I've been beginning to format my adventures for publishing, and the last hangup I have is that my maps are hand-drawn. I want to transfer them to digital format, but I'm limited to scanning them into PDF and attaching them to a document that I've worked hard to format into a professional looking adventure.

Using my home PC, while keeping a grid system for the dungeon maps, how can I transfer these over to a good format for the rest of my adventure? Looking for open source solutions, but your answer is in detailed, photo editing software, can you please link a good reference for learning material?


5 Answers 5


There's no silver bullet

Map-making for “good” copies of maps is really a matter of redrawing them from scratch (digitally or physically), using the original design as a reference. There's no easy or automated way to transform a hand-drawn map into a “good” digital version.

Cartography (digital or analogue) is both an art and a technical skill, and like all arts and technical skills it is only achieved through years of practice.

Unfortunately, this means that there are only two ways to go from hand-drawn to publishing-quality:

  1. Develop one's own art and skill until it's at the desired level.
  2. Hire someone else's years of artistic and technical development.

Then the cartography artist redraws the map as something professional-looking.

A few years ago I had been practicing, for about a year, a particular style of finished-quality cartography inspired by Dyson Logos's professional work. The result is the map published in The Tomb of Nesta the Mischievous, a One-Page Dungeon Contest award-winner that can now be found in PDF on various sites and in the printed One Page Dungeon Contest 2012 Compendium.

That's what's possible with approximately a year of about an hour of practice about every day or two. (Mileage may vary of course, depending on existing skill levels and dedication!) If that's an acceptable investment, timeline, and outcome, then that's a route you could take.

Otherwise, a professional publisher is best served by hiring a professional cartographer that specialises in RPG maps, because maps can really make or break their adventure.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Not the answer I wanted to hear, but I know it's right. I want to be where you are with publishing professional level adventures, so this is the path I'm going to take. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 26, 2017 at 23:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Now are you saying that you practiced hand drawing and then still scan it? Or you practiced that much with a digital program? \$\endgroup\$ Oct 26, 2017 at 23:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ That was hand-drawn, redrawn, inked, scanned, and digitally cleaned up. The process is different when not starting from a scan, but digital map-making takes arguably even more skill to pull off. (My digital maps are atrocious.) \$\endgroup\$ Oct 27, 2017 at 0:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Speaking as a professional industry cartographer, I thank you for this answer. It's like answering the question, "how can I get a good illustration of my character?" The only really good answer is either practice until you get good enough to do it, or hire someone who has. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 27, 2017 at 5:28

Dyson Logos has a tutorial that touches briefly on scanning and touching up hand-drawn maps

The important part for you is this:

Finally with that map in hand, I would normally scan it for the first time (instead of having scanned it 4 times previous to finishing it. I drag it into either the Gimp or Photoshop and enhance the Brightness and Contrast (typically +40 Brightness, +60 Contrast)

As noted in Dyson's post, GIMP is the main open source Photoshop equivalent... And upping brightness/contrast will go a long way towards cleaning up (black and white) maps.


I do have an answer for this but it's a little involved. Yet the payout is tremendous.

You can use GIS-- Geographic Information Software. Currently I'm in the process of digitizing my own worldbuilding maps with this software. There's many good programs out there, but for making a map of your world you would want to use a vector-based GIS program. If you have an extra $10,000 laying around you can get an ArcGIS license, which is the industry standard. However there is an opensource GIS software called QGIS. It's a lot like paint.net compared to photoshop-- you can get a lot of addons that make it similar in ability.

Once you have a program like this you can redraw the map by hand or some have tools that automatically trace over the lines in an image.

There are two HUGE advantages to using GIS to digitize your maps:

  1. Your map will be visible at multiple scales. With vector GIS, you can zoom in indefinitely on an area, so at one scale you can display a continent and by zooming in you can view a town on the same map.

  2. GIS maps hold data in the assets you create. So you can click on a country per se, and you can have data about that country available, like population for instance.

When you finish a map you can print it, OR host it on a webservice.

