View Full Version : maps and building a world

04-05-2009, 04:43 AM
Ok my question goes out to anyone who can awnser especially to the veterans i was wondering what were the steps you used when making your map from scratch? what general ideas did u have when you made your world into a physical ? did u make the map first then the rest of the story? how did you come up with all the names for the places you wanted and how did you decide what to name what? like right now im looking at the rough draft ot my map and i seas. gulfs. ithmuses, straits, peninsulas,bays, islands and i feel like they ALL need names.. and perhaps a story behind the area: basically i was wondering what was your method of map making, deciding where to put mountins deserts etc and how you named them?

04-05-2009, 05:03 AM
The maps I have done are all for the fantasy world I created. I have been writing a story since 2002 and I started mapping out stuff later. I only had a couple of rough sketches.

Don't name everything, a lot of places in my world don't have a name either. You don't want to clutter your maps too much anyway, unless you are going for an atlass style map. I found naming stuff difficult as well. That's why the names of places of interest in my world have simple, logical names, like "Greenwood" for a city located in large woods and "Northgate" for a town that lies to the north. I also used the fantasy name generator to get some more exotic names:


Oh, and I cheated a bit, as the overland map I needed didn't have any continents or seas :D

04-05-2009, 07:10 AM
Personally I love placenames and I have studied mainly English names which I find very interesting. I am personally somewhat tired of all these fantasy-style names although I found that fantasy name generator intriguing. I am very much on Tolkien's side, that a name should not be given randomly. All geographical have some kind of history and usually on a very local level. A name like Oxford is comparatively clear and means just that 'ford used by oxen'; Use your imagination and make up a little story about the place you want to name, even if it's just the name of the man (or woman) who lived there.
All this said, I should add that my fantasy world is probably more modern than most fantasy world.

04-05-2009, 08:41 AM
I'm not a veteran but I'll throw in my 2 cents.

1. Determine size
2. Sketch map on graph paper, just rough outlines
3. Scan in and trace in Photoshop (zoom more when tracing to add more detail)
4. Add grid line, legend, all that stuff
5. Analyze where I want mountains (they determine where everything else can be)
6. Think about the basics of climate to determine where other things can go
7. Place rivers, marshes, forests and deserts
8. Add place names
9. Clean up map (erase grid lines that I don't want etc)

Steel General
04-05-2009, 08:44 AM
For me it all depends, sometimes I have a clear cut goal in mind and everything kinda just flows out of brain.

Others I struggle with and go back and forth constantly tinkering with things until I'm finally happy.

04-05-2009, 10:06 AM
I just have a general idea of what kind of scale/landforms I want, then I can make the map. The I use the map to develop my ideas of the history/culture.

Place names come later. Before I name anything, I need to know some history, religion/gods, culture and language. If a culture/region is prominent, I think about the language a bit and make up some words for things like colors and landforms. So if Gold=Val, Tree=Kon, Kingdom=Thar and City=Dar, then an area where golden trees grow might be Valkonthar. And the Golden City might be Valdar, etc. The feel of consistency this give to the map, for me, makes it well worthwhile.

04-05-2009, 11:17 AM
I make random coastlines and then add history and landforms based on that.

04-05-2009, 02:31 PM
The first steps, I think, happen before the map. What do you need from the map? What sort of Scale? Do you immediately need to see houses & locations or continents and oceans?

After that start a step larger than your biggest scale and work back. If you need a town start with a continent - a continent start with a whole world. Then when you start work on the area you have to get right the greater picture will influence your decisions.

Share what you need to share and don't be in a rush to share the 'big picture'. Keep it as a resource for yourself - you may want to change it or import other influences. I don't think players want to know you're clever, they want what their characters would know so they can figure out the rest.


Greason Wolfe
04-05-2009, 02:57 PM
Good question. And for me, just like it does for some of the others, it depends on my overall goal. As an amateur author and artist it really boils down to a few things for me.

Sometimes I have a backstory in mind. Whether it has to do with the culture, a particular event or an overall theme gives me an idea of just how large a scale I am going to be working on. Other times, it has to do with random inspiration. And then there are times that I might just be browsing the many millions of worlds that FTPro can generate (or terrains generated by Terragen) and something happens to catch my eye, just begging for more detail.

When it comes to naming things, I usually don't begin to approach that process until I have an idea behind the culture that will be living in the area. Then my approach tends to follow similar patterns in our own world with the names taking on specific cultural flavors and even spellings (i.e. Lac de SomethingorAnother instead of Lake of SomethingorAnother). And just as Gandwarf said, not everything needs a name. The places that need names are those that will be of interest or play some important role in the grand scheme of things.


04-06-2009, 04:29 PM
i find it hard to imagine a map i live in flordia there isnt much terrain variation so when i wirte about mountains or what not i cant imagine things here the only impressive thing here are the sinkholes

04-06-2009, 05:04 PM
Ok, I'll wade here.

When I am mapping, especially my old World, the World of Auren, I named things, but only in the grossest sense. In other words, I named those really, really LARGE things. To put it in perspective, when you look at a map of lets say just North America, you can expect to see the following named:

Atlantic Ocean
Pacific Ocean
Rockie Mountains.
Hudson Bay
Gulf of Mexico
Lakes Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie & Ontario,

(See this map here: http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/americas/north_america_ref02.jpg)

In otherwords, only the really 'noticable things'. See the map Auren-SW-1 to get an idea. So, I have named the really large noticable things, and a major city or two per nation.

Yet, when I was making plans to go in further at the moment, most of these maps are pen-paper), I was naming areas like straights, creeks, hills, individual mountains of importance, towns, villages, thorps, woods, forests, plains, fens, etc.

