Players love maps.
This is one of those ubiquitous truths. If there is a player out there that doesn't love getting maps, it's because they aren't actually human. Don't scoff, I've heard stories about how Lizard-People who live in underground bases are infiltrating RPG gaming groups in an effort to take over the world's tabletop game economy.
OK, I don't know where I was going with that. Back to basics: players love maps.
A lot of GM's even love making maps. However... Making maps can be difficult. No, wait, let me re-phrase that, making maps that don't look like crap can be difficult. I've made my share of maps by hand and afterward I gave away my pencils and swore never to insult the art of map-making again. Yeah, really, it was that bad.
If you have the talent and skill to make great looking maps, more power to you and I'm very jealous.
For the rest of us, there are tools for helping get the crazy worlds out of our heads and into formats that can be shared without shame.Thank goodness for the Internet.
Thank goodness for the Internet.
Here are a few:
Inkarnate is fun. It's really best for large scale maps, like continents down to country sides, but it's super and fun for that. It super easy to get started on with no tutorial at all, which is good, because there doesn't seem to be one. The website is really sparse, just 3 tiny examples (see Westeros on the left there) and a beta sign-up. There isn't any selling going on and sign up is free and easy.
For functionality, it is kind of limited but makes up for with great features like texture blending and the ability to upload your own object and textures. It's FREE, easy and fun. Give it a shot.
Dungeon Painter - This is great fun. There are practically no barriers to getting started with Dungeon Painter; it's easy to use, it's online, it's free and you don't even have to register to use it. There is simply no reason not to try it out.
AutoREALM - Another free resource, this one is a downloadable GNU app. It's a vector-based drawing software designed with RPGs in mind. There are paid apps with more features but AutoREALM is really solid for designing castles, caves, cities, dungeons and more.
Hexographer - This app makes maps reminiscent of the old Greyhawk maps. There is a free version and a paid version, and both have a lot of great options. There are also sister-apps Dungeonographer for dungeon and building interior maps and Cityographer for city maps and auto-populating the buildings with residents and various details that are also very helpful. The paid version lets you import icons and images and other options.
I love free and the options above are awesome, but I have to admit that these paid offerings are really nice. If you really want to look good, you might want to invest a little bit.
Fractal Mapper from NBOS looks amazing at $34.95. It can be used to create beautiful full features globes, continent maps, and combat maps. One of my favorite features is the special effects you can apply. It's easy to add things like blurs, beveling, and textures to any image, much like you would in Photoshop or GIMP.
Also- I don't know if I've seen this anywhere else- you can add notes to the objects; both player notes and GM notes. Very cool feature. Need help thinking of names for your towns and such? It has a name generator called Inspiration Pad built right in.
This is a Windows-only app, so that is a definite downside to me. Sure, I
use both Windows and Mac and other platforms, but I prefer my Mac when I'm doing things like this.
All three of these pictures- Roadside Inn combat map, Continent map and globe- are all from Fractal Mapper.
Dundjinni - For $39.99 this app has a lot of features and a gallery of great examples, but I haven't tried it yet because the Mac version of the demo wasn't up to date enough for my laptop. I'm guessing the paid version is, but I'll wait until I hear back from support before taking that leap.
Campaign Cartographer 3 - CC3 makes really beautiful, realistic looking maps for $44.95. Take a look at their gallery for some great examples. I didn't really mess with this too much because there isn't a native Mac version and I didn't feel like doing the Windows-layer options to make it work. I might consider dropping it onto a windows machine in the future, but since my preference is my MacBook for most things... we'll see.
NOTE : All prices are correct at time of writing, and are subject to change by the developers. Additional paid add-ons may be necessary to get an outcome you're looking for. Check the individual website for more information.