I'm about to begin drawing a map for my fantasy world. Although I did draw a few maps in the past, I've never paid too much attention to making them realistic. This time around, I'd like to be able to make a map that makes sense in a real world scenario (although it's a fantasy world with magic, I don't like the "it's magic!" shortcut to explain why things are the way they are).

I've started doing my own research, so I do have a very basic understanding of map-making. But since you see this kind of stuff daily, here's my question: what are the most important things to get right when making a realistic map? what are the most common mistakes you usually encounter?

Thank you for your help

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The most common mistakes... can turn into an endless list. Not a good fit for this community $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Jul 25, 2022 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ @elPolloLoco Nah it's perfectly cromulent design. The slip-up is when the pirates decide to bury their treasure on Skull Island. It's the first place everyone looks. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Jul 25, 2022 at 13:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This is a very subjective and open ended question. Site policy dictates that we don't ask questions where the answer is an unbounded list, or more about discussion than solving a particular problem. We're here to answer one specific, answerable question at a time. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Jul 25, 2022 at 13:37
  • $\begingroup$ Not including the effect of tectonic plates. worldbuildingschool.com/… $\endgroup$ Jul 25, 2022 at 14:01
  • $\begingroup$ An easy out is to make a Mappa Mundi of your world. All the benefits of showing relative geographic relationships without requiring any of the precision of a map! en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mappa_mundi $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Jul 25, 2022 at 15:48

5 Answers 5


Silly Rivers

A big pet peeve is rivers that start and end out of nowhere. Like from one mountain range to another.

In the real world, rivers start high up and join a bigger lower-down water source.

Inexplicable Boundaries

Maps of "the known" world which have water on three sides and then a land border at the bottom. Why does the "known" world end here and not ten miles down the road?

There should be a mountain range, desert, or other feature to suggest why the cartographers refuse to go further.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "In the real world, rivers start high up and join a bigger lower-down water source": They do, unless they don't. There are many mighty or at least reasonably large rivers in Central Asia that simply vanish in the desert. The canonical example being, of course, the Tarim River; the Murghab River (better know to classically-inclinded people as the Margiana) is also quite famous. The Okavango is an African example. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 25, 2022 at 14:01
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Ah I get you. Those river don't end in a water source since the wet bit at the end has no outlet. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Jul 25, 2022 at 14:28
  • $\begingroup$ Some rivers don't even end in a terminal lake. They just dwindle and die like the Murghab, occasionally with a spectacular inland delta like the Okavango. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 25, 2022 at 15:00
  • $\begingroup$ A related issue is that a river will tend to start with many small sources that combine into one terminus. It will not tend to start with a single large source that diverges. A friend of mine is running a fantasy RPG where the rivers all do that and it bugs me every time I see the map. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Jul 25, 2022 at 20:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Cadence does your adventuring party spend a lot of time questing to find river sources? Or do you just take issue with how the dungeonmaster draws their maps? $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Jul 26, 2022 at 14:54


