I draw topographic maps for my players all the time, and in real time (it is just easier for me to express myself with a pencil on a sheet of paper than in words). I have two problems with this.

First – my drawing is awful. I am pretty ok with peaks and ridges but the more extreme forms – canyons for example – are incomprehensible mess, the pencil just doesn't have that high resolution to draw a lot of lines in close proximity.

Second – I didn't pay attention in my geography classes and now I am really sorry. Once I had a river run up a mountain!

What is a good concise source to read in order to understand which terrain features can coexist (e.g. no rivers uphill, no woods on the polar cap ) and maybe how they were formed?

How do I improve my skill of rapid drawing zoomed-in topographic maps of open areas?

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    \$\begingroup\$ There is a community at Profantasy that may be of help due to their mapping software products (Campaign Cartographer series). forum.profantasy.com/… is a link to a critique of a map that pays attention to scale and the patterns of rivers. \$\endgroup\$
    – EFH
    Sep 26, 2012 at 12:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ Keep in mind that to create "realistic" terrain, you need to keep your audience in mind. Otherwise you need to know a sizable fraction of human knowledge about the planet: "Argh, the volcanos are on the wrong side of the subduction zone, how unrealistic!" "Argh, everyone knows that tree ferns can't survive winters colder than -10C!" "Oh for crying out loud, the river can't start there--there won't be any moisture left to condense after the air mass moves over that other mountain range!" Etc. etc. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ichoran
    Sep 26, 2012 at 17:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ I’m voting to close this question because the community has deemed campaign research questions off-topic. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Jul 7, 2020 at 12:32

7 Answers 7


First, built the world (at least in your head).

Land: Landmasses are formed by plate tectonics. Some areas are where plates push apart (like the middle of the Atlantic Ocean), whereas others are where plates push together and one ends up on top of the other (such as the Himalayan mountains). Fun fact, the Himalayan mountains are getting taller as the Indian and Asian plates (I think that's their names) push together. Once you have an idea where your land is and where the mountains will be, it's easy to put the rest together.

Water: Water goes from the water table to the ocean. Once its in the ocean/large body of water, it evaporates, becomes a cloud and falls on the world in rain, thereby returning to the ocean. The water table occurs somwehre between the surface (near rivers) to as many as 1200 feet below the surface of the ground. Any time the water table is at ground level, but there is not a river nearby, it's called a spring. Springs produce anywhere from a trickle to a torrent of water (usually I've seen a gallon a minute as a rough average). Once the water comes out of the spring, it goes downhill along the path of least resistance. If the hill slopes at 15 degrees, forward and left, it will go forward/left. If there is a rock in the way, it will go around it, etc. The only exception to this is glaciers. If the planet you are building had an ice-age, large rocks will have been pushed away from the polar region by growing glaciers. However, as glaciers receded the holes left by those large rock formations will then fill with melt-water. Rivers over thousands of years will erode valleys into steeper and deeper canyons, and waterfalls erode the point of the falls, thereby moving upstream slowly.

Climates: Does the world have a hot enough portion to make a tropical zone? Is it cold enough for there to be a polar ice cap? Figure out where the boundaries lie on your world next. The Koppen climate classification could be a good place to get started, but I find it a little too specific for my taste. It looks to measure everything along the lines of average temperature and average rainfall/humidity. Where those two numbers line up gives you a climate zone. Although, cold temperatures cannot support as much atmospheric humidity.

