Introduction to D&D Maps
Maps are sometimes one of the coolest parts of D&D. Nothing says adventure like a map. A D&D map can lay out the continent you’re playing in, the dungeon you’re exploring, or even the inn you’re staying at. D&D really makes the most out of maps and allows you to put them to good use building some great theater of the mind. While we’re sure a good potion of you are here just to get a map and be on your way, don’t worry; scroll to the next section and we have links to all sorts of maps that are ready to go! If you really want to take things to the next level, this article will go through a detailed exploration of maps for D&D and discuss their use, creation, where to find them, how to use them effectively, and so much more.
Where to Find D&D Maps
If you don’t want to make your own maps (or don’t know how) don’t worry – there’s already tons of fantastic maps available online. Many D&D maps are available for you for free! Below is a collection of some of the best places to find great maps for D&D. We start with the most prolific and free resources, but some links here have paid map packs as well. Enjoy!
- Reddit: D&D Maps and BattleMaps
- Pintrest: D&D Maps
- Wizards of the Coast Map Archive
- DungeonMastering.com Map Resource Page
- Dyson’s Dodecahedron- Hand Drawn Maps
- Cartographers Guild – A map making community
- RPG NOW (paid map packs)
Why Use Maps?
Some people may question the use of maps in D&D. You probably are not one of them if you’re here reading this. Chances are you fall firmly in the camp of “heck yeah, Maps are awesome! I need to find a cool one for my story!” That’s great and you’re in good company here. But before we start gushing over how neat maps for Dungeons and Dragons are, let’s take a moment to look at why maps are even used.
Maps have a great way of relieving the stress of describing an area in D&D. This can be a fantastic time saver sometimes. Having the ability to just plop down a map of the area and let your heroes take in the place they’ll be traveling through eases the stress of DMing. This is a really good way to get your players literally on the same page and thinking about what is going on. Many groups have been saved by a good map clearing up confusion about the dungeon. As a DM, you’re going to find it much easier to point to a map than describe a corridor layout 10 times.
Beyond using maps to illustrate your surroundings, maps also allow players to make plans. Despite D&D being a game of action, most combat ends in a few rounds. The part that takes the longest time is the planning. Maps help make planning possible in ways it would not be otherwise. A good dungeon map allows players to talk about how they are going to explore. A good room or encounter map gives players the ability to look at the tactical moves that they will make in combat. Even over-world maps help give a real sense of scale to your world and can add all sorts of fun details to planning that you might never see otherwise.
If you’re not sold already, it’s important to point out another important feature of D&D maps: they immerse your players. Maps add a certain sense of wonder and hint at possibilities the players can explore. This teasing of features, rooms, cities and kingdoms – it all comes together to allow the player to express an interest in your world. A good map with high levels of detail immerse a player even more. Sure, you could just scribble something down on some notebook paper, but wouldn’t you rather roll out a piece of parchment with a highly detailed drawing of the area, looking weathered and well traveled? These are the things that make maps great, so let’s look at how you can have the most amazing maps and win DM of the year (at least in your group).
Different Types of Maps
Maps come in many flavors in D&D. Dungeons and Dragons maps benefit from being broken into categories based on their use. Typically, and broadly speaking, we have maps for the over-world showing continents, cities, and kingdoms; for the adventure, showing towns, dungeons, or areas of exploration; and maps for combat. These may just be your group’s battle mat, but they can also be individual encounters drawn out for the area your players are in.
Each of these maps fulfill a different purpose. The over-world is for travel, the adventure maps are for planning, and the combat maps are for fighting. Each type of map may see varying amounts of use. From experience with groups we’ve run, the over-world map generally lasts for the whole campaign, and thus gets the most use. You may think that this should correlate to the highest quality, but it does not. These are often crudely drawn concepts because they typically come straight from the DM’s mind. They can be really awesome, but not everyone has the art skills necessary to really make these shine. If you’re just going to trace your continent and and write some city names, that can work!
Where details start showing up the most is the adventure map. These are often dungeons and typically the most fancy of map setups. A cool dungeon map may have all sorts of details spelled out on it. Maybe you even have multiple different copies of it, one for you as a Dungeon Master, another for your players. These maps are often the ones that get used for a few sessions and then discarded. It’s possible they may stand to be the most memorable as they will be the focus of intense thought and discussion for an entire session or more.
Combat maps are one thing that we’d like to see more of. Most people just roll out their battle mat, and we here at Master the Dungeon are guilty of that as well. But when you have a specific map drawn up ahead of time, it can really make an encounter shine. The level of detail you provide can really immerse your players in combat and additionally clear up a lot of confusion that can come from a vague or unfinished battle mat drawing.
