river, into a nearby ocean - but don't feel obligated to include these rivers on a world or continental map. A real-life landmass has so many rivers, streams, ponds, and lakes that mapping all of them would be impossible. Include only the largest and most important water bodies. Lakes may occur in clusters.
Mountains: Are a phenomenal way to work movement into your map and help it "flow". They're typically formed when two tectonic plates smash into each other, or through volcanic activity. For our purposes, use them to accentuate the shape of your landmass: by running a mountain range in a curving line, by adding height to your landmass, or by sectioning off different areas of the landmass using mountains as a natural barrier. They may also border or envelop raised plateaus. Mountains that run parallel to a coast may form a rain shadow desert on the other side, as they block rainclouds from reaching the area.
Hills, Highlands, & Plateaus: If you have mountains in your world, you'll likely have foothills and/or cliffs surrounding them. Hills can also occur practically anywhere else, and are a good way to work additional movement into your map. The flattest area of your landmass (where steppes, grasslands, plains, or deserts occur) will likely be the very middle of it, assuming no nearby mountains. Coastal areas can be gradual declines or boast cliffs, hills, river mouths, swamps, islands, etc.
CLIMATE & FLORA
Once you have your basic geography in place, deciding where vegetation goes is a piece of cake! First, confirm the climate of your world - is it a temperate world with deciduous forests and rolling meadows? Does it have a colder region, hot deserts, arid plateaus? If your continent is small enough compared to its planet, it may have a fairly uniform climate. Otherwise, land closer to the equator (the midway point between your two poles) will be hotter and drier; land closer to the north and south poles will be colder. Elevation also changes climate, with higher areas being colder and drier than lowlands. Hawaii, for instance, has warm coastal rainforests along its coasts, but a tundra climate on its mountain peaks.
An easy way to encode climate info into a map, besides colouring the terrain, is to use a few different basic tree designs (coniferous trees = cold, deciduous trees = temperate, palm trees = desert, tropical rainforest, jungle).
Trees like water, so you're more likely to have larger, denser forests in coastal areas, along rivers, in lush valleys, and surrounding lakes. Mountains may have forests at their base, fed by mountain spring water. Trees will become scarcer as you move into drier territory - meadows and grasslands may have scattered trees or small clusters, while deserts and plains will likely only have trees on the outskirts or by an oasis or lake.
In the real world, settlements typically form prior to overarching political regions, but many worldbuilders want to establish their large political entities prior to placing settlements. Follow whichever order makes the most sense to you! A few different forms of political regions are summarized below. Your world may include a number of them!
Nation States: Modern nation states are a fairly recent development, so don't feel as though your map needs to be perfectly divided into nation states with set borders. If nations and borders are part of your world, the borders will likely be drawn along natural features - rivers, mountains, coastlines, desert edges, etc. Different nations may have different levels of technological progress, which can result in different settlement sizes and different modes of travel between them (rough paths, paved roads, trains, airships).
Classic High Fantasy: Nations aren't the only form of inter-settlement political organization. If your world has many different fantasy races, their settlements may be politically unified, with general territories but no set borders. Elves, for instance, may reside over the great forests, while dwarves rule the mountains.
City States: A common political form in human history was the city state - a great city, independent and sovereign, with a sphere of influence extending over nearby smaller settlements. Rome and Venice are famous city states from history - both predating the nation of Italy - while Singapore is a modern example.
Kingdoms: A territory that is ruled by a king or queen. Your kingdoms may have capital settlements where the rulers reside, with nearby smaller settlements under their control. Large kingdoms may be subdivided into duchies (regions ruled by Dukes & Duchesses) or counties (ruled by Counts & Countesses).
Empires: Empires are a collection of different territories and peoples, all brought under the rulership of a single authority (often an Emperor/Empress or King/Queen). Empires are usually created through conquest, with a single powerful state conquering and/or colonizing other regions. The original state becomes the centre of the empire, while the newly conquered lands become peripheral territories, often overseen by regional authorities who remain subservient to the central power.
Populate your world! Not every map needs settlements - some maps may simply establish where certain nations or empires rule, or just stick to geography and do away with people altogether. But most maps will mark the largest and most important settlements.
Function: People settle specific areas for a reason - by coasts and rivers for ease of travel, in mountainous areas for mining or defensive purposes, in grasslands for ease of farming, and at forks in major roadways for trade. If your world is inhabited by multiple races, they'll likely settle in different patterns - elves in forested areas and dwarves in mountainous ones, for instance. In the real world, you'll notice that settlements cling to bodies of water (coasts, lakes, and rivers) while drier, open areas in the centre of large landmasses tend to be much less settled.
Trade & Travel: Larger settlements will likely have a few surrounding minor settlements that they exchange resources with, and minor settlements may also occur in loose clusters. Unless there's a narrative reason for a settlement to be isolated, think about which settlements would build trade relationships with each other, and how citizens would travel between them. A large city on a river, for example, may have close ties to a coastal fishing village, a mining town in the mountain foothills, a stronghold in a mountain pass, and a few farming villages in the surrounding prairies. Are there roads connecting them? Rivers or coastlines for boat travel? Train lines? Airships?
History: Your settlements likely didn't spring to life all at once. Are there ruins on your world? Are some cities more ancient than others? Older cities are more likely to have names whose meaning has been lost to time, while newer settlements have more recognizable names (this is particularly relevant when using the "it is what it is" naming strategy - see below).
A few methods for naming settlements:
It is what it is: What major features define this settlement? Is it a trading village by a rocky, red-toned coast (Redstone Markets)? A school by a reflective lake, famous for its clear night skies (Moonset Academy)? A stronghold built into the forested mountainside (The Raven's Watch)?
Lost in Translation: Google Maps is an incredible tool for naming settlements. If your culture is inspired by a real-world culture, you can translate descriptive words into the language of your choice for easy & unique placenames. Using an example from above, "Red Stone" is "Vörösko" in Hungarian - a very respectable name for an Eastern-Europe-inspired village.
Generation Nation: There are lots of generators online that will instantly give you lists of placenames. Try fantasynamegenerator.com - they boast a truly insane amount of categories, with a whole section devoted to places & locations, and generator categories that draw from both fantasy and real-life (western european village names; middle eastern town names; elven city names; etc).
A list of ideas (not every map will include all of these):
- city state
- kingdom capital
- exile colony
There are a few final touches you can add to perfect your map - naming forests, mountains, rivers, and oceans (see the methods in the above section), adding a few ships or sea monsters to surrounding waters, or drawing a border to frame your map. This is also a good time to look over your map in its entirety to ensure that everything makes sense and is nicely balanced. If you were dropped down into your world in a random location, would the world you found yourself in function as it should? For RPG use, are there enough points of interest on the map, and are they accessible to your players?
If everything looks good, then congratulations! You've designed a wonderful fantasy world to contain your stories, legends, adventures, and misadventures. Having a map to reference when writing a novel or DM-ing an RPG group makes story telling easier, more immersive, and more realistic.
Off to adventure!