How to Draw a Fantasy Map, Part 2

In Part 1, we looked at where to start and basic continent considerations for drawing a fantasy map.  Now we’ll look at some geographical considerations.

Remember Geography

Having a basic sense of geography is important or your map won’t make sense.  Some of this is obvious but is still worth pointing out.


For example, rivers flow downhill and generally toward the sea eventually.  Avoid randomly drawing rivers going in various directions without a mountain, rolling hills, or possibly a lake as a starting point.

Similarly, rivers often feed lakes, which typically drain out their lowest side as another river.

English: Map of the course, watershed, and maj...

English: Map of the course, watershed, and major tributaries of the Mississippi River. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lakes form in a low area surrounded by higher areas, even if we’re only talking less than a hundred feet of difference, so where you choose to have the river exit the lake means that area is lower.  As you draw, you are implying the general rise and fall of the land in an area.

There will be many more rivers than the ones you put on the map, so when it comes to drawing the map, we’re talking about the big ones here, like the Mississippi River.


For mountains, remember that they tend to form a rough line, such as east to west, because two tectonic plates are at odds with each other and those plates have an area of conflict at their edges.  Mountains appear above this.  A line of mountains can be very thick, as in 20 miles wide, but generally, they are still in a line, as opposed to a circle, for example.  You could have a mountain range that is 20 to 40 miles east to west but forms a rough line 500 miles north to south.  There are no mountain ranges that form a figure eight, for example, and while that would be interesting, it would also be ridiculous unless you have a good explanation.

Some mountains are volcanos and you can put an isolated mountain anywhere because of this, but they often aren’t isolated.  If you have a volcanic range, the same “line” idea tends to be true.  The Hawaiian Islands are a good example.

If you have two mountain ranges on your continent, each is probably being caused by different tectonic plate activity.  Both don’t need to be north to south, for example, but if they’re 90 degrees to each other (one is north-south, the other east-west), avoid putting them next to each other because nature doesn’t generally draw an L-shaped range.

Other Features

Forests are everywhere and are a kind of freebie in map drawing in that you can put one anywhere, in any shape.  They stand alone, have rivers cutting through them, and go up mountains and over rolling hills.  For that reason, consider drawing them last.

Grand Canyon, Arizona. The canyon, created by ...

Grand Canyon, Arizona. The canyon is 277 miles (446 km) long, 4 to 18 miles wide (6.4 to 24 kilometers), and attains a depth of more than a mile (1.6 km)

A desert is caused by lack of rainfall and/or water, so don’t draw a river and then put a desert around it, unless you’re modeling it on the Grand Canyon, where there’s only green vegetation at the bottom near the water.

Don’t forget roads, whether solid ones that stand the test of time or dotted lines indicating it’s a road less well-kept, maybe due to being farther away from civilization or because it goes somewhere hazardous; either way, it’s less well-traveled.

Drawing When You Can’t Draw

I can’t draw to save my life.  Fortunately, I don’t really need to.  In fact, being bad at drawing might help because we’re not trying to draw land features with straight edges – that’s not how nature works and it doesn’t look good on a map.  Embrace your inability and exaggerate it to form gently flowing edges to land features.

Initially, I typically don’t draw individual trees or mountains, just oddly-shaped ovals (or whatever shape) to indicate the boundary.  These shapes ultimately give your continent or region its character as they accumulate.  Don’t sweat over it at first, either, as making it more artistic is usually a matter of tweaking.  If you draw a rectangle with rounded corners and call it a forest, you can make it look less like that shape be extending a corner or two, or “cutting out” a section.  You basically want malformed shapes that seem sort of organic.

The Art of World Building

One tactic is to take an existing continent (or island) and try to draw it while purposely changing various things about the coastline so people don’t automatically think, “that’s Africa,” for example.  Turning them upside down or sideways helps.

Drawing By Hand

You may want to first sketch ideas on unlined paper, using a pencil so you can erase often, because it’s easier than getting into a computer program from the start.  One drawback is that if you like the result and want to digitize it later, you’ll have to redraw it with a mouse.  If you can actually draw for real, this may be your best bet because it looks authentic.

Map Generation Software

Lorynn KingdomA quick internet search will turn up several options for drawing maps.  I’ve only used one (Campaign Cartographer), but one thing to keep in mind is to save your work often as you go along.  It’s also a good idea to save a new file each time so that you can go back to a previous incarnation.  Let’s say I’ve saved it ten times, after ten major changes.  Then I decide I don’t like the last three and wish I could go back to version 7.  That’s impossible if I’ve been overwriting the same file every time.

You’ll want to add lots of names, including kingdoms, settlements, and those of land features like forests and rivers.  I’ve found that I can include more names without the result being ugly if I use a different style or font for each type.  I usually did this in a separate program like Photoshop, but your map making software might allow it, too.


While some of these reminders are obvious, it’s easy to start drawing a map without thinking it through and end up with something nonsensical. If you have any tips, please add them in the comments, especially if you’ve used other map generation software.

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2 thoughts on “How to Draw a Fantasy Map, Part 2

  1. Paula S. Jordan

    Hi, Randy.
    I just saw a re-tweet of your tweet about this post. Great site! You’ll notice my “like” on several posts related to design of non-Earthly/Human maps and issues. I write more from the SF than the F regions of our genre, but there is much here that will help me too. Many thanks for your insightful posts.


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