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Creating a Fantasy Map: A Step-by-Step Tutorial

I've been drawing maps for D&D since first playing the game in '78. Playing online requires digital maps, so I taught myself using GIMP.

Terran: The Western Edge


Creating a Custom Fantasy Map

In this tutorial we will be making a custom map as opposed to a random map build. The map I chose for this tutorial is a close-up portion of the world map for my campaign.

As it is a close-up of an existing map, we'll have to custom draw the coastline so we match that of the original. Trying to match an existing map is full of custom details that we overlook when making a random map. This makes custom maps a wee bit more complicated.

We are going to be working in GIMP 2.8 (GIMP 2.10.12) but the techniques can be used on other software programs like Photoshop. GIMP is an open source program so it is free to download and use as an individual user. Don't forget to read the licence agreement before using.


Step One: Let There Be Land

  • Create a New Image File with a Transparent background. 900x900 pixels with an X&Y resolution of 600 dpi. File New will bring up a create new image box where you choose the settings.
  • I choose the transparent background at the beginning so every new layer I make later on have transparency automatically available.
  • Click white as your foreground color and click on the paint bucket and fill the page with white. Select a solid paintbrush of 2-3 pixel size and select black as the foreground color.
  • Draw your coastline and islands. Fill the Land with black and the Water white.
  • Make two duplicate layers label one Land and the other Water.
  • Now you can delete the land on the Water layer and the water on the Land layer.

That's it for step one. You should have 3 layers; Land, Water and Background.


Step Two: Creating Land

  • Click on the Land layer and select the area either by choosing the land by color or inverting the transparent color selection.
  • Now Filters Render Clouds Difference Clouds... ( Filters Render Noise Difference_Clouds...) In the resulting Solid Noise box select Detail at 15 and X and Y size at 3. This should add texture to the land
  • Next I clicked on the Gradient tool and selected Golden from the presets. Then under Colors Map Gradient Map and fill the land with colors. It was a little bright so I clicked on Colors Brightness-Contrast... Set Brightness at -75 and Contrast at -25.

Now that is it for the land layer for now.


Step Three: Raising the Mountains

  • The next step is to raise your mountains. You must get the contours of the land before you can draw your rivers and lakes so add a new layer and put it above the Land layer. Label it Mountains. With a solid edge fine tipped brush paint your ridgeline and draw in your mountains.
  • Add another new layer above Mountains and label it Light and Dark. In this layer you can shade the contours of the land and color the mountains.

Step Four: Let the Rivers Run

  • After creating some contours to the land you can add the rivers. Drag the Water Layer to the top of the layer stack and grab a fine tipped paintbrush. Depending on the scale, make your brush as wide as it takes to be correct. In the example my brush was set at three pixels.
  • Following the contours of the land, draw your rivers in from mountains to the sea. Make the rivers wind lazy like on the flat areas and run straighter in the steeper areas. Put your lakes in where the contours are flat.
  • Now turn off the other layers and select the transparent areas of the Water layer. Invert that selection and while on each of the land layers cut the water out so the rivers and lakes will show through.

Step Five: Adding a Bevel

  • With the inverted Water selection still active, work on the Land layer with some filters.
  • Filters Decor Add Bevel... Uncheck work on Copy and keep Bump Layer. Set the thickness to 20 This will bevel the edges of the land and make the water look like in has sunk into the land. Unfortunately it also bevels the outside edge of the map so after everything is finished you can crop that part of the map off for the finishing touch.


Step Six: Adding Vegetation

  • Adding vegetation is the last step. Add a new layer and stamp some trees and grasses on the lowland areas. Swamps at the deltas and use a large smoke brush to add a wash of green over the area.
  • Finally add one last layer; the Text layer. To it add towns, roads, and text to the map and you are done.

Finished Map


Add a Comment

Please take the time to leave a comment. It's the only way I know you've been here and know that your comments mean alot to me or any writer. It's your chance to ask questions or give kudos or just say hi I made it all the way through the article.

Comments Are Requested.

Akeel1701 on June 02, 2019:

How do you get the Solid Noise dialogue from the Difference Clouds? I'm using Photoshop CS6

UK on July 21, 2018:

Great tutorial, will be trying it out later today. Thanks for taking the time to make it.

iran on April 07, 2018:

thanks it was useful

Frost Birch (author) from Canada on October 22, 2017:

Thanks for the comment. It's nice to be appreciated.

Good work... on October 21, 2017:

Great technique and appreciate ur effort in writing blog.