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Mapping the World
By James Wyatt

T his week, let's take another digression from the subject of monsters. I want to talk about the maps that define the worlds of D&D. Forgive me for a long-winded musing.

Map Scale

Over the years, D&D has both recommended and modeled a variety of map scales for campaign settings. The original Dungeon Master's Guide recommended a scale of 20 to 40 miles per hex for the world map, which could then be broken down into smaller maps by subdividing hexes. The first publication of the World of Greyhawk included maps with a scale of "1 hexagon = 10 leagues (about 30 miles)," matching that recommendation. Of course, the maps were huge posters, which were hardly practical for the average DM to create.

Likewise, the original maps for the Forgotten Realmssetting, while not marked with hexes, included transparent overlays with hex grids. The maps themselves were at two different scales. The world map was at 1 inch = 90 miles, making 1 hex = 18 miles. The zoomed-in map, focusing on a smaller region, was at 1 inch = 30 miles, so 1 hex was 6 miles. Later FR products used the same scale on maps.

The World Builder's Guidebook (1996) presented blank forms the DM could use to map worlds, continents, kingdoms, and provinces, at the appropriate scale. The book suggested that 1 hex = 50 miles was a good scale for mapping a continent, although following the provided advice strictly would mean that the world itself was only about the size of Mars. But that scale makes it possible to map a continent on a normal piece of paper, and it leads to a scale of 1 hex = 10 miles for mapping a kingdom, and 1 hex = 1 mile for mapping a province or starting campaign area.

That gives us a pretty good sense of different map scales for different purposes. Let's define them as follows.

Continent scale: 1 hex = 50 miles
Kingdom scale: 1 hex = 10 miles
Province scale: 1 hex = 1 mile

A Sense of Scale

I have a really terrible sense of distance. I have only a couple of anchor points: from my house to the bus stop is just over one mile; the distance from Ithaca in New York (where I grew up) to Oberlin in Ohio (where I went to college) is about 360 miles—that sort of thing. So when I look at a map of the Forgotten Realms and measure that Daggerford is about 100 miles from Waterdeep, I don't have a very good intuitive sense of what that means. One of the things I've taken to doing is overlaying real-world maps onto our campaign setting maps to give me a proper sense of scale.

(All the real-world maps included here use map data that is copyright ©2013 Google, Inc.)

Let's look at continent scale first. Here's what part of North America looks like at that scale.

(Map data ©2013 Google, Inc.)

That gives me a useful idea of what I'm trying to cover when I draw a map at that scale—and how much detail such a map can really hope to include: the coastlines, of course, the big mountain ranges, major rivers, big lakes, and political boundaries. But that leaves a lot of geographical features that just aren't going to show up on a map at this scale.

Now here's the same map, with the continent of Khorvaire (from Eberron) overlaid.

You'll notice that Lake Galifar is about the size of Wyoming (actually about the same size as Lake Superior as well), and the Mournland would pretty well cover the entire Mississippi valley. To my mind, that's a helpful comparison. That tells me very clearly that if I'm standing at Passage, on the eastern shore of Lake Galifar, and looking out over the water, I can't see the far shore. And it helps me come to terms with just what a huge catastrophe the Mourning was.

So what does kingdom scale look like? Here's western Washington state. For those of you not lucky enough to live here, you can get a sense of the scale we're talking about by zooming a Google map of your own home region out to the same scale, where the scale bars show 20 miles or 50 kilometers.

(Map data ©2013 Google, Inc.)

Again, this gives me a good sense of what a kingdom-scale map is showing: a more detailed look at the coastline (including the islands and peninsulas that give Puget Sound its shape), mountain ranges and even a few individual peaks, major roadways, and settlements as small as Omak (population around 5,000).

Now look at the same map with part of the Silver Marches (from the 3rd Edition Forgotten Realms book of the same name) overlaid.

I put Silverymoon right over Seattle to help me get a sense of distances. A mere 10 miles from Seattle, the Wizards of the Coast office in Renton would be nestled in the western end of the Nether Mountains. Everlund is halfway to Portland (which is about a three-hour drive). The little town of Quaervarr (which played a prominent role in the War of Everlasting Darkness season of D&D Encounters) is all the way up in Oak Harbor, practically in Canada. The Evermoors are huge.

Let's look at the same map without the real-world overlay.

It's interesting to me that this map is only about a quarter of the poster map included with the Silver Marches book. Yet there's plenty there: two major cities, about a dozen small towns, two dwarf citadels, two named dungeons (and the Nameless Dungeon is just off the edge of the map), varied terrain, and plenty of room for the DM to add more detail.

