I’ve never encountered a Role-Playing Game that suffered for having a map on display. Whether it’s meant as a tactical map where every inch represents a number of feet or meters, or a wider angle map that is meant to show what surrounds the characters, maps serve a valuable purpose in RPGs: To give visual context to the players.

Unfortunately, many game masters struggle to find a way to make beautiful maps that show what they need to show. Yes, simply purchasing a Chessex battle map and some markers and free-hand drawing a map isn’t a bad way to go. For many gamers that’s the standard, and it’s a great way to have quick access to maps. Of course, sometimes you want something different, and sometimes your imagination exceeds your skill.

That’s why I have compiled a couple of ways to create simple, effective, and beautiful RPG maps. Keep reading for instructions.

RPG Map 1: Buy and Assemble

Probably the simplest way to make a great tactical map is to buy map packs and use them. There are a huge variety of different styles, configurations, and prices. My personal favorite is the Heroic Maps line on DriveThruRPG.com.

Heroic Maps have RPG Maps that are complete as-is, as well as geomorphic sets that you can assemble to create any map you want. One of the best things about buying maps like these is that they work just as well on a virtual table-top application as they do when you print them out.

Assembling your Geomorphic RPG Map

If you purchased and want to use a completely pre-made RPG map, you don’t need to do any further assembly. If, on the other hand, you’re like me and want more control, you’ve purchased a geomorphic tile set.

There are a couple of ways to build a map using a geomorphic set. First, you can print every piece and then assemble them by hand. I don’t love that method, because it requires you to piece together something that could become incredibly tedious to maintain.

I far prefer assembling my map digitally and then printing it. To do so, you’ll need either a graphics editor or a vector editor. My favorite graphics editor is Adobe Photoshop, and my favorite vector program is Adobe Illustrator. Neither option is cheap. If you’re looking for programs that are still good, but don’t come with those price-tags, take a look at Gimp and Inkscape, respectively.

Step by Step: Digitally Assembling

  1. Create a canvas. I do this by figuring out the size I want the map to be at the end, both in real-space and virtual space and entering that size into my program’s new canvas dialogue. I would recommend not making any map larger than your play space. If you’re planning on printing your map check out the prices for print sizes and choose the most economical option. Make a basic plan for what you want your map to show.
  2. Create a background. I recommend black. This is what will show behind your map and in any gaps you have. Black is a good color because it will help hide any gaps you might have between tiles, and it makes unmapped areas appear impassable. White, on the other hand, is more resource effective for a physical print and gives you a place to make notes.
  3. Import your tiles. Once you’ve got the basic backgrounds down, sort through the tiles you’ve bought and import the ones you plan to use for your map. The more tiles you bring in the bigger the file-size will get, and the harder to manipulate it will be, so the planning you do in step 1 is incredibly important. You can copy and paste tiles, use the import dialog, or drag and drop them (depending on the program you use).
  4. Arrange Your Tiles. Once you’ve got your geomorphic tiles imported, start arranging them. Most of the tiles you get will have a grid of some kind on them, be sure to match the lines up between tiles or it’ll look really weird. Don’t forget to zoom in to check alignments.
  5. Do a Quality Check. Before you print or export your file, be sure to go over every part with a fine-toothed comb. Look for issues like misaligned tiles or spaces that simply don’t make sense. I can almost guarantee you’ll find some.
  6. Export your Image. Most programs you’ll use have an option to export your image in a compressed form. I highly recommend using whatever utility your program comes with. Make sure your resolution matches the destination media you’re going to. (For print: 300 PPI JPG, for VTT: 72 PPI JPG). Not only does this save you hard-drive space, it makes it far easier to store and use your image. 

RPG Map 2: Mapbox

One of the most amazing utilities I’ve ever found for creating RPG maps is Mapbox. Mapbox is a utility designed primarily for businesses wanting to have interactive maps over the internet. Although it’s been a while since I created maps in Mapbox, the process hasn’t changed all that much.

First, go to the sign in page, and click on “Don’t have an account? Sign up for Mapbox”
Then sign up. You don’t need to use your name if you don’t want to, just enter a username, email, and password to get started!
After you finish signing up, you’ll be taken to your dashboard. There is a lot you can do, but I’d say the first thing to do is click on “Design in Mapbox Studio” on the right side.
Once the Mapbox Studio page loads, you should see something like the above. Click on “More Options”
Oooh, styles. There are plenty of options for styles. I chose to scroll down to find one I thought looked cool.
Check it out, I clicked the “Create” button on the Vintage style.
And here’s the world in Vintage style. Navigating maps in Mapbox is a lot like doing so in Google Maps. Scroll to zoom in or out, and click and move to change what you’re looking at.
I zoomed in on a few sections of Paris. Mapbox shows vectorized (able to be nice at any resolution) buildings and streets, which is super awesome. By clicking in the box at the side, you can change some styles. For instance, I made the buildings darker, so that they stand out.
When you’re satisfied with the appearance of your map, look at the top-right of your screen. You can publish your map on the internet, or you can print it. For the purpose of this tutorial, click the printer icon in the top left.
After clicking the printer icon, a box should appear in the bottom left corner. It’ll look exactly like mine.
You can adjust the size of the paper you want to print to, the resolution (for anything going to print, I recommend 300 ppi). Once you’re satisfied, click the “Export” Button. The only downer about the current version of Mapbox is the limited number of prints. Hey, maybe you’ll be able to negotiate with Mapbox sales for free or cheap prints as long as they’re only for gaming. You’d have to try to know for sure.
After you click “Export” you’ll get a download with the map.
You can also use your map online. I haven’t worked out all of the pieces of this, but suffice to say that anyone with the right technology skills can figure out how to use Mapbox maps in a website (which is the primary purpose anyway).

My demonstration focused on a small section of Paris, but I’ve also used topographical styles in Mapbox to create really awesome tactical maps for both modern and fantasy games. Trust me, these are really great. If you use a custom style with a white background and black details, Staples has inexpensive Engineering Prints that are perfect for maps like these.