Recently I needed a forest road map for an encounter, and my creativity was running a bit low. The best I could come up with was the standard “road with trees on either side.” Online aerial maps helped me break out of the creative slump, and I thought I’d share some of my observations here.
FINDING THE RIGHT MAP
If you’d like to find an aerial map, you may wish to start close to home. Need a warehouse district for your modern game? I bet you know some areas in your town or from somewhere you’ve lived in the past. Your local supermarket, downtown, or park can provide great fodder for maps. For my forest road, I chose an area near my parents’ house with lots of trails. I know the area well and within a few minutes I had a map I could use.
Choosing a familiar area allows you to provide realistic details while you GM. After all, this is your old stomping grounds, though the players don’t need to know that. Also, it makes it much easier to ad-lib if they surprise you or go “off map.”
Of course, you aren’t limited to your own town. If you run a modern game, imagine an adventure based around Mount Rushmore or Times Square. If you run a fantasy or historical game, check out some European castles, Stonehenge, or Machu Pichu. There’s even Google Mars.
Now that you’ve found your map, let’s look at where you might go from here.
USING THE MAP AS IS (MOSTLY)
If you’ve found the right map, you may be able to just crop it and run. If you are using a virtual tabletop, you may wish to shrink the size a bit, and lower the quality of your jpeg image to about 90%. This will help keep your filesize manageable. If you need a print version, consider the free site blockposters.com. They allow you to upload and slice your image to the desired size. Then it will create a pdf for you. Print it out, glue or tape it together, and you’re ready for a tabletop game.
You may need to doctor your map a bit. Suppose you need a UFO landing site. Find a nice field, paste a spaceship onto a separate layer, and then adjust the sizes to your needs. You can easily add statues, vehicles or even a dead Celestial in the same way.
REDRAWING THE MAP
Sometimes finding a game-ready map just isn’t possible. Often the resolution may be too grainy, or there may be undesired elements on the image. That asphalt highway just may not cut it in Middle-Earth. When that happens, you can still use the aerial map for inspiration.
Let’s look at an example. Here’s the forest road that started this whole thing. It has a hill, an open field, short cliffs, and some rubble from past mining in the area. Overall, it is much more varied than what I originally had in mind.
Now here’s the hand drawn map. It was sketched in pencil, and then inked with a drawing pen. It was then scanned into the computer and colored with paint.net. You’ll notice I simplified it a bit, and added the suggestion of a couple side roads to the east and northwest. Maybe they’ll go check those out at some point in the future. Redrawing the map gave me the freedom to make some adjustments.
If you feel your artistic skills are lacking, you can still use aerial maps. Print one out, and then use a lightbox or a window to trace over the parts of the image you want. Move roads, buildings, etc… as needed. Your players will appreciate the map, and you probably draw better than you think.
Aerial maps have their limitations. Not every locale is available, and sometimes you’ll want a more custom site. However, they can be a great source of inspiration, and often a timesaver. If you have any experience or thoughts about these kind of maps, share them below.