Speaking of detail, let's look at province scale. Here's the Puget Sound region on a hex grid with 1-mile hexes.

(Map data ©2013 Google, Inc.)

This map shows everything within about 17 miles of Renton. The World Builder's Guidebook suggests using an area with a radius of about 20 miles for a local campaign area, so we're close to that. I figure 25 or 30 miles is good, since that's a day's journey on foot (by D&D standards, anyway—assuming clear terrain). So how does the Puget Sound look as a campaign area? It has a lot going for it: two notable mountains (with the Cascade range just a little ways off the map to the east, and the Olympics a little farther to the west), a lot of good-sized lakes, the coastline of the sound, several islands, and a couple of small rivers. This is obviously a very densely populated area, but it's not hard to imagine what it might have been like before the space between the cities got filled in with suburbs: Seattle, Bellevue, Kent, Renton, and Federal Way as towns in their own right, with little villages like Maple Valley, Issaquah, Burien, and Ballard dotting the wilder places of the map. That's a lot going on in a map this size.

What happens if we zoom in the same amount on the Silver Marches map?

We end up with a city almost five miles in diameter, a river three miles wide, an enormous keep—and an otherwise very blank map. Well, sure; that map wasn't really intended for use at this scale. The thing is, we've hardly ever published maps that were intended for use at this scale. But here's one.

Look at that! A small starting campaign area with ten little villages, a big mountain with dwarf mines, barbarian tribes nearby, wild tundra all around, and a huge glacier off the map to the east. Everything you need to get a campaign off the ground. This isn't meant as a plug for Legacy of the Crystal Shard, but I do find it a helpful perspective, again, on the size of a campaign area. And it's interesting to compare the size of Icewind Dale to the Puget Sound!

Settling for Less

One last thing: Let's look at the size of a couple of settlements.

I took the map of Daggerford from Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle and tried to overlay it on a map of Renton, using a square grid where 1 square is 150 feet. I ended up overlaying it on a map of the Wizards of the Coast offices.

(Map data ©2013 Google, Inc.)

Yeah, the town of Daggerford would fit in the empty lot next to our office, and the building where I work every day is considerably larger than the duke's castle. Walking across the street is more or less like walking the length of Daggerford.

The city of Everlund, in the Silver Marches, is significantly larger, but it's still small compared to Renton. Its population in the 3rd Edition era was over 21,000.

(Map data ©2013 Google, Inc.)

And here's Waterdeep, the largest city of the northern Sword Coast, superimposed on the larger region around Renton.

(Map data ©2013 Google, Inc.)

So What's the Point?

The point of this exercise was to get a good sense of scale for the cities, provinces, kingdoms, and continents of D&D's worlds. It's relevant to the advice and examples we'll include in our guidance for Dungeon Masters when we write about creating campaigns. I want to be able to provide good examples of maps at each scale, tell DMs how to run the game using each scale of map (in addition to the traditional dungeon map scale of 1 square = 10 feet), and help them develop campaign areas that make the best use of all these maps.

Is this a good start?

Previous Poll Results

What’s your favorite draconic player character race from the history of D&D?
Krolli (anyone? anyone?) 44 2%
Draconian 435 17%
Dray 62 2%
Half-dragon 288 11%
Dragonborn of Bahamut 108 4%
Spellscale 51 2%
Dragonborn (4th Edition) 874 34%
Kobold 409 16%
D&D Next Dragonborn 282 11%
Total 2522 100%

What’s your favorite story for the origin of dragonborn?
They are called and transformed by Bahamut, on an individual basis. 168 6%
They were formed from the drops of Io’s blood. 391 15%
They were made by Io alongside the dragons. 182 7%
They were made by Io after the dragons. 300 12%
They were made by Io before the dragons. 25 1%
They’re born from unsanctioned dragon eggs. 240 9%
They’re born from corrupted dragon eggs. 263 10%
They’re born from the sexual union of a humanoid and a polymorphed dragon. 684 26%
They’re born from a magical infusion of dragon blood into a humanoid. 269 10%
Total 2553 100%

How do you like the mechanics of the D&D Next dragonborn?
I dislike them, because they’re too different from the 4th Edition dragonborn. 271 10%
I dislike them, because they’re too much like the 4th Edition dragonborn and not interesting enough. 343 13%
I dislike them, because they’re overpowered. 111 4%
I dislike them, because they’re underpowered. 94 4%
I like them, and I think they match the 4th Edition dragonborn just fine. 1140 44%
I like them, but I don’t think they work for the 4th Edition dragonborn. 336 13%
Total 2295 100%

