Maps for Warhammer 40,000 Campaigns

Whenever I start planning a campaign, one the first steps, after deciding the general setting, is always setting a map of the place where the war will be fought. You can run wonderful campaigns without a map, but for me it is an essential source of inspiration: if I can “see” the battlefield, it is easier to come up with objectives, plot twists, special rules, narratives missions and the like. Also, generally players love to stand in front of a map to discuss about strategies, feeling like real generals. Isn’t that feeling one of the reasons why we all like war games, after all?

I like to draw all the maps that I use. There was a time when I used to surf the internet in search for suitable maps (also for RPGs), but I was never fully satisfied. A map drawn by someone else will never have all the elements you would like it to have. Your imagination will be forced to adapt to the map, and even if this can be a fun and rewarding exercise too, it is probably not what you really want. A campaign master wants to (and should) be in control of everything. He should be able to shape battlefield and fate to his slightest whim! Ok, maybe now I am exaggerating, but you got the point.

Another element that should not be underestimated is the style of the maps that you can find. There are a lot of maps out there, both real ones and fantastic ones, of battlefields, planets and star systems, each one drawn in the peculiar style of its artist. Even if you find a map with all the elements you were looking for, you cannot be sure that it will be drawn in a style suitable to your campaign. It would be weird for a general of the XLI millennium to prepare for war studying an XI century-style map, wouldn’t it? This is another reason I finally gave up the idea of drawing my maps with pencil and paper (as I used to do in when I was younger) and decided to embrace the opportunities offered us by the new technologies, even if my skills in the field of digital art are almost zero. I mean, I could download a picture from internet and edit it like that:

Calabi-Yau City

Calabi-Yau city seen from a long range scanner

Or add a hex grid to show where the armies are deployed, but not much more.

I only had to ask myself two questions: “Do I know how to use a computer?” and “Are there any noob-level mapping tutorials on the internet?”. I knew that the answer to the first one was yes, and I had no reason to believe otherwise on the second question. All I had to do was to surf the internet to find what I was looking for. And I was lucky, for I almost immediately stumbled in the tutorials section of the forum of Cartographers’ Guild website. If you want to draw a map, I strongly recommend you to go there, as it is a gold mine. There you can find tutorials about almost everything, from the most theoretical questions about the subtle art of world-building, to precise instructions on how to draw maps in different stiles with different software, from Profantasy’s Campaign Cartographer to GIMP and Photoshop and even more professional tools.

I spent a lot of time going through most of the posts that were there, searching for a map style that I thought was adequate for Warhammer 40,000 and that didn’t require too much previous knowledge. But the result was worth both that time and the many hours spent effectively drawing, don’t you think?


My first map of a whole planet

This is the tutorial I followed, in case you were wondering. I want to stress again that I did not have any skill in digital art, and even tough I managed to do something like that. My intention is to use this map for a campaign set in the future, after the events of the Eye of Terror campaign run by GW in 2003, and to recreate an assault from the forces of Chaos on the Shrine World of Gathalamor (the planet where Bucharis started the Plague of Unbelief, Dolan Chirosius became a martyr and the Amalathian Cumclave was held), before the final confrontation on Terra. But this, as they say, is a story for another time. Here we are talking about maps.

One of the most amazing things I discovered among those tutorials is that turning a map like the one I drew into a proper planet was even easier than drawing the map in itself. If it took me days to complete the previous map, I only needed a few hours to transform it into this one:

Gathalamor planet

Not only something like that is amazing to see and will surely increase your players’ commitment to the campaign, but it also means that, if you want, you can easily create even maps of whole star systems. I still have not tried to do something like that, but I do have made some other experiment in the creation of planets. A good thing to consider when creating the map of a star system, is that the planets’ surfaces do not need to be as detailed as if you were drawing a world map, for it would not contribute to the final look in a significative way, and this will save you many hours of work. Look at the planet below. I only needed a couple of hours to complete it, and when shrinked to fit in the map of a star system, the result would be egregious.

Earth-style planet

The next planet, a deserted red orb, probably took me less than an hour. I did not draw the craters, nor I did surf the internet to find a suitable texture. I only took a detail from a picture of a lasagna and applied a colored filter over it. Et voilá! I could have done it in any other color, or used a picture from the Visible Earth NASA website as the base image, or added it a ring in the style of Saturn (yes, there are tutorials for this, too). The only limit is your imagination!

Martian-style planet

Now, as maybe you already know, I plan to run a campaign to recreate the first contact between the Imperium and the Tyranid race on Tyran Primus (and I am still more determined to do so, having seen the new Skitarii models!), so I started to draw a map:

Tyran Primus

The first draft of the map for Tyran Primus

As I have acquired some degree of experience, this map only took me seven hours to complete, despite being more detailed than Gathalamor (I finally understood how to properly use the gradient overlay!). Not bad for a first draft, I think. I am still unsure, however, if I will really use this map or if I will draw another one, as I am not fully satisfied. There are so many details that I could have done better.

The width of the world, for one. Sure, Tyran Primus is an Ocean World, so we can assume here we are only focusing on the main landmasses and overlooking the rest of the planet, but I feel that such an explanation is not enough. This looks like the map of a section of a planet, not of a whole world. I should add more water and more isles, and the isles that are already there should have been distanced more. Maybe even the main continent should be smaller. And maybe I should add a touch of ice on the poles. Ok, stop complaining. I will draw another map as soon as I will be able to find a bit of time to spare, I promise!

In the meantime I would be delighted to hear what do you think about these maps and how they could be improved. Please, feel free to share your maps too, if you have any, and your advice too!


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