  • Not including the effects of tectonic plates. Mountains arise where tectonic plates meet and hence tend to form long chains. You are unlikely to see mountain chains sprout a perpendicular side chain or turn at right angles (Tolkien's Middle Earth is a prime example of this mistake).
  • Forgetting that water runs downhill. Rivers usually run from mountains to seas and are unlikely to split coming down, except in very flat areas, such as river deltas. Swamps are likely to be located in flat, coastal areas of seas or lakes.
  • Forgetting that rivers are more likely to be important trade routes inside a nation than borders between nations, except when functioning as defense versus hostile neighbors. Before railroads, water connected rather than divided. Note that many, even most, of the great cities of old were built on both sides of rivers (often at estuaries or river junctions), with the parts connected by fords, ferries and later bridges. Nations are more likely to be bounded by mountains, deserts, swamps or wastelands.
  • Forgetting how trade routes are determined by geography and that cities often arise at trade junctions, below mountain passes or at fresh-water sources in arid regions.
  • Placing highly developed nations right next to primitive ones. Technology travels. Exceptions can be made where resources to run a developed nation aren't available, such as nomad tribes next to a developed farming nation.
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Something that Tolkien did right: there are no national borders on his map! This makes sense when the world gets steadily more wild the more you leave centers of geopolitical power. Additionally, accurate location, scale, and territorial claims were not important to the story, and therefore ommited. $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Jul 25, 2022 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ Mountain chains have right angles quite often - the Andes have two! They roughly follow plate boundaries but plate boundaries aren't necessarily straight, or even all that close to it. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Jul 25, 2022 at 20:53
  • $\begingroup$ Mountains are (sometimes) raised by tectonic plates meeting, but (1) they are usually not right on top of the boundary line, e.g. the Alps; (2) that meeting could have been a long time ago with the plates now firmly fused, e.g. the Urals; (3) right-angle turns are common, e.g. the Carpatians; (4) right-angle side-chains are also common, e.g. the Apennines branching off the Alps. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 26, 2022 at 3:47
  • $\begingroup$ "National borders along rivers are a fairly modern phenomenon": Which is why "crossing the Rubicon" is such a modern expression. And the lower Rhine and Danube were not boundaries of the Roman Empire. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 26, 2022 at 3:51
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP: Regarding the Rubicon, it was a provincial,rather than national border, and it was too shallow for shipping, hence not much of a connector. You are, however, correct about the Rhine and Danube being Roman borders. That was because (a) attacking across rivers is difficult, and the people on the other side were hostile, and (b) the Germanic people at the time didn't do a lot of river trading; hence, the rivers didn't serve as connectors. I will update my answer to add rivers-as-defense as an exception to the rule. $\endgroup$ Jul 26, 2022 at 7:26

Making it hard to distinguish between rivers, roads, and national boundaries. If you use different types of lines, provide a legend or key.


Avoid unnecessary detail.

This leaves you freedom to develop the plot later and the fewer details you have the less you can screw up. Include only what is necessary to follow the plot and not all of the detail that can be discerned from the plot. Not every location you mention needs to be on the map.

Also, don't be afraid to have significant sections of terra incognita. Unknown territory provides room for new stories of exploration that write themselves and almost all pre-modern maps had lots of sections of unknown territory or of only the most vaguely known territory.


Here's my process for creating planetary surfaces. You don't have to do an entire planet. You can just squish together a few plates to make a continent and then decide how far from the equator it is.

  1. Draw tectonic plates. This can be pretty arbitrary, but you can simulate the shapes by examining the shapes of clusters of bubbles in dish water.
  2. Squish the plates together like sponges. Put mountains where the plates meet. Draw in a continental divide, as rugged as you want.
  3. Draw rivers going from the edges of the mountains to whatever body of water is to the south. Have a lot of tributaries near the mountains combining into big rivers that crawl across the middle of the continent. The idea that most rivers run southward is false, but you do have the problem of rivers freezing if they empty into the arctic circle. Dig canyons and erode mountains around the rivers. Add glaciers where the rivers actually climb up the mountains. If the rivers can't make it to an ocean, make a lake grow until it can. That's how the Mediterranean Sea was made.
  4. Hadley cells result in air flowing away from large bodies of water. Planetary rotation then causes it to go East to West. Sketch in these wind lines.
  5. When the air flows hit mountains, drop moisture. This makes costal areas near mountains wetter. Downwind of mountains become deserts, so the rivers will be smaller seasonal things in those areas. One of the most common road names in eastern Colorado is "dry creek road".
  6. Temperature and humidity make biomes, so draw in your biomes. Plains, forest, desert, tundra, high plains desert, jungle, etc.
  7. Add cities. Cities will form near water:
  • highest navigable point on a river
  • where rivers dump into oceans and seas
  • along the edge of any major body of water, especially natural indentations which make good harbors

They'll also form where resources can be gathered for transportation. These also tend to be on rivers, at the edges of mountains, forests, and plains.

  1. Add civilization. If you've ever played rail games, you know that railways boost trade. Consider long rivers and large bodies of water to be a contiguous railroad for empire building and trade purposes. Rivers are hard to cross with armies, so put smaller territory boundaries and boundaries far from the seat of power on rivers where possible. Mountain ridges are always a natural boundary to civilization.

If your map fails to follow these patterns, for instance if you have an extreme transition of temperature or humidity zones, or you use water as a boundary for civilizations instead of a path for them, then it will look weird.


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