How to Design a Town Map

How To Design A 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. When you’re ready to turn your sketch into a polished finished map, check out the full tutorial on creating a final map.

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.

24 thoughts on “How to Design a Town Map”

  1. 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.

  2. Nope.

    There are no words to express how grateful I am for your site.

    I’ve been an avid DM for over 15 years and have picked up a lot of tricks to make a game more enjoyable and engaging over that time. But the one area in which I have always been, appalling if I’m honest, is drawing maps. Not only have you enabled me to patch up one of my lacking areas but your attention to detail in these tutorials has improved my art in general tenfold.

    Keep doing what you’re doing good sir.

  3. This just made city creation a whole lot more palatable for me. Thanks for this simple guide! I have a mega city that i’m trying to create based off a couple real life major U.S. cities and this will help me break down the important parts so i don’t get bogged down with little details stepping right out the gate.

  4. 3 years on, and you’ve helpped another person. This made the whole city map process so much easier. Thanks so much :3

  5. This just saved me lol I always try to visualize the stuff before I draw it and towns have always been difficult. Not anymore!

  6. thx for the nice tutorial.
    you safed me a lot of time on the learning curve.
    I try to build a semi serious map of a academic field I am new to.
    the map is not the territory;)

  7. I just want you to know that this content is evergreen. I had no idea what the city my players are going to arrive at next week looked like in practice, and now I’ve got a full-blown map with only about an hour’s worth of work! Thank you.

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