Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Mapping for the Masses

I love maps, I always have. In fact, it was a brief, yet tantalizing, glimpse at a dungeon map that first piqued my interest in D&D (although I had no idea the map was a dungeon map at the time). I have always tried to make my maps functional and accurate, and as my meager abilities allowed, artistic. I have explored countless shading and symbol variants when hand-drawing. I've also experimented with a lot of software tools for mapping.
It has started occurring to me that I want to explore an entirely different mindset. I want to try approaching my cartography from a new Starting point, as it were. Consider the following:
  • Maps were not mass produced. Each was a one-of-a-kind deal.
  • Not only was each map uniquely created, the information it contained was arrived at individually. So, even if separate missions explored the same area, the maps would likely be quite different.
  • Most maps were driven by mercantile enterprises.
  • Considering that explorers were exploring for the purpose of opening new markets and sources of trade, the maps their travels generated should be considered akin to trade secrets.
  • Being driven by economic interests, especially related to sea-trade, coastal detail, including ports-of-call and safe harborages, would be of utmost importance.

All of these thoughts has led me to the idea that I want to make my maps more artistic. I've always wanted my mountain symbols, for example, to occupy the proper amount of space, according to the scale I've established. I want to change that. I want terrain symbols to be representative of the terrain that is most likely to be found in the surrounding area.

Another common theme in antique maps are little artistic embellishments. People going about some sort of activity, perhaps tied to local tradecraft or terrain, were quite popular. Farming, herding, hunting, and trade caravans appear frequently. I really like that idea.

Ultimately, the map is a method of communication. Typically, it would have been the map-maker communicating with himself, a device whereby to remember the lay of a land, treacherous sea-lanes or dangerous shoals, or pictographic clues about the peoples found in a particular location. They could be covered in specific notes, perhaps in a personal code.

Finally, I need to stop thinking of maps as being mass-produced and each consistent with the next. Maps for characters should be rare and treated as treasure. What price can be placed on a map through a monster-infested wilderness, sure to befuddle even the most seasoned traveller? Such a map that could virtually guarantee not getting lost, thus saving wandering lost for perhaps days.


  1. I love maps too. Wish I had more time to draw some, and a scanner to show them off :(

    1. As I've noted before, I use GIMP to make my maps. I have also used Campaign Cartographer, and its add-ons, but these days I am all Linux, all the time, and there isn't a Linux version. There is also a free vector based drawing program for Linux, so that base is covered, too. I'm nobody's artist, so I do rely on GIMP to attempt anything "artsy" when I make a map. It is fairly easy to cut-and-paste the artistic embellishments from genuine antique maps with GIMP, and there are a lot of brush sets with a hand-drawn look. Give it a look. There are Windows and Mac versions of it, and they are free, as well.