Maps are a huge part of engaging with most tabletop roleplaying games. They orient players and their characters to a shared, imagined space. Maps bring the fantasy world much nearer to our own. By giving a sense of scale and direction, they are indispensable tools at the table.
When first building your own world for Dungeons and Dragons, it makes sense to know what it looks like. Ursula K LeGuin took this approach when writing the beloved Earthsea books, first creating the massive map of the island-covered world and then filling in the story.
I mentioned in How to Increase Engagement that the very first map I drew of our homebrew Dungeons and Dragons world was drawn in a composition notebook. I had dreamed up a little starting region with a few—admittedly stereotypical—locations and laid them out.
As it expanded and became rich with lore and personality, I needed a better tool to convey not only the geography, but the impression of the world. That’s when I found Inkarnate.
What It Is.
Inkarnate is a web-based cartography toolset designed with users of all ability levels in mind. With Inkarnate, pros and amateurs (like yours truly) can quickly and easily create beautiful maps of their fantasy worlds.
It is all hosted online and usable from any browser, which is awesome because if you have an internet connection, then you can be creating new maps or adding to and tweaking existing ones.
The team also has plans for expanding the functionality of Inkarnate to support battlemaps for combat encounters in the future, as well as additional annotation and worldbuilding tools.
They’re also active on social media and are developing new trainings and tips all the time!
What It Does.
After you sign up for the service and click to create your first map, you will be greeted with a blank, blue canvas. With Inkarnate, you first paint land into the ocean. This unique method simplifies the concept of layers, making it easy for busy DMs to just jump in and get to the business of creation.
After you have land down, you can color it to reflect different biomes or political regions. I like to use brushes to paint in mountain ranges, hills, villages, or a number of other details. And then you can finish off your map with their handy text tool, labeling important locations and naming the region.
WASD20 makes some nice videos about D&D in general and map-making tools specifically. I included the video below to show what using Inkarnate looks like.
Free vs. Paid
When you get started, you will have the option between trying out the free version or opting into the pro version.
With the free version, you can make maps as large as 1024 by 768 pixels. You also get access to over one hundred art assets to use in the program such as mountains, buildings, trees, etc. The maps you create must be for personal use only.
With the pro version, you unlock access to hundreds more assets, much bigger maps (2048 by 1536), and you can use the maps you create in commercial products. There are two options for purchasing the pro version. You can do $5 per month, or you can save a bunch of money by paying $25 for the year.
Why We Went Pro (And Why You Should Too)
We jumped on the Inkarnate train a couple years ago. The expanded access to more assets and increased level of detail afforded by the larger size made Pro a clear choice for me.
It wasn’t until we launched this site and began publishing our own adventures on DM’s Guild that I realized what a huge deal it was that we could make something with their toolset for commercial use. Since then, Inkarnate maps have been featured in Cupid’s Sparrow, Second Glance, and Third Time’s the Charm.
For creators of TTRPG content, Inkarnate makes it easy to bring the vision of our world to the people playing our games.
Additionally, the Inkarnate team is constantly expanding, improving, and streamlining their toolset. The additional assets alone made Pro worth it to us, but seeing that the team is always pushing to make their tool even better make us proud to fund their endeavor.
Why We Love It.
Ease of Use
As someone who had zero experience creating maps for use in tabletop roleplaying games, when I set out to bring the world of our one-on-one D&D game to life, I didn’t know where to start. There are other map-making tools out there and some people are incredibly good with Photoshop, but for someone coming in with no experience and not wanting to commit off the bat to a paid app like Wondercraft, Inkarnate was a great option.
Their user interface is intuitive. Anyone growing up messing around with MS Paint or the phenomenal Kid Pix (pausing here for a second for nostalgia overload… ok, I’m back) will feel comfortable navigating Inkarnate. The UI only gives you what you need, and scaling, rotating, or flipping assets is a breeze. The point and paint concept means that anyone can make something gorgeous.
We also love the hand drawn look of the assets. They are all designed with a complimentary aesthetic, so you do not need to fret about continuity between region and world maps. They offer a huge number of detailed culture/race specific buildings, ruins, other fantasy locations.
Your scary wastelands controlled by orcs will look very different than your peaceful elven forests, but they’ll still look like they were mapped by the same intensely talented cartographer. With the Pro version, these are expanded even more.
Inkarnate makes it easy to scale things as well. The highly detailed assets look great super close up or from far away, meaning that you can zoom in to map a very specific scene, or you can zoom all the way out to map out a massive open world.
Inkarnate is a great tool in your DM toolbox as is, but the team has awesome plans for expanding the functionality of Inkarnate Worlds in the future to bring even more good stuff to your tabletop. Check out the free version of their terrific map maker first and when you fall in love with it like we have, switch to the pro version. (Or, if you’re excited and have the $25, just start with the pro!)
Also, we want to know how you make your world maps! Send us a tweet, or tell us about your map-making tips below in the comments.
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