First-Draft Maps

Or: One way to make a working, editable map for your story, game or campaign.

A while back, I was describing my map-making process to a friend. I really didn’t think much about it, but her eyes got wider and wider. “Where were you six months ago when I was working on my map?! That would have saved me so much trouble!”

To be honest, I’ve been a little embarrassed about my map habit. You have to understand, I’m from a family of engineers. A bonding experience with my grandfather is opening up a CADD program and making a blueprint of one of the venues I work in so that I can map electrical outlets and table placement. It’s just a hobby, and one I don’t pursue enough to consider it an actual skill.

But, as I thought about it, I realized she was right. It’s actually a pretty useful system, especially if you haven’t quite figured out where everything is yet, but like having visuals and working things out by hand.

Here’s what you’ll need:

A sketch of your map. Keep it simple: the shape of your continent, markers for the ocean and some directional symbols. Seriously. Nothing else. I typically use a heavy sort of paper, something made for pastels or paint. The map lasts longer that way!

4-6 sheets of heavy-grade clear plastic. Sheet protectors and binder dividers work well, allowing everything to just be organized in a binder.

Fine-point dry-erase markers, or Sharpies and alcohol wipes.

Bonus content: a package of Post-It page-markers, preferably in neon.

That’s it!

Now, the process.

Label the clear sheets:
Cities/Trade routes
Political/national boundaries
Smaller towns/local importance

Extra Sheets:
Journey (for quests)
Portals (or other campaign-related things)
Etc (weird magic places, ruins, etc)

Obviously, you can change these as necessary, or scale them down to dungeons or up to planets. The important thing is that you have your outline, and you have layers that you can add or remove as necessary.

Once you’ve labeled stuff, start marking the clear sheets up. For cities, in particular, I like the flags, since they give me a way to make a lot more notes without cluttering the page.

This is particularly useful for those of us who have tendencies to both grand scales and perfectionism. (“But I need the city twenty miles THAT way, but my map will look all scuffed!”) You can erase and rewrite, make notes, or start screaming and furiously black out all your notes in a tantrum without doing much harm. I mean, what?

What’s your trick for making a perfect map?