How well do you think the story of the D&D Next dragonborn succeeds in its first goal: letting players play dragon-people that are tied to the ten iconic dragon types of D&D?
Not at all. It’s a terrible story. 454 17%
Not very well. The story makes sense, but it’s not working for me. 448 17%
OK. I still wish for something better. 646 25%
Very well. This should satisfy players who want that experience. 727 28%
Awesome. It makes me want to play a dragonborn. 220 44%
Total 2495 100%

How well do you think the story of the D&D Next dragonborn succeeds in its second goal: including 4E-style dragonborn under the same umbrella?
Not at all. I don’t buy that these dragonborn would interbreed to make a distinct race. 339 13%
Not very well. The story makes sense, but it’s not working for me. 462 18%
OK. I still wish for something better. 699 27%
Very well. This should satisfy players who want that experience. 861 33%
Awesome. It makes me want to play a dragonborn. 117 5%
Total 2478 100%

Are we pursuing the right goals?
No, it’s more important to let players play dragon-people that are tied to the ten iconic dragon types of D&D. 343 13%
No, it’s more important to let players play their 4th Edition dragonborn characters. 307 12%
No, we need both types of dragon-people, but they should be separate races. 441 17%
Yes, covering both styles of characters under a single umbrella is important. 1370 53%
Total 2461 100%

James Wyatt
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.
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I found that scale doesn't really mean much when it comes to RPG world design, at least when looking at how others have done their own. Coming up with something that looks good is the first course of action, and then determining a scale is almost an after-thought. As such, I adopted the scale that google maps has for their maps when I'm looking to determine the scale after I draw something. Certainly I can just slap on whatever scale I want, despite how the map looks. But I do want some sort of consistency so that once my players get use to the style/look of my maps, the scale is always the same so they aren't sitting there with a drawing compass and calculating scale.

The hexes on a provincial map should represent something, like how long it typically takes to travel by foot in forested/difficult terrain. If you are going to use a 25 or 30 mile diameter for each hex, then that might be a nice approximation for easy travel on horseback. But do you really want to say ... (see all)
Posted By: Imagicka (1/2/2014 4:39:46 AM)


What's so wrong with the old Judges Guild scale of 5-mile hexes?
Posted By: LordRasputin (12/18/2013 9:16:48 PM)


When looking for scale I agree with other respondents who say that the D and D setting is a medieval one so we should be familiar with the population of that time; not using modern concept of distance.
Travelling was a big issue and most people never left their village and surrounds (farmland). Therefore there would be many small villages about half a days travel by horse apart from each other and the village population who be in the low 50- 150 people. We need to compare our maps with 1200-1400 AD maps of UK and Europe.
Posted By: VinceP (12/16/2013 4:07:59 PM)


I don't know if Daggerford keeps people as indentured servants through the levying of an immigration tax per the canon or per my twisted DM, but I will never forgive that place. Let it burn!

I make a rough sketch of half a continent, for my game-- you know, up to the major "break" in the terrain, whether mountains or isthmus or whatever-- then I usually zoom in to sketch more in depth.

My maps are usually to "event" scale, though. That is "a thing a hex" is really my scale.
Posted By: mordicai (12/15/2013 10:33:25 AM)


This is a very neat, informative column.
Posted By: Criswell (12/14/2013 1:46:05 PM)


Great article, as a campaign builder for DnD this subject was great to cover. One of my biggest challenges has been consistency in scale, with small area maps being hard to scale up. I am a fan of hex for larger areas, and agree with many other comments that the size needs justification with travel (foot vs. riding vs. etc.).
Posted By: cerebro1974_123 (12/14/2013 3:34:24 AM)


I think that this shows that WoTC needs to do more work on their local scale maps. Perhaps they could create a Google Maps like interactable map for their major campaign settings. Something you could zoom out to world view, or down to "street" level.
Posted By: cobaltbluenight (12/12/2013 11:48:33 PM)


TSR produced a vector map sometime in the mid 90s for the Forgotten Realms. It....was Awesome. I used to have it, but I lost it in Iraq. now I am sad. I should check for it on EBay.

