5E Mapping Software Input [What's in your wallet?]

Syntallah

Visitor
I have never used any mapping software, but would like to begin doing so. Are there any that are a cut above the others? Any favorites? Something I should try as a first time user?

Thanks for any input..!
 

vpuigdoller

Explorer
I have never used any mapping software, but would like to begin doing so. Are there any that are a cut above the others? Any favorites? Something I should try as a first time user?

Thanks for any input..!
I was in the same dilema a month ago. I used the online tool inkarnate at inkarnate.com . Hope it helps.
 

BoldItalic

Visitor
I have never used any mapping software, but would like to begin doing so. Are there any that are a cut above the others? Any favorites? Something I should try as a first time user?

Thanks for any input..!
What sort of maps do you want to make? Can you post a link to something that illustrates the kind of style you are after?
 

Syntallah

Visitor
What sort of maps do you want to make? Can you post a link to something that illustrates the kind of style you are after?
One of my younger players with an elf cleric managed to draw two Throne Cards from a Deck of Many Things (one from his draws and one from a redraw due to the Fates Card played by another PC). He is really excited by this and constantly talks about "getting his castle after we defeat Tiamat".

I have found a couple of cool elven castles from my tons of source material [Dragon Mag and Penumbras Seven Strongholds] that I would like to sort of morph together into one cool castle. I would like this to be semi-competent looking instead of me sketching it on graph paper for him.

So, I thought if there was an easy to use software tool that I could use...
 

innerdude

Adventurer
So, about 5 years ago I did a serious study of digital mapping. I had never done it before, but I've always loved maps and geography. But I had absolutely zero experience in doing it, or in doing digital design work.

Not really knowing any better at the time, I ended up buying Campaign Cartographer 3 along with the City Designer add-on. I did the tutorials, and studied how to best use it and all of its myraid effects.

And that ended up being a good decision---but not because I ended up enjoying the software, or even particularly liking the end products of what I produced.

What it DID teach me was the basic processes and effects --- layering, feathering, drop shadows, inner/outer glow, inner shadow, etc. I'm sure I could have learned the same thing if I had tried it in Photoshop first, but what it did was make my transition much easier when I moved on to other programs. Even though I had to learn new software, I understood the techniques.

Ultimately though, I quickly abandoned CC3 after about 6 months.

Before deciding what kind of software you want, you first need to ask yourself, "What kind of maps do I want to produce? And what level of quality do I want when I'm finished?"

FIRST---get it out of your head that you're going to get "easy" and "high quality" at the same time. You're not. If you're okay with basic, rudimentary maps that mostly get the job done, you probably don't need to spend more than $50-$70 (if that). But just understand what exactly it is you're getting. If all you're after is rudimentary stuff that looks okay-ish with very little effort, you don't need to spend a dime. There are plenty of free drawing programs. Go download Inkscape and GIMP from Sourceforge.com, go to cartographersguild.com and find as many tutorials as you can.

If you want high quality, you have to invest --- in the tools, and the time to learn how to use them. If you want your maps to look like the stuff you see in Dragon magazine, or in Paizo's Adventure Paths, you're absolutely going to need to spend some cash to get results like that. That said, free or minor cost tools can get you about 75% of the way there, it will just take more effort (depending on the project, significantly more effort).

The other question is, how familiar are you already with digital art / vector drawing / digital image manipulation? If you're coming into these subjects cold turkey, your biggest hurdle will be learning the basic concepts, even beyond choosing the right software. For me, I'd want the software I choose to make that learning curve as easy as possible.

For me I found that I use both vector and raster editing tools interchangeably when I draw maps (if you're not sure what I'm even talking about with "vector" and "raster," there's your first homework assignment :) ). I use vector to draw and plan out the basic continents / cities / dungeon areas with basic backgrounds, then import much of the resulting image assets into a raster editor for manipulation and "prettying."

For me, the BIGGEST DEALBREAKER for my decision was that the software HAD TO SUPPORT live layer effects. What this means, is that for something like dropshadows, you click a button, change a few settings, and BOOM! Every object or pixel in that layer now has a drop shadow. If I want to go back and change it later, I can simply go in and change the settings for that effect, and it re-applies the effect instantly. This isn't possible with most programs; only a few support it.

I'd lay out your options into price tiers as follows:

Free Software

GIMP (Edit: For clarity, updating this section)
Type: Raster
Description: The most popular free/open source raster image editing program out there.
Pros:
It's well supported, with lots of tutorials on how to use it, including numerous examples on cartographersguild.com.
You can't beat the price.
The skills / concepts you learn using it will generally translate to Photoshop (this is good for marketable skills building).
It's a reasonably powerful tool.
Cons:
The interface is clunky. Check that -- nigh unbearably clunky.
It doesn't support live layer effects. It does have "effects" built in, but they aren't "live," they actually go in and modify the existing image, or add a separate image layer that cannot be changed easily.
No pre-built assets.

