Maps can be an integral part of many RPG sessions and Game Masters are always on the lookout for places to find great maps, especially if they can find them cheap or free.
For creative GMs an even better solution is making their own maps and that’s what I will be talking about in this article, some great ways to create maps for your games, many of which cost little to no money.
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Looking for some map making software?
Nate Parker contacted us to ask:
Do you know of any RPG map-making websites or tools (ideally free) that can allow the user to create and/or generate both city and country maps? Primarily needs to be maps the user can create.
Thanks for the question, Nate!
First off I have to start by saying, what a world we live in now that this is even a thing! Back in my day if you wanted a map you had to go out and buy a module or sit down with graph paper and draw it yourself.
Even for those of us who liked creating hand drawn maps, it was a bit of a chore and it took a long time. I know for at least one of my campaigns I spent more time drawing maps than I did running the game. Even if you were willing to buy maps they weren’t nearly as readily available as they are now, while free options were pretty much unheard of.
Over the years a few tools started to be released to the public including the Campaign Cartographer series that came with the AD&D Core Rules CD-ROMs, but they were not at all easy to use, being based on industrial level CAD programs.
Thankfully things have continued to advance from there. Today there are a large number of mapping software options available and lucky for Nate many of them are free or offer free versions, with the option to pay for more. As someone who spent many years in the gaming hobby without these tools, I find the options quite amazing. Most of them allow you to make maps we would have only dreamed of back when I was running my own homebrew campaigns. Some of the maps created with some of these free tools rival some of the best professional work out there (to some artists’ chagrin).
Before I get to the map making tool list, I want to point out that while most of these are designed for RPG use, there’s no reason you couldn’t use them for board games as well. These tools can be great for prototyping and creating things like boards or other maps to be used in your games. Wargame maps created in Campaign Cartographer or new Gloomhaven scenarios designed with map making tools are totally not out of the question.
If you are interested in this topic you can also listen to Sean and I talk about it on The Tabletop Bellhop Gaming Podcast Episode 147, X Marks the Spot.
Some great digital map making tools:
Pro Fantasy Software – The first piece of software I want to highlight is Pro Fantasy Software’s suite of mapping tools which includes Campaign Cartographer, which I already mentioned. Campaign Cartographer is now on version 3+ and it’s come a long way from its origins in the 90s.
Pro Fantasy also offers new versions of City Designer and Dungeon Designer, tools I remember playing around with back in the day. They have also added plenty of new software tools like Character Artist, Cosmographer, Fantasy Floorplans, Fractal Terrains and more.
Of all their tools, Campaign Cartographer remains the most popular and the most recommended software for designing overland maps for games.
The big problem here, in regards to Nate’s question, is that Pro Fantasy software costs money. It always has and I expect it always will.
Buying the entire suite of software will cost you $620 (and that’s with the current half off sale). Without going all in, each piece of software has to be bought separately. If you want overland maps you buy one thing, you want dungeons you have to buy another. Added to this, they also sell add on packs for each piece of software, so for example, if you want additional art, or wall styles, or icons, you will need to pay more.
Pro Fantasy’s programs aren’t cheap but you get a fully developed suite of tools that are actually used by the gaming industry. This is the software that was used to create many of the maps in the books you know and love.
Inkarnate – Inkarnate is at the opposite end of the map making tool scale from Pro Fantasy Software in that it’s so much simpler to learn and use. Drawing with Inkarnate is more like using Photoshop than using CAD software. It comes with a ton of built in icons. You just point and click to use them to draw your maps.
Inkarnate is designed to create all of the map types you should need, world maps, region maps, city and village maps, battle maps (with grids) and interior maps. This is the tool that most modern mappers now use.
While there is a free version of Inkarnate you can play around with, the free version is limited and you will probably be tempted to upgrade. In addition, they also offer a commercial licence if you plan on creating maps for commercial use, which is a great option for people who want to sell their maps or adventures.
The one final bonus of Inkarnate is that it’s 100% online which means there is no software to download. This also means you can use it on various different devices. The downfall of course is that if they ever decide to stop supporting it, you may be in trouble. However, there are no indications that this is going to happen.
donjon – Next I have something that takes even less work than Inkarnate and that’s the various map making tools at donjon. If you are an RPG gamer and you haven’t been to donjon you need to go bookmark donjon.bin.sh right now. This is a site filled to the brim with free RPG tools for all kinds of different systems and settings.