Posted By: fofoolin (12/13/2013 11:26:20 PM)


Why make things harder? Scale maps so 1 inch = 1 day's travel (or 20-25 miles). Larger maps can be scaled with 1 inch = a week's travel or a month's travel. The point being that it should be easy to slap a ruler to the page and determine where the PCs are going and how far they get.
Posted By: Grimcleaver (12/12/2013 9:44:07 PM)


Beautiful maps!
Posted By: Diamondfist (12/12/2013 9:15:56 PM)


I would like to expand on my choices.
1. What scale do you use for the starting area of a campaign?
Answer: Other. I map the world with Fractile Terrain. I pick an area and map about a week's travel in each direction.

2.Area mapped at start of campaign?
Answer: A world. Again, the world with coastlines, mountains, and tempratures. I also add political boundries to one continent. I also mark the location of the campaign start (usually a city). And as noted above, about a week's travel.

3. Settlements per 50 miles?
Answer: 2-4. One city and several villages. A city cannot support itself with food and will need the cooperation of the surrounding farming/fishing villages.

4.How many dungeons in the starting 50 miles?
Answer: Just one. The authorities should have routed out the dangers that do not require the service of adventurers.
Posted By: Rlyehable (12/12/2013 7:41:06 PM)


I like your logic. I do see great merit, but also think that some "frontier" areas would have more dungeons then less "settled" regions. Also, I find it helpful to have a good idea of the world, but I keep mine more gauge to allow the story to help shape the world to suit the campaign my players help build. But still I have a good idea of the world as a whole prior to start.
Posted By: cerebro1974_123 (12/14/2013 3:37:40 AM)


I went through and consolidated a few of my articles on hex mappings. Specifically on how to align them, join them, overlap them, and subdivide them.
Posted By: estar (12/12/2013 3:44:02 PM)


I know that this is all probably more cumbersome than it's worth to most folks, but I'd like a DM guide with lots of suggestions about resources in a community. For instance, one common family can maintain ____ many acres of farmland, a large walled city of 20,000 people would probably have ___ many to ____many farmsteads withjin ___ many miles around it to support it, or _____ many if the city's food resources are supported by trade. A city of this size would likely have around ______ of this service (blacksmith, apothcary, baker, butcher etc) With all that said, I kind of really miss the 3 ED NPC classes like commoner, warrior aristocrat, expert, etc, and the various skills like crafts and professions (along with the guidelines on what they could hope to earn) I also always appr... (see all)
Posted By: cehern01 (12/12/2013 1:38:19 PM)
Uses the 1066 domsday book numers to generate all kind of things about an area.
the lower part can also be used for towns and cities
Posted By: edwin_su (12/12/2013 1:47:02 PM)


Posted By: OskarOisinson (12/14/2013 12:54:50 PM)


one thing is tha we often project the current demograpics on fantasy world.
If you look at the 1066 domsdaybook at that time only 10% of the population lived in cities and towns, the rest loved in villages and hamplets in the country side.
London was considerd a huge city in the book with 23.000 population.
Posted By: edwin_su (12/12/2013 12:40:46 PM)


One of the biggest takeaways I have from this article is that the original rules/guidelines lost continuity with later published products.

I think there is a decent opportunity here for a reset in DnDNext for world building. In fact I'd like to see an optional module that allows for randomized world building as almost a mini game for the DM: rolling dice on tables and following flow charts. This was some of my favorite parts about prepping for games when I started back with Basic DnD. They had all these random rolling treasure troves. I've been playing a much more recent game lately that has a lot of world building statistics randomized. I'd like to see that type of thing offered as part of the DnD game (as an optional module of course, this is nowhere near the core base's desire). Since this would be an optional module, the ground work that needs to be laid NOW is that the big picture ideas need to be laid out and a review needs to be conducted against the materials y... (see all)
Posted By: Nachofan (12/12/2013 11:35:47 AM)


I really like the hex maps you made! How did you over lay the hex grid on the google maps? Thats awesome!
Posted By: mldemoss (12/12/2013 10:01:45 AM)


You know, as an European, living where there's been some sort of continuity of the civilisation, looking at American fantasy maps is very, very weird.

Lots of empty space, vastly spaced villages with empty arable land, grotesque travelling distances.

