Start Drawing Maps*

My first isometric map
It seems pretty much the norm these days to use map-making software or free/cheap pre-existing maps when running an adventure. I can see benefits to this, not least in time saved (at least, for pre-made maps: for me, trying to use map-making software can be a massive time-sink). But I suspect that many people use these resources because they look flashy, with all of their detail and shading and professionalism. In my opinion, all of those things are overrated, and making your own maps gives you so much more.

Starting with the downsides of “flashy maps”, I personally find that, when using pre-made maps on Roll20 (and I imagine this would also apply to face-to-face play) they are a distraction. I find myself focusing on details which are purely decorative, or on the watermark showing where the map comes from. They take me away somewhat from the immersive experience. In the game I am currently a player in (on Roll20), maps, both of an entire dungeon and of battle scenes, are all hand-drawn, very scrappily, during play using Roll20’s primitive drawing tools. I find that this gives me all my imagination needs:
Yes, this is a (DM-drawn) dungeon map
And this is a combat map

But more importantly, drawing your own maps is a very personal, rewarding, educational experience. I have never considered myself anything of an artist, or good with drawing tools (although recent experience has taught me that all I needed was a big investment of time to become so). But whenever I’ve drawn a map, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised with the results, giving me a warm glow that can last for days.

I also think it makes a big change if you draw by hand, rather than using computer tools. I sometimes use the computer to tidy up a map, but the original is always drawn by hand. It just seems to bring me closer to the creative process, not having to worry about software and tools and menu commands etc.
The map at the top of this post was drawn in less than half-a-day, which included reading about and learning how to draw isometric maps. There are plenty of online resources telling you how to do this – I used this one, and this one also looks pretty comprehensive.  But equally you could just start with some isometric graph paper and dick around, see what happens. It helps to be able to scan and print your map – then you can make ever more bold additions knowing that, if you screw up, you can just print out an earlier stage and resume from there.
Honestly, the buzz when I held that completed isometric map in my hand… I cannot describe!
I’ve had similar experiences drawing wilderness maps. This time, I didn’t use any tutorials, just my own imagination plus looking at some existing maps (including Ordnance Survey). As I started to find different ways to represent hills and mountains, forests, swamps… again, I got that huge rush that arises from learning something new and realising that you can do that thing after all. 

A wilderness map that taught me so much
Like I said, I can understand why people might want to use a pre-made map. But I worry that so often nowadays the reason people won’t even attempt something like this is because they have no skill in it, because professional versions look so much more… professional. I’m here to tell you that the way to get better is by doing, and that there are few rewards greater than doing something which, an hour ago, you didn’t think you could do. Try it!

*NB the title of this blog post is an accidental but very pleasing echo of the poem Start Drawing Cocks that I wrote for a friend’s funeral.






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