Making a fantasy world map (Building a fantasy series, part two)

I’ve been fascinated by fantasy world maps since I was a kid. I always told myself that when I eventually published my own fantasy books, I’d make sure they had maps. Preferably ones I drew myself, since I’m a control freak like that.

Having done map making the “right” way before, starting with tectonic plates for my fictional planet and building landmasses appropriately on top of them, planning weather patterns, determining watersheds and river placement based on geography… well, I knew it took a ton of time. My map for Ithilear to go with my Snakesblood Saga books still isn’t done, several years after its beginning. I figured there had to be a faster way.

The method I came up with relied on the map generator created by Amit Patel and available over at RedBlob Games. It’s offered as open source and is incredibly useful as a starting point. The generator creates an island with a central mountain. I knew I wanted the country to be something of a peninsula, jutting out into the ocean so Amroch would have water on three sides and a nebulous “rest of the world” off the right side of the map, so that meant I’d need to do a little work to finish one side of the thing… but that’s easier than drawing something from scratch.

I knew a few specifics I wanted out of the layout, though. I wanted a forested area in the southeast and a desert in the west, and snowy wastes to the north. Obviously, this means Amroch will be quite large, but you do get a little leeway in fantasy worlds, so a harsher climate isn’t too far fetched. I punched in dozens of random seed numbers for maps, stopping when I found one I felt would work.

First generated map of Amroch

With the biomes visible, I had a good place for a forested region in the southeast, a desert to the southwest, some harsh, cold terrain to the north, and a couple cool islands as a bonus. The mountains cutting off the northern region from the rest of the world worked well for my story plans, too. I turned off the biome visibility and saved the generated map to draw over and turn into my main map image.

Amroch map part 2

The first portion of map work was pretty boring, just tracing the coastline and expanding the land mass to the edge of the map on the right side, then redrawing the rivers and water bodies, as well as sampling the colors I liked and repainting the land features with textured brushes.

With the way the land mass created a crescent on the right side, I figured all that runoff would result in a massive lake, which worked well for my plans of having that region be a heavily forested agricultural area. I turned part of the coastline into a path for a wide river feeding into the ocean from the giant lake. I decided Amroch would be sheltered by mountains on the east, even if they’re not visible on the map, so I added a jutting mountain range above the lake. I also took the liberty of making the northern region look a little frostier, and added some tributaries to a few of the big rivers.

Completed land mass for Amroch

Then it was time to plan cities.  I tried to be logical about it, and work with what I already had in mind for the different peoples that would inhabit the world. The marshy area near the sea would be a great place for agriculture, probably with a focus on growing things like rice. The islands would be ideal places for a thriving fishing community. There would need to be a few major rest stops along the coasts for resupply of ships, and the kingdom’s heart would need to be set somewhere with an abundant supply of food and fresh water, as well as someplace more easily defensible, meaning the small peninsula on the lake–sheltered by rivers around it–would be the perfect place for the capital. There were two other factions that needed attention, so the isolated northern tribes got a settlement near a body of freshwater in the north, away from everything else, and the defense-minded desert people would have a fortress on the hill in the middle of the desert peninsula, where they could not only hold out against invaders, but would be sheltered by the lack of resources readily available in the desert.

Adding regional location markers

While there would be a great deal more small settlements, I opted to mark only the largest and most important, keeping the map less cluttered. So last of all came trade routes. These would help determine where the rest of the settlements would be when it came time to write, and also let me know where my characters would be traveling. Until we had the idea for highways where we bulldozed the land to make room for our roadways, roads tended to take the path of least resistance. So a few major roads went in alongside rivers and the coasts, where supplies would be abundant and the route would be difficult to lose–just follow the water to the next settlement. A couple harsh mountain passes would be a necessity, but the main travel routes would run a circuit around most of the country. I’m sure there would be smaller routes that would make travel easier and more direct between two points, but again, not worth marking.

Adding trade routes

My favorite result of adding trade routes was the triangle formed by roadways in the center south. I figure there will be a city at each intersection, and as my super-cool friend Michelle pointed out, it would make a perfect gathering place for seasonal festivals and markets, and I’m totally going to incorporate that idea into the book once I actually start writing.

At that point, it was time to start labeling the darn thing. I named the lake and the sea, and marked an important region of land, but I don’t have any ideas for city names just yet. But considering I only spent two weeks working on the map when I had a few minutes left at the end of some days, I think it’s working out pretty well. I guess the next step will be naming places, but that will probably tie in to creating all the characters and their cultures.

There are a few other things to do, like creating a black-and-white version of the map that will look all right in print, but for the most part, the map for the front pages of Spectrum Blade is ready.

Labeling the map

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