Felonius's Verdict (edited for clarity): I'd only use GIMP for my mapping needs if I literally couldn't afford any other option. It's just too much work to really get the results I want. This is not to say that GIMP isn't capable of producing good results --- it absolutely is. There are wizards over on cartographersguild.com that have created tutorials for all kinds of amazing stuff. But for me, an $80 copy of Serif PhotoPlus, or a $50-$80 second-hand copy of Photoshop CS2 is vastly superior. The lack of live layer effects is pretty much a deal-breaker for me.

Bottom line: GIMP is a capable tool, and I'm sure there are people out there that use it successfully as their primary digital image manipulation program. But frankly, the only paid commercial program that's not a dramatic and immediate improvement is probably Corel PaintShop Pro. Frankly, for ~$80, Serif PhotoPlus runs circles around GIMP (and any version of Adobe Photoshop is just that much better).

Inkscape

Type: Vector
Pros:
Really great for laying down basic landmass / dungeons.
Supports pixel fills for objects (this can make it easier to get more "realistic" looking objects)
It's a fun "toy" to just play around with.
Cons:
Slow. Slllloooooooow. Any objects beyond a certain complexity, or add any effects, and the whole thing slows to a crawl.
Limited support for built in processing effects.
Not as many tutorials on using it.
No pre-built assets.

Felonius's Verdict: In a pinch, Inkscape could be quite serviceable for doing basic continent or dungeon mapping (though it would be terrible for city mapping). The results wouldn't exactly be pretty, and there will be hair-tearing frustrations and getting it to do what you want, but if it was the only tool in my toolbox, I'd still rather use it than GIMP most of the time.


Mid-Priced Software ($30-$120)

Campaign Cartographer (~$80)
Type: CAD (it's mostly vector....but not really)
Description: A well-known program specifically designed for fantasy mapping.
Pros:
Lots of built in assets (textures, fills, etc.)
Lots of "shortcuts" for common tasks
Lots of live layer effects
Cons:
Calling the interface counter-intuitive is a massive understatement. Half the battle is figuring out how to make the software do what you want.
It's slow. Stuff that takes seconds in other programs 3-4 times longer.
If you don't like the assets it comes with, too bad --- you have to shell out more dough to get the look you want.
All maps made in the program all kind of end up looking and feeling the same.

Felonius's Verdict: I started with CC3 in my journey, but quickly left it. There's much better ways of doing what CC3 does, with less frustration, and with more flexibility. I'd take Serif DrawPlus over CC3 any hour, any day, without hesitation.


Fractal Mapper (~$40)
SEE DOWNLINE POST


Corel PaintShop Pro (~$80)
Type: Raster
Description: A long-running software that has seen numerous iterations. Not as powerful as Photoshop, but offers some value. Fairly powerful for its class.
Pros:
Easy-to-use interface.
Well-supported. Lots of online tutorials.
Cons:
Like GIMP, it has "effects" and filters, but they aren't "live" like they are in Photoshop.
No pre-built assets made for fantasy mapping
There's better software in its class.

Serif DrawPlus (~$100, Current Version is X8, I've used up through version X4).
Type: Vector
Description: A really snazzy vector editor that is a joy to use. Lots of nice little touches that are really helpful for doing map drawing.
Pros:
Really intuitive interface.
Lots and lots of "live" effects.
Fast
OUTSTANDING for doing city maps, due to the "nozzle" brush line fill option
Affordable
Cons:
It doesn't really come with assets built for fantasy mapping --- but once you build up a library of textures, fills, and objects, DrawPlus absolutely shines.

Felonius's Verdict: This is one of my absolute, go-to applications for doing mapping. Pretty much every map I draw starts out as a "sketch" or basic layout in DrawPlus. Once you get the hang of it, in some ways it can almost become your sole mapping application. If I had to choose exactly ONE software tool to use for my mapping, this would be it.


Xara (~$100)
Type: Vector
Description: I don't have a ton of experience with Xara, but in basic "feel" and use it's very similar to Serif DrawPlus.
Pros:
Similar to DrawPlus -- Good interface, fast, supports some live effects
"Power" users generally seem to be big fans of the product. Loyal following.
Cons:
Not as many live effects as DrawPlus

Felonius's Verdict: I'm just not well versed enough with this to really give it a "yea" or "nay." I've tooled around a bit with the demo, and it seemed like a decent piece of software, but for a vector drawing program for mapping, I'm already way down the learning curve with DrawPlus, so it's not really on my radar.


Serif PhotoPlus (~$90, current version is X8)
Type: Raster
Description: If Serif DrawPlus is the functional equivalent of Adobe Illustrator, Serif PhotoPlus is the functional equivalent of Photoshop
Pros:
Interface very similar to Photoshop. Easy to grasp.
Lots and lots of live layer effects.
Lots of features for the price.
Cons:
Somewhat slow when doing high resolution, complex images (most maps meet this criteria)
Missing a few minor features that Photoshop.
Some missing shortcuts features that make you wonder what the developers were thinking.

