Map-Making Pitfalls

Kelvin Kay, user:kkmd Category:Columbia River ...
Kelvin Kay, user:kkmd Category:Columbia River Gorge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the joys of creating a fantasy world is making your own maps. As discussed in Worldbuilding is not Mapmaking, even though maps aren’t the most important part of fantasy worldbuilding, they are iconic and our reaction, both as creators and readers, is visceral: maps are a portal into a wonderful place. They make foreign places seem real. A well-drawn map, like a well-executed cover, grabs us.

However, as with writing where one needs to watch for too many ‘shows’, flat dialogue, uninteresting characters, etc., there are pitfalls to map-making that can scream amateur and other aspects, while accepted in the genre, might be places where you could make your maps more distinctive. Here’s a list of a few I’ve come across.

Compass Point Rivers:

This is a surprisingly common feature for those making their first maps: they have their main rivers run north-south and their tributaries run east-west. While it is certainly possible and in some story might go to the core of the setting (e.g. rivers run this way because the world is built on top of a giant computer laid out in a grid), this is a rather rigid arrangement. Aesthetically, it looks forced or careless. Geographically, while many rivers in the United States tend to run north to south (Hudson, Colorado, Mississippi), many others do not (Willamette, Columbia). And if you look farther than North America, you see plenty of other examples.


Between the Nile and a North American bias for many readers, it is easy to see where this comes from. Geologically, this happens because both the Americas and Africa are moving part from each other on a east-west axis (the mid-Atlantic ridge) and mountains tend to form perpendicular to the expansion. Since rivers generally go around mountain chains, you generally get the rivers parallel to the mountains. Exceptions exist, though, such as the Columbia River, which cuts right through the Cascade mountains in the spectacular Columbia River Gorge.

In general, rivers run downhill. Or put another way, they move away from your mountains. Whether you start with the mountains and add the rivers or vice versa, is a matter of style and what your story demands. For instance, if you want your story to occur in a land where the kingdoms abut each other in a line, you might want to create two mountain chains and put the kingdoms in between. Naturally, there would be rivers draining the resulting valleys, with tributaries in the mountains and probably one or possibly two major rivers between the mountains. The mountains could be mostly straight but nothing says you can’t put some kinks into their general run, which would give you more interesting rivers to match. Or you could start with the rivers and add the necessary hills and mountains as head-waters.

Downstream Forks

This one puzzles me because I can’t think of any real-world examples of this yet it shows up in maps fairly often. It’s not braiding in a meandering river or delta that I’m referring to but a fork in a river that causes it to discharge into two different bodies of water. For example, imagine if the Mississippi split in St. Louis, with part continuing on to the Gulf and the other part heading east to the Atlantic. Absent magic, this can’t happen, at least not for very long. To me, it tells me the mapmaker really doesn’t have much of a sense for geography, which rightly or wrongly, makes me question the writer’s ability to deliver a good story.

There could be a short-lived condition where a body of water drains two different ways but it wouldn’t take very long for one of the egress points to cut deeper than the other. It’s inherently unstable. Even in the exceptions noted above where it does occur (deltas and braided rivers) it is unstable. The water channels are constantly shifting about over the course of just decades. As an example, if you are wondering why Vicksburg was so important during the Civil War, don’t look at modern maps to figure it out: the river has moved quite a bit since then.

Of course, one of the ‘foundation’ techniques of world building is to imagine how something that shouldn’t happen could actually be. Magic solves many problems: you could have a god or water spirit or college of mages who ensure the fork remains stable. Maybe this ‘unnatural’ splitting of waters is the core of your story: long ago the waters were split to flow to three different lands, maintained by a water spirit. But that spirit has disappeared and the heroes must intervene to assure that their lands do not run dry. If you do this, though, best to make sure that something on the map calls out this fork as special so that the casual reader flipping through the book knows you put the fork there on purpose. For instance, put a star there and label it “Temple of the Water Spirit”.

Note that this critique applies to lakes as much as a simple downstream fork in the river. The lake example might actually be more common on maps: it’s just as hard to have a lake with multiple egresses: sooner or later one outlet will erode lower than the other and become the only outlet.

On the other hand, at least some of the US Great Lakes once drained through the Mississippi River. For some period of time, they must have drained through both the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi. Though it probably wasn’t very long, it might have been for a few generations. But unless you have a really good story reason for multiple outlets from a body of water, best to avoid it because it looks amateurish.