People: Once you have the world's physical features fleshed out, you can work on the impact of humanoid/sentients. People tend to live near water and/or other resources. We have been lazy as a species since the days of the Bablyon Empire (located in the fertile crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers). We also like stuff that isn't readily available. Maybe it's citrus fruit in non-tropical climates or Silk anywhere BUT the Orient. We build roads to connect those resources to where consumers demand them. Once you know where all the luxury goods and trade goods are produced, and the trade roads, anywhere two or more roads converge tends to have a city (or if a road comes close to another intersection, it tends to bend to the city at the intersection and then back along its path). Again, we still like to go the easy way, so we tend to pick the 20 miles of rolling hills to build a road through than the 5 miles of steep mountains. Frequently roads travel along valleys because water tends to collect there in rivers... and merchant trains of antiquity were lazy and didn't want to ride all day, then go find water for the camp. As civilization builds along these trade routes you will build toward there being a small hamlet/village/friendly farmer spaced about as far apart as a day's walk. But if this is a new road or a primitive world it is likely that there are days between villages/towns/cities. Also, where there is not civilization there is opportunity for bandits (or agencies of illegitimate taxation). In a world where there are dragons, I would imagine that most people would also avoid known/suspected lairs of the megafauna that enjoy villager for dinner.

Negative consequences Sometimes people do stupid stuff. Other times they do the wrong thing without realizing they are overtaxing resources. Strip mining, and primitive farming both invite massive amounts of soil erosion due to the tracts of unplanted ground that get left behind. Contemporary farmers always plant a winter-cover crop of grass or some thing similar to hold back erosion of nutrient-rich soil, but they did not know these things back when most fantasy games would take place. Depending on time-frame/genre you also have industrialists who will spill resources (such as oil) and ruin otherwise good ground just because it's too easy to leave it there and let someone else clean it up. Another common problem is over-using resources. I read an article about China's efforts to prevent desertification near Beijing so there wouldn't be sandstorms during the Olympics. Overusing/diverting water causes forests to become grassland and grassland to become desert. Similarly, with enough irrigation deserts become grassland and grasslands become forest.

Finally, to put this tempest back in the teapot: Take your time and draw it the way you see it in your head. Talent is not required, I suck at drawing but the one week I forgot to bring the continent map to game when I DM'd, the lack was noticed. I would recommend you draw the continent map on something the size of standard paper (letter/A4/whatever it is in your location) and keep it to just pencils or other easily erased media. Most of my sketches like this are done on graph paper because it helps me when I need to draw symmetrical things. Another trick is to have a color-coded map. I start with the USGS convention (green is vegetation, blue is water, brown is terrain, black/red is human activity) and then add other colors as needed by the system (yellow is partial concealment, orange is full, etc.)

I try to plan likely encounters (or plot encounters) ahead of time so I have the sketches ready to spin up a battlemat quickly, but random encounters are just as fast for me... typically draw a road, where the trees/hazards are, and have the players place their minis as necessary. If you don't do mats, have the sketch and then put each character's initial in a square for where the character is on the grid. Either which way, if you are sketching where Tucker's Kobolds are attacking the party, you don't really need to know all the geo-political implications... just where the location and direction of travel for both the PCs, then NPCs and the proximity of either to local hazards. You don't need to draw all that, but it helps knowing that if your party is travelling through the Fire Swamp to put a few Fire springs on the map for added DM fun (or only mark them in your mind until an unlucky PC steps on one and gets singed).

One final note: In homebrewing circles there's time-old advice of "Relax! Don't worry! Have a homebrew." I'll co opt it here to "Relax! Don't worry! Have fun!" As long as everyone is having fun, any mistake that you make by hastily sketching a map should be overlooked by most reasonable players, so tell your inner-critic to shut up and play when it starts heckling you. Any discrepancy fix and say "oops"... Or provide a reason the river runs uphill (if it's a fantasy setting).

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    \$\begingroup\$ If you do hand draw your larger map I highly recommend scanning them as a backups! \$\endgroup\$
    – Rob
    Aug 20, 2013 at 15:05

To learn more about how the surface of our Earth works and was formed, you want to undertake an informal, ongoing study of geomorphology, the "study of landforms and the processes that shape them." For an informal study, Wikipedia is an excellent resource – free, easily available, translated into multiple languages, and fun to wander around and get lost in.

