Turning a map into an aged paper handout

How to turn a map into an aged paper handout in Photoshop/Gimp

The key to a good map is the information it presents. As soon as you’ve done the line drawing on a map, it should be perfectly possible to pick it up and use it. Everything after that point is polish to make it pretty. But polish matters, especially when you’re trying to set the scene.

Here’s how to take a simple map on a white background and turn it into an aged paper handout.

Finding an aged paper background

First of all you need a good paper texture. There are thousands of these free on the internet. As always, www.cgtextures.com is a good bet, under Paper->Plain. You can also find hundreds of paper textures on deviantArt.com (just search for “paper texture”).

Or you can use this one of mine for free (CC-NC-SA). It’s 6000px by 6000px so there’s a lot of room to maneuver:

Background texture for maps
Free background texture, CC-NC-SA licensed.

Adding the map to the parchment background

With this in hand it’s a quick hop to a pretty map:

1. Get a digital version of your base map

digitize the base map

Take your original map – here we have a simple 3 colour map with a couple of locations marked with crosses. It’s useful, but not that atmospheric. You can use a simple pen and paper line art map at this stage. You can even take a picture of a paper map with your phone as the starting point.

2. Add a parchment layer, and set the map to multiply


add a parchment layer and set map to multiply blend mode

Add a parchment background as a layer behind the map. You won’t see it initially (the white background blocks it out) so change the blend mode of your map layer to multiply. This only darkens, so the white background will disappear. Drop the opacity of the layer to 50% to give a light watercolour look.

3. Duplicate the map and set to colour burn

duplicate the map and set to colour burn

The 50% multiply layer is a little washed out, and we want to darken the lines and bump up the colours. To do this, duplicate the layer and set the blend mode to colour burn. This will boost the colours and burn in the dark lines – and once again the white is transparent for this blend mode.. I’ve set it to 70% opacity.

Play with the opacity of the two blend modes to get a look that you like. You can also use colour and saturation blend modes with this to build up a nice effect. And just like that you have an aged paper hand out. Much easier than tea staining or baking a hand drawn map, and with less chance of setting fire to the oven.

Extra Credit – Crumple, Burn, and Rip

If you want to go further, there’s more that you can do to bump up a handout. Try a few of the more destructive ones – if you ruin one printout, just print it again and repeat!

  • Crumple the paper multiple times and flatten it. After a few iterations, the paper will stop looking creased, and feel more like wrinkled cloth.
  • Burn the edges – careful, it can be hard to put out paper once it’s lit. Even a spark on an edge can keep eating up your handout. And don’t put it out with water – if you’ve used an inkjet printer, the water will make the ink run. Blow it out, and apply pressure to put it out fully.
  • tear the edges, and rub dirt into them
  • Fold, and re-fold along central lines. It gives the paper a dog-eared look. Equally, fold it up and carry it in a back pocket for a week. It’ll look authentically used. And if it wears through along a crease? Even better – just make sure there isn’t any critical plot point on a fold.

Each of these can lend a little extra suspension of disbelief to a game. But you can take it even further. In one memorable game, we were chasing down a lead, and faced off against an enemy wizard. We took him down eventually with a well placed fireball. Flush with victory, we looted the body, and the GM said ‘you find a map’! He picked up the pristine handout – carefully teabag aged, and printed in curling copperplate.

Just before he dropped it over the screen he pulled back. ‘Wait a minute – you killed him with a fireball’. He pulled out a lighter, and set fire to the map – dropping it onto the table. The whole group dove for the handout, stamping it out with our hands, no thought for our own burns. Never have I seen a group of teenagers move so fast.

Paper handouts are the easiest physical prop to make, and great for key pieces of exposition. Have fun, and add your own favourite methods in the comments.

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