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Tips and Tools for 2D & 3D Fantasy Maps

In this article, we take a look at 10 tips and 3 tools that will help you to create immersive and believable game maps.

Today we will discuss map-making for RPGs and fantasy novels. What aspects of your game world make it more believable? What can justify making geographical mistakes? How to create a realistic game world? All these questions will be answered in this article.

The rules were initially created by Nathan Vanderzee, more commonly known as Nate from the WASD20 YouTube channel. Nate has always been fascinated by game worlds and has been creating game maps/worlds since childhood. So, in 2019 Nate had come up with a list of tips that can help you to create your own realistic and believable map/world for a book or your own game world.

Please note, these tips are not a must for every map. Your game world could have been created by ancient magic and dragons colliding mid-air. Fantasy is not meant to be realistic in the first place and you will not be blamed for not making believable biomes in the world where grass grows upside-down and there are 3 moons in the sky. But if you have the goal and aim to create a realistic world, then these tips are just for you.

With that out of the way, let's take a look at these tips, proposed by Nate and tools, that 80 Level proposes.

Tip 1: Rivers Don't Split

The first thing you should keep in mind is that rivers do not split as they flow, rather, it's usually rivers that join one another, thus creating a larger flow. This is because rivers generally flow from a higher to a lower point and there is no reason for them to split.

Of course, there are some exceptions, the Nile Delta, for example. But these exceptions are quite rare and season-dependent and should not be taken into consideration on a larger scale.

Tip 2: Lakes Have Only One River Draining

Keep in mind that lakes generally only have one river that would drain it into another lake, a sea, or the ocean. This happens because there is only one path of least resistance that rivers choose, and it is extremely unlikely for a lake to have two equal paths out.

In the video, Nate mentions that the Caspian Sea has no rivers that drain it, and it is only drained by evaporation. This can be a good gimmick in your RPG world, so keep that in mind.

Tool 1: Hex Map Generator by Anjeong Go

The first tool we propose is a Houdini-based Hex Map Generator created by Anjeong Go. The concept and the point of the Hex Map Generator tool are to create the classic RTS game environment from the top-down view. It was inspired by Unity of Command, Civilization 5, Battle Worlds: Kronos, and WARTILE.

This tool allows you to create a cliff or the bottom of a pond or river, by adjusting the height of the selected region/s. The “Add Floor” parameter can make a water surface. If you select a region, you can create a hill by controlling the “height” and “soft radius”, which is the area of influence. It is also easy to generate a fence. Just click on the “Fence” toggle box, and then the assets or that certain area will be protected by the fence. The quickest way to build your map is to start with an image (e.g. a sketch on paper) and then build rough shapes in Houdini.

Another thing to highlight is building forest areas. You don’t have to worry about creating a convincing forest if you have 3 or more different kinds of trees. It will show densely packed forested areas with an organic look.

Tip 3: Don't Make Coast-to-Coast Rivers

And once again, keep in mind that rivers flow from the highest to the lowest points. Making a coast-to-coast river would simply make it a part of the sea. It is better to place your river's source somewhere in the mountains because in the real world that's where they usually start.

If you really want to make a coast-to-coast river though, you can simply make a canal, like the Panama Canal, for example. But do keep in mind that the Panama Canal was built using thousands of workers and heavy machinery, so if your aim is realism you better come up with a good explanation for how the canal was built. Magic? Giant Trolls? It is up to you.

Tip 4: No Lonely Mountains

Mountains do not exist on their own. Naturally, mountains are going to be created by factors that would tend to create lots of mountains, not just one. Whether it is tectonic plates or volcanic activity, these would create a mountain range, not single mountains.

And no, the Lonely Mountain in the Middle Earth is not actually lonely. There are mountain ranges to the South, North, and East of the Lonely Mountain, and technically, Smaug's cozy home is simply a part of one of them.

Tip 5: Consider the Rain Shadow Effect

In most places on Earth, one side of the mountain is usually very lush and gets a lot of rain and the other side is quite arid. Scientifically, it can be explained by prevailing winds that blow on one side of the mountains, this side is usually very green and moist, and by the time the winds reach the peak they have no moisture, thus making the other side dry. 

The prevailing winds usually come from the sea, so if you are planning to create a realistic world, do keep this geographical nuance in mind.

Tip 6: Tectonic Plates Affect Continent Shapes

Tip number six is to consider the shapes of your landmasses. If the world you are creating is a globe, then you should really think about how the landmasses used to fit together. If your world is old enough, you should really think about the tectonic plate aspect to keep everything realistic.

Tip 7: Tectonic Plates Shape the Mountains

Much like on our Earth, tectonic plates and volcanic activity should be the driving force behind mountain creation. You see, mountains usually appear when two or more tectonic plates collide and one literally pushes the other to the Earth's surface. So, if you are planning to add a mountain range, make sure there is a boundary between tectonic plates nearby.

Tool 2: Wonderdraft by Megasploot

The next tool that we selected for you is Wonderdraft, a fantasy map creation toolkit that is capable of procedural generation of landmasses, placement of cliffs, mountains, hills, forests, rivers, lakes, towns, cities, paths, and more.

Users can create an entire world map or generate a continent with islands and atolls, using sliders to define how craggy and detailed their coastlines will be. Then, users can use finer tools to add or remove land, shape coastlines, add rivers and lakes, start planting mountains and trees, and more.

The toolkit also features ready-made symbols to set up villages, towns, and entire cities with castles and buildings coming in various art styles (a number of sci-fi structures included). There’s also the possibility to import custom assets as well.

Tip 8: Place Your Settlements Near Water

Water has traditionally been an important part of human life, so, when creating settlements, you should think about water sources nearby and how they would affect the life of that settlement. Whether it is a giant trade hub type of city, which would require a port, or a small fishing village, always keep in mind the water aspect.

Tip 9: Place Ports in Sheltered Areas

Ports are generally going to be found in places that are not right on the coast, but just a little bit inside the land, like on a bay or a lake. Pick an area that would be sheltered from rough waters and strong winds and place your city or a town over there, that would make your world much more realistic.

Another thing to consider is the depth of the bay or a harbor your city is placed on. The waters should be deep enough so that the ships can come and go as they please without running aground.

Tip 10: Consider Climate

And the final tip is for you to consider the climate of your region. It is better to keep the climate similar to what we see on Earth. Scorching deserts shouldn't be located near glaciers, that is just common sense. You should create buffer zones in between to keep things realistic. The sizes of these buffer zones, however, are up to you.

Tool 3: Dungeon Alchemist by Wim De Hert

And the final map tool we selected is Dungeon Alchemist, an AI-powered mapmaking software for Tabletop RPGs that generates new maps very fast.

The toolkit's AI dynamically populates the rooms you draw and adds doors, walls, lighting, furniture, and other objects on the fly. You can also tweak the room's theme and function once you have the base layout. 

There's also the ability to switch to a 3D view whenever to get study rooms from different angles. Once you're happy with the result, you can hit print and Dungeon Alchemist sets up a version for a selected paper size. You can also save the map as an image and import it into your preferred virtual tabletop environment.

These were the 10 tips and 3 tools that will help you to create a great and realistic game world. If you apply all these tips during your game development process, you can create great maps and make your game more enjoyable for the audience. We hope that these tips and tools will help at least some game developers to better understand what gamers need when it comes to the believability of your world.

You can check more of Nate's videos by clicking this link, or visit Nate's Twitter account to ask more about creating game worlds.

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