The article on geomorphology at Wikipedia lists several major types of shaping processes – fluvial (water), glacial (ice), eolian (wind), etc. – with links to further details. Just read articles as you find them interesting, following the branching links deeper into more details. Do this a little at a time, only as interest prompts you, over the course of weeks or months. The objective of the exercise is to pepper your consciousness with lots of diverse bits of knowledge of how geological processes work and the sorts of landscapes that they create. With lots of bits rattling around, you'll slowly begin to grasp the larger picture and gain a practical knowledge of the sorts of landforms that are realistic through natural processes.

The one caveat about doing this: for some people (like myself), this can result in a "realism trap", where I have a hard time just knocking out a gaming-useful map because I'm agonising over too many geologic details and can't just make myself draw a mountain. A fantasy map doesn't have to be perfectly realistic. A bit of knowledge of real-world geography can go a long way to avoiding landscapes that will break the players' suspension of disbelief, but most players aren't geologists and won't worry about landscapes that are only unrealistic to a trained professional. In fact, some real-world natural geologic features will seem un-realistic to players if you include them in your fantasy world!

One tip for your particular situation: drop the topographic maps. There's no easy way to get better at zoomed-in topographic maps – professionals spend years learning the skills, and modern geographers usually use software to draw the lines anyway. Besides, unless your players are going to be doing detailed orienteering based on slopes and landforms (unlikely), the density of information in a topo map is wasted in a gaming situation and a huge sink of energy for you, the one drawing it. Simplify to just depicting major features: here is a bunch of hills, here is some gently sloping ground, here is a ridge, here is a canyon. Draw them as objects, not as the result of topological lines. After all, your players merely need to navigate between places of interest so they can have scenes or encounters there; they don't need to know that the slope here is 15.8° and the slope there is 18.1°.


I would consult army manuals and websites. The military has a vested interest in making terrain maps, but even more so in making sure soldiers know how to read it it.

Here is a link to an army study guide that outlines some of the major and minor terrain features that you'd see on an elevation map. http://www.armystudyguide.com/content/army_board_study_guide_topics/land_navigation_map_reading/identify-major-minor-terr.shtml

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    \$\begingroup\$ Awesome, thanks! This addresses perfectly the readable and correctly marked maps. However, where do I learn from how did terrain features form so that I do not put incompatible features one next to the other. Or on a sufficiently old planet, there are no impossible combinations? \$\endgroup\$
    – Vorac
    Sep 26, 2012 at 14:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ Pyrodante, sorry for beating you to it. @Vorac I would suggest a geology or earth sciences textbook from a local library if you are looking to get very indepth as to why terrain types form (location, climate, soil and rock compositions, etc.). SevenSidedDie's answer of wikipedia is good if you want just a general understanding for descriptive purposes, i.e. "you step into a cave with walls smoothed by the sand carried on the desert winds." You could also probably outright poach some terrain maps to use in your campaign to solve drawing complications and still use my link to read & explain it. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 26, 2012 at 19:37

To understand more about how geography is formed I'd recommend the book World-Building. It starts from the point of forming a planet and continues on from there.

The following blog post covers the basics Worldbuilding: Geography:

  • Start with Geology (Land masses and Mountain Ranges)
  • Just add Water (Lakes and Rivers)
  • Into the Woods (Forests/Temperate Land)
  • Just Deserts (Arid Land)
  • Current Events (Air Currents and Weather Patterns)

To improve your intuitive understanding of the subject I'd look at games such as Dawn of Worlds, and Dwarf Fortress the first to get some idea of the impact of geography on the inhabitants, and hence likely the plot, and the second because their procedurally generated world follows principles derived from real life geography.

Also for a brief and interesting discussion on how geography effects weather and such, take a look at What would the world be like if the land masses were spread out the same way as now - only rotated by an angle of 90 degrees?

For a quick start on drawing maps I recommend the young adult book How to Draw Maps and Charts. If you want to use simpler icons to represent landscape, and do not mind getting technical, then Plan Graphics for the Landscape Designer may work for you.


Although I do not personally own the book I also recommend taking a look at Drawing the Landscape.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Nice collection of resources. I found the xkcd "What If?" article particularly enjoyable! \$\endgroup\$ Sep 27, 2012 at 3:25

You could take a look at Rolemaster. The rules contain (among other things) some basic algorithms for terrain creation.