One of the coolest features on donjon are the random map makers. There’s a random world generator, random town generator, treasure map generator and of course a random dungeon generator. Along with the maps you get full rules for most of the popular fantasy RPGs including various editions of D&D, Pathfinder, D20, Microlight, etc. There are also Alien, Sci-Fi and Weird Fiction generators as well.
donjon can be a great site to use during prep or to come up with something on the fly when your players inevitably go off your expected path.
While donjon doesn’t make the prettiest of maps, however, they are functional. Plus you can change all kinds of settings to get a map that could be absolutely perfect for your game. This site is all about functionality and not looks, which makes it perfect for a home game or for inspiration but not for people looking to publish their work.
MapForge – MapForge not only provides an excellent piece of free low resolution map making software they also offer a TON of mapping content add ons, with over seven thousand of those being totally free!
If you are digging the software, you can pay a one time licence fee to unlock bigger maps and high resolution output. There are also tons of paid add ons available, ranging from hex tiles and isometric mountains and trees to sci-fi furniture and map symbols. All of these assets come from a significant list of contributors that is over twenty-five members long.
What impresses me most here is the range of different styles of maps you can create with MapForge, from hand drawn to hyperrealistic, covering everything from hexcrawl style overland maps to isometric dungeons. This is one versatile piece of software.
Dungeon Scrawl – That leads me to Dungeon Scrawl, the software that makes Dyson Logos cry.
I say that because this online click and draw tool creates maps that look like they were made by professional cartographers. It even goes so far as to mimic the style of some well known map makers, including Dyson’s famous hatching style.
Since this page was launched I know Dyson and other mappers have been accused that their maps are generated using it, which while insulting to the artists is also impressive praise for this tool.
Dungeon Scrawl features a variety of brushes, layers, VTT Compatibility and more. It lets you import dungeons, images and other assets to add features to your dungeons including dungeon dressing and monster icons. There’s even an Isometric Edit Mode for those who like their dungeons more three-dimensional.
The big limitation of this software is that it’s designed specifically for dungeons. While it can be used for indoor maps and cities, there’s no way to do overland or regional maps here.
RPG Map Editor 2 – My next piece of map making software is not for me but I can see some people digging it, that’s Deepnight games RPG Map Editor 2.
This free software is for designing JRPG style top down RPG maps. One of the things they are most proud of with this software is how it adds lighting to your maps. Personally, I find that while the maps can look very colourful the angular walls are a turn off. That said, they do look perfect for the style they are going for here.
I’m most impressed by the progress that has been made on this software. On their page, they show a series of three maps created with each new update and the latest version looks so much better than the previous versions.
I also appreciate that this software can do dungeon, indoor and outdoor maps equally well. The biggest advantage of RPG Map Editor 2 is that it’s completely free and that the maps created in it are free to use even for commercial use.
This is a pretty basic sprite based map maker where you pick a background and add details on top. It’s very simple to use and makes functional maps. This software is specifically designed to make battle maps for games that use them.
This program is all about functionality. You just click and drag the sprites you want onto the map, then twist, turn and resize them until they look right. The art is functional but not great looking.
Even as a free user you get the ability to save and load up to three maps but you only get access to a limited sprite bank. Premium access costs $5 a month, which gives you access to all of their sprites, plus unlimited saves and the ability to upload custom content.
Dave’s Mapper – Dave’s Mapper is another random map generator that is inspired by hand drawn maps.
What’s really impressive here is the variety of styles that are featured. You start by picking the type of map you want. Options include dungeon, cavern, village, side view dungeon, etc. There are even a couple of Sci-Fi options.
Once you’ve picked your map style, the software generates a map out of geomophs created by some of the best known mappers in the world. You can then go in and limit which artists you wish to include in your map.
While it’s interesting to see a map made up of all kinds of different styles if you want something that looks cohesive you may want to limit it to just one mapper or to a small selection of mappers. On the other hand, if all you want is a functional random map Dave’s Mapper has you covered.
