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How to Make a Drop Map

Building on the idea of die drop tables and tools elsewhere, I came up with a simple approach to quickly generating a region: the drop map.

I had fantasy hexcrawls in mind when I wrote this, and the map I’ve created using this method is for that sort of game. There’s no reason you couldn’t fiddle with this in all sorts of ways to produce maps for larger/smaller regions, other genres, or even other kinds of maps entirely. It’s deliberately a lazy, quick, flexible system.

I find that when I create maps I overthink everything. Should the river bend west here, or stay on its southerly course? Could there really be two towns so close together? Is that forest one hex too large? It’s maddening and it prevents me from getting anything done, so this process is intended to short circuit that by forcing me to adapt to randomness (which is fun in its own right).

I’ve used it to create the map for a hexcrawl campaign, and I like the results. That’s enough proof in my personal pudding to make it worth sharing here. It’s got rough edges you’ll need to sand off according to your own GMing style and preferences, and this is intentional. Make this method your own.


Open Hexographer [1]. (The free version is fantastic; the paid version is entirely worth it.) Create a new map 11 hexes wide and 8 hexes tall. Assume 6-mile hexes, giving you an area of about 3,100 square miles. Leave the hexes blank, but number them.

Open a Word file or text file or whatever you like to write in on the computer.

Grab the lid of an 8.5×11 box set and set it down sideways, open side up. If you don’t have any of those, grab a blank sheet of 8.5×11 paper and plan to re-drop dice that fly off the paper.

Decide what you’re mapping. For this example, I’ll map a starting region for a fantasy hexcrawl. I decided what I wanted in it based on what felt right about the sort of region I wanted — generically medieval, temperate climate, not wilderness but not too populated either. I explicitly ignored realistic population figures and all that stuff because in general it just doesn’t matter during the game.

Grab some dice and match die types to the elements you want on your map. For this example, I chose:

Drop dem bones

Start dropping dice into the box lid. There are two stages: landscape and points of interest. During a stage, leave all the dice in place as you drop new ones. It doesn’t matter if they bump each other into new positions.

Drop 4d12 for mountains. The bigger the number showing on each die, the taller those mountains are. At a minimum each die represents a hex of mountains; join them up if it feels right.

Drop 6d10 for forests. The higher the number, the denser the forest.

Add those elements to your Hexographer map, with each die’s location corresponding to a hex (just eyeball it). Connect areas of forest and mountains if you like. Don’t think too much about it. Everything else is open terrain (grassland).

Before you remove all the dice, write the hex numbers in your Word file and note the die numbers. So if there’s a one-hex forest area in (say) 0804 and the die reads 7, write 0804 in the Word file and put a 7 under it so you’ll remember how dense that forest is.

Clear the box lid of dice. The landscape stage is done — it’s time for points of interest.

Drop 6d4 for villages. Higher number means higher population.

Drop 3d6 for towns. Higher number means higher population.

Drop 1d8 for your city. Higher number, larger city.

Drop 10d20 for dungeons and adventure sites. You can be mean and let the number equal the level of the dungeon, but it’s better to use it as a vague representation of danger level.

Add villages, towns, city, and adventure sites to Hexographer.

Add the die numbers to your Word file.

Add details

The rest all happens in Hexographer or Word. The map you have isn’t going to be logical, but don’t correct weird things, like clumps of villages, unless you absolutely have to. Instead, make up reasons why they are how they are and jot those reasons down in Word. Looking at our map, the first two things I want to know is why two villages and a town are so close together and why most of the adventure sites are in the bottom half.

Add some rivers and/or other bodies of water. Rivers flow towards bodies of water; they sometimes merge as they near the coast, but they rarely diverge after merging. Most large settlements are near water.

Add roads and stuff.

Name every feature on the map — every hex where you dropped a die. (If you connected forests or mountains, name the whole thing, not each hex.)

Make up two things about every hex you filled in (every die you dropped, or every area of forest/mountains). It’s hard to remember lots of things; it’s easy to remember two things, and using just two forces you to focus on the most important things. Jot it all down in Word, a sentence or two at most per thing.