Also of course you should rely on your common sense. Obviously you are aware that water does not flow uphill - at least not without the use of magic or some such. Common sense will get you a long way.

Regarding improving your skill: practice. Keep drawing maps.

If you are unhappy about having things wrong every now and then I recommend buying a hex map made from plastic. On these you can draw with erasable pencils.

It actually took me a while to search the interweb for the stuff I meant. Without wanting to advertise I guess that chessex is the main player when I comes to offering soft vinyl mats.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The example of the rivers is quite basic one. Yesterday I had a rectangular stony cliff, next to a lake in the fields (like those around canyons). Canyons are formed out of moving ice blocks. "Is this cliff possible?" is a question I would be able to answer, after reading the hypothetical "basic geography materials". Common sense is based on knowledge - where do I get the basics of it? \$\endgroup\$
    – Vorac
    Sep 26, 2012 at 13:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Canyons are formed by relatively soft rock and soil being worn away over a very long period of time. Large valley structures and fjords are carved by glaciers. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 26, 2012 at 13:34

A good shortcut is to base your fantasy world on a real place. I started with a map of Australia, and just put all my D&D world stuff on top of it. I added a peninsula or two, etc., but pretty much kept the real major geological features and climate zones and so forth. Depending on the size and scope of your campaign, and flavor, the characters could spend their entire career wandering around on a copy of Iceland, or Madagascar, or South America, or Pangaea, with dragons and orcs scattered about on it.


How to deal with a spherical world, if your world is spherical, is one thing a lot of people ignore in fantasy map making but also one of the key aspects of real world geography and cartography.

In general, the smaller the scale you are working at, the more problematic the curvature is. A map of a whole globe is very problematic, while a map of a city is something you can mostly treat is being flat like the map.

To flatten the map, you need to distort it by stretching, squashing, or tearing it. There are different ways that lead to different kinds of distortion, and which shift the distortion to different areas, but there is always distortion. Learning which projection you need for a particular extent and purpose is a key skill for cartographers.

Elements like compass roses, rhumb lines, graticules, and scales let you indicate what kind of distortion the map has. As such they aren't things you can just drop in at will. Compass roses and rhumb lines are a way to indicate a map is bearing preserving, which most maps aren't, and they are generally only appropriate on navigational maps. Linear scales are only appropriate on maps that have a consistent linear scale, which can only happen on large scale maps.

Also remember that these elements are functional parts of the map. If you treat them purely as decoration, you'll probably draw them in a way that makes them ineffective in their role rather like drawing a car with square wheels or maybe a hovercraft with square wheels in some cases.

You should also try to consider the surveying, navigation, and graphical resources available. In the medieval period, maps as we know them were practically non-existent. Without the ability to survey the information or make use of it, there was no point. Modern style maps indicates much more advanced technology.

The tools and knowledge available to the in character cartographer are also significant. Thank about how they are drawing things, what tools they would be using and try to replicate that rather than just throwing the abilities of modern graphics software at it without thinking. Also avoid the temptation to overdo making things look "old" or "futuristic".

  • \$\begingroup\$ I think you might want to re-read the question. You're giving general cartography advice and presentation, while they're asking for what sort of geography knowledge they should have and how to better draw grades. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 11, 2013 at 2:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Understanding the shape of the world and how you've distorted it for the map is the basis upon which the rest of geography sits. The question is about making maps look realistic and a map is not going to look realistic if basic things like this are wrong. \$\endgroup\$
    – smithkm
    Aug 11, 2013 at 20:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ The scale they're working at doesn't make that relevant. And you don't address the things they do ask about. This is just kind of a non-sequitur answer. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 12, 2013 at 6:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ Maybe you've mistaken this for a conversation thread? We're a Q&A site, not a discussion forum. One implication of that is that each answer should be written as a complete solution to the question's problem as if there were no other answers. It's not meant that people should simply give general, tangential advice, like is common on discussion sites. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 12, 2013 at 6:23

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