Forest-Mountain Gaps

This one you see even with our beloved Middle Earth: it is common to draw the forest distinct from the mountains, with a gap between them. This is not usually the case on earth because between forest and mountains, there isn’t generally a good reason for the trees to peter out. Trees actually tend to do pretty well in mountains because as the air rises over the mountains, it cools, dropping the dew point, resulting in rain. Even in deserts, you find some trees in the mountains. As an example: the Tularosa Basin in New Mexico is one of the harshest deserts in the US yet it is bordered by the fairly lush Sacramento mountains. Even the Organ mountains on the other side manage some trees, although you wouldn’t call it forested.

Mountains don’t generally form a barrier to an existing forest. The forest runs right up into the mountains. The trees may change to suit a colder or wetter climate higher up but there isn’t usually a gap. A really good example of this is the hike to Rockpile Lake from the east side of the Cascades in Oregon, where over the course only six miles, you go from dry Ponderosa pine to firs, to lichen-draped spruce and finally hemlock at the tree-line.

Mountains do form rain shadows, of course. There are almost always prevailing wind directions in a region with the mountains catching the rain on non-lee side. The lee side of the mountain chain is often dry, sometimes desert dry. How many of you realize that Oregon is mostly near-desert: it’s only the rainy west side of the cascades that are wet? So it is perfectly reasonable to have non-forested lands on one side of a mountain chain but these dry-lands tend to extend for hundreds of miles beyond the mountains, as in Oregon (until the next rain catcher: the Rocky Mountains) or the Great Plains of the US Midwest (once called the “Great American Desert” believe it or not.)

What you don’t tend to find, over short distances, are mountains then a bit of grassland, then forest, then a bit more grassland, then mountains. It’s forest -> wooded mountain slopes -> drier mountain slopes -> drier lowlands, which might be too dry for more forest.

Why do mapmakers put gaps between forest and mountain? Convenience: it’s harder to draw the forests running into the mountains. This is true if you are doing your map freehand and it is just as true if you are using something like Campaign cartographer where you might have a limited number of symbols that mix mountains and trees (if you have any at all to work with).

Missing Forests

Forests may be a pain to draw but there is usually too little forest on most fantasy maps. This is because most fantasy settings are in a place with European-like climate and populations levels akin to early Middle Ages (or less in a world overrun with goblins and dragons). Granted, Iron Age civilizations did cut down a lot of forest land but it was nothing as severe as what you see in modern Europe or much of the Eastern US. Without human intervention, the natural state of reasonably well-watered land is forest. Below a certain rainfall you’ll get grasslands as in the Russian steppes or the African Savannah but add a bit more rain and you get vast forests. Almost all of England used to be forested. Same for most of mainland Europe or the east side of the Mississippi, places where today you find farmland with just a few forest islands.

Such scarcity of forests isn’t natural. It takes a lot of humans with reasonably advanced technology to keep the forest at bay. If we suddenly disappeared, it would all return to forest in less than a century. In most fantasy settings, there aren’t a lot of ‘civilized’ people in the world. Middle Earth is particularly sparsely inhabited, as far as I can tell: it would probably be more appropriate for the Shire to be an island in a vast forest than a green gem in a wasteland.

Worlds where humans aren’t dominate, where there are the perils of barbarian races or too many monsters for them to spread out like we did on earth, those worlds would probably have much more forest. Fields and farmlands would be little islands in a vast expanse of trees. And those dark woods would seem alien and creepy: you can get a sense of how people used to view forests from faerie tales. There’s a reason why Hansel and Gretel found a witch in the deep woods: it was a forbidden place beyond the pale.

As with the gap between mountains and forest, the tedium of drawing (or plopping down forest symbols) is one reason why there tend to be too few forests on maps. But probably a bigger reason is that we have been trained by earlier fantasy maps and by modern landscapes to expect an unforested world where the opposite is the natural order of things.

Missing Swamps

Thanks to a thousand years of land reclamation projects, we don’t tend to realize that much low-lying land used to be swampy. Glastonbury Tor used to sit in the middle of fens, not farmland. Same for east Anglia, much of the Lowlands, parts of Poland. A combination of dykes and gates to drain low land at low tide or canals to drain a higher marsh have been used over the centuries to reduce or eliminate what used to be large swampy tracks. These were never as vast as the primeval forests but they were huge, the places where kings on the run used to hide out. In fantasy settings, they are places where nature (or monsters) rule.

Swamps and marshes tend to be omitted out of oversight: large ones are less common in our modern world so we forget to add them to our fantasy world.