If you’re using published adventures, assign them to the dungeon locations on the map. If not, make up some stuff for those sites.

Name the region.

How you finish depends what you’re mapping, but don’t take too long. Fiddle the with map if you like, but not too much (add some hills, for example). Add wandering monster tables if it’s that kind of game. Make up a rumor table.

Then start playing. Really — don’t write anything else down unless it’s amazing. All your notes for the region should fit on a page or two. Being unfinished and sketchy is a virtue — you won’t need most of what you just did right away, so don’t waste time on it unless it’s fun. Everything else will come from actual play. If you know your players are headed somewhere, add more details then if it seems like you’ll need them.

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "How to Make a Drop Map"

#1 Comment By Razjah On March 18, 2013 @ 8:56 am

I am doing this after lunch, this looks awesome for making a section of a world for a game.

Has there been an article about deciding what races to use in a game? I think using dice to determine allowed races could be great to combine with this, or tragic if it rolls terribly.

#2 Comment By Martin Ralya On March 18, 2013 @ 9:05 am

Let me know how it turns out!

I don’t think we’ve done an article about picking races, but the archives are so large now that I could just be forgetting one. If you want to use dice, it could be as simple as rolling for the number of races (match die type to your world) and finding a way to assign them to the map — assuming you want it to be sort of chaotic.

Or instead of population in my drop mapping method, the number could correspond to a race. So 5-8 on a die = elves, meaning there will never be an elven village but there could be an elven town or city.

#3 Comment By Razjah On March 18, 2013 @ 9:27 am

I was thinking of determining a number of races for the world, then rolling off for those races. The N races that roll high enough would become playable races.

From there, it is adding the races to the villages, towns, and cities. This could be done with the method you described or rolling also.

The roll off for races could be used to determine which is most populous, and then assign locations to match the population breakdown.

#4 Comment By Roxysteve On March 18, 2013 @ 10:18 am

An interesting approach, which could be hours of fun as a game in it’s own right. You could do like the author of “Carcosa” did and map certain hexes to a larger scale on another hex sheet too, for those places that people will visit again and again.

Some observations:

While square mileage sounds impressive, PCs travel in straight lines (except when you want them to). Have a reason why they can’t sandbox a 55 mile trip off the side of the map handy (wrap-around works for me).

If you don’t have hexographer but *do* have a printed hex-sheet that will fit in the box you could just drop dice onto that. There are places on the web that can provide a hex-grid for you to print.

If you can’t afford Word, open office has a similar-looking thing called Write that can be downloaded for free.

There is an Avalon Hill game (long out of print) called “Search for the Nile” which has a spiffing terrain generation method that adds veldt, mountains, swamps, rivers etc to a blank hex grid and is based on the principle that a hex is usually similar to the ones next to it (except when it isn’t). It is longer and perhaps less spontaneous than this method, though.

#5 Comment By griffon8 On March 18, 2013 @ 11:03 am

I’m interested in the Hexographer. Unfortunately, I can’t find any word on whether or not it and all the other companion programs will run on a Mac. Anyone know?

#6 Comment By Martin Ralya On March 18, 2013 @ 11:11 am

Hexographer is Java-based, and my understanding is that it should work just fine on Macs (and PCs and Linux machines). There’s no downside to trying the free version to find out, either.

#7 Comment By randite On March 18, 2013 @ 1:25 pm

Well that looks like the most fun ever. Lord, dice drop tables/generators/anything are great.

Plus the number/type of dice you chose and the categories they represent give the map a certain kind of sense. It looks like a newly populated region(within a the last few generations) built on top of something much older (thus all the dungeons/adventuring-sites). The perfect place for transient , grave-robbing, murderers to traipse about seeking gold and glory.

#8 Comment By Razjah On March 18, 2013 @ 2:46 pm

I just made a hex map in this style, the process is great. The placement of dungeons and roads creates a sort of narrative about the setting that can be brought to the games. I really like this region creation process- page bookmarked.