The biggest problem here is when you mix up geomorphs from different sources sometimes things don’t make a lot of sense. You may have to modify the maps or keep generating random ones until you find one that works.
One of the neatest features here is that you can also generate a cube which you could theoretically make a dungeon die out of.
Dave’s Mapper is 100% free and gives you the ability to export any maps you like, making it a great way to very quickly get a map when in a pinch.
Master’s Toolkit – The Master’s Toolkit from Arkenforge is a brand new piece of software that just launched this year. It lets you create battle map style maps specifically designed for use on Virtual Tabletops (VTTs).
Besides giving you the ability to make some really top notch looking maps, Master’s Toolkit allows you to add features like animation, dynamic lighting, or other special effects like a time of day slider. You can also import maps from pretty much any of the other popular map making programs.
Currently, Master’s Toolkit offers both a Fantasy and a Sci-fi set of tools, each of which is sold separately. These can be used online or downloaded to an unlimited number of devices. There is also a free trial available so you can check out the software before purchasing it.
As far as buying Master’s Toolkit I do appreciate that it’s a one time fee and not a recurring subscription.
In addition to being a great looking map making tool, Master’s Toolkit is also on Virtual Tabletop (including some interesting features like a soundscape module for adding audio to your games, an app based GM screen and more).
As noted earlier, this software is still brand new and still in development. It looks really solid so far and I only expect it to get better.
My podcast co-host Sean checked out this software and shared his thoughts during the Bellhop’s Tabletop Segment of Episode 180 of The Tabletop Bellhop Gaming Podcast: Vay-K AMA.
Tiamat Tile Mapper – This is probably one of the simplest to use tools for making basic dungeon layouts.
The workspace in Tiamat Tile Mapper is just a grid. Below it you are presented with square tiles. You click on a tile at the bottom and then click to add it to the grid at the top. There are over three hundred pages of tiles to choose from and they cover the gamut of fantasy to sci-fi.
The cost of this simplicity is functionality. You don’t get a very big canvas to work with and there aren’t a lot of options. I couldn’t even figure out if there is a way to rotate the tiles. There’s also no way to print your map without exporting it first.
The other issue I found here is that most of the map titles are lacking details. For example, for dungeons, you are getting rooms and corridors without any features. This could be great for a base, but you are going to have to find some other way to actually add details.
Dungeon Painter Online – This started out as a piece of software that you could get on Steam. Eventually, they added a web-based version. Sadly the web-based version used Flash and with Flash dying you now have to download the program to use it.
This free to use map making software makes maps that look like they were created with Pro Fantasy Software. It uses a basic drag and drop sprite system and has VTT integration.
What looks even more impressive is the standalone Dungeon Painter Studio app that is currently in early access on Steam. It has way more features than the online version and is a full map making suite. Even more impressive is the price point, which is currently way lower than most other pay-to-use map making tools.
GM Friend – Sitting at the opposite end of the spectrum from a full software suite of map making tools is GM Friend.
This is the most basic software I found while researching this topic. GM Friend lets you quickly create overland hex maps and dungeon maps with only the most basic of icons. The thing with GM Friend is that it’s super simple to use.
While I wouldn’t recommend this as software to use before your game, if you need a really quick overland for your Roll 20 game I could totally see jumping over here and tossing something together in seconds.
One thing I do appreciate is the ability to load in your own icons for the hex map. That said, if I’m going to do that much work there are better map making tools out there than this.
Hextml – For something with just a bit more flash than GM Friend check out Hextml.
This is a very basic hex painter that features a nice wide range of colours, icons and symbols. It also has the ability to import your own, and if I was going to import my own graphics into a hex mapper this would probably be the one. Another big advantage is the ability to save your maps.
Hexmlt couldn’t be easier to use, and the maps made are functional but not fancy. For your average GM this is probably perfect for pre-game map making but would also work to generate something on the fly during a game.
Dungeon Maps Doodler – For something just as quick and easy as Hextml but for dungeons and not hex maps check out Dungeon Maps Doodler.
You specify the size of your map and how many feet per square and then just start doodling. Some nice added bonuses include the ability to add hatching in various styles including traditional hatch but also water and outer space.
