Tuesday, 7 April 2015

A Fantasy Map

"I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit."
-J.R.R. Tolkien                       

As mentioned in my first post on this blog whilst my involvement in RPGs has oscillate between active involvement and casual interest, I've always maintained an active interest in world building. Whether it's to create a viable background for a work of fiction or just as a thought exercise, I've created dozens of imaginary settings, and every time I've started with a map.

Ah, maps... I confess I possess a bit of a map fetish. From historical maps to contemporary satellite images augmented by GIS, I actively seek out and collect those I deem aesthetically pleasing. A staple trope of the fantasy genre (and a necessary one for fantasy RPGs) is the world map, and a collection of both professional and amateur maps can be found at the Cartographer's Guild.

For those new to digital cartography, the site offers a number of tutorials, and I thought I'd road test one of the tuts here. What follows is my interpretation of Ascension's Atlas Style, which can be downloaded at the link.

What's great about this Ascension's tutorial is that it requires minimal Photoshop skill (though a quick run-through of the tut will undoubtedly expand the novice's ideas of the programme's capabilities) and everything they need is provided in-programme. To begin with, a layer of randomly rendered clouds is created, using one of Photoshop's built in filters. An airbrush is used to define the land masses, creating a distinct topography for the new world.

Readers may recognise a familiar real-world analogue of this map....
What's really great is that so much of how areas are defined relies upon Photoshop's colour selection tool, combined with the "fuzziness" variable of that tool: like historical aerial photography, terrain maps can be formed based upon a gradient of light to dark. The world quickly assumes it's own topography and appears to follow some kind of logic. The application of a five-tone gradient to the land mass quickly gets the map looking convincing:

Copies of the original terrain render, with judicious use of the difference clouds, gaussian blur and noise filters enable the creation of hills and mountains to grant additional depth to the map. Ascension recommends using the lasso tool with a feathered edge to move these around.

With waterways and oceans added, all that remains is to add labels for country names and cities (a northpoint and scalebar is also a must) et voila! Your fantasy map has been created. The above image is a little unrefined but took just under an hour to create, following the steps laid out in the tutorial. With a little more care at the initial landmass definition stage, a really convincing map can be created.

Later in this blog I'll be talking about sandboxing and hex-crawls, and will be utilising a map created using a process very similar to this. I'll also be posting my own tutorial on creating a hex based map, and later how to convert this into a rendered map.

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