Here Be Dragons: 7 Mapping Programs for D&D 5e (and every other game too!)

It’s a battle for best tabletop roleplaying game map creator! Free vs Paid. Inkarnate vs Dungeon Painter vs Campaign Cartographer vs Wonderdraft. Let’s get ready to rumble!

When I picked up my first real fantasy novel, The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, way back in the Mesozoic era, I must have spent the first fifteen minutes poring over the map that appeared on the first page. It was pretty standard Left-Justified Fantasy Map with towns and forests and rivers and the dangerous northern reaches. There was a mountain that looked like a skull, a druid keep, a hall of kings, and a place called the Pass of Noose. I was only six, but I remember looking at all of these places and wondering what kind of crazy adventures the characters in the book might get up to when they tried to, for instance, cross the Dragon’s Teeth.

That was when I decided that adventures needed maps. Maps make the world feel real, even when it’s clear that it isn’t. I don’t know what a Hall of Kings is really, but I can start to imagine what it might entail. That act of poring over the map and seeing all of the obstacles (opportunities!) that are scattered through the world drew me in.

It looked so much bigger back then.

Your map might’ve been different. Maybe it was Middle Earth or the Westlands from The Wheel of Time or maybe it was the Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk. But I’m willing to wager that you had that same awestruck feeling that out there, somewhere, adventure was waiting on the horizon. And now, you knew how to get to it.

That’s why, when I started playing Dungeons and Dragons, I never played a game without a map. It didn’t feel right. Now, I’m not an artist, and my maps were crude at best, but they were there. The dots were dutifully labeled. The dangerous skull-shaped mountains were carefully annotated. Sometimes the players would point and ask what was there, and I would tell them the rumors that abounded, and they’d travel off to see if they were true. That’s what D&D looks like to me.

Now, I’m older and living in an age where I am increasingly playing online. I’ve got players that I can’t just sketch a quick cocktail napkin map for. Besides, in this glorious technological age there are a bunch of mapping solutions that even people like me, without a single artistic bone in my body, can use to bang together a map that has all of the allure and polish of that first fantasy map we ever laid eyes on.

I’m going to break the mapping programs that I’ve personally worked with down for you guys. Whether you’re looking for battle maps or big sprawling overland maps, regional maps I’ve been hands-on with each of these programs and built maps with them…well, not Campaign Cartographer, but I’ll get to that in a minute. If you want to bring a little more razzle-dazzle to your campaign, check through the list below and see if something doesn’t look like it’ll work for you.

Oh, and if you use Photoshop for your maps, then I applaud you, but you’re a sorcerer and are not to be trusted.

The Free: Dungeon Painter

Dungeon Painter is an intuitive web-based solution for all of your dungeon mapping needs. It comes complete with a good-sized selection of tokens and dungeon ephemera to spruce up your dank tombs and catacombs. They’ve got a side-program that allows you to package your own assets if you find some tokens online that you want to use along with them and upload them as a personal user collection that hosts from your computer while you’re using it which means that the program, for a free application, is pretty customizable.

Dungeon Painter does a really good job at making dungeons, but it can’t do overland areas with much in the way of grace or detail. Or rather, I can’t make it do that. Someone out there has probably used the line tool like a virtuoso and roughed in their fantasy world, but those people are already talented enough that they probably don’t need bespoke software to do their mapping. This is however, a great way to build battle maps and dungeon layouts that look pretty nice without anything that even approaches a barrier to entry.

The system is mostly snap to grid, though there’s an option to remove objects from the grid to get some granularity and more organic lines to things. All of your barrels don’t have to be ranked and filed, and can instead be piled in the corner. One brazier might be pulled a little further from the wall, making players curious about the alcove behind it which might hide a secret door. That kind of thing.

If you’re looking to bring some flair to your next dungeon crawl, Dungeon Painter is cheap as free and available to at least get your toes wet without paying a nickel. Pyromancers does have a paid version that’s available through Steam though I haven’t futzed with it, so I can’t make a recommendation on whether or not the offline program bring enough added functionality to be worthy of its price-tag.