Curiously, if mankind disappeared, most of the swamps wouldn’t come back. Sea-dykes would rupture and flood lands at sea level but otherwise, what was once swamp would probably stay dry: the canals remain to drain them and centuries of farm use have raised the level of the land to where it might not get so soggy again, even without human intervention.

Missing People

It is perfectly reasonable to have empty fantasy worlds. Populous orc tribes, dragons, ogres, giants, all these things could exert enough pressure on the civilized peoples that they cannot spread-out over nearly ever biome as humans have on earth. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with having a kingdom here and another there, a wilderness in between.

The trouble arises when your setting presupposes lots of contact with other peoples. Take the Gyre from the Thomas Covenant series. I haven’t read these books in 25 years so I’m a little hazy but I remember at the time being quite annoyed with the Gyre: it’s a large trading city at the edge of a desert. It had a harbor packed with ships from all over. These ships must have brought food because, unlike Carthage or Alexandria, there was no fertile hinterland to feed them (I think). But regardless of a hinterland, where were these other lands that the Gyre traded with? The Thomas Covenant world felt rather empty to me with implied “large populations elsewhere” that were never shown. It all felt rather sloppy.

Empty worlds are fine but the interactions the characters experience should be appropriate. For instance, there might still be trade (something like the old silk road linking civilizations across a lot of emptier space) but it would not be high volume and the distant lands would be little known and have little influence on each other. China never went to war with Europe. Neither knew much about the other, even after Marco Polo.

In your world, if you have small kingdoms separated by large wilderness, they won’t have much reason to fight with each other or even have much to do with each other. This can actually be a boon for the writer: you don’t need to flesh out the far away places until your heroes get there. But it also means you probably shouldn’t have powerful merchant families running the show.

Tolkien gets some of this right in Middle Earth: Rohan is alien to all but a few of the more traveled folk of Gondor. Lothlorien is entirely isolated, as is the Shire. But other parts don’t really ring right for me. Laketown trades with “people to the south” but on the maps there doesn’t really seem to be anyone close enough to justify such a trade oriented settlement. And while I love the imagery of Rohan and the Rohirrim, they are modeled on iron age Germanic tribes whose culture and trappings arose from tribes rubbing shoulders with other tribes. It doesn’t feel right to me for something exactly like a Germanic tribe to arise in isolation without warfare with other tribes to help shape it.


As with many tropes, most of the items above seem to be accepted by fantasy readers. They aren’t reading your opus for your ability to model trade routes in a world ravaged by dragons. And while a few do stick out as probably something better avoided (all north-south rivers, for instance), most of the rest can be overlooked because no one seems to be particularly disturbed by them. But as with momentum in teleporters or energy density in laser weapons, you can use an awareness of these elements to make your map stand apart from the countless fantasy maps we’ve all seen.


12 thoughts on “Map-Making Pitfalls

  1. Good article. Oversight is certainly a big reason for all sorts of things as many don’t think about them, or it doesn’t occur to them, though your blog will help that.

    My maps are often continent-size views so I don’t always include everything, including smaller forests. A more regional map would likely show things my continent-size maps don’t. I’m not sure what scale map your article addresses, if aimed at any in particular.

    I suspect another reason people don’t have forest everywhere is that it makes the map a bit less interesting, as it seems like one giant forest. I have a “great forest” on one continent and I sometimes think I should’ve done more with the land as it’s the most boring area of my map.

    Prairies/grasslands are huge areas, like the US mid-West, without forests; I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure we didn’t deforest them. Do you have any comments about that?

  2. You’ve made some nice points. The river and forest ones have often left me scratching my head. The lack of people is another one that comes up pretty often. Even medieval and classical era Europe had lots of town, villages and settlements in all but the most inhospitable areas. There weren’t many places outside high mountains or harsh deserts where you could travel more than a day or two (on foot) without encountering some kind of settlement unless you were trying to avoid them. I’d guess fantasy writers do this because they want people to go on long journeys and camp in the woods and be far from help when bad things happen. It adds an element of tension when a character has a suppurating wound, and he/she must get to a town before it turns to blood poisoning (and said town is week away). I suppose a world that’s recently been ravaged by a plague or some kind of natural or magical catastrophe or scourge might have lots of empty land, or a continent that’s recently been discovered and colonized.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I agree humans tend to exploit most land. Before the Black Death, population levels had rison to the point were even very marginal land was in use. In a fantasy setting, though, one could imagine some of the fantasy elements keeping humans out of many areas.