#9 Comment By MuadMouse On March 18, 2013 @ 6:34 pm

Just tried this method out, and it’s looking good! I placed a sheet of hex paper inside the lid of my RuneQuest box and let the dice do their thing.

I added some colour association. I used the same numbers and sizes of dice as you, but I picked them at random. When the dice landed on the paper their colours gave me clues as to the nature of each location; for example, the isolated yellow d12 that came up a 5 turned into Sandy Peak, the violet marble d8 that rolled a 1 became The Cursed City, and since I ended up with a WH40k artillery die for one of my d6s, I got a military fort as well (probably near The Cursed City for a good reason).

I got myself a fully playable setting in 30 minutes, and now I’m chomping at the bit to get some adventurers mess it up. As if I didn’t have GMing on mind enough already…

Dammit, Martin, if I wasn’t too broke for trans-Atlantic travel I’d hunt you down and inflict my brand spanking new setting on you ’til you wept!

#10 Comment By Martin Ralya On March 18, 2013 @ 7:55 pm

Dude! That’s awesome. I love both the randomness and the color tweak. That’s clever.

I’ve started G+ Hangout gaming, so I can safely say that trans-Atlantic travel is no longer a requirement for quality gaming (provided the killer time difference is worked around).

#11 Comment By MuadMouse On March 18, 2013 @ 8:31 pm

The time difference is no problem to a night owl such as myself – yesterday it was about midnight in Utah when I went to bed. When I’ve traveled to the States I’ve gotten up at 8 am, without having to adjust. So, yeah… 🙂

I used to have people attend my games via Skype before my laptop gave up the ghost. I’ll have to put a mic and a webcam onto my shopping list, if only to make good on my threat!

#12 Comment By MuadMouse On March 18, 2013 @ 7:13 pm

The fantasy setting I rolled up goes perfectly with my current enthusiasm for Dungeon World, but I’m also toying with the idea of a space opera hack of Apocalypse World, so I got to thinking about modifying this map generator for that purpose. Here are some initial thoughts:

d4 = outpost (research station/mining operation/patrol station/terraforming complex…)
d6 = settlement (space station/trading post/colony/military base…)
d8 = civilization (well-populated planet/military HQ/independent orbital colony…)
d10 = natural resource, possibly difficult to navigate safely (asteroid field/nebula/mineral-rich planetoid…)
d12 = navigational hazard impassable to most, dangerous to the rest (black hole/supernova/hyperspace distortion…)
d20 = point of interest (unexplored planet/disputed territory/precursor hulk…)

Using colour association should make it fairly easy to figure out which subtype each feature is; otherwise I’d need a separate chart…

…unless I used my Race for the Galaxy deck! Hmm…

Ok, I’ll try to stop now, before the floor of my flat turns into a detailed map of a fictional galaxy.

I’d like to hear about other people’s mods, though!

#13 Comment By MuadMouse On March 18, 2013 @ 9:16 pm

So much for stopping.

I tried out the space opera variant, and I think it could use some tweaking.

Firstly, having mining operations in the d4 category didn’t work very well – they made much more sense as parts of resources (d10s) wherever they seemed reasonable.

Secondly, I should have left the word “natural” out of the d10 category; debris fields and abandoned settlements make for great salvage, not mention interesting adventure!

Thirdly, it seems a couple of the d20s could have been changed into d6s. Space opera tends to be more urban than your basic D&D-esque fantasy setting, and has more readily available adventure seeds in population centres. I think another d8 would have added some interesting power dynamics to the map. As it is, though, the default dice conjured up a fascinating piece of frontier space.

My favourite bit is the colony of Mentor’s Folly (a d6 from the Hero Quest board game, in whose Finnish edition ‘Mentor’ was left amusingly untranslated) which is being evacuated because the neighbouring star, Crimson Guardian (6 on a blood red marble d12, and I was into G.I.Joe as a kid) went nova millennia ahead of schedule for mysterious reasons (thanks to a friend for that idea!). A hastily organised military fleet base (a WH40k d6 that came up a 1, indicated by an Imperial Eagle) assists in their evacuation to the refugee camps dubbed Mentor’s Haven (2 on a d4 the same colour as the nova). To add insult to injury, pirates (2 on a red d20) have been hitting the convoys.

