Whether this is for books, or comics, or even TTRPG, you can design some top quality maps with out any artistic skills. All you need is a photo editor that has the ability to render a cloud layer, and “stroke” an item. It’s really not as weird as it sounds. Photoshop and GIMP are the level of software you’re looking for. Paint.NET or ProCreate won’t work. I’m using Photoshop, so your menus may not look exactly like mine.
Setting Up Your Canvas
The first thing you need to do is open a new canvas. You generally want it to be a higher resolution, but not ridiculously high. Around 2000-3000 pixels on the wide edge is what you’re going for, depending on how many place names you’re going to need to include. I set mine at 3200×2180, which is pretty enormous, but I have a lot of places I want to include on my map, and I want it to be readable.
The first thing you’re going to want to do is render some clouds. Fake, ugly, obviously CGI clouds are what you want. Using a stock photo of clouds will actually not work as well. You want to set your working colours to black and white, which is usually the default for most programs. If you forget to do this, you can fix it later by de-saturating the layer completely.
In Photoshop, you want to go to Filter > Render > Clouds. It will give you something like this.
Ugly, unnatural, greyscale clouds are exactly what we’re looking for here. This is going to be the basis for our continents. And to do that, we need to change up the contrast to dramatic extremes. This is going to be somewhere around Image > Adjustments > Brightness and Contrast. You’ll want to make sure that the “Use Legacy” button is selected, and then turn the contrast all the way up to 100. From there, you can raise or lower the brightness to change the size and shape of the blobs that appear on your canvas.
Now, at this point we have a good cut-out map, but you’ll notice that the continents don’t really match up. If you’re only wanting to highlight a limited portion of your world this is perfectly fine. If you want to show the entire world, this doesn’t work very well. There are a few ways to fix this, but I like to take the path of least resistance and simply define the area where I want clouds to appear. Do do this, I just use the elliptical selection tool and define an oval that takes up most of the screen. I then feather the selection by 25 pixels, and then render my clouds. You can use multiple selections to have more control over where your continents will generate, and do several layers on top of one another to combine different renders until you have something you want.
Experiment and play around, and eventually you’ll land on something that looks good. Sometimes I’ll do several cloud generations before I find something that I like. In this case, the single oval generation speaks to me, so I’m going to build a world using those blobs for my continents.
Setting Your Base Layer
Once you have a design that you like, make sure that the layer is unlocked, meaning you can delete or erase pixels and make them transparent. Otherwise, they’ll just turn white, or worse, try to intelligently fill in what you delete.
Click on that lock and make it either go away, or appear as unlocked, depending on the software you’re using. Then, I like to invert the colours, so that my continents are white and the seas are black (Image > Adjustments > Invert), and then using the magic wand set to global selection, click on one of the black spots. Delete it, and you will have white continents on a transparent background.
You’ll then want to “stroke” the layer, which is fancy speak for adding an outline. You can do this in Photoshop by double clicking on the layer, and you’ll get this dialogue box. Using a very thin, black line, I stroke the outside of my layer, giving me very smooth, but unpredictable outlines. If I’m doing a map that has a lot of fjords, or a very specific feature that I want to include, I’ll actually outline the whole thing by hand. The vast majority of the time, this is all I need.
Now, right click on the layer, and select “Rasterise Layer Style.” This will set the black outline permanently. Now, with the magic wand, select the white and cut it away from the layer, using ctrl+x or cmd+x. Paste it onto a new layer with ctrl+v or cmd+v. In Photoshop, it may not paste exactly where you left it for some ungodly reason, so zoom in and put it back where it belongs. What you want is for it to look like the white is outlined, but have the white and outline on separate layers. To make things easier to see, you can also make the background blue for your seas, if you want. But at the end of the day, the most important thing is having your outline on a separate layer.
In fact, you’ll want to get into the habit of creating a new layer for every step of the way. If you want to edit something down the line, it’s a lot easier to do so when your trees and your swamps aren’t actually touching one another.
Setting Your Features
Now that we have our base layer all put together, it’s time to turn it into an actual map. That means adding mountains and rivers and cities, etc. I like to start with the mountains first, because they will dictate where everything else goes.
Now, you could draw all those mountains by hand, but gross. I’m not doing that. I’m gonna make a stamp instead. This stamp is temporary, and will need to be remade each time you make a new map, but it’s very easy to make. You can start off with something you’ve hand-drawn, a brush, or even a font that has the shape you want. I used a brush, following these steps from Adobe on how to do it. If you’re using GIMP or similar, the steps may be different. But what this gives you is an opaque stamp that you can put down in layers to create your mountains.
Now, what you want to do is lay your stamp down moving down across the canvas, placing the mountains on their own layer. If you put down a mountain above what you’ve already done, you’ll cut off the peak, which just looks wonky and weird. You can have lonely, single mountains, or huge, snaking ranges of them. Whatever works for the world you’re building.
Now we have mountains everywhere. If they seem a bit too dark and eye-catching, you can either de-saturate them, or lower the layer opacity. If you want to mix it up and have different types of mountains, repeat the steps above with a different shape, so you have craggy mountains, or high plateaus, or whatever geological features you want. It’s your world, so go nuts.
At this point, I like to do the rivers, because the rivers will determine where the forests and cities can be. These, I like to draw by hand, and since I don’t have a tablet for my PC, I moved to Procreate for it. Keeping in mind that rivers will always flow from high elevations to low ones, I draw snakey, uneven, meandering lines from the mountains to the lakes and seas. I try to avoid straight lines as much as possible, but I don’t want them to snake about too much either. The best way to do this is to just use my off-hand and an intense stabiliser on my brush. My off-hand won’t draw straight lines, and the stabiliser will keep them from being too jagged and cut down on sharp corners.
And this is why you want your outline on its own layer. Put the rivers down on the layer just beneath your outlines, and select the same colour as your sea. When you draw your rivers, draw them all the way into the water, overlapping with that background colour. This way, you can have the rivers going all the way into the sea without disrupting your outline layer. If you want to disrupt your outline layer, you can put a particular river on a layer on top of it. But TL;DR, the more layers you have for this sort of thing, the better.
At this point, I also changed up the colours and added an overlay texture, to give my map kind of an oldey-worldy feel.
But with my rivers down, I repeated the same process as with the mountains to add myself some forests.
Now, the reason I like to go in this order (mountains, rivers, forests, cities), is because each one of those is going to influence the next one on the list. Rivers tend to start in the mountains and flow down in elevation. Forests will be laid out depending on the topography set down by the rivers as they meander and change course. Cities will want to be near fresh water and the resources from the forests. Of course, there aren’t forests or or rivers or mountains everywhere, so these are general guidelines. The only rule to follow is that rivers flow downward. But even that rule can go a little haywire, as the river I live next to IRL has decided that mountains are for losers and cuts straight through them.
Basically, like with all other creative endeavours, know the rules and why the rules are in place, and then break them at will.
This is a map mostly for my own purposes, so I’m not too fussed with the inconsistency in style, but by the end of it I have something that looks like a map. I can keep referring to it to add new points of interest as the story progresses. Depending on size and complexity, the whole thing takes about an hour to do, and is clean, readable, and easy to understand. As I continue with my story, I can refer back to my map and decide that maybe that enormous lake to the west of Utgard could serve as a good location for something, or maybe start to explore the culture and politics of that other continent. If it’s for a TTRPG, your players might appreciate the sense of scale, or maybe want to drive you to madness by deciding they’d rather visit some random island you never even noticed before.