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The Joy of Cartography: Fantasy Mapping

      Today we come to one of my favorite things in Cartography (and the thing that brought me into this hobby): fantasy maps. I love going full Tolkien or Sanderson, drawing enormous worlds on paper. Drawing here means exploring new and exciting possibilities in mapping. One of the greatest facts about designing fantasy maps is that there are no measurements. You get to decide the scale! There is no wrong way to draw the worlds of your imaginations!

      So where do we start? Well, there are a few pointers from real-life geography that are important to remember when drawing. Keep these in mind, and you'll be ahead of the majority of people that are drawing their own maps.

Common River Errors
      1. Rivers run from high ground to low ground, away from mountains and toward the ocean.                2. Rivers will always take the path of least resistance. Purposely drawing rivers to flow away from oceans is unrealistic.
      3. Rivers do not split 99% of the time. Different rivers flow to form one river, but a river will never split into two separate streams. EXCEPTION: Deltas, like in Egypt, are one of the few instances where rivers do split. You are usually okay putting a delta at the mouth of a river.
      4. Two or more rivers can flow into a lake, but when you draw the river coming out of the lake, there can only be one. This spot is the lowest point of the water in the lake, thus the reason for it being the source of the river flowing out.

Other Miscellaneous Errors
      1. Mountains and volcanoes are created when tectonic plates collide. Mentally picture or have in mind where the tectonic plates in your world are and create your mountain ranges over these areas of collision. when plates collide over ocean, then you can also have islands.
      2. Deserts are another common error. Deserts form because rain can't get over a mountain range, so a large area behind the mountains is a desert. Either that, or your desert will lie in the 30* parallel, like the Sahara desert.
      3. Do not draw regular shapes. A continent shaped anything like a rectangle is bad. Draw irregularly. If you're having trouble with inspiration, look to the natural world; wood, rust, or oil stains are a good idea. You can also use Google Maps. Zoom in on some random coast several times and draw that as your continent's coast. 

      As I said, this brings you leaps and bounds ahead of amateur cartographers. Now that the errors are out of the way, let's talk about world types. In Sid Meier's Civilization, a classic strategy game, you can choose the sort of earth your people will survive on. What you choose depends on what you have in mind for your story. Here are a couple categories:

      This sort of world is more average. You have your oceans separating your different landmasses, perhaps two of them. Each continent should be around the same as Earth-like continents, maybe even a little smaller, but definitely not as big as Africa or Asia.

      Long ago, our world's continents were meshed together into the super-continent of Pangaea, a continuous landmass of gargantuan proportions. Your world too can be of megalithic proportions!

      An archipelago is a type of world where everything is made up of islands. They vary in size, but are usually no bigger than, say, the size of Japan. If everyone lives on these islands everywhere, fascinating stories can be told. Examples of real-life archipelagos include Malacca and the Moluccas, Hawaii, and sort of Japan.

Everything Else
      This is very vague, but what I mean is to explore and have fun with this. Not everything fits into categories. You can make a world a fractal, snaking around the edges of the world. Or maybe your world is a single continent, but it has a desert in the middle, with lush land on the edges, or vice versa! You could make a map like a skull, if that's what you're into. The point of fantasy is to escape our world so the weird is totally acceptable (so long as it does not conflict with any of the common mistakes I mentioned). In addition, if you wish to go against some of the rules, then you can come up with a magical reason if the story is a fantasy. This is risky, though.

      One quick note, if your map is going to be part of a story, and the characters are moving around a lot, the distances in the map should be lower, approximately the size of two-or-three American states. This applies to all maps in general. The distance between the Shire and Mordor in Middle Earth is around the same as the distance from California to Texas. Middle Earth still looks like a super-continent, but the distance they're travelling is far less. That should summarize the basics of Fantasy Mapping!

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