The Freemium: Inkarnate

Inkarnate is another web-based solution to mapping which brings a little bit more razzle-dazzle. The art style is gorgeous and the controls are easy to use. All of those bits and bobs, the houses, the trees, the mountains and rolling hills, are all stamps that can be applied to your map using an interval-based scatter or hand-placed and scaled to achieve map perfection. Text can be applied and morphed, twisted, and curled as you like it. Roads and paths, rivers, and other such things can be placed with their line-tool which jags and curls with adjustable roughness and frequency. Overall, it’s a great program to go and play around with.

Inkarnate was originally just an overland mapper when it first appeared on the scene. Just recently, however, they’ve added smaller-scale stamps to the arsenal and a gridded battle-map format so that you can also get regional detail maps and encounter-ready maps built in the program without having to get too creative with symbology. The styles of stamps keep expanding, and the art just keeps getting better as well.

Best of all, the base program is free to use with an account registration. There’s a premium option which unlocks the options to make bigger maps, save and store more maps, and a wide range of Premium stamps. For instance, you’ll have access to recolors and redesigns of the city markers or even some really out there markers like sea-serpents or Sarlacc style pits in the middle of nowhere. Pretty neat stuff.

You can get a feel for the program without paying a cent, though if you want the full-HD map-profiles and the extra stamps, the Premium price runs on a subscription model which means you can drop a couple of bucks, make your map, and then opt out until you need it again. Not a bad way to get high-quality bespoke maps when you need them!

The Premium: Wonderdraft/Dungeondraft

This is actually a map that I threw together in fifteen minutes for a really short–I’m talking like three sessions–game that I hosted for some friends who hadn’t played in a while. It’s a rough sketch because we actually played up there in the Ghostmarch, but I wanted everyone to know the overall geography of the continent just in case it became relevant. It didn’t but that’s hardly the point.

This was the treasure map they were working with, and that took me all of ten more minutes.

Both of these maps were made with Megasploot’s phenomenal Wonderdraft. It’s a paid program so barrier to entry is a little higher, but the amount of work this piece of software does for you is really amazing. It makes those fantasy maps that you find in the fantasy novels in a snap, and comes loaded with assets for pen-and-ink style maps natively. You can import your own assets as well, so if you’ve got a collection already, it can be brought in and tinkered with right in the application.

Overall, when I map out a new campaign, I open Wonderdraft and hit the random generator until I get something that looks right–a process that I would be hard pressed to explain. Then I take the powerful tools that Wonderdraft puts at your disposal, and I shape and I tinker until I’ve got a place that I want to play around in. The whole process can take ten minutes or hours. Some of the things that I’ve seen people make with this program are really outstanding.

The tools are intuitive, but learning what all of the widgets and whatnot are and navigating between layers could be a little easier. Overall, the learning curve is not at all steep and your first map will end up–if you’re like me–much better than anything you could have free-handed.

But, Drake! What about towns and encounter maps? Well, Wonderdraft is primarily focused on delivering world and region maps, though I’ve seen it used to generate some pretty cool stuff on the small scale as well. However, Wondersploot as another program that’s just come into Beta that does it much better.

Feast your eyes on Dungeondraft!

It’s another paid program, though with all of its functionality, I imagine I’ll be getting my money’s worth. When my adventures go live on this site, you’ll probably see more than a few maps rendered in Dungeondraft.

This is another really easy to use program that is built on the foundation of making small-scale terrain and dungeons fly together without a whole lot of stress or butt-pain. It’s got another great selection of assets to build your maps, and importing others is a breeze. 2-Minute Tabletop has some great assets out there, so be sure to check those out.

Overall, I think the standout winner in this particular program is the cavern tools. Usually, mappers have trouble making caverns look natural, but Dungeondraft’s cavern tool can dig under the surface of any terrain layer and then you can blast out an entrance. That bandit-cave up there took me about ten minutes to build…I actually think I did it while my characters were arguing about chasing the bandits back to their hideout.

Both of Wondersploot’s programs are definitely worth the price of admission if you want to create great, high-quality maps without having to be cartographically- or artistically-inclined.

My Fave: Arcane Mapper

There’s a familiar map! I rendered Gorsebrook, the town beset by the Heart Collector we cooked up for Valentine’s Day, in my hands-down favorite battle-map software: Arcane Mapper.

I found this program on Steam a couple of years ago, pulled the trigger, and since then have been churning out high-quality encounter maps with lighting and shadows and all kinds of bells and whistles for just about every game I’ve run. Any PNG can be loaded in, turned into tiles or objects, dynamically lit, and placed into your maps without any kind of stress. Everything is scalable, rotateable, flippable, cloneable, and lit with any color light from any height with just a couple of clicks.

