While there are plenty of map generators out there, sometimes you want your own hand drawn town map for your DnD campaign. You might not think of yourself as an artist. You may have never made a map before. But you can draw a town map from scratch just by following some simple steps and applying a little care.
Here’s an example of what we’ll be showing you how to make today:
Before You Draw The Map: Planning
The most important part of any town map is the planning stage. This is where you try and understand what the town will look like, why the buildings are the way they are, and what the major features of the town will be. Skipping this step is what causes most people frustration when they are starting out. It’s normal to want to skip this step. When you see someone else draw a map, they just seem to dive right in. So it’s hard to imagine all the steps that happen in their mind before the pen even hits the page.
Initial Planning: What’s In Your Town
The first part of planning is figuring out what’s in your town. No matter what town you’re drawing, you’ll want to know its approximate size, the kinds of districts it has, and a few of its major features. These will each be important when we get to the next step of planning. It’s simple enough to just think these through, but you might also want to jot down some notes.
- It’s a small town
- It has several farms just outside the town
- The town has walls
- The town has only a couple larger establishments
- There’s a town square and town hall
These are all simple notes that help you figure out what the next steps will include.
Geography Planning: Where is Your Town?
Geography on the map often is important for a few features. These are rivers, mountains, forests, or other large distinguishable landmarks that would be put on a map. Hills are often not noted and our focus here is not on how to make a topographical map, so just keep in mind the major features.
If your town is by water you’ll need to decide how it interfaces. If a river runs through your town then you’ll have to divide areas up. If your town is by a seaside you might need to include docks. These don’t change the process of making the map too much, but imagining the layout of the land helps you think about why certain town features might be where they are.
Shape Planning: Understanding Roads
The shape of your town can also be important to think about. Most towns are generally a ball of buildings that cluster around a central district with a main road and many smaller roads spreading off of that. While this might be the most common town design, it is not the only shape you can go with. Some towns branch out in tiny clusters, while others are just along a long road, like you might see in an old western. Whatever shape you come up with, you’ll have a good idea of where buildings will fit and how they connect together.
When we talk about buildings connecting together, we’re talking about the roads they are on. They may not be literal roads, but they follow interesting patterns. As towns become more dense, if they form organically, they tend to look like a voronoi diagram. A voronoi diagram is just a diagram that connects randomly plotted points in an area to their closest neighbors in cells. While it’s not important that you understand the math or how to compute one, by looking at a few examples the pattern becomes obvious.
Within the given area (your town shape) there will be clusters of smaller geometric shapes (where your buildings go). Once you imagine your town being full of little geometric pieces, the edges between them are the roads and the inner areas are your buildings.
At this point in planning you’re ready to put pen to page and sketch out this simple geometric outline and get a rough idea of what things will look like.
Important Location Planning: Where is the Pub?
Once you have a simple sketch of the shape you’re going to make that is filled with little areas where your roads might be, you’ll want to think about where each bit of your town will end up being functionally. From that list of ideas you worked out, the first step of planning is to take each named feature and choose a spot for it.
While it is a good idea to place them purposefully, you shouldn’t be too precious about where any structure goes. Most towns form naturally over time and the placement of important structures is often a matter of putting them where they fit as the town grows. The later a feature was added to the town, the further away from the town center it is more likely to be.
Some of these features might alter some of the little cells you created in your shape planning, but that’s why it’s part of the planning process. You can always change things up to make it work as a fully functional map when you get to the actual drawing phase.
At this step you should be all done with planning and ready to move on to the first phase of drawing.
Before You Draw: Get Your Materials
Before you can put a mark on a page you need both a tool for making those marks and a page to make those marks on. For hand drawn maps we recommend at least using a pencil, a felt tipped inker (like a pigma pen) and a ruler. You have a lot of options when it comes to paper, but just about any sheet will do. For our simple town maps we use a medium weight A4 printer paper, but you could also use sketch paper, graph paper, or whatever else you feel comfortable making marks on.
If you want to make your map a little nicer, you may need some additional tools. A simple lightbox for drawing will allow you to easily trace a sketch more cleanly to a new sheet. Light boxes used to be quite expensive, but now a nice LED lightbox is around $20 on Amazon.
