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I use paint.net and paint shop pro to create fantasy cartography. Is there any better software, and why?

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See also: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/668/… –  Colonel Sponsz Aug 27 '10 at 19:53
The Cartographer's Guild has an extensive list of mapping/graphics software their members use. –  user660 Mar 7 '11 at 19:57
Shouldn't this be a community wiki? –  OpaCitiZen Mar 12 '14 at 10:19

11 Answers 11

I use Photoshop mainly, as do many professional cartographers. I often use Illustrator in combination with Photoshop. Things like initial outlines of coasts and things I find best in Illustrator, but then move to Photoshop for the real polishing of the look and feel.

Modern style floor-plan maps I've started to make in Flash, it's just turned out to be the fastest method for me.

Sometimes I'll use Autorealm to generate some fractal coastlines or rivers quickly as well.

I did persevere with Campaign Cartographer for many years, but found it hard to use and the maps always looked like every other CC map.

Here's the kind of look and feel I'm able to achieve quickly in Photoshop.

Luquin Sea Map

And here's a map I'm making in a style that I really couldn't imagine doing in anything other than Photoshop.

Port Jonna Map

Any of these styles should be possible in other programs like Paint.net or PaintShopPro. Part of what I try to maintain whilst using Photoshop is to make things as fluid as possible with regard to change, so I use a lot of non-destructive style techniques using adjustment layers and layer masks, I'm not sure if Paint.net or PSP have all those features.

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Just realised that my first sentence might be misinterpreted as me saying I'm a professional. Obviously I'm not! –  Iain M Norman Aug 23 '10 at 11:25
Wow - you should totally write tutorials for how you did both of these styles... –  Erik Forbes Aug 23 '10 at 13:24
That's freaking spectacular - you SHOULD be a professional, if you can really generate content like that quickly. –  TML Sep 12 '10 at 7:32
The top map is quick to do, can knock that style out in a long lunch break. The second style though is something I've never perfected to a speedy style. There's so many hours in just that small unfinished map that it wouldn't be feasible to try and earn a living with it! Much as I would like to. There are things I'm much better at than drawing maps, I don't think my map making earning potential is as high as my software engineering one. grins –  Iain M Norman Sep 13 '10 at 9:48
The Cartographers' Guild is a site devoted to tips, tricks, tutorials, and resources for making maps like this in photo-editing software. The stuff they have there is beautiful, inspiring, and explained! –  SevenSidedDie Mar 9 '11 at 18:16

A free (freedom) and open source graphical software is The GIMP. I use GIMP a lot for general graphics. I haven't made any maps using it, but once you've learned to use it creating maps in any style would be possible.

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Here is an example of what you can do with the GIMP. A lot of effects are trivial to do and many brushes were taken from deviant art.



Regional map of Alnamestan

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Ok, these are much more basic tools then previously suggested: You basically drag and drop premade pieces into place with them. My Dad's players bought him Dunjinni and he used it for years. It made really nice maps, and the user community generated gigabytes and gigabytes of premade tokens for it. However the interface was buggy, basic and annoying. Also, it hasn't been updated in years.

There is however a similar, free program called Maptools, that is far more powerful and works far better. It gets regular updates and has a very good wiki explaining how to use it. It isn't a from scratch map maker like the other suggestions, but it is good for stitching together pieces you've made in other programs.

The place you REALLY want to ask for map making advice however, is Cartographer's Guild: Their maps are STUNNING and they have a zillion howtos for a variety of programs.

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+1 for Cartographer's Guild is the place to hand out... –  Sardathrion Mar 12 '14 at 9:58

For building up the map geometry and helping generate the world, I've had good success with Wilbur. It's a side project from one of the developers of Fractal Terrain , from the same company that makes Campaign Cartographer. It focuses largely on the height map representation of the world, but produces a pretty decent world map if you play with it. As a reference, here's the map I created using Wilbur for my current campaign: Wilbur Example

It requires learning how the system works to some extent, but it has some rather nice features - the big ones are the erosion and river calculating, which help inject some realism into the world map.

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Inkscape, CorelDRAW, or Abode Illustrator. All three are vector drawing program as opposed to paint programs like paint.net and paint shop pro. The advantage of vector drawing programs is their ability to incorporate fine details, infinite zoom, and ease of editing. Many have the ability to manage sets of symbols. For maps that are more artistic in presentation you can export images from any one of these programs into a paint program for final image processing.

There are specific mapping program like Profantasy Campaign Cartographer, NBOS' Fractal Mapper, and Autorealm. While powerful these program lack the powerful tools of the mainstream vector drawing program.