Now, before you go rushing off to click the buy button, know that it’s basically been abandoned by its creator and updates are no longer coming. Natural-looking, curving walls are next to impossible to make thanks in no small part to the point-to-point wall-drawing tool. It’s not suitable for humongous–and here I’m referring to anything larger than about 50×50 squares–maps because the amount of rendering power required to light and shade and render makes the program choke itself to death. I have a pretty burly computer, but the program is poorly optimized and might crash right before you save. Caveat emptor; save early and save often.

However, it’s a power-packed piece of software and it works really well with the 50 gigs of art and assets that I’ve collected from all over the known universe. When I go to make an encounter map for my weekly Roll20 game, I usually open Arcane Mapper. I’ve learned its idiosyncrasies and have come to accept its faults. I love it anyway. It’s kind of like a good relationship.

The Deluxe: Campaign Cartographer

Man, that’s a cool map.

Ho-kay. So, this is the mack-daddy of mapping software, published by ProFantasy Software alongside a host of plugins, tool-sets, tile-sets, and various and sundry other goodies. This is a powerful program that is essentially a computer-aided design (CAD) program that has been twisted and bent to our devilish purposes–read, mapping.

I own this software. I have it installed. I open the program every so often, scan the host of tools and check-boxes, click on a couple things, and then my eyes slowly cross and I have to lie down for a while. The amount of options and tools are truly staggering. The documentation is weighty enough to make a crude but effective improvised weapon. It, of course, also reads like stereo instructions.

I tell myself that I should go watch a YouTube tutorial or seventy and then figure out how to use it, and as soon as I do that, I’ll be happy to report my further findings. Right now, I’m starstruck by the options and completely blown away by the maps that are on the ProFantasy gallery. I mean…look at this thing!

Right?

Obviously, if you can wrap your head around the interface and make the power of the system work for you, this is probably the single most powerful mapping program you can get. Expect to pay for it, and then spend some time figuring how to use it. The modules all add extra functionality, like city-mapping, dungeon mapping, isometric dungeon mapping (what!?), etc. Each one’s probably got an additional manual, but man does it look cool.

I’ll figure it out eventually.

Honorable Mentions: Dungeon Scrawl and Hexographer

So, I’ve used these programs in passing, and they are both great and easy to use. They’re both free as well. They are, however, niche in their usage cases.

Dungeon Scrawl is a handy little mapper for making the old TSR-style dungeon maps one square at a time. If you’ve still got a fondness for that bygone day when maps were printed in non-repro blue, then Dungeonscrawl is a quick and easy tool to recapture those bygone days. It’s got a built in maze-generator as well, so if you need one in a hurry, it’s only a click away. You’ll have to annotate it yourself, however. No symbols or added tiles save for doors or stairs.

This is Matt Colville’s Colabris, a map that he made on stream with his viewers. He generated this map in Hexographer which calls to mind equal parts Civilization and old-school D&D campaign setting maps. This is another free tool for creating hexmaps in broad-regional strokes. The program will generate a random map with a click of a button and usually only need a little bit of massaging from there to make a workable hexmap. Or, you can import a map from another program, use it as a tracing overlay, and then color in the regional hexes from there.

I quite like hexmaps and hexcrawls and the whole wilderness survival aspect of Dungeons and Dragons, because it hearkens back to those early days of the hobby where traversing long distances were typically the first step to dying horribly in a dungeon somewhere or the last obstacle in getting a cartload of treasure back to civilization. If you campaign relies heavily on travel, a hexmap of the kind Hexographer can provide might be a handy thing to have!

So, that’s all folks. Seven map-making applications to build your next map with at a variety of price-points and feature levels. Did I leave any out? Did I leave your favorite out? Do you have any tips and tricks for making great maps? Let me know in the comments below.

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2 Responses

  1. Brenden says:

    Some of the names on these maps sound familiar. I think our DM in high school out in Vegas used some of them (Ghostmarch and Murosa).

    • Drake says:

      Think that was me, bud. If Okrannel and a big (not so bad) cleric of Bane called “Hand” sounds familiar and you played a Cleric named Bardos…

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