For a dead simple tool, the maps made here look rather good. There’s even a stamp tool where you can import graphics to make more fleshed out maps that are filled with features and dungeon dressing.
A nice added bonus is that you can import randomly generated donjon maps. I love the fact that these two tools are compatible.
This one is definitely worth checking out. It’s one of the simplest to use tools that makes very good looking maps.
Watabou – This is another random generator but this time for cities, towns and villages. Watabou is a free, browser based random map making tool.
The neat bit here is that in addition to creating the map it also breaks it into districts and gives names for various items on the map (an overall location name, district names, street names, etc).
The most impressive part though is the tools you get to edit the maps. Once you generate a map you can change it up by dragging and rearranging roads, rotating the entire thing, adding landmarks, changing district colour schemes and much more. There’s even an option to export your map into a 3d view.
I also dig that it gives you some of the area around the town, including farmland. I can see using this during game prep, but also if I had to generate a city on the fly.
Honestly, this particular tool is just fun to play around with. I wasted far too much time here that probably could have been better spent looking for more mapping tools.
Gozzys – Another random map generation site is Gozzys.com. This site started off in 2004 as a place to generate random dungeon, cave or wilderness maps. Since launching they have now added two random battlemap generators that are specifically designed to work with VTTs, a Dungeon Battlemap Generator and a Cave Battlemap Generator.
These generators have lots of options and make pretty solid looking maps. My main problem here is that the maps don’t have any features. You just get rooms, corridors and caves. You are going to have to do additional work adding features to maps generated on Gozzys.
While I think this could be a good starting spot for inspiration, or great for generating a quick map on the fly when your players decide to check out that cave outside of town that you had just put there as dressing, you are probably going to want more for any world building or pre-game preparation.
Fantasy Map Generator – This is my last random generator for this list.
Azgaar’s Fantasy Map Generator is used to create an entire, world or region for your games. This includes a world map with countries, principalities, etc.
When you generate your first map you will be pretty impressed but just wait until you try zooming in. From a world map, you can zoom in to see rivers, cities, villages, roads, paths and more.
Fantasy Map Generator gets even more impressive when you realize that you can click on each city and they each have names, culture types, population features and a unique coat of arms, all randomly generated.
Zooming back out you realise that there are even more options and that you can change the properties on each section of the map. You could spend hours here just exploring a world that doesn’t even exist. As expected, everything is editable as well so you can easily make the map your own.
This is one impressive tool probably best used before your game even starts.
Mapgen4 – Sticking with high level overland style maps, check out Mapgen4 for a paint style region map maker. This is a very easy to use piece of software for designing your own overland maps (that look pretty good).
You start with a seed map and then paint on top of it to edit features like ocean, shoreline, valley and mountain. Similar to other random generators I’ve pointed out here you don’t get any details. You are still going to have to add in your own towns, castles, keeps, fortifications, roads, bunkers, etc.
As of right now the developer has stopped work on this project but has provided the finished source code for anyone who wants to continue to develop it.
DGN Fog – I thought I would finish off with a final full map making studio that lets you design professional looking maps.
Dungeon Fog, spelt DGN Fog, is the first piece of software from a planned suite of mapping tools that was funded on Kickstarter. This software is designed to generate top down battle map style maps that I have to say look gorgeous.
It uses vector based click and drop graphics with some really great looking art assets. They offer over three thousand different props and textures as well as light sources and dynamic shadows. It also includes a built in virtual tabletop that lets the GM control what the players see from the DGN Fog app.
While there is a free account, which lets you generate up to twelve maps and gives you access to the full public library, you will need a Premium account to get access to all the tools. If you are considering selling maps they also offer a Professional account which grants you a commercial licence for the maps you create.
Find other map makers and map making tools:
While doing research for this topic I stumped upon the Cartographer’s Guild, a rather active online forum for map makers.
There you will find a community of artists and map fans talking about the map making hobby, as well as a thread that lists what is likely every piece of map making software currently out there
I also invite you to check out this must more comprehensive list of Digital Map Making tools published by MapForge that I only discovered long after our podcast episode and after the original draft of this post.
That’s it for my list of some of the best RPG map making software available. Do you know of any tools we missed? Tell us all about them in the comments and I will see about adding them to this post!
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