However Campaign Cartographer and Fractal Mapper has done some interesting work in combining the advantages of vector drawing with the advantage of paint program. This is done by drawing the symbols and terrain in vector but have commands treat the objects as bitmaps as needed for various effects.

Both Inkscape and AutoRealm are free to use and download.

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I guess I'm a little late to the rodeo here, but I struggled with this question for quite a while. Everything I tried was a complete pain to use, had a huge learning curve, wanted to run only on Windows, cost an arm and a leg, or was in some other way not going to work for me. Basically everything else mentioned so far went on my "no, thanks" list for one reason or another.

I'd given up and was using Skitch, a great screen capture tool, for its lousy doodling features. I just drew lines. Then, I read about Hexographer in an article at Jeffs Gameblog. I love it.


  • is Java, so it runs most anywhere
  • produces maps that will tickle your nostalgia, if you've been gaming long enough
  • doesn't produce maps that look like professional cartography
  • is like MS Paint, in that you just click and drag to lay down terrain
  • has a very responsive developer
  • has a fairly active forum with lots of cool ideas and examples
  • is pretty cheap, but not free
  • has a sort of weird-o user interface; easy to learn, but weird

The article by Jeff has a decent sample, and there is a gallery of samples online, too.

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If you want to rough something out that looks passable, Campaign Cartographer or Fractal Mapper might be best. I'm not a graphic designer, so something like Inkscape takes too long for me to learn. Next on the tough learning curve scale is Campaign Cartographer. It is also powerful, but it takes a little to learn the tricks. They at least have some videos that introduce you to some basic mapmaking tricks in their software. Lastly, I found that Fractal Mapper to be the easiest to make something decent, but it also had the least amount of capability.

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I think you will find that Campaign Cartographer is a lot tougher beyond really simple mapping. This is because CC uses a CAD interface as it's foundation which is counter-intuitive to the style that Inkscape uses. The differences is that CAD typically have you pick a command and then the objects that are to be effected by it. Inkscape (and most of the mainstream vector and paint programs) have you select something and pick a command. Totally the reverse. The CAD heritage of CC is a source of endless confusion for most novices. –  RS Conley Aug 23 '10 at 14:05
Fractal Mapper I believes uses the more normal select an object and pick a command style. –  RS Conley Aug 23 '10 at 14:06
+1 because this product is specifically designed for doing exactly what the original question is looking for. That being said, I despise Campaign Cartographer. Beyond the bugs, the interface is massively non-intuitive, to the point where doing anything a bit tricky becomes intensely frustrating. Building simple maps very quickly is very satisfying, and there is some great power there, but the interface really is so bad that it's just not worth it (to me.) –  Beska Aug 23 '10 at 14:41

Finding map-making software on the Macintosh has been really difficult, other than the general purpose vector and raster graphics software packages which do exist (Illustrator, Photoshop, Painter, and others like them). However, recently I discovered Ortelius, which looks like it's purpose-built, vector-based, software for professional map-makers. I've got a demo download and hope to purchase it in the near future: usefully, it can important map data, and thus you can use real-world geographical data as source material for maps. Like most pro map-making software, and indeed, professional graphics tools, it's learning curve looks easy at first, but steep to get really elegant results. This is, I think, pretty much the nature of the beast if you're using software that's anything other than a "stamper" type of thing (like Dundjinni).

Historically, I'd used Photoshop and/or Painter, and done maps pretty much in a hand-drawn way, sometimes using published maps or scanned-in, hand-drawn sketches as the thing to stick in the "base layer" over which I trace.

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As far as I can tell all map making software requires time to learn and even more time to become skilled.

A long time ago I decided that the best use of my time would be to learn Photoshop and Illustrator and that while neither of them had the specific features for making maps I would have not wasted my time learning a specific and ultimately limited tool. Professionals use Photoshop and Illustrator and there are many books, tutorials, and techniques than can be employed. Get good enough and you could even make a career of it.

So in terms of best use of your limited time, learning a multipurpose tool is better than learning a single purpose tool.

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I would suggest you look at some of the maps here As you can see, most of the awesome maps are created using Photoshop.

There is even a tutorial on using photoshop to creating an awesome 3d representaion. Here

And i would have to agree with user2805 above

Professionals use Photoshop and Illustrator and there are many books, tutorials, and techniques than can be employed. Get good enough and you could even make a career of it.

So in terms of best use of your limited time, learning a multipurpose tool is better than learning a single purpose tool.

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