Now that we know about the maps and their uses, let’s look at how you can get the most out of them.
Different Ways to Use Maps
As we mentioned above, there are different D&D maps for different occasions. But we did not tell you specifically how to best use them for your game. What you ask of your players when you present them with a map and how you respond to play questions on these map features can really affect the tone and feel of your game.
When first giving your players your over-world map, you can decide to reveal or hide as much as you like. It can be a lot of fun to give your players a map that’s “outdated”and have them stumble upon various changes that have taken place over time. A bridge could be out after years of disuse or goblin attacks. New settlements may have popped up in places, old towns may be abandoned or destroyed. The map in this way becomes more interactive as they will have to update things as they go.
When it comes to interactivity, having your players write notes and draw on the map is something we recommend. It simulates what their characters might actually being doing as they trek across the land. If you move from over-world to dungeon map, maybe one of your players wants to sketch things out as they go. Give them descriptions that they can use to draw their map and encourage them to make notes and drawings.
When giving people dungeon maps, how they receive them is important. This is where maps become an element of role play. You can have your heroes find a skeleton in a hall clutching some parchment. When they look and see this fallen explorer had written a map, they can compare it to their notes. This map might not be complete, but it might have notes that the other players missed. Perhaps it highlights a secret door or a cache of supplies the traveler marked down to retrieve later. The blank sections of the map, if done intentionally, can be driving factors for your party to move forward. Simple presentation tricks like this can really help immerse players.
When you start using maps as a part of the game and weave them into storytelling, the game can be a lot more fun. If you’re going to go through the effort of using good maps, make them important. Have your players make checks on navigation. If they ask where something is, tell them to use the map. Encourage them to explore and be their senses for them rather than just telling them where things are.
Really Cool Maps (aka Gimmicks)
It’s one thing to have maps, but another thing entirely to have really cool maps. There are different ways to make your maps impressive for you game. You can start by weathering them. Soaking the paper in tea, burning or distressing the edges, and adding well worn creases can really enhance the look and feel of a well used map for adventures.
If weathering isn’t your style, you can always go for the exquisite detail approach. No matter if you’re making your maps yourself or getting them offline, players go nuts for small details crammed all over the map. This can be even better if you include an elaborate compass marking, hand written notes, and trace lines to depth. The little details here will stand out and your players will appreciate the spectacle. You can even take this a step further by combining an exquisite map with some weathering techniques to really wow your group.
Still not enough for you? Consider using invisible ink. Yeah, it’s real thing. You can get inks that only appear when heated and even inks that only appear under a black-light. This stuff drive players crazy, especially if you have an actual candle at the the table. Heat the ink and then let the players find this out on their own by exploring the dungeon. It can really make an adventure pop.
Making Your Own Maps
Getting cool maps online is all well and good, but sometimes you just need to make your own. Embellishments aside, it can be hard to draw a basic map, especially if you don’t have any artistic ability to start with. There are a few ways to get around this that will make your life easier.
For doing hand drawn maps, you don’t need to start from scratch. Your D&D map can simply use components from other maps that you trace and rearrange to fit your needs. If you find a particular formation or or room you like from a map online, print it it out, put your paper over top of it and trace away. If you do this right you can make some amazing looking maps!
If you don’t want to trace and you’re not looking for a lot of style and embellishments, you can always draw a simplified map. For dungeons, do your first copy on graph paper and then trace it up to a clean page when you’re done. For continents and islands you can use the macaroni method (drop a handful of noodles on a page and trace around them). This will actually make a stunning looking continent with little effort on your part. Learn more about maps and geography in our previous post.
If hand drawn maps aren’t your thing, there are a variety of D&D map maker programs you can check out. Each one has it pros and cons, but the best map making tools will give you what you need to design a map easily without too much fuss. Below are the tools we like and recommend, but there are many more you can find to meet your needs. You can check out more tools and maps on our Resources page.
So you’ve made a bunch of maps and you’re celebrated among your D&D group. But now it’s time to share the love. If you draw a cool map, throw it up online, drop it in a Facebook group, share it on Reddit, or even tweet it at us! Don’t keep your maps to yourself! There are tons of DMs out there that would love to use your resources to run their campaigns. When it comes to DMing, we are all in this together and sharing your maps for dungeons and dragons is a great way you can help grow and support the community.
Do you have any cool tips or resources for D&D maps? Let us know @masterdadungeon.