You’ve finally decided to design your own setting for a D&D campaign. You’ve read the overview I posted and think you can actually take on this monumental task. Now you’re ready to tackle step one: making a map of your world.
Sprawling Continent or Localized Region?
Your first decision is to decide how big you want your setting to be. You can choose to map out a region of a continent to start with, adding more as your party grows in power and decides to explore the rest of the continent. Or you can design the entire continent and give your players an idea just how much there is to discover in your world. If you’re really ambitious, you can design several continents and give them an entire planet to see!
Each choice has its advantages and disadvantages. A local region can be easily explored and it would allow your players to become intimately familiar with the cities, towns, and the citizens. However, as your party’s power grows, so too will the need for them to have bigger and harder enemies. Being able to gradually ramp up the difficulty of a region might get tricky and cause your players to lose immersion.
Bigger continents gives you room to breathe and be creative about the stories you craft. As your party gets stronger, you can send them to increasingly more difficult regions on the continent, giving them new places to explore and discover. However, it’s quite a bit of work on your end to map out and write lore for every place on the continent. And with a party’s penchant for wandering anywhere they want, you better have something prepared for them to find no matter where they decide to go.
Matching the Lore to the Land
When I began designing my own homebrew world, I felt it was important to know what the world looked like before I started coming up with the lore of the world. By coming up with the general geography of the setting, you can start brainstorming ideas as to why the continent looks the way it does. Is that big crater in the middle the result of a meteor falling from space or a deity springing forth from the center of the planet? Why is that mountain range placed where it is? What is the reason why there is a tundra region? All of these answers can be seeds for lore.
This is also a good stage to decide if you want the continent divided into different political areas. Why did these particular citizens decide to claim this part of the continent as theirs? Who are the people that live there? Are they on good terms with the nations that border them or is there a constant war? These are even more seeds for your creative mind to use to grow lore and begin planning out the different points of conflict that could be plot points for your campaign.
Borders: Arbitrary or Natural?
If you want your continent divided into kingdoms, states, or other political divisions, how do you determine where one kingdom ends and another begins? You could use natural borders such as a river or a mountain range to determine a border. It makes for a very obvious divide and can be the site of conflict between the two kingdoms.
You could also draw arbitrary borders if there are no reasonable naturally occurring formations. Most map making tools give you a way to draw lines or use colors to differentiate between kingdoms. When deciding borders, keep in mind the natural resources that might fall into a certain nation’s borders. Mountains usually mean ore, stone, and gems, so a country with mountains could be the one to control such industries. It’s also a good idea to make sure each nation has access to a river or another waterway to enable trading to occur. That of course depends on the transport ideas you have for your world. But it’s still a good idea to give each nation at least a piece of a river, lake, or ocean within its borders to control.
Map Making Tools
There are a variety of tools that are capable of producing at least a working map for your campaign. Good ol’ Microsoft Paint is always there if you’re skilled with it. But there are many other products you can find, both free and purchasable, that allow you to create amazing, authentic looking maps for your homebrew world.
I started out with Inkarnate. Inkarnate is a fairly easy to use tool that allows you to sculpt land masses, add natural phenomena, and place markers for cities, towns, and villages. The free version is pretty robust, but if you want access to more assets and the ability to create an HD map, the $5 a month is well worth the Pro version.
Here are some maps I created with Inkarnate.
A simple Google search for map making programs will give you a bevy of choices. Keep in mind what you really want from a map when making a choice. If you want authentic, highly detailed, beautifully rendered maps, you’re going to have to pay for it. If you want something your group can use for simple reference, going with free tools is your best bet. Determine what features you want your map to have and choose the tool that best fits those desires.
Once you choose a tool, I recommend toying around with the features to get used to the interface and options. Once you’re familiar with the tool, then start designing your world. That way you won’t have dozens of false starts. Also, I recommend making several different copies of you map just in case your party founds a new town or causes a volcano to erupt that wipes out half the continent. That way you don’t have to go back and completely redraw the entire map. D&D parties tend to do things like that.
You now have a map that will be the centerpiece and setting for your homebrew campaign! Now you need to come up with a creation story for your world. How did the world come to be? Who or what created it? This, of course, means that you now have to design deities!