Sunday, August 7, 2011

My Map-Making Method

So I got some good positive responses about my last post, where I was showing off my hand-drawn map for Flying Swordsmen RPG.

I think the biggest key to making that map look so good was that I took my time with it.  And believe me, being my own biggest critic there are some things I wish I could have done better with it.  But once I started inking parts, there was no going back unless I went pretty much ALL the way back.  So I just kept on rocking with it until I got it done.

Before I started the actual map, I'd been considering what sort of map I wanted.  Zhongyang Dalu had a predecessor, an old d20 OA game I ran in Japan.  That continent was a self-contained great island, like Australia.  I didn't want that any more.  I wanted more landmass off the map connected to the setting.  And I wanted lots of coastline, peninsulas, and the like.  Basically, the ecosystem mirrors China (deserts NW, steppe N, high mountains and plateau SW, jungles and mountains S, sea and islands E, with two major rivers), but the topography is more similar to Europe. 

To start, I made quite a few sample sketches in my pocket notebook or on scrap paper.  I used that to get the general idea of the shape of the continent I wanted in my head.  Then when I finally knew what it was I wanted, I started sketching rough outlines of the coast in my sketch pad with a mechanical pencil (easy to keep the marks light and erase as needed that way).

I made quite a few changes during this sketch phase.  When I more or less had it the way I wanted, I went over it again with a normal pencil, and added detail to the coast.  I added small inlets, bays, and peninsulas or headlands here and there.  I just generally broke up any areas with straight lines.  I started adding in some of the islands along the coasts at this point.  I also used the mechanical pencil to plot out where mountains and hills might go.  This allowed me to add more islands in logical places.

I went over the coastline one more time in pen, and actually ended up adding even more detail the third time through.  I erased the pencil before inking, to avoid the chance of smudging the ink. 

Once I had the coasts finished, then I sketched in the rivers using the exact same three step process.  The only difference was that I used blue ink for the rivers.  Most of the lakes were added after the fact, when I had inked the rivers and thought that I needed lakes here and there.

My next decision was how to draw the mountains.  I used Google to look for some actual ancient Chinese maps, and found one that used the style I copied for mountains.  After erasing the first roughly sketched (in mechanical pencil) mountains, I just used a ballpoint pen to draw in the mountains in that style.

Before I drew the provincial borders, I just looked at certain features to decide where would be logical places to divide things.  Rivers, mountain ranges, and the like usually are good for that in real life.  I tried using a highlight pen (orange), which on the map looks fine, but it didn't scan well.  So I went back and used a red ballpoint pen and traced the highlight lines with it.  I used a red felt tipped marker to write in the province names (and practiced that on scrap paper first to get the capital letters right).

For cities, I used a felt tipped marker and just made dots on the map where I wanted a city to go.  I put on about 25 cities the first time, then added more later.  I'll have to count again, but I think there are about 40 on there now.  I took all of the names from my old OA campaign's maps.  The names are in black ball point pen.  I thought about adding Chinese characters to the city names, but decided that would both make the map too crowded, and be too time consuming, as I'd have to look up characters that matched each pronunciation.

For the colors, I used color pencils in various shades to try to depict different types of landscapes.  Mixes of various greens and blues make up the forests (and I think I used some yellow as well for what's supposed to be bamboo covered hills in Qin province).  Yellow and brown for the desert.  Straight brown for the arid mountains and plateau.  The grassland/steppe used an olive green with some darker green and a bit of brown.  I'm not too fond of the color pencils I've got now (bought here in Korea).  I miss the ones I had and left behind in Japan.  I got better color from the old ones. 

Finally, I added in the names of the rivers, lakes, mountain ranges, seas and bays, etc.  I used a blue ball point pen for this, and decided, since I was making all these up instead of importing from the old setting, to pull out the Chinese dictionary and add in the characters for the names.  That did end up cluttering the map in a few places, but I like the touch it adds to the map.

I've still got the problem that the sketch pad is too big for my scanner.  After piecing the two scans together and adjusting brightness and contrast to try to hide the seam a bit (not so well, I know), it looks better.  I think I'll still see if I can locate a print shop where I can scan it in one piece before I put it in the book.

And as I mentioned at the beginning of this long post, I took my time with this map.  Most of the steps were done one day, and then the map would sit for a few days, or a week or more, at times, before I went on to the next step.  Especially early on, this allowed me to evaluate what I'd done before I started inking, and change things I didn't like.  I posted my first "Cartography" post here back in June, when I'd gotten the coasts and rivers inked.  So all told, this map was made over the course of about three and a half to four months.


  1. Very cool. Thanks for the rundown of the process. Just so you know, I didn't notice the seam until after you mentioned it.

  2. I'm no great artist, but I'm handy with a pixel editor sometimes.

    I could probably hide that seam and clean up the fuzziness on the letters and coastlines next to it. If you don't mind, I'd be happy to try. I've been looking for a quick project.

    My tweaks might not be quite as perfect as a single scan from a print shop. I do work for free though. Also, I could make other tweaks if you wanted (like if there is a smudged line bothering you, colors bleeding together, or whatever).

    It wouldn't take much time. Just say the word if you want me to give it a go.

  3. Thanks, Quibish! I'll take any help I can get on this project!

  4. First, that is a beautiful map. It's been a lot of fun seeing the process and the result is excellent. I really like the little details like the style of the mountains (which are even cooler knowing they're inspired by historical maps).

    As an idea for the seam, take the scans of the map so they overlap.

    To use a written example, your map is ABCDE:
    Scan 1: ABC
    Scan 2: CDE

    When you put together in an image editor you line up the two scans relatively closely and have excised the seam. I find this easier than trying to edit seams out.

    As a caveat, I've only done this with simple things like line drawings, not with detailed items like your map, so it may not work as well as I think.

  5. Done.

    Here's my first attempt at the edit. I put it up on my blog. I hope you like it.