How to design a town

illustration for how to design a fantasy town map

Today a quick mini-tutorial. This isn’t a photoshop tutorial, nor is it a tutorial for a polished finished map. This is a step by step in my own town creation method when I’m creating the first sketch layout. The key here is to have the town layout make sense.

1. Draw the terrain and the major locations

Draw the terrain and major locations

1. Draw the terrain and major locations

Towns adapt to their surroundings. The first thing to do is to draw the terrain the town sits on. In this case I’ve picked a peninsula with a larger outcropping at the end. The coast is rocky and broken apart from a low bay on the NE.

Once you’ve placed the terrain, use that to inform the locations of the main buildings. Here the castle goes on the highest promontory, with a commanding view of the sea and the land around. The cliffs on the promontory provide natural defences. Any land based threat must come down the peninsula, and the town will want to defend the harbour, so it’s natural for there to be a wall across the end of the peninsula.

After placing the major defences, I add a harbour for fishing boats (food), a market near the docks (commerce). I place another couple of large buildings – 4,5 and 6 that could be a temple, inn and wizard’s tower respectively – the trifecta of important fantasy town locations.

2. Place the major roads

2. Add the main roads

2. Add the main roads

Roads get people where they need to go. In this case, the road needs to take a fairly direct route from the main gate to the castle. Remember that the roads will follow the contours of the terrain. Avoid straight roads in fantasy town maps – they tend not to have heavy earth moving machinery so roads need to go around obstacles on the whole. It’ll help sell the sense of a naturally evolving town.

Once we’ve laid in the main thoroughfare, add main roads to the source of food and commerce – these will be the high traffic routes. Add in a couple more – here I add the second road to the NE through the smaller gate.

3. Add the minor roads

3. Draw in the minor roads

3. Draw in the minor roads

With the major roads in place the map looks bare. Add a web-work of smaller roads to fill in the gaps. Remember that the majority of the smaller roads are going to be to get people to the major roads. Add kinks and corners to give the minor roads some visual interest, and again follow the contours of the land.

4. Draw in the houses

4. Sketch in the individual houses

4. Sketch in the individual houses

This can take a while, depending on the scale of the map and the level of detail you’re going for. In this sketch I was drawing on paper at roughly 2 inches square so a house could be little more than a dot on the map. Here the houses are a means of blocking in the space around the roads. Ideally when you’re done with the houses you’ll be able to see the roads even if you remove the road lines.

And that’s it! You’re done with your sketch. Add a key and it’s a functional town map. Going from here to a presentation map is a different issue, but that’s a matter of style rather than substance.

I hope you found that useful as a walkthrough. Feel free to ask questions and share around. Also note that there are more tutorials archived here.

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6 thoughts on “How to design a town

  1. Pingback: Weekly Roundup: Geeky Tea Blends Edition | Roving Band of Misfits

  2. Leo

    Wow, I just rediscovered your site (thanks to the cartographers guild), and I’ve spent the better part of an hour browsing. This mini-tutorial is fantastic! I’ve been struggling with a city map for a while now, and this is really going to help me get started. Every city has to start somewhere!
    Thanks for all the tips and tricks and such you post – they’re really helpful.

    Reply
    1. Jon Post author

      This can take an hour or an afternoon depending on how detailed you get, and how large the town is.

      Reply

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