I know you posted this 2 years ago, but let me know if you see this and if it's helpful. I'm more than happy to walk you through getting started.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! You've written a very nice first post here. Take the tour if you still haven't done so, it's some valuable information about how this site is supposed to work. Cheers! \$\endgroup\$ Sep 3, 2020 at 20:38

I also use The GIMP, and prefer to use paths and layers. Paths give you a tons of editting options; selections, path stroking, and re-purposing. Here is a map of the world in Andrew J. Offutt's "War of the Wizards" series:

http://adventuresinnerdliness.net/wotw/ (you can click the map to enlarge it)

Everything is built on paths, so it is easy to do fills and varied line types.

As with above mentions, you have to learn to map, and learn your tool. I had some digital cartography and drafting at university, so The GIMP came naturally.

  • \$\begingroup\$ "Lean on your tool" is a fair typo. I'm not sure I know how to use a pencil anymore. :-D \$\endgroup\$
    – user40124
    Oct 31, 2017 at 14:26

TL;DR: There are several very good programs you can use. You probably want to learn a bit about vector graphics and SVG. SVG is going to a recurring theme since so many tools can read and write this format. It is a language for describing shapes, lines, connections, and text. So it is great for all the data of the map. It will hate you for trying to add colorful unique shading and blending colors to make it look like Goode Olde Time Map. As much fun as it is to do these, it is really best left to the end.

Try making a small 5 room house with different tools and then once you find one you like, dig deep into how to make it do what you need: shapes (for rooms, lakes, rivers, the shitter in the back of the guard tower,etc. etc.), paths (things that connect things).

You may end up using totally different tools to make color maps to hand the players, detailed diagrams for the DM, or even 3D walkthroughs if you use CAD or 3D modeling software like Blender (which has GIS--Geographic Information System plug ins. You can virtually explore your own town w/ the plug-ins for OpenStrees (OSM), and Google Earth/Google Map (as well as others--someone has a plug in for the USGS elevation map so you get real 3D terrain).

To echo what others have said learn to use layers. You can then focus on one sort of problem or one set of data/objects (e.g. do all your water on one layer). It is totally worth the short time you will need to learn it.

Make a large map as one gooey layer and you will quickly find out what it feels like to be the recipient of Chaos spell.

It is a complex topic (map making has never been easy) as maps are one of the most information dense information displays we use, and forcing 3D onto 2D rewards those who spend a few hours on Wikipedia and checking out some online (YouTube even) tutorials on the various tools, topics, and file formats (but, really, SVG, SVG, SVG to get started)

There are no shortage of great open source tools depending on your ambitions. If you have a QT based desktop (KDE, Deepin, LXQt) Krita is a great raster (image editing, digital art creation) editor with strong vector (e.g. SVG) capabilities as well. While I use Linux, these programs are all available as native Windows and OS/X programs.

LibreOffice and OpenOffice both have a Draw program that is a vector diagram tool which can work with SVG, as well as importing other image formats (PNG, JPEG, GIF, etc.). I am currently playing with it and it has a learning curve.

Dia and Inkscape are both robust program which also work with SVG.

There are three "big time" (i.e. used in place of ArcGIS) open source GIS (geographic information systems) which I am looking at: QGIS, PostGIS (a set of extensions to the amazingly powerful PostgreSQL database system, which QGIS can use as a back-end), and GRASS (which is at least as capable as ArcGIS).

There is also the QT based Calligra Karbon diagramming application which also speaks SVG.

There are others, depending on how you like to work with information. (Including at least one very robust option which is just a set of command-line programs w/ a text user interface).

I would love to make my content look like that in WoTC publications. I hope that careful selection of fonts, and possibly even desktop publishing tools like Scribus, or (not for the faint of heart) using the venerable LaTeX toolchains.

I am just getting started with a big mapping project. Ask me in a few months what worked and what didn't. I am actually planning on using this as a way to learn to use some pretty heavy duty GIS software because I need it for another project and its more fun to learn this way! (DnD is where I learned probability and statistics 101 back in highschool).

PS: GIMP is also available for Windows and OS/X. I hear it is OK, esp. if you are stuck using one of those ugly GTK+ based desktop environments (you know who you are). ;)


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