      I find the tension between wilds and settled areas one of the more awkward aspects of most D&D settings. Since it is a game and players want to fight monsters, such creatures are generally never very far away but if there really were enough large, dangerous monsters for players to readily find them, it would seem to me that much of the world would not be inhabitable.

      Farming civilizations conquered hunter-gatherers mostly because farmer allowed much higher population density for the same area, population that could be applied to overwhelm the hunter-gatherers (and in relatively recent times, technological advantages, too, but these were not so significant in the iron age and earlier.) If the wilds were inhabited by creatures whose powers (fire breathing) or strength (ogres, etc.) compensated for human numbers, humans would probably not overrun the world as we did on earth.

  3. It is true that vast stretches of the mid-West in the U.S. were grasslands/prairies, but it is also true that much of the east, the Rocky’s, and just about every mountain range was covered with trees trees trees trees and more trees. So, while I agree that randyellefson has a point with the grasslands, Mark does have a point about there just not being enough forests on most fantasy maps.

    I’m a fire ecologist by education, and something that folks just don’t realize is how regularly a non-human dominated landscape burns. So, while you are right that forests would rule a non-populated landscape, so too would the ecological processes that shape those forests. Fire would/could create more open forests and even treeless areas (where shrubs and grasses would dominate until sufficient time passed for trees to reclaim the land).

    Good post.

    1. Thanks!

      Very true that the forests would be more dynamic due to fire and other catastrophes. But it seems that natural fires in mature forest tend to be not quite so catastrophic (?). My understanding was, for instance, that a fire in a mature Ponderosa fire would kill the undergrowth but leave the trees intact in most cases.

      On the other hand, it was a bit of a surprise for me to read that old growth is considered to be around 200 years or old. By that age, a forest looks pretty untouched by humans. Sure, there can be places with much older trees but natural events do cause renewal in the forest. Fire is one method but storms can cause a lot of blow-down. While reading a book on the Tri-State Tornado (, I was intrigued to see mention of a similar path of destruction through the forests in the same region known from the 1800s: before the area was settled and the forests mostly cleared, there was another tornado of similar size and destructiveness that knocked down a path of trees miles wide in places and hundreds of miles long. Can you imagine being an earlier settler to that area and seeing so much deadfall? Might have looked to you like god ran his finger through the forest.

      Similarly, on the Oregon coast near Cannon Beach, at Ecola State park (named for a whale carcass Lewis and Clark investigated there), there’s a great example of a midden dissected by beach erosion at a Native American campsite. On the slope above it is a stand of beautiful, old spruce. It used to imagine that was what the place looked like when L&C visited but it turns out that not long before they visited, there was a landslide that wiped out the entire slope. The trees are grew up after their visit. No doubt other places on the coast did look like that forest but not that particular patch. Things happen, stuff grows back. Even the Mt St Helens blast zone is starting to green up again.

      1. Correct on all your points.

        But just a clarification on the intensity of burns: while the really devastating ones had been rare, they did happen. Not as often as today (long-time fire suppression has altered the landscape such that we have more fuel available for burning during extreme weather conditions), for sure, but it did happen. As you said, there are other reasons forest die. Insect epidemics can kill vast swaths of forest, leaving dead, standing trees ripe for an intense wildfire when the conditions are right.

        And I forgot about tornadoes! That must have been an amazing sight and, years after the weather event, I wonder what would happened to all that (now dry) wood when a low-intensity burn in a nearby untouched forest got to it – I’m sure it burned up pretty good. So hot, in fact, it would have altered the soil and subsequent plants species that would propagate in that altered landscape.

        And, let’s not forget, some of the boreal forest *only* burn during extreme weather conditions, resulting in (very scary) crown fires.

        Given all that, natural fires burn fairly sporadically across a landscape and it would typically not have burned everything in its path.

        But…I digress…the point is, natural forests (along with the processes that shape them) would actually mean a pretty varied landscape *dominated* by trees. So, yeah, put them little tree symbols all over the map. 🙂

  4. I enjoyed your post, and regarding the Columbia River cutting through the Cascade Mountains, that only happened because of repeated Ice Age floods. I’m not sure where the Columbia River would have ended up, if not for the floods.

    1. Marc


      I think current consensus is that the river path pre-dates the floods but they certainly helped shape it. Those were spectacular floods with so much water going through there were hydrological dams 600 feet high.

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