As for naming, well, that is a whole other topic ;)

04-06-2009, 05:20 PM
I do the same, start with the biggest things and work my way down until it starts to look cluttered...whether it be mountains or rivers, cities or labels. I'll put in a whole slew of city sizes then draw roads to connect the biggest and work toward the smallest until it starts getting cluttered. For names, I usually make them up but sometimes I'll use a name generator when I'm just not feeling creative.

04-14-2009, 08:29 AM
For me I grid my maps with the primary starting map in the center, because to my view; where you start is the center of the world. I then just expand outward.

Details: for my primary map, I put in a good bit of information because that is what my players will be needing, the greater from the center the less information.

Size: I like the Campaign Cartographer 800X1000 miles.

Names: I try to keep things simple, the grey mountains, the troll lands, etc. but will also steal from my mythology for names. Rivers named after gods, leaders, or heros, etc.

04-14-2009, 11:07 AM
Ok my question goes out to anyone who can awnser especially to the veterans i was wondering what were the steps you used when making your map from scratch? what general ideas did u have when you made your world into a physical ? did u make the map first then the rest of the story? how did you come up with all the names for the places you wanted and how did you decide what to name what? like right now im looking at the rough draft ot my map and i seas. gulfs. ithmuses, straits, peninsulas,bays, islands and i feel like they ALL need names.. and perhaps a story behind the area: basically i was wondering what was your method of map making, deciding where to put mountins deserts etc and how you named them?

For me it depends on for the circumstances behind the map. Often, especially in my younger years, I would just draw a map because I was bored, then come up with the story. Often I would do a series of chronological political maps going back and forth in time showing how things changed (Especially in my Sci Fi universe), then come up with the reasons why they changed.

Other times I had a need to create something on the spot and would do so, then go back and draw the map to fit in with what I had come up with, often I did this in gaming sessions because I generally dislike Campaign settings I didn't create (except Eberron).

Still other times I was inspired by something I saw or heard and sat down to draw something based on it. This is the least common way I do maps though, at least direct inspiration.

What I have done now that I have decades of maps filling up cabinets is I have begun to go through the maps and create worlds by meshing multiple smaller maps together, redrawing them to fit into the same world but using the old maps as inspiration. The current world I'm running/writing in is the culmination of roughly 12 years of work I did, mostly in my high school and early adult years.

What this has allowed me to do is give a very different feel for the various parts of the world while keeping a fairly uniform set of laws that govern all of the physical aspects of the world.

04-14-2009, 01:19 PM

Where to place things. I just place, not worring about stuff like plate tectonics for the most part but I do think about weather patterns, longitude & latitude. The best place to look for ideas is the real world, mountains less that 400 miles to the sea, should be active with volcanoes (don't have to be), rivers would run fast and may have flash floods. If a greater distance, you may have a greater number of deep water harbors at the mouths of the rivers.

Weather patterns tell me where deserts may be to to high mountains, or seasonal rains. Longitude & latitude, some of the same but what plants and animals my be found in the area, even what the people may wear.

10-26-2009, 05:38 PM
In general I start out by imagining different climates for my continent. Usually this already having some cultures in mind, but I try to keep the cultures clear until the basic form of the land is on paper.

After that, I start dividing the land into culture-zones. Since my current mapping project is for an RPG (of which I've come to love the setting) it's a bit on a time-restraint. So cultures mostly have real-world (and fantasy) sources.

At this point, I'm starting the naming process... Mainly oceans and countries/empires. I name them based on location, shape, features or location (Great Eastern Sea works fine). Sometimes an exotic sounding word pops to mind, and I slap it on somewhere.

Now generally, when needing names fast, I go to wikipedia with a civilization in mind, and I look up actual real citynames. Sometimes even current cities. I also change them slightly, so that they sound and look similar, but are different.

Other times, I look for online dictionaries (sometimes phonetic) to translate one or two words who sound right when strung together, and usually nice names form fairly quickly.

The hardest names are for the civilization most similar to your own, for board purposes, let's keep it at English-sounding names. These can be functional like 'Oxford' describes a ford where oxen could cross the river. Or [rivername]bridge describes a place where a bridge over a river was built. Mixing up names is also a fun way to go.

Finally, what really worked surprising wonders for me was asking a friend, who is completely not into the hobby to play for name-generator. He came up with a large number of good sounding and looking names which I could use.

For RPG and regular mapping purposes I generally only generate names for major places. When I need a smaller place, I just generate it when needed. I live in a small country in the Netherlands, in one of the twelve provinces (one of the less densely populated ones). I counted 547 places for that province alone on an 'almost complete place name list'. That's a lot of names to generate for one out of twelve provinces in a country which disappears under your fingertip on the average world map. And then I'm not even talking about, lakes, streams, channels, fields and municipalities (31). Wanting to name everything on a realistic local scale is near impossible, or a lifework.

10-29-2009, 07:03 AM
Wow, lots of good suggestions here. I'll add my own for the archives and future searches. Figuring the lay of land is probably the most difficult aspect of mapping, e.g shoreline, bays, major waterways. Once thats done, Mountains become easier followed by lakes and streams(Don't forget the prospect of synthetic lakes where inhabitants have dammed the rivers...these can be added later) Then of course city placements and then roads. Forests can be grown practically anywhere.

For naming things, as others stated already, don't crowd your map. Name the major regional areas, major watersources or waterways, forests, mountains ranges and laregr cities. Worry about the other stuff when you create blown up maps of specific areas(which usually accompany ideas of background that you may have)

To find names...get on to google earth, zoom down to the point of seeing the names of streets, rivers, counties, etc. and then pick and choose the ones that speak to you about a certain area of your map. You could actually get some inspiration from looking at the view in google.