For making nice circles we like to use a guide; they’re only a few dollars in most art supply stores or you can pick them up online for a bit more. We also have shape guides and architectural guides that we use from time to time, but they’re not necessary for making your map. They’re just nice to have when you want to work a little faster.
If you want really good control of your pen, you can get a variety of weights. It’s awful to do fill work with a fine tip pen and it’s frustrating to do details with the same weight you used for fill. We use pigma pens (because we have them already) ranging from 005 (0.2mm) to 05 (0.45mm), but any variety of felt tipped inkers will do. Mainly we just recommend that you use a pigment pen for your final ink work. Pigment is less likely to bleed through, more moisture resistant, and can give you cleaner lines than dye based pens.
For a bit of flair, you can also pick up a brush pen or calligraphy pen for labeling your map once it’s all drawn up. We don’t do this ourselves because our handwriting is awful, but if you feel you’ve got a steady enough hand and confidence in your lettering you should give it a try!
Lastly, if you want to color or shade your map you can’t go wrong with some Copic markers (or cheaper equivalent). While you might think this is an easy addition, using markers well is a talent, and we’ve certainly ruined our share of drawings by applying marker poorly. If you’re up for the challenge though, using a light grey scale effect can really make an otherwise plain map pop!
With all these materials out of the way, let’s get to drawing!
Drawing Your Map
If you’ve skipped ahead to this part, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Good maps start with a plan and drawing them without knowing what you’re going to draw is the real mistake that most beginners make. And that brings us to step one of actually drawing.
Step 1. It’s More Planning!
While we got the conceptual planning out of the way, the first thing you actually draw is not part of the map itself, but the key. Here is where you decide what your buildings look like, how paths are noted, special features like wells or bridges, if you distinguish farm fields from normal plains, etc. This part of planning is the most critical step, as it is all the drawing you’re going to do for the rest of the map condensed into one simple visualization. Every piece you draw here is an element you will use over and over again to fill in your map.
Since this part is very visual, we’ve included a sample below. But for the most part you are just making repeatable, simple shapes. Houses might come in a few shapes and larger buildings could just be a larger sample of the house shapes or important places might get more detail. Roads might not have any details and simply be the void space in your map. Bridges, walk ways, and paths might get certain details that make them distinguishable. Water could be denoted by a few repeating lines across a coastal border.
Each of these features make up a part of your map, but no one feature is too complicated. The most important thing is that they are consistent and something you can easily produce. We’ve made maps with more or less complicated pieces before and to be honest, the simple maps often turn out better. So don’t worry if you’re not drawing shingles on your roofs; a simple, black, geometric shape looks good as a building if you’re consistent with your style.
Step 2. The Outlines
We can make an outline from the planning we did for the town shape and locations. We typically recommend that you do this in light pencil just to get the shape right. Once you move on from here you can’t really adjust if you’re drawing with ink, so take some time to make sure you’ve got a light sketch of everything where you want it.
In this step we also will draw in light pencil borders where there won’t be any lines in the map. For example, we don’t literally put lines around each section of houses. Once we add the houses they fill out the shape and the road is assumed to be where the houses are not. These lines act as guides and get erased near the final steps for the map.
If you don’t want to be as careful with your sketch (we certainly weren’t) you can also use a simple light box and just trace over the general sketch. We find this much easier to do since we’re more used to digital art and layers ourselves. No matter how you tackle this step, by the end you should have a rough plan of where everything should go.
Step 3. The Major Lines: Walls, Coasts, and Other Borders
Now it’s time for ink to paper. Start by putting in your major lines. For things like walls we recommend using a straightedge. For things like coasts or other curving lines we recommend trying to get the line down in one confident stroke. The easiest way to make mistakes here is to lack confidence and make a bunch of jittery, wobbly lines. You might not be able to make a nice clean curve in one go, which is why we recommend starting here. If you make a mistake at this point it’s easy to start over.
While we know this doesn’t make a lot of sense if you’ve never done it before, it helps to draw from your elbow or shoulder when making larger strokes. When you draw from your wrist, you can make tiny lines with good precision, but you have to adjust often for larger ones.
If you don’t draw a lot or you don’t draw larger things often, you might not even realize you can guide your pen without using your wrist or fingers at all. It might take some getting used to, but if you try making long marks on a piece of scratch paper you’ll definitely feel the difference when you draw from different joints!