Felonius's Verdict: I've used this quite a bit when I didn't want to pay for Photoshop. It's a decent piece of software, but there's just enough little niggles/annoyances versus actual Photoshop that it could be frustrating at times. That said, this is by far the best "bang for your buck" for getting the tools you need in a raster editor. It's more than adequate to the job, it's just not stellar.


The High-Priced Stuff

First, there's really only two entrants in this area --- CorelDraw suite and Adobe Creative Cloud. In my experience, CorelDraw simply is a non-starter. Having demo'd their product for two different versions in the past 3 years, there's nothing CorelDraw does better (at least for fantasy mapping) than SerifDraw Plus does for 1/3 the price. And Corel's raster image editor, Photopaint, doesn't have nearly as many live layer effects as the Serif products do. Thus, for all intents and purposes, look somewhere else than Corel.

Okay, but what about Creative Cloud?

Don't get me wrong, Photoshop is FANTASTIC. It's a great program. But spending $120 EVERY SINGLE YEAR just for one program seems like a huge investment. And if you want to add Illustrator to the mix to go with it? Now it's $600 EVERY YEAR.

If you've got the cash to spend, drop the dough on Adobe Creative Cloud and call it a day.

But to be honest, even then I still actually much prefer Serif DrawPlus for my vector editing (especially for fantasy mapping) to Illustrator. DrawPlus's tool set is simply better built for mapping than Illustrator.

Best of all worlds would be for me to combine DrawPlus for vector + Photoshop for raster.

In a pinch, DrawPlus along with Photoplus would be a more than competent combo.

(I have to run, will add more later.....)

 
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vandaexpress

Visitor
Roll20 has a pretty robust interface for making maps, especially if you know how to use a graphics editor alongside it. Additionally, they have a good marketplace for buying premium assets if you can't find free stuff using their built-in search. Not sure how easy it would be to print off something you made in there though.

Nowadays, I use Photoshop. That said, mostly what I wind up doing is taking existing maps that I either find online or purchase and then import them into Photoshop and do lots of manipulation to combine and customize them to fit my specific needs. Over time, I've built up a nice library of graphics that I commonly use which helps to speed things up.

It's definitely a thing where it starts out incredibly time consuming but gets faster over time as you acquire assets and expertise. That said, full disclaimer, I've been using photoshop for a while, so if you've never used it, it might be a bit overwhelming. Nevertheless, most of the stuff I do for map-making is fairly basic and easy to learn.
 

Mercule

Adventurer
I'm going to jump back in.

Despite having posted a link to CC3 and claiming to have used it (I have, and I've actually used the maps), I wouldn't say I'm actually much of a fan of using computers for mapping.

I used to draw all sorts of maps by hand. Some of them were really nice looking, if I say so myself. I've tried a few different apps, but none of them really "do it" for me. I seem to spend more time fighting with the stupid app than actually creating the desired product. I've actually pretty much gone back to hand-drawn maps. I might give the free Photoshop Express (or whatever it's called) a try on my Surface Pro 3, but that's only because I'd still be using the pen to draw and the feel would probably be similar.

YMMV, but I felt the need to at least raise the possibility that you're asking the wrong question.
 

Syntallah

Visitor
I'm going to jump back in.

Despite having posted a link to CC3 and claiming to have used it (I have, and I've actually used the maps), I wouldn't say I'm actually much of a fan of using computers for mapping.

I used to draw all sorts of maps by hand. Some of them were really nice looking, if I say so myself. I've tried a few different apps, but none of them really "do it" for me. I seem to spend more time fighting with the stupid app than actually creating the desired product. I've actually pretty much gone back to hand-drawn maps. I might give the free Photoshop Express (or whatever it's called) a try on my Surface Pro 3, but that's only because I'd still be using the pen to draw and the feel would probably be similar.

YMMV, but I felt the need to at least raise the possibility that you're asking the wrong question.
That is entirely possible. I certainly want to thank Innerdude for his awesome analysis, but it does seem quite daunting when chances are, I'm only going to use it very sparingly...
 
I still hand draw maps because I find it fun. In late summer when all the big box stores have their back to school sales I pick up bunches of colored marker sets really cheap. Office supply stores have large pads of 1"x 1" graph paper. With pencils, straight edges, sharpies, and colored markers I can create a whole bunch of nice maps super cheap.

For custom maps that you want to re-use over and over, you can cheaply kind of laminate them using clear shelf paper. Then you can draw on your map with wet erase marker and wipe it clean with a damp towel. I protected some hex maps that I got with GURPS like that back in 1991 and they are still in good condition.
 

BoldItalic

Visitor
Another tack might be to google up pictures of castles, choose one you like, and show the picture to the player saying "This is what your castle looks like". Then let him make his own map of the room layout. He might enjoy that.
 

MostlyDm

Explorer
The rabbit hole of mapping programs can consume a lot of time and money if you aren't careful. Very satisfying when you pull it off, but... Yeah. Intimidating.

I do a lot of pencil drawn simple maps just for basic info.

Most recent few maps I've made for a current campaign I actually did freehand in crayon, no take-backsies. That was a lot of fun!
 

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