Meanwhile, on the far side of the region, an STL flotilla of generation ships (a scatter die indicating a hit) is approaching…

This is quickly turning into a campaign wiki entry, but I wanted to include it here to illustrate the creative synergy a clump of dice in the corner of a hex grid can have.

#14 Comment By Martin Ralya On March 19, 2013 @ 12:05 pm

That synergy/magic is why I like leaving the weird stuff mostly alone and forcing myself to come up with a fun explanation for it.

#15 Comment By Suspense On March 18, 2013 @ 10:45 pm

My problem is that I have this unreasonable need to define at least a large chunk of the world (at least a continent) in broad strokes before I can get down to setting out even simple details. The other part of my problem is that I need for that continent to look somewhat reasonable. I just used a variation of this method to get a nicely-shaped continent with reasonable mountain ranges and forests in just a few minutes. So thanks for that!

I run my games on a sheet of plexiglass (perfect dry-erase surface for cheap!) over a blank grid map. I threw a couple handfuls of dice on the map. For each die, I put dots in the indicated number of “nearest” squares to that die using a dry erase marker. Take all the dice off and draw an outline around the dotted regions. These are islands and continents. Gaps in the middle can be lakes. If you want a quick version, use the number of dots in each square as elevation, so plains are one or two dots, mountains are several dots, and put hills in between.

I didn’t really like the shape of mountain ranges that gave me, so I erased all the dots and threw more dice on the table (fewer than the first time.) Draw dots for these again, but draw them more in rough lines or however you want your mountains shaped. Draw the mountains in, erase the dots, and throw down one more time. These last dice are vegetation. No dice would be deserts, lots of dice are forests. I suppose you could do another roll for settlements and dungeons as well. I didn’t get that far because I prefer to grow those organically from the terrain.

One of the great things about a system like this is how flexible and organic it can be. Want an island chain? Use mostly smaller dice like d4s on the first roll. For a desert with scattered oases, use lower dice for the vegetation roll.

#16 Comment By MuadMouse On March 19, 2013 @ 1:03 am

Sounds neat! I may have to break out my flip-mat and try that out.

What I love most about these drop maps is that the basic method works regardless of scale, from galaxies to dungeons (of course you could further and map out the distribution of litter on the floor of a room, but I hope no one ever finds that necessary).

I like your idea of rolling for vegetation. This would help in plotting waterways.

Speaking of which, it occurred to me that you could generate waterways (at least navigable ones) by adding some d12s after all the settlements have been placed: roll them onto the grid, with the dice locations marking a defining feature of that body of water (a spring, a delta, a lake, a ford, a bridge with trolls underneath), while the number indicates for how many hexes the river remains navigable from that point. The terrain features already in place should make plotting the river’s course simple enough. I tried this out on my fantasy map with three dice, and am quite happy with the results.

It’d be nice to hear what symbols other people use for their maps. Yours seems straightforward and simple, which I like. For my fantasy map I drew a number of icons (trees for forests, peaks for mountains) in the hex equal to the result of the die.

#17 Comment By Martin Ralya On March 19, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

Oooh, macro-scale is a great idea.

You could even flex this to cover national borders, hotspots, and the like.

#18 Comment By randite On March 23, 2013 @ 12:58 am

Yay! I made a micro-setting and it was as awesome-sauce as I expected.

Details can be found here >>>>> [2]

Thanks Martin. Inspired/inspiring stuff.

#19 Comment By Martin Ralya On March 23, 2013 @ 8:57 am

This came out well, randite! I dig it.

#20 Comment By Rob Abrazado On December 30, 2013 @ 9:07 am

Glad this came up again on the Best of 2013. I didn’t have a chance to try it out before, but am pretty excited about giving it a shot now! 🙂