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Creating Fantasy Maps for D&D with GIMP 2.8

Updated on May 27, 2017
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I've been drawing maps for D&D since first playing the game in '78. Playing online requires digital maps, so I taught myself using GIMP 2.8.

Finished Example Map

Final Map
Final Map | Source

Creating Fantasy Maps for D&D

Though D&D is a theatre of the mind game, having a good map is handy and sometimes essential. Every campaign needs a world map so that is the logical first step. World maps are easier to create than city maps or dungeons, the detail is less and the scale is much larger. Less detail means it is easier and faster to create. So if you need a map quick and you don't really care about the details, then start with a world map.

Choosing The Right Software

Choosing the right software is part of the battle. I didn't have the money to buy a commercial photo editing software package so I chose the next option. I downloaded Gimp 2.8; free software that does most of the same things that the high-end commercial software does, so it was an easy choice.

There are other tools & programs that you can use to create maps but they don't have layers so it makes editing maps difficult. What you can do is use some of these tools as a starting point. Import them into Gimp and extract the parts you need.

For now download and install Gimp and we'll start creating fantasy maps.

Screen Shot of Quick Create Map

Screen Shot
Screen Shot

Creating a Quick Map Creation.

Let the software do all the work for you. Gimp has a fast create button for making a world map or at least a portion of a world map.

You may have to do a few attempts but it is a good first step. it creates land with contours and water with color and shading. All that is left is for you to add a text layer and placement of cities and roads etc.

Follow these steps:

  • Start Gimp.
  • File-Create-Patterns-Land
  • Set the parameters to whats in the screen shot
  • add text (in a separate layer of course)
  • add icons for cities, towns, and villages
  • draw roads

Enjoy the map.

The problem I see with the auto create feature is some anomalies like the flat top mountains. Play with the parameters a bit and try different seeds for different maps.

Quick Fix.

You can always edit the area with a cloud cover and make that area a MYSTERY ZONE. Then create a close up map for that area.

Text Formating Warning
Text Formating Warning

One of My First World Maps

One of my first  map attempts
One of my first map attempts | Source

Understanding Your Tools

Separating map creation into layers allows editing the map so much easier.. Gimp allows this so you can create a layer for land and a separate layer for water and another for text. Separating these features on separate layer allow to you work with each separately and making a mistake on one layer doesn't affect the others.

Having a map separated into layers also allows you to show parts of the map separately. So you can make a city map with no text for you players to explore and another map with the key for the GM. Same with your world map, you can print one with limited info for the players to explore and one with the political boundaries and another with trade routes because having everything on one map would have to be huge to contain all that info without being a jumbled mess.

Understanding how to use layers will allow you to work you map more effectively while you are drawing it out. Plan ahead and decide what you need ahead of time.

For me I usually have three layer groups.

  1. Land
  2. Water
  3. Text

Within those layers I have different layers as well. So in the Land Group I separate vegetation, physical landmarks, buildings and roads. In the text group I may have physical names like roads and river names on a separate layer from political boundaries etc.

You just need to think of how many different maps you want to print out and what info you want to be available.

The Stone Circle

The Stone Circle
The Stone Circle | Source

Make What You Need

I made the Stone Circle very quickly. I found an image on the net for what I needed in my campaign. This way I had something to model my map after. I took the idea with the placements of parts etc and made my new design in GIMP from that. The Stone Circle took my about an hour to create all told.

My advice is don't start with a blank sheet; have an idea before hand of what you want to create. A simple sketch or outline is a start. Then write down a list of separate parts you want to work with. These will become your layers.

It is best to work these layer lists out before hand. You can always join layers but you can't separate them.

Suggested Map Layers Breakdown

montains, hills, natural features
textures, buildings, roads, vegatation, places of interest
physical feature names, building keys, scale and legend, political boundaries, climate zones
So a map could have from four to eighteen or more layers. Having the map separated into layers allows you to mix and match which layers you want shown at any one time.

Map Quiz.

What Type Of Maps Are Most Useful?

See results

Step 01 Map Making

To get to this point I choose File New and choose image size of 900x900 pixels and choose 600 ppi in the advanced section for X and Y resolution. Put a title in the template option at the top of the page creation box and it will save your choices as a template.

Make the background white.

Now we make the magic. Choose Filters Render Clouds Difference Clouds...

This will open a new Solid Noise creation box. Fill in the numbers to match that in the picture and you will create a map to follow along with. Afterwards you can create a new map by adjusting the numbers and see what happens.

Now click on Colors Threshold... and fill in the numbers as in the picture Apply Threshold creation box. The you will have a map base with which to start.

Step 02 Creating Layers
Step 02 Creating Layers | Source

Step 02 Creating Layers

Now you have a Background layer. Click on that layer in the layers dialog box. If you do not have that open click on Windows - Dockable Dialogs - Layers... . In this dialog box you select the layer you wish to work on.

Click on Layer - Duplicate Layer twice so you should end with three layers. Double click on one and rename it Water Base. Double click on the other and rename it Land Base.

Now create a Layer Group for each. Layer New Layer Group... Lable on Water Group and Lable another Land Group. Now in the Layer dialog box drag the Water Base layer into the Water Group and the Land Base layer into the land group.

Click off the eye for Background and save this layer as a starting point if something happens that you need to go back. Never work on this layer, always make a copy and work on the copy.

Step 03 Water Texture
Step 03 Water Texture | Source

Step 03 Water Texture

Adding texture to water is as easy as Filters Render Clouds Difference Clouds...

This time we use the Turbulent option. To this we open the Gradient dialog and choose The Deep Sea gradient preset. Click on the Gradient Tool (beside the paint bucket). Click on the grey box showing the gradient presets and go down the lists to Deep Sea.

Now making sure your correct layer is selected you can go Colors Map Gradient Map. Now depending on your difference clouds settings this may be a bit dark. If so go Colors Levels and adjust the settings to lighten the color levels to what suits you.

Step 04 Land Textures
Step 04 Land Textures | Source

Step 04 Land Texture

Much the same for land as water. Choose Difference Clouds and add a gradient color ( Greens Preset) and then make it a Bumpmap. Filters Distorts Emboss... Click the Bumpmap radio button and settings as per picture. You may want to adjust the levels to your taste. I adjusted the lower levels up to 23 just to lighten the scene a bit.

Now that you have a contour to the land you can draw in rivers. Use a fine brush and a blue color draw on a new transparent layer so you can see the land through. It is easy to erase mistakes when you are drawing on a separate layer.

Step 05 Text Layer
Step 05 Text Layer | Source

Step 05 Text Layer

I added a legend. And stamped some towns and outposts and I call this map done.

You could add roads and trade routes. Political boundries as well is another option.

Would You Like a More In-Depth Tutorial on Map Making?

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