One of my biggest challenges as a Dungeon Master with no talent for the visual arts is mapmaking. There are many ways around this particular hurdle, today I’d like to take a close look at one I discovered recently- Inkarnate.
Now, you may be thinking, “All artists tend to say they’re bad artists, this guy is probably a lot better than he thinks!” Let me put that thought to rest here:
Yeah. MS Paint. Took me AN HOUR. Green speech bubbles for trees is a trick I’ve been using for years, and it’s probably the first map I’ve ever done where one of my players didn’t manage to find a dick in it somewhere. So when a friend passed me the link to Inkarnate, I was thinking, I’m sure it’s a great tool, but for me I probably won’t be able to do much with it.
But I was dead wrong. Even using the free version (yes, the basic app is free to use, but more on that later), I was able to make something that actually looked passable. The following was an attempt to do the same awful map using this tool:
So, in short, even with absolutely no skill, you can make something pretty decent, and if you’re actually good at maps, I’ve seen some pretty fantastic stuff make its way onto their facebook page. But I’m not here to sell the app, just to tell you what you’d be in for if you try it out yourself.
There’s two ways to use the app – free or subscribed. The “Cheap” option is about 25 US$ a year for subscription – as much as it bugs me when things don’t have a 1-off purchase option, they probably need to cover ongoing server maintenance or something, so I understand it. That said, the free option is what I used, and for a hobbyist or a DM on a budget, it’s got enough to make some basic maps look pretty decent.
The difference between the free and paid plans seem pretty heavy – the paid plan allows for maps about 4x the size and has about 5x the amount of assets available. These assets are a big part of why I’ve enjoyed using this so far:
Ease of use
The thing that usually makes me hesitant to use any program is the fear that I won’t know what I’m doing. As a professional app developer, I’m usually extremely critical of UIs. I can honestly say I enjoyed using this tool – The toolbar sits on the left, with options for each tool on the top, in a way that’s unobtrusive. There’s also nice theme-relevant icons – and a mouse-over does bring up a label that actually says what it does in case the icons aren’t clear, along with hotkeys.
With each tool, it doesn’t offer much explanation of what it is, but there aren’t any hidden secrets – the things that aren’t self-explanatory just by looking can be worked with one or two quick clicks.
Different map types
The gallery on their home page shows the tool being used for three types of maps:
World/region maps: (This is the sort of map that I as a DM, really have the most use for – the physical layout of a city usually falls to the wayside during gameplay unless it becomes important to chases/underground shortcuts/intercept missions/being in view of certain events), and between the fancy texts and some of the icons available, it’s very easy to portray different types of locations (Cities, mountains, forests, keeps, monasteries, etc) to flesh out your world enough to give your players a real feel for the region or world that they’re in.
City/small scale maps: While it’s true that the actual street layout of a town tends to fall to the wayside during actual gameplay, a good map is still a very powerful way to lend your players a good first-impression of a town. This is where the free version of the app starts falling short – the available assets are veery much geared toward the world view, and I was only really able to make my town map sort of work because my campaign is set in a sci-fi setting, and no fantasy house would have fit the design of the buildings in Manka Town anyway. That said, with some creativity, it should be possible to at least portray the layout of your town with it, certainly better than you could in MS paint. The paid version does seem to have some great assets for it, and I’ve been impressed by some of the featured maps, but as a DM on a budget (at time of writing, I have ZAR-3, or -0.16£, to my name) I was