Vector fantasy map

Inkscape fantasy map making tutorial part 5 - Planning the geographical features on your map 

This post is the fifth part of a tutorial series that teaches how to create fantasy maps in Inkscape. In this part, we're going to spend a short time planning the location of various features of the map, including mountains, rivers and forests.

Here are the other sections of the tutorial.

Now onto Part Five!


We're going to take a brief pause before we dive into creating our mountains, rivers, forests and settlements. It's important to give some thought on where you're going to place these features, and that you don't just plonk them down anywhere!

There are many help articles about this topic, written by people far more knowledgeable than me, so it's worthwhile doing a little research before you start. But here are a few things to consider...

  • What's the scale of the map (how large or small an area are you mapping?) A small island that's a mile wide is not going to have massive mountains chains. Nor is it likely to have a large number of towns/cities (at least, not in medieval fantasy-type settings!)
  • I'm suggesting colours to use for this map, but when you come to make your own, think about the colour palette you'd like to use, and how it relates to the geography of the area (are you mapping somewhere lush and tropical, or somewhere in the tundra?) Also, do you want to create an 'olde worlde' map on faded parchment, or something a little more modern? All of these factors should influence your colour choices.
  • What's the population of the area (crowded or sparse?) How many villages, towns, and cities do you need? How do these people feed themselves? Where do they get fresh water?
  • What sort of trade do your islanders have among themselves and with their neighbours? Towns and cities often grow around ports, and where trading routes intersect.
  • Where are the defensible places? Villages and towns might develop near a castle, assuming there's fresh water and fertile land nearby.

There are numerous articles and books about this topic, and you can go as in-depth as you want. This tutorial is working on a simpler level, however. We just want to avoid making any obvious, jarring errors!

Let's create a layer called 'Plan' at the top of the layer stack.


Pick a dark grey fill colour and use the Bezier tool to draw a long-ish 'blob' for where your mountains will go. Mountains generally form 'chains', rather than being single isolated peaks, so I'd recommend drawing them with that in mind. There's a lot goes into the geology of mountains, but that's not the focus of this tutorial, so I'm going with a main mountain chain along the 'backbone' of my island. I'll create a few separate hilly areas in a lighter grey colour too.

blobs to depict where the mountains and hills will be on the map
Fig 1: A few rough blobs to indicate where the mountains and hills will be positioned


Think about your rivers now. Rivers always flow from high ground toward the coast, so the source of your rivers will be found in the mountains or hilly areas. Rivers 'join'. They don't 'split'. To clarify: river systems develop like a tree. The trunk area at the bottom is where the river flows out to sea. At the other end, we have tributaries (branches) that join and get wider as they get closer to the trunk. Rivers won't randomly split in two in the middle of a plain, leading to two outlets at the coast. (Deltas may give the impression of this, but they're not really splitting. It's the same river divided into channels by built-up sediment.) Also, rivers won't flow from one side of an island/continent to the other. Water always flows from high to low, not 'across'.

Here's an example, using a (slightly modified) creation from Inkscape's wonderful 'Random Tree' tool (Extensions > Render > Random Tree). Do you see how the 'branches' join as they get closer to the 'trunk'? I'm not suggesting you create rivers as complex as shown here, but this is a perfect example of how river systems generally work.

an illustration from Inkscape's Random Tree generation tool
Fig 2: Inkscape's random tree tool, which also works as a nice example of a river system

So, grab your Bezier tool, set a blue stroke colour, and draw some zig-zagging rivers from the mountain and hilly areas to the coastline. Don't worry about creating smooth curves at this stage. Just zig-zag all the way to the coasts. Have some of your rivers connect as they flow down from the mountains. How many rivers you create is up to you. Depending on the scale of map, not all rivers would show, so you have some flexibility. I'd recommend at least half a dozen however. Here's my sketch so far.

an illustration of where the rivers will go on the map
Fig 3: Planning where the rivers will go, all flowing from high ground to the coast


The final thing we're going to plan for at this stage is our forests. We want a few forest areas, perhaps some close to our settlements, as islanders need timber for building, fires etc. So pick a green colour and draw another couple of blobs for your main forest areas. We can easily add small woods later, so don't worry about those right now. Just lay down a couple of large forests.

Here's my final plan.

blobs showing the forest locations on the map
Fig 4: The locations of the main forests on our island map

Remember, these layout plans are not set in stone, and you can change them as you further develop your map. It is useful, however, to have a rough idea before you begin.

Moving on

We're now ready to start work on the rest of the map. Before we do so, lock the 'Plan' layer and set its opacity to somewhere around 10 - 15%. We want to be able to see the plan, but don't want it to overwhelm. With that done, save your work and move on to the next part.


In this section, we created a layout for the main geographical features on the map. In Part Six, we'll begin the mountains.