Sunday, July 5, 2020

Randomly-generated Maps

Today I'm going to walk you through the makings of a random map.  Normally my mapping is all digital, but for this one I decided to do it by hand.  Here's what I'll be using:
  • an ordinary ballpoint pen
  • a regular piece of paper
  • a handful of dice
  • random Wilderness Country tables

Before we get into the process, here's the end result, with a nickel for scale:

I'm looking at this now thinking how I need better lighting, better hand technique, better pens...but that's not the point.  Drawing maps is something you can do whether you're trained or not, and whether you have fancy art supplies or not.

Let's go through the process together.

I like to divide the world up into Countries.  Not states or kingdoms, these Countries are just colloquial names for regions of the wilderness, like the Ohio Country.  Each country is several days' travel across, anywhere from the size of Rhode Island to Newfoundland, or Corsica to Tasmania.

The first table is for three Terrain facts; roll a fact and a detail for each one.  Here's what I got first:
  • Thin Barrier Islands of sand dunes run along the coast, enclosing an inner sound/bay.  Mainland side of the sound has shallow mudflats and marshes, difficult to say where the water begins and the land ends.
  • The sea lies to the east.
That's enough to start drawing:

Because of the barrier islands, I'm thinking of the coast around the Carolinas and the Chesapeake.  Maybe this is a warm and humid region.

I'll add the marshy areas once I've figured out what the rest of the terrain is like.

Second terrain fact:
  • Mostly Flat.  Braided river or meandering river with oxbow lakes.
  • Water flows down to the east.
As always, these random tables aren't a straitjacket, so feel free to throw out any results you don't like.  (But I'm happy with what we have so far.)

Looks like I forgot about the oxbow lakes.

Third terrain fact:
  • Floodplain: grassland turns to shallows
The default vegetation in this setting is forest, so this fact changes the country from a mostly-wooded place to a mix of plains and marshes.

A few scattered symbols give a sense of ground cover.

To find out who lives here, I rolled three times for species:
Next we'll roll to see what kind of impact they have on the map, with a modifier for how much they like this kind of terrain.

Elves get a +2 here (warm coast, rivers near the sea) so they'll be plentiful in this country:
  • one resource-gathering settlement from a far-off company
  • several outlying settlements
Humans get no modifier here:
  • rival towns on the brink of war
I'll put the larger elven settlement on the southern coast, the smaller ones on the barrier islands, and two human towns up above the river fork.  There should be plenty of smaller human settlements, but at this scale we'll just see the major towns.

I'm still undecided on the symbols for these, but they'll do for now.

At the end of the Country tables are a few miscellaneous facts that make this country desolate, strange, gentle, etc.
  • one of the True and Hidden magicks Fails in this country
  • valuable resource may start a Rush
I'll put those in my notes about the country, but I don't think they need to go on the map itself.
  • Steps cut in rock / ancient Causeway in marsh
We've got plenty of marsh, so I'll add an ancient causeway.
  • nearly Uninhabited since the apocalypse, most inhabitants died or were driven out
That changes things.  I think I'll tone this down a little, since this might be the only country on the map.  [Later I decided to add two more.]  I'll keep the elven settlement in the south, but the other two are abandoned now.  The two human towns: that's all the human settlement here.

All we need now is a few names.  According to the chart, this country is named for its notable terrain, a name like "the Great Swamp" or "the Rocky Mountains".  I'll call it Tidewater Country.

For the settlements, I'm still working on the random name chart.  I wasn't happy with the first few results, but with a bit of rerolling here's what we have:
  • the rival human towns of Ash Creek and Burnt Lodge
  • the elven settlement of Paradise
  • the abandoned elven settlements of Haven and Hurricane Dunes

I'd like to see more of this map.  Let's roll up another country or two.  Starting with Terrain again:
  • Deeply Indented coastline, bay, many inlets, streams, coves, and isles.
  • The sea lies to the south.
Based on the coastline, I think I'll draw this country to the south of the Tidewater.

(after drawing two of the rivers already)
The other terrain facts:
  • Waterways cut deep Ravines, nearly impossible to walk in.
  • Water flows down to the south.
  • Floodplain: grassland turns to shallows
After a bit of drawing, here's what I've got:

It's a very different sort of place than the Tidewater country.  The people here turn out to be humans and giants:
  • humans (+1 for semi-wooded): thinly-settled Hunting grounds for a powerful Town
  • giants (+0): two Rival houses, contested border
  • humans (+1): Trade center, many other towns
I'll put the powerful human town up in the northern hills, towards Tidewater.  The giantish houses can go in the middle area, then the other humans can be seafarers down along the coast.

A few other features of this country:
  • signs here from a Kingdom long ago
  • Beasts we ought not have forgotten
  • dangerous Foliage in wet/low areas: thorns, canebreaks, razor-sharp grass
  • well-established Trail/Road
The last chart says this country is named for a strange local encounter; I'll go with the dangerous foliage, some kind of carnivorous plant.
There's a reason we don't go down to Legtrap country.

Rolling up some names:
  • Battle Camp is the powerful human town in the north.
  • The rival giantish houses are Flying Goose Station and House Lazy Crow.
  • The main coastal town is Oyster Cove.
  • Other coastal towns: Fishtail, Yellow Hill, Basket Cliff, Coyote Place, and Peace Island.
Here's the map so far:

I decided to roll up one more country.  The first two terrain results were the same: a long cape, but the sea was on different sides.

  • Long sandy spit or grassy Cape, straight coast with a few harbors or inlets.  Dangerous sand/gravel bars in river mouths.  The sea lies to the south and northeast.
  • One great River flows down from mountains/hills towards the sea, gaining water from several streams as it goes.  Water flows down to the northeast.
This cape could be to the north of Tidewater Sound.  The river sounded like it might do well as an estuary.

The rest of the rolls work as before.  The people turned out interesting:
  • elves: a major surviving colony (Port Victory), a trading post (Ten Dollar House), a fort (Defiance)
  • humans: a forbidden kingdom (of the Selaska people) that puts outsiders to death and trades with trusted intermediaries
This country is suffering:
  • locusts, mice, birds that Devour food
  • Impoverished, near starvation, little trade with other lands
I'll take the "near starvation" option, based on the food-devouring locusts.  Port Victory is struggling, importing as much food as they can from other colonies.  The last few features here:
  • well-established Trail/Road
  • many pass through for Opportunity (The newly-discovered resource in Tidewater?  Starving people fleeing Port Victory?)
  • known for its red dirt
I think that's a good place to stop drawing for now.

We've got some interesting hooks for adventure here.  There could be a gold rush (or a whatever rush) in Tidewater, a few towns are on the brink of war, there's a starving city in desperate need of help.  Down in Legtrap country there's a statue from a once-great civilization that fell during the apocalypse.

I hope you enjoyed the process.  Thanks for following along!


  1. Fantastic? Which tables did you end up using?

    1. I still need to prep them for posting on here, but hopefully I'll get that done soon.

    2. Here you go:

  2. Now all you need to do is teach me to draw as well as you!

    1. Thanks! That's actually a good idea for a tutorial.

  3. Wow, this is fantastic. Thank you for posting this, I will certainly be following along now!