Not to mention straight streets evidently planned and not evolved.
And my favourite: villages laid out as suburban sprawls made for cars.
Posted By: Henrix_temporarily (12/12/2013 9:44:21 AM)


I'm happy we're breaching this topic; in my experience with starting DMs, myself included, scale and settlement density is a big question. I often compare to maps of civilizations that resemble my campaign's world most closely. After trying different processes, I find I prefer illustrating a bird's eye map because I think of the area in vistas, so my map looks like a theme-park or old JRPG map, more illustrative of the feel and spectacle of the land than strict scale. I also like leaving empty spaces to fill in later, a little like the West Marches vector map method, because I'm too perfectionistic to decide on every detail in one sitting. I try imposing scale later. I admire hexes or squares, but I find I freeze up if I have to be that specific.
Posted By: Dreamstryder (12/12/2013 8:07:13 AM)


I, for one, have never understood the fascination with hexes. They are terrible for mapping out anything man-made (which tends to have a lot of 90 degree corners) and for larger scale things, just measuring distances with a ruler is going to be a lot easier than squirreling around counting hexes. Yes, I understand the whole issue with diagonals on square grids, but I advocate no grid for larger maps.
Posted By: Noirsoft (12/12/2013 4:16:37 AM)


For things like this, covering multiple methods may be best; people take so many different roads up this mountain, one could say.
Posted By: Dreamstryder (12/12/2013 8:13:08 AM)


Moving away from the screw up with the polls from 2 weeks ago and on to mapping.
Posted By: ForgottenLore (12/12/2013 1:09:01 AM)


Having trouble posting form some reason, it is saying my full post (which is just plain text) does not pass validation.
Posted By: ForgottenLore (12/12/2013 1:11:01 AM)


I like that your trying to put the scale of fantasy game worlds into perspective, but I question how well comparing them to modern maps does that. Modern technology has SERIOUSLY skewed our perception of distance and geography. I live in the suburbs of a medium-small city, there is a big city about 60 miles from my home. To me, traveling that far is a big chunk of the day, but something I do semi-frequently. For someone in the low-tech not exactly medieval type setting D and D claims to be by default, a trip like that would be similar to me going to China, a major investment requiring lots of time and money. Something I might do if I had really good reason, but that I would plan out in advance and do everything I could to maximize what I got out of it. That is the sort of thing that is very easy for someone engrossed in world building to lose sight of and is something that should really be addressed in any advice for world building that may get included in official books.
Posted By: ForgottenLore (12/12/2013 1:11:56 AM)


For that reason, I find it more useful to measure distances in a game world not by the actual linear distance, but by travel time to get there. That way you can provide advice on how far apart major cities are, and how close/far away their satellite towns/villages/hamlets are and have that advice be easily scalable depending on what the most common means of travel in the world is. Do common people almost always walk everywhere? Then hexes on your map should be around this scale. Does your world have common, magically powered locomotives that travel 200 miles in a day? Then your map should be around this scale.

This is one area where Tolkien really screwed us. Lord of the Rings implanted this idea that a fantasy world needs to be continent spanning and almost all fantasy worlds since then have tried to cover areas thousands of miles across when really (depending on the world) there can be more than enough room for several kingdoms, ancient ruins, unexplored wilderness and mon... (see all)
Posted By: ForgottenLore (12/12/2013 1:12:31 AM)


OK, it didn't like the ampersand in D and D.

Gotta say, if you can't use an ampersand when commenting about D and D, that is pretty bad.

Anyway, sorry the whole post was a bunch of nested replies.
Posted By: ForgottenLore (12/12/2013 1:14:15 AM)


Does anyone else remember in Dragon magazine the city maps of ancient cities? I may be misremembering, but everything from London circa 1500, Rome circa 500, even Ur in Mesopotamia, I think? At any rate, I found these maps, with those scales, useful when gauging sizes for DnD adventures.
Posted By: Germytech (12/12/2013 1:00:35 AM)


Interesting poll results. 36% want Dragonborn to be results of an union between dragon and humanoid; 44% believe they should have some kind of divine origin, and 19% believe they should hatch from dragon eggs.
Posted By: Alter_Boy (12/12/2013 12:18:15 AM)


Yup, came to say the same thing. These polls are truly, truly horrible for getting any kind of useful sense about what the community actually wants.

POLL DUDES! If you want these to actually be useful, don't have the question be "pick one", have it be "rate each of these options from 1-5" (you know, just like we can do in the comments here.)

(Also applies to real-world elections, but that'll be a bit harder to change...)
Posted By: mudlock (12/16/2013 6:16:15 PM)


Has anyone else noticed that the percentages listed don't actually add up to 100% in these as shown?

For example, the 'How do you like the mechanics of the DnD Dragonborn?' question only adds up to 88%. Though the Participant numbers do add up correctly to the total listed.

The question right below it adds up to more than 100%. I think that one must be a typo, because the 'Awesome' choice shows 44% for only 220 user selections (compared to 28% for 727 above it).
Posted By: LupusRegalis (12/11/2013 10:23:06 PM)



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