This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.
If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT. The Emperor of the Dragovar empire is missing! The heroes chase a lead to a small island dominated by an extinct volcano and populated by hill giants. The giants pay homage to the island’s gold dragon overlord, Zeryndroth, even though the dragon was turned to stone many years ago.
The huge petrified dragon stands proudly atop a rocky outcropping south of the hill giant village, and every morning the giants leave a cornucopia of fresh food offerings at its feet. With Zeryndroth indisposed, a black dragon named Caustralanth has moved into seaside caves set into the northern cliffs of the volcano… but she’s not yet powerful enough to impose her will upon the hill giants and assert herself as the island’s new dragon overlord.
There’s more to the island than meets the eye, as my players will soon discover. In order to find out what happened to the Emperor, the heroes will undoubtedly confront the hill giants, investigate the petrified remains of the dragon overlord, explore the hilltop cairns in the giants’ cemetery, and perhaps even negotiate Caustralanth’s caves to reach the volcano’s caldera. With so many possibilities, I felt it was important to provide my players with a map—and how I build maps is the subject of this article.
My maps are not photorealistic; they’re inspired by the works of David “Diesel” LaForce, a cartographer from TSR who did a lot of the early cartography for Dungeon magazine (not to mention several old TSR adventures). My maps tend to be very clean and utilitarian, but they also have an organic hand-drawn quality that mapmaking software has trouble emulating.
Sometimes I draw maps the old-fashioned way: freehand on graph paper. On this particular occasion, I’m using Adobe Photoshop CS4 and giving you an over-the-shoulder glimpse into my map-making process. This is not intended as a Photoshop tutorial, and I should warn you: I’m not a Photoshop whiz. However, you’d be amazed what you can do in Photoshop with just four tools: the pencil, the eraser, the paint bucket, and the type tool.
Step 1. Say Hello to Photoshop
I open a new file in Photoshop. This is my canvas, and I want to make sure the map fits on a single sheet of 8.5” x 11” paper. This map won’t need a grid, so I use the paint bucket tool (left column) to paint the background white. It’s like I’m starting with a fresh sheet of blank paper!
Step 2. Use Layers
I like to build my maps in layers. Each new map element I create gets its own layer. That way, if I need to make changes to one layer of the map, I can do so without affecting the other layers.
Step 3. Grab My Pencil
My pencil is embedded in the toolbar on the left side of my screen. Most of the map will be created using this simple hand-drawing tool.
Step 4. Draw, Erase, Draw, Erase
Using my mouse and the pencil tool, I draw a rough outline of the island on the Background layer. I’ve set the pencil width to 5 pixels, which has a nice line weight. Drawing with a mouse is hard; sometimes the lines don’t look exactly right. So, I use the eraser tool (in the left toolbar) to erase the sections that offend me, and then redraw those sections until I’m happy.
Step 5. Build the Volcano
The volcano on the island will be represented by a series of concentric contour lines, each one representing an increase in elevation of 100 feet. These “rings” are drawn with the pencil. It’s tedious work that will pay off later.