For more on detailed freehand drawing like this, check out Drawabox. They have great tutorials if you are willing to put in the effort. If you’re not ready for a rigorous art training montage in your life, you can always use a curve guide (we do!).
Once you successfully get your larger lines down and are comfortable with the general structure, it’s time to move on to the time consuming bit.
Step 4. The Buildings
Drawing in your buildings is a trial of patience. It is making the same small shapes over and over again for a long time. There’s no secret to this, you just need to do it. We like to keep our buildings nested together, which means we need to draw more buildings, but little blocks are more evident when you do so. This is where a lot of people give up, but we encourage you to see it through. The results are quite rewarding if you take your time and put in the effort.
If this is your first map, we recommend that you use buildings in your key that are simple and solid. While it takes a long time to fill in a building, solid shapes are more forgiving with their visual appearance. They tend to hide shaky lines and are a pop of contrast in an otherwise blank space. We like to keep our buildings blank inside in case we want to add details like roof tiles or color later on. Generally we don’t go the extra mile, but having the option to render further later can be nice.
As a note on repetitive drawing: if you don’t draw much you might find your hand cramping if you do this for too long. That’s perfectly normal, but you should take breaks whenever that happens; if you try and push through it you can really hurt your hand. A way to avoid this is by gripping your pen less firmly. Many people hold pens WAY tighter than is necessary, so if that’s what you’re feeling give your hand a rest and come back to the map in a bit.
Step 5. The Details
Details are the little marks that come at the end. These are tiny waves in your water elements, little wells in the square, tiny tents, trees, and bushes. There is no right way to handle these details, so just make sure you make them something that can be read visually by anyone who looks at it. Remember, a map is a representation of a town, not a scale drawing.
Step 6. Finishing Touches
Finishing touches for your map can be simple or complex. For us, we like to finish by adding a compass, a map border, and some indicator lines along the edge that will help tell people where things are in-game. None of these details are necessary, and if you want to reuse your map you can skip the labeling step entirely and just use different names when you want to drop a good map in a game again later.
If you want to make better labels with scrolling behind them, it is possible to have them in places you would have drawn if you plan ahead for them. We try not to put labels where they would obscure any functional parts of the map. If you’re afraid you have too much space left over that you don’t have a plan to fill in, you can add your drawing key to the map for people who are going to read it later.
Making Your Map into a Prop
An extra step you can take once you’ve completed your map is making it table ready. There are a lot of ways to do this: you can stain the map with tea or coffee, toast your map in the oven to give it a nice charred look, or age it with crinkling and crumpling effects. You can even roll it and seal it with wax or store it in a leather map case. All of these extra steps are really only for presentation when you get to the table.
We’ve done articles in the past on aging paper and those effects are applicable here, but it is important to note that these effects are not suited for all types of maps. If you used a water based ink instead of archival ink then you can’t tea stain your paper. If you’ve used fancier, hand pressed paper you likely can’t do oven or fire based effects on it because it’s super flammable.
Just make sure that whatever finishing steps you take to make your map a prop are suitable for the map you’ve made. We recommend checking this out by using a tester with the same paper and ink before you try the effect on a map you’ve spent hours making!
Populating Your Map
You may have already thought about how to bring this map to life, but if you haven’t, your next step will be figuring out the details of the town itself. You’ll want to plan out the services of your tavern, create floor plans and interior maps for key locations, and build up the blacksmith’s offerings. You’ll also need get the stock sheet ready for your general store. There’s no shortage of things to do when you’re making a rich town for your players to explore!
The more details you add, the more your players can interact with in that space, so it’s a good idea to add some. Also, don’t worry about over preparing these types of things since you can always reuse or repurpose items that your players don’t get to.
You’ve Made a Town Map for DnD!
Congratulations, you made a town map for DnD! And all it cost you was some time and a little bit of belief in yourself. At this point it’s worth stating that this is only one method of working out a town map, but following these simple steps from planning to detailing can be done in a variety of styles and produce both elaborate and simple maps.
Making a map is about taking the time and working through your ideas. While you could create just any old town map, creating the town map for your game involves knowing why you’re making that town in the first place. Once you get a plan the drawing parts are actually wildly straightforward. So what are you waiting for? Put your pen to paper and make yourself a town map today!