A couple weeks ago I got sucked in to the amazing, and pretty cartographically intimidating, realm of fantasy mapping over at the Cartographers’ Guild.

I wondered about a few tips to get more typically GIS-ish nerds, like me, thinking more artfully about the maps we make.

Here are a few hacks that I came up with that, maybe/hopefully/why-the-heck-not-edly might get us rolling around just a bit in the illustrative way of thinking that these artists wield so mightily. You can find a more how-to tone over at the ArcGIS blog (parts I, II, and III). In the meantime, here are my Cliff’s Notes…

Hand-drawn relief that scales


There is a symbolization option called “vector field” that is intended to be used on raster overlays of currents or temperature, and other continuous phenomena, to create a matrix of symbols. But, armed with a Digital Elevation Model from NASA, you can use it to make a vector field of mountain (and other) landform symbols. While there is a balance between too much overlap and a too-regimented symbol grid (which I never quite got right), the ability to automatically render landform graphics (I drew a little mountain image) at any scale is so cool.

Realistic-ish Textures

These maps are generally stuffed into dormant yellowed books, or unrolled scratchings on parchment, so the use of images as textures for both the background surface and the features themselves is key. You can just go bananas with this sort of thing.


Coastal Ink

By using the “offset” distance of feature rendering, you can push choppy coastal texture out into the water (a positive offset) or pull sandy coastal texture inland (a negative offset). That, coupled with texture images used for line symbology, and a generous portion of coastal buffer water lines, sets your rudder straight to the Undying Lands.


There you have it. A whirlwind tour, and just a small taste of the unbelievable fun, of fantasy map creation. Seriously, get ready to live. You’ll find all the citations, resources, and close-ups over at this more studious, hands-on, locale.

Happy fantasy mapping! John