Every hero needs somewhere to have adventures, and your Dungeons and Dragons party members are no different. Published campaign settings can help to create great games, but there's nothing quite like creating your own campaign world, placing every dragon's lair, ancient ruin, haunted wasteland and death-trapped labyrinth by hand. And nothing completes your home-brewed fantasy world like a vast campaign map. Creating a world map can seem like a daunting task, but there are plenty of resources to help you with it -- and plenty of shortcuts developed by veteran Dungeon Masters (DMs).
Getting the Basics Down
Before you start drawing out your world map, think about the scale you're going to be working with. You can't fit every detail of your world onto a single map, so your best bet is to create a single large-scale map and then break it down into smaller, more detailed regional maps when your players approach a particular area. You can create your land masses and oceans by hand or use an online app to generate them. See the Resources section for some helpful links. Some DMs like to put their knowledge of geography and geology to use in creating realistic continents and other features, but don't worry too much about this. A fantasy world needs to be exciting more than it needs to be realistic.
The Fate of Nations
Map out the nations and cultures of your fantasy world. Dungeons and Dragons adventures often take place in wilderness or border zones, rather than in peaceful, settled kingdoms, so make sure to give your characters plenty of wild frontier to explore. In the real world, neighboring countries are often very similar to each other, but if your D&D characters are going to be moving around a lot, you'll want to make each of your cultures different enough to be memorable. Place cities, towns and castles within your countries; remember that cities tend to form in places where they have a reason to do so, such as along rivers or at ports.
Plan for Adventure
Consult the Dungeon Master's Guide for information on different types of terrain and travel. Also, check out the Monster Manual for some tips on what effect monsters have on their environment. Particularly powerful creatures can create magical effects in the zones around their lairs; these can give you some inspiration for your map. Having an idea of travel times can also help you determine how far apart your towns should be -- players will want somewhere to spend their hard-earned treasure, and a city adventure can make a nice change after several sessions of dungeoneering or wilderness exploration.
Steal from the Best
If you're looking for ideas about what to include on your map, look at historical maps for inspiration. In the Middle Ages, mapmakers populated the world with strange monsters, from giant lizards to sea serpents to one-eyed cannibals. Thousands of these historical maps are available online. See the Resources section for some useful collections. Historical maps can give you an idea of how big a city or town should be, but remember that as the DM, you are in charge. If you want to create a vast metropolis for a fantasy empire, don't let mere realism stop you.
Bring the World to Life
Use details of the map to convey parts of your campaign setting. Place names and locations can convey a lot about a culture; if a nation's border is defended by a place named Fort Axemurder, this tells the players something about where they've arrived. If you want to get really ambitious, vary the language in which places are named to reflect the differing languages spoken there. Perhaps Elven names in a fantasy kingdom indicate that the area was once occupied by elves before warlike humans drove them out, or names in a now-lost language conceal hidden meanings. If you're stuck for fantasy names, there are a number of lists and generators online. See the Resources section for some useful links.
A good campaign map should show major terrain features such as rivers, seas, mountain ranges, cities and towns. But a great campaign map inspires players to visit new areas. Add a few strange, inexplicable things to your landscape -- a wasteland where perpetual winter reigns, perhaps, or an unceasing whirlpool in the ocean. Don't be afraid to think big; this is a fantasy world, after all. If you want to have a waterfall pouring out of the sky to become the source of a mighty river, or a city built around the body of a still-living tarrasque, go for it.
Make a Home for Your Characters
Don't forget to include homelands for your characters. A typical adventuring party consists of characters from many different backgrounds, but each of them comes from somewhere, whether it's a quiet farming hamlet, a crime-ridden slum or the lightless warrens of a dwarven stronghold. An adventure set in a character's homeland can give that player a chance for a little extra spotlight time and let her adventuring companions see where their friend came from.
- Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition Monster Manual; Mike Mearls et al.
- Wizards of the Coast: Dungeon Master's Basic Rules
- Photo Credit Design Pics/Design Pics/Getty Images
- Donjon: Fantasy World Generator
- Hexographer: Home
- David Rumsey Map Collection: The Collection
- The Blue Room: Medieval Demography Made Easy
- British Library: Online Gallery -- Maps and Views
- Wizardawn: World Maps
- Mithril and Mages: City and Town Name Generator
- Bully Pulpit Games: The Story Games Names Project
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