How to Use Real World Locales as Inspiration for Your Very Own RPG Maps
I probably won’t unearth the Lost Temple of Mussasir in present day Iraq, but I might find the geocache that’s tucked in the corner of the parking lot behind Knollwood Mall.
I probably won’t explore the mountain highlands of Papua New Guinea, but I might consider taking the kids to “that other park” a few blocks away. You know, the one with “the good playground.”
I probably will never search for the source of the Upper Zambezi in a native dugout canoe, but I might get a little time out on Lake Minnetonka on my buddy Bob’s boat this summer.
I probably won’t serve as an emergency battlefield medic for Médecins Sans Frontiéres, but my girls got their Girl Scout first aid badge, which is nice.
I probably won’t run with the bulls at Pamplona, but I might grill some burgers on our new infrared grill that does a really nice job of searing the beef.
Let’s be for real here. You probably won’t be engaging in any National Geographic-level adventures any more than I will. But you might also enjoy roleplaying maps as much as I do and enjoy the imagination that comes with the adventures.
And if you do enjoy RPG maps, I want to share a few little tricks that might inspire you to create your own RPG maps. The kicker is that these tricks will help you make sweet maps that are based on real-life-National-Geographic-worthy locales.
Trick 1: Drop a Pin in It. I’ve written fully about using satellite imagery as inspiration for your RPG maps, so I’ll just quickly sum up here.
I’ll often look up places in Apple Maps and use them as the wireframe for my own maps. I look up places that are meaningful to me, whether it’s a place I lived 20 years ago, a fun vacation I once had, or maybe just a landmark that brings back good memories for me. Then I’ll drop a pin in it and save it in my favorites.
This serves a double duty: A) The satellite imagery provides an incredible starting point for inspiration and B) I have a list of some of my favorite memories! Besides, even though the maps are obfuscated, it’s a nice nod to have an RPG map based upon a locale that’s special to you, even if the others around the table don’t realize it.
Again, read the full article if you are interested in using satellite imagery for RPG maps.
Trick 2: Hit up rest stops. Every time I’m at a rest stop, I flip through their literature rack, as it’s a treasure trove of RPG map inspiration.
Firstly, the free road maps you typically find are handy, as you can get a sense of how real-world geography shapes things logically (or doesn’t: read the Twitter thread below for a chuckle).
Holy cow—if you like fantasy maps, spend some time looking at New Orleans. WHAT IS EVEN GOING ON WITH THIS CITY?! If this came in from a freelancer, there are half a dozen things that would raise my eyebrows. pic.twitter.com/ApqYYWlE8d
— James L. Sutter (@jameslsutter) March 19, 2018
But I honestly encourage you to go more indy than standard road maps. The random brochures for Ethel and Willie’s Bedtime B&B or whatever can be gold, as they’ll often have included maps that have a more oft-kilter style than can provide a fun angle for an RPG map.
So take a moment in in those rest stops or roadside travel dives to flip through their travel literature rack. Open up the brochures and peek at the maps inside. If you find something that inspires you, tuck it in your pocket. Also buy the pie in places like that, as it’s almost always wonderful.
Trick 3: Spin it around. Look at something familiar from a whole new angle can give you an image you had never considered before. And I mean this literally.
One of my favorite beginnings to a fantasy map was a real-life map of Mexico that I simply turned at 180 degrees. That new angle provided a whole new look. What’s more is that while it it is typically wholly unrecognizable as a real place, it still has a resonance of a real place that allows it to go down real smooth at the table.
I’ve also flipped Africa on its side and turned New Zealand all the way upside down. A map of a small island just off the coast from Cancun was flipped upside down to provide the foundation for a “Zealandia” set of adventures that several of us Nerds on Earth writers are going to get around to some day.
Lessons learned? Use the geography around you as inspiration for your table, whether it be using satellite imagery or simply pilfering a dank rest stop in Wisconsin. Even if you’ll never get to visit the Forgotten Realms, this will give you the opportunity to experience a pretty incredible location.