Do you recognize the situation? You’re a dungeon master and you’ve spent hours preparing for the session, and then your fellow adventurers decide they’d much rather head downriver to that little fishing village instead of following the main quest and escorting the merchant through the forest. You already have several forest maps from the campaign book, but you can’t find a map of a village by the river there. So where to get it?
0. Pen & paper for pen & paper
The name doesn’t come from nowhere, so why not use pen and paper? This material is often overlooked today due to the multitude of apps and tools. The advantage here is that you don’t have to search for little pictures all day long, nor do you have to install a program.However, if you would like to have a pretty colorful detailed illustration of the scene and you haven’t by chance attended Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawing school for three years, you’ll probably have to live with the fact that the players will confuse your map of the surroundings with a paper map of the scene. However, if you would like to have a pretty colorful detailed illustration of the scene and you haven’t by chance attended Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawing school for three years, you‘ ll probably have to live with the fact that the players will confuse your map of the surroundings with a yet undiscovered Picasso. It gets worse in online games when you replace pen & paper with Microsoft Paint. For the horror of a Call of Cthulhu adventure, this is certainly perfect.
In terms of pricing, this option is of course incomparable, if you also consider the degrees of freedom. After all, you can draw anything from a star map to the city map of York to the flea circus grounds.
1. Dungeon Scrawl
This useful little browser tool is in second place for a reason. It practically feels and looks like the natural evolution of pen & paper. Big advantage: The art study is optional here. With just a few clicks, a dungeon can be quickly drawn on the virtual check paper. For encounters in taverns, cryptas and fortress halls a convenient solution, but unsuitable for a regional or national map. The drawings can then be easily printed or uploaded to VTT platforms like Roll20. You won’t find any playful drawing functions here, and apart from a simple algorithm for mazes, there are no generators to take the work off your hands.
As a free dungeon sketchpad in the browser, Dungeon Scrawl is not a bad choice for quick environment sketches. You can also use it with screen sharing during the game.
If it takes more than just a sketch to satisfy the worthy ladies and gentlemen adventurers, MapForge offers a neat yet sufficient set of features. MapForge’s asset store offers a whole lot of additional graphics (vegetation, buildings, etc.), which can be conveniently dragged onto the map, scaled and, if necessary, color-adjusted. Filters, e.g. for night scenes, can also be easily applied via the intuitive user interface. MapForge clearly focuses on close-up perspective, i.e. maps for encounters in convivial taverns, on sandy islands in the South Seas or in dark caverns.
MapForge can be downloaded for free and installed on Windows or Mac. If you want to export maps in high resolution, you need a license for $37. Thus, this editor is the good middle ground between the mighty Inkarnate and the humble pencil sketch.
You are not a friend of compromises and you don’t need generator functions, because you already see the map exactly in your mind’s eye? Then Inkarnate is worth a detour. This map editor in the browser could probably be called the „Adobe standard for Dungeon Masters“. It has a simple landmass generator and drawing tools for sketching, placing, scaling, rotating, etc. In addition, there are brushes that can be used to randomly plant pretty groups of trees, among other things. However, in view of the functions, you need a bit of training time if you have not yet had the pleasure of using drawing programs. Incarnate is suitable for maps as well as for encounter maps.
For more assets and maps in higher resolution, there is a pro subscription for 5 $/month (or ~ 2 $/month in the annual subscription). However there is also a good free basic version to play with.
4 Azgaar's Fantasy Map Generator
Now we come to a class of its own: the generators. Why get your hands dirty? Why would you want to pile up land masses yourself, painstakingly draw furrows in the landscape for rivers, or put the bone-chillingly cold ice spikes on the mountains? With a little understanding of the laws of nature, the website Azgaar’s Fantasy Map Generator creates continents, climatic biomes, rivers, cities, roads and national borders with just one click. Many variables related to nature, civilizations and map layout can be adjusted manually. A truly impressive simulation that pulls many ingenious maps out of the hat. However, this generator is not suitable for encounter maps. You can only save the maps locally on your own computer.
Azgaar’s Fantasy Map Generator is free of charge and worth a visit, even if you will probably admire the maps more with a smile than actually use them in the game.
5. Watabou's City Map Generator
Where Azgaar doesn’t provide enough detail, Watabou’s City Map Generator does. The name says it all. The free website provides a map of a settlement in a top down view. The map can be customized a bit by dragging intersections (city wall, road, river, etc.). The map is often good enough to be used directly in the game. However, it is too rough to place player characters and mobs straight onto the city map for the next battle, but it is quite suitable for basic orientation. The save function via an itch.io account is also useful.
6. Paths of Savage Gods
You want to have everything? All at once? World map and encounter maps? Generated without having to complete an art degree first? Then there is only Paths of Savage Gods left. The program creates, after a short query of your requirements, a procedurally generated map, in which you can zoom directly into the inn, dungeon cell or forest hut, where the adventure should begin. Exporting the map is not required, rather players connect to their dungeon master via the free player app. This also allows players to enjoy features like the Fog of War, which only shows players what their game character can actually see. A connection to WorldAnvil also makes it easy to import monsters and beasts, characters, items and much more.
A Kickstarter campaign is currently running for this project, offering a Dungeon Master license (lifetime) for € 55. The basic player version is free.
Too much text? Here everything in a shot table:
|Tool||Status||World Map||Encounter Map||Gene- rator||Compatibility & Export||Description||Plattform||Price|
|pen & paper||✔️||✔️||✔️||❌||more for offline sessions||some drawing skills required||table||very low|
|DungeonScrawl||✔️||❌||✔️||mazes only||image export||simple; good for a quick sketch||browser (meaning any plattform)||free|
|MapForge||✔️||❌||✔️||❌||image export||simple drawing tool, more detailed than Dungeon Scrawl, less than Inkarnate||Windows, MacOS||basic: free
full: 37,00 $
|Inkarnate||✔️||✔️||✔️||landmass and brushes||image export up to 8k||powerful; like “Adobe for DMs”||browser (meaning any plattform)||basic: free
pro: 2 - 5 $/month
|Azgaar’s Fantasy Map Generator||✔️||✔️||❌||✔️||image export (svg, jpeg, png, map)||mainly for inspirational purposes||browser (meaning any plattform)||free|
|Watabou’s City Map Generator||✔️||❌||✔️||✔️||save in itch.io-account, export als png||simple; slightly customisable||browser (meaning any plattform)||free|
|PoSG||KickstarterKickstarter||✔️||✔️||✔️||play in tool (VTT), image export, tiled export, WorldAnvil content import||full world generation; manually customisable; VTT||Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS, iPadOS, Android||player: free
DM: 55 € (KS)