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Drawing D&D maps

Written by Expy - Published on August 13, 2007


Cartography is an art and a science, yet adventurers running through a daedalus of underground caves and passages while being pursued by evil creatures draw maps with extreme precision. I hate that. So I have developed a way to screw the players over when they’re trying to find their way out of a maze.

Never draw precise maps

Drawing maps that reflect the time characters spend on cartography is one of my favorite dungeon master tricks. Unless the players are taking the time to map their surroundings professionally – which could take hours if not days – I will not draw the maps professionally either.

  • Wrong scale. I will not draw the exact dimensions of any large location. If it’s more than 30 feet long or wide it becomes harder to estimate the real size of a room or passage.
  • Small drawing area. I perfected this technique unknowingly. I’ve often played D&D on a small table and a smaller drawing map. So I had to constantly erase what I just drew as the characters advanced in their dungeon crawl.
  • mapdraw.png
    A quick reproduction of
    what I call a graphic break
    which higlights my lack of
    graphic design skills.

    Graphic breaks. There’s probably a technical term for this. I draw part of a map and when I run out of room I add a break (see picture) and keep drawing on some other blank area of the map. That way I don’t have to erase the whole map all the time and whatever I’m drawing becomes a jumble of lines and breaks very quickly – hopefully confusing the players and getting them lost.

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29 Responses to “Drawing D&D maps”
  1. niggle says:

    The next session I run I’m so gonna ask the players if they have ranks in Craft (Cartography) and if not the map is going to look like a kender drew it. Negative reinforcement always seems to work that way lol.

  2. Yax says:

    Who gets rank in Craft (cartography)?

  3. Stûnibu says:

    r u saying that u actuly let PC’s look at your maps??
    i keep them 2 my self nd just tell them about how big it is… unless they go to the battle grid 4 an incounted but then u have 2 do it the rite size!!!
    and how long do it take 2 make a good map?…spose it a fair while but it worth it nd half the fun!
    i just think u r a lazy poor excuss 4 a DM :P

  4. Pé0 says:

    Actually not only does he let us see the maps he show us where the secret passage are. True story!!!

  5. Yax says:

    Now, now. That was 10 years ago. Let it go. Please. I only drew the secret passage once. I was tired. No need to mention it too often.

  6. me says:

    “i just think u r a lazy poor excuss 4 a DM ”

    Says the guy who can’t take the time to type short words like “to”, “you” and “are”

  7. Yax says:

    Couldn’t have said it better. And might I add: lol.


  8. StandardFiend says:

    People like Stunibu really need to gtfo. Thanks for the article. All of them, in fact, as you seem to be the author of nearly every article I’ve read on this site.

  9. John says:

    I have 2 maps of every area. One map of everything the players would know and another for myself with secret things.

  10. The Gouge says:

    I just tell my players how big the room is and what’s going down in it. It’s up to them wether or not they map it out. If they don’t, well…. all the more fun for me.

  11. bro09 says:

    I take the time to draw my maps for the world and dungeons on grapging paper then i make a copy with out monsters and hiden passages for the player and i take the origenal and add details for my self to see

  12. Will says:

    I have a rogue that actually has ranks in Craft(Cartography)

  13. Sean says:

    See i just draw a master map and then give the players another map that not only can they mark secret passages and other things on but i let them add in things that they put there like a brick wall or makeshift barracade

  14. david says:

    somewhere i saw someone using a comnputer projector and photoshop with a black mask they erase as the players move so they only know what they’ve seen and you can still draw the secrets on other layers

  15. Spelltide says:

    david, I like that Idea may have to find a way to put that into practice. Currently dealing with a long distance situation. Multiple states in fact. Trying to find options on how to keep the mystery and fun in the game without more than verbal direct contact. By the way if anyone is in a similar predicament, Skype is free and alows upto 20 some computers to network at once by voice and video providing they are capable. I will have to find a way to live feed that photoshop idea. Thanks again

  16. Shawn says:

    Actually… I got rank in Cartography one time. I was dead set on being a cartographer as a swashbuckler.

  17. Shadami says:

    I think that this is a very helpful site, and it never hurts to show the map especially when the players can’t actually draw. I’ve run a few adventures where that is the case. And actually, that is a very good representation of a break. (I’m an architect.)

  18. Elber of Torou says:

    I’ve often worried that I haven’t drawn my maps to the scale that I want…this makes me go, “Phew, glad I’m not going to get in trouble” So I suppose that as long as you can tell the players just how big a room is or how long the corridor, realism can go stuff it.

    By the way, Stûnibu can’t even spell ‘excuss’.

  19. Keith Davies says:

    Craft(Cartography)? Way back in the day we were seconded to work with the Imperial Army, my dwarf was assigned to lead the sappers — he’d been in the fortress we were attacking and and unerring sense of direction.

    Almost a year later (real time) we were exploring a dungeon and I thought I spotted an anomaly in the map. I pointed out that there was some space that didn’t seem to be fully occupied, and we should check *here*, *here*, and *here for hidden entrances.

    DM: “What, you think you’re some sort of *engineer*?”
    Me: “Sergeant Master Oron Stonehewer, Imperial Engineers, sah! We build ’em, we take ’em down.”
    DM: “… crap. That’s right. Okay, yeah, you find a door at the second place you mentioned.”

  20. Keith Davies says:

    Incidentally, I like making my DMs cry. Pulling something out that happened six months or more ago, documented, that leaves everyone sitting at the table going “how did he *do* that?” is great fun.

    Comes of being a DM most of the time, I’ve learned to plan ahead…

  21. Dungeonsitalia says:

    I just made RPGplaneMapMaker. it’s free. check it out.

  22. maxxon says:

    RPGplaneMapMaker RULEZ! it’sfree and easy, and you make awesome maps even if you watched just one videotutorial , thank you Dungeonsitalia

  23. Probalymyonlypost says:

    Cartography should actually be a profession, under 3.5 rules (I don’t know anything about 4.0 so… I can’t honestly say about that)
    It’s true that you’re making maps, but it’s more of a service.
    Just like fast food stores (an odd analogy, perhaps) … they make food (I use the term “make” lightly) but they’re a service industry, just like auto mechanics and building/construction engineers…
    The craft would come into play at the assembly plant (cars) and construction site (buildings)…

  24. Tildesee says:

    So long as PCs either have a mapmaking skill of some kind, or a 50′ length if rope, or a 10′ pole, I give them accurate dimensions based on their walking speed if they spend 10 minutes. With no equipment or skill, or if it’s rough caves and not constructed dungeons, I don’t give them much other than best guesses. Then again, I play a lot of OD&D.

  25. Cruben says:

    I’ve been playing D&D for bout 13 yrs, started when i was a kid. I do all the maps now, and have been for a while. I find that maps are more interesting and fun, for all pcs and the DM, when the time is taken to make a basic layout for each area on either grid paper or by using paint program on computer. Using that layout i can alter anything that needs to be changed. It’s a long process but the games are always changing. I usually use my scale, 1 square per 10ft, as my base layout depending on DM preference the scale can easily be changed to the size of areas in the game. it’s very rare that at least one pc is not well trained in cartography and if his rolls are rite he/she will get and copy of the base layout.

  26. J says:

    I’m brand new to dnd and I’m dming my first group do any of yall know a good website to learn to draw maps such as the ones in dnd? I can’t seem to find any and I SUCK at drawing. Thanks in advanced.


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