World Workshop

The World Workshop – Mapping Basics

I’m big on geography, when it comes to settings. More importantly, I prefer to get at least a rough sketch of the area done early on in the process – making all the important decisions about a setting first, then mapping it out, leads to things being too neat in my opinion. Much like having a history that’s well thought-out and logical, a geography that perfectly complements the details of the setting almost immediately rings false and kills the suspension of disbelief.

The Earth is as it is, and we have to make do with it. I tend to inflict similar inconveniences/cruelties on the population of the worlds I design.

So today, I set out to really sink my teeth into the geography of this world and at least get started on a proper map. I’ll warn you right now, this article is going to read in a lot of ways like a Photoshop tutorial.

Also, credit where it’s due – until I discovered Ascension’s Atlas Style tutorial over at the Cartographer’s Guild, my mapping skills were mediocre at best. I used mapping software like Campaign Cartographer 3 or Fractal Mapper (both perfectly good programs) and depended on them to do 95% of the work. If you’re looking to learn how to design your own, great-looking maps, I strongly recommend Ascension’s tutorial. I no longer follow every single step to the letter, but it is still my main reference when mapping.

The quick map sketch I did in the hotel room. Click to see an enlarged copy.
The quick map sketch I did in the hotel room. Click to see an enlarged copy.

So first off, let me get that sketch back up here. If you take a look at the enlarged version, you’ll notice that the map is 15 “units” long and 10 “units” wide. I haven’t decided how big the area is, so each unit is going to wind up being somewhere between 100 and 200 km. I’ll figure that out later.

Before I do anything else, I need to get the basic file set up. I’ll be doing all this mapping in Adobe Photoshop CS4. I’ve also decided that I want the option of taking this thing into Kinko’s (or wherever) and getting a decent poster map run off if I want it. I check common poster sizes online, and decide to map a map that’s 30 inches x 20 inches. Since I want it to be of print quality, I set the resolution to 300 pixels per inch (pppi) – if I were just going to display this on the web, I’d set it for 72 ppi, because browsers can’t display more than that. I give it a white background, and get started.

The basic grid, 15 by 10. Click to see an enlarged copy.
The basic grid, 15 by 10. Click to see an enlarged copy.

Next I set up the grid. This is pretty easy, I just do a 1 pixel-wide straight line every 600 pixels, dividing the entire map into 15 sectors horizontally, and 10 sectors vertically. I do this in a separate layer, which I call grid. The only problem is that, because the file is so big, I need to zoom way the fuck out (8.33%) to see all of it at once – which means I can’t actually see my grid. So I create another layer above it, named grid (highlight). I ctrl-click on grid to select the same area, then hit Select -> Modify -> Expand and set the expansion to 5 pixels. The selection widens by 5px on every size, and I fill it with bright red. Now my grid lines are 11 pixels wide, and perfectly visible. Ugly, but visible. I hide grid for now – the red grid is just a guide, I’ll worry about how it looks on display later.

Okay, now to actually start mapping. Just as an aside, I’m going to ignore the grid and grid (highlight) layers. Unless I specifically mention them, they always stay on the very top.

The primordial soup that your world will rise out of. Don't worry, it'll get prettier. Click to see an enlarged copy.
The primordial soup that your world will rise out of. Don't worry, it'll get prettier. Click to see an enlarged copy.

First of all, make sure your colors are set to the default black & white (D) and select the background layer. Filter -> Render -> Clouds, then rename the layer clouds. Right-click on clouds, select Duplicate Layer and name the resulting layer ocean. Create a new, empty layer, and name it base. Then fill (Shift-F5) base with 50% gray (you don’t need to change your color selection, 50% gray is near the bottom of the drop-down). At this point your layers should be in the following order (top to bottom): base, ocean, clouds. Set the blend mode for base to “hard mix” and you’ll get a sort of Rorschach-looking mess, displayed above.

Next, make sure you’re working in the ocean layer. Select the Brush tool (B). I use the “Soft Mechanical 500 pixel” brush, but keep in mind my map is 9000 x 6000 pixels, so that’s not that big – select an appropriate brush accordingly. Set flow to 10%, and then use the brush to shape your landmass – white is land, black is the water.

The basic outline of my setting: three major landmasses and a half-dozen or so smaller islands. Click to see an enlarged copy.
The basic outline of my setting: three major landmasses and a half-dozen or so smaller islands. Click to see an enlarged copy.

The final results are on the left. You may notice a couple of details about my landmasses, specifically the large one in the top-left and the island to the right of the middle. I like islands that vaguely resemble things, like the “boot” of Italy. So the grouping of islands in the lower-middle, for example, looks like a three-toed foot with claw on the heel. And, while I’ve given the peninsula in the top-left the nickname “Cock Island,” it’s actually supposed to resemble a serpent.

I’m actually very hopefully that, once I get some more terrain features on there, it looks a little less phallic. I guess we’ll see.

To finish up mapping for this week, right-click on ocean and duplicate it – the resulting layer will be called ocean copy and should appear right underneath base. Shift-click on base and then on ocean copy so that both layers are selected. Right-click on either one and select Merge Layers. The end result is that base and ocean copy should combine into a single layer, called base (everything will still look the same, however). Hide the grid (highlight) layer and then, making sure that you’re working inside base, Select -> Color Range, set Fuzziness to 200, then click on some of the black “water” area with the eyedropper, then hit OK. Hit the delete key, and all your solid black “water” will be replaced with a sort of murky, cloudy mixture. You can make the grid visible again now, if you want. This is as good a spot as any to stop, for now.

You may be wondering how this is going to turn into a map that doesn’t look like some kid’s crayon scrawling – a kid who only has black and white crayons. I wondered the same thing – but trust me, something good is going to come out of this. You’ll be surprised.

Also, I realize I spent more time talking about Photoshop layers and brush flow fuzziness whatever-the-fuck than I actually did about the setting itself. My plan is to mix discussing mapping techniques with overall setting development, but those of you reading may only be interested in one subject or another. I could separate the two, if people would rather be able to selectively choose which to read. Comments are on and opinions are welcome.

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