Non-Digital Random Map Generation

Cartographer Woman MapmakerAs I mentioned in a post earlier this week, I like to generating things randomly, and that includes maps. However, despite being heavily invested in technology in most areas of my life, for some reason I prefer to keep it out of my gaming. I’m not quite sure why, but there is certainly a kind of tactile pleasure I derive from scratching pencil against paper to create stat blocks and adventure notes. I may occasionally write up character sheets in Open Office, or experiment with tools like Hexographer; but I do my best to minimize my reliance on computers. At least where RPGs are concerned.

Below I’ll be detailing the various methods I’ve devised for randomly generating maps by hand. I would like to preface this, however, by saying I’m far from an expert on map making. There are GMs out there who’ve blown my mind with the amount of realism they’re able to bring to a map. Anybody interested in making really good maps should check out Trollsmyth‘s hex mapping posts, or the Cartographer’s Guild. There you can learn how to make good maps. This is just about how to make random maps.

With that out of the way, lets get started. Here’s a picture of my current campaign world to provide a sense of what results might look like:

Fantasy Role Playing Game Map On a Bulliten Board

And here’s a close up of the primary continent, which my group hasn’t ventured off of yet:

Role Playing Game Map Negune Continent

All of these were created using the Paper Drop Method, which requires just a few very basic tools I was able to gather from around my apartment:

1) Two sturdy surfaces of even height, like two chairs.
2) A sturdy piece of glass. I pulled the door off of an old stereo cabinet for mine.
3) A good lamp which can be moved around without much trouble.
4) Paper. If you don’t have this, you may be in the wrong hobby.

Once you’ve got these items, place the glass across the two sturdy surfaces, and position the lamp underneath the glass, facing upwards towards it. Congratulations, you’ve constructed a tracing table! It’s not fancy, but it’s effective.

Role Playing Game Workspace LinkSkywalker
I’m unable to take a photo of a tracing table at the moment, however you
can see one on the right side of this old photo of my workstation.

At this point, rip up a few sheets of paper. The pieces should be relatively small, but not so small they become a nuisance. I would so no bigger than a palm, no smaller than a fingernail. Try to vary the shapes as best you can as well. Squares, triangles, circles, long pieces, squat pieces, any shape which strikes your fancy. Continue tearing up paper until you’ve got a nice little pile of it. Two or three sheets is usually sufficient.

Now, shredded paper in hand, drop it onto the tracing table from at least 2 or 3 feet high. It should rain down onto the glass, creating the shape of your continent. It’s up to you whether you want to pick up the pieces which land on the floor and re-drop them, I prefer to let just remove them.

With the paper on the surface of the glass, the shape of the continent is established. You can now place another piece of paper over the pile of shredded pieces, turn on the light, and outline the shadow your pile of shredded papers makes. This step can be something of a pain in the ass, since the shredded pieces are easy to jostle around while you’re tracing, no matter how careful you try to be. The easiest solution, I’ve found, is to put another sheet of glass between the shredded paper and the drawing paper.

Once you’ve got the outline of the map completed, repeat the earlier paper-dropping process with fewer pieces of paper. One drop for your forested regions, another for your mountainous regions. Mountains whose paper-shadow extends beyond the coast could potentially become islands rather than mountains, or simply be ignored as you prefer.

The placement of water on the map is best not done randomly. Even the least aware player may give you a cockeyed look if your rivers flow through mountain ranges rather than around them.

For smaller scale maps, I sometimes use the Atlas Jumble Method. My grandfather has mountains of local map books he accrued during his career as a backhoe operator–maps which cover most of the geographically diverse state of Washington. He gave me one which was published in 1995, and after finding it among my things recently, I struck upon an idea.

I took a few pages of maps, photocopied them, cut the copies into roughly 1″ square pieces, and dropped all the pieces into a bowl. I then drew the squares out one by one, and arranged them from top left to bottom right on my tracing table, forming a shape roughly 8.5″ x 11″. After placing another sheet of glass on top of the pieces so as not to disturb them, I started drawing the map I had created onto a piece of paper.

Not a single one of the pieces matches up with any of the others, of course. Roads and rivers begin and end ever inch, and elevations and climates change without reason or warning. But this is where I’m able to exercise creativity by adding or removing elements from the map. Some roads to stop at dead ends, perhaps because there is untamed wilderness beyond the last town. I alter the course of other roads, so that they can meet up with roads on the next piece. And then I come up with a reason why the road needed to be built with such a meandering course.

The atlas jumble method isn’t as simple as the paper drop method. It requires creative applications of all the “connect the dots” skills we haven’t had much use for since we were children. But if you need an adventuring map and you don’t know where to start, this method is an excellent springboard for creativity.

Last, I want to talk about a method I’ve never attempted, but am eager to try someday, The Paintball Method.

Essentially, I want to shoot a sheet of glass with a paintball gun a bunch of times, then flip the glass around, stick a light behind it, and trace whatever shapes I’ve got. I figure I could potentially even use paint balls with colors corresponding to geography. Green paint for forests, brown for mountains, yellow for planes, blue for waters.

I’ve got no idea if it will work, and unfortunately paint ball equipment is expensive. I still would love to try it, though.

And yes, I did pull all the method names out of thin air just to make the post sound more authoritative. How did you guess?

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2 thoughts on “Non-Digital Random Map Generation”

  1. I really like the appearance of the final map. Nice technique. I don’t see any numbers though. How do you key location information? Or is this the public companion to a different referee-only map?

    1. I made overlays, actually. I’ve got a number of them.

      I just place them over the map, and they add information to it. I’ve got one with all the political / town ID information, one with the path the players have taken, one with the tactical movements of the villain, etc.

      It’s not a very efficient system, to be honest. But I’ve spent so much time with this map that I have everything important memorized, so it hasn’t been much of a problem for me. And, as it turns out, this game world may be retired soon. The group for it is down to 2 players, and we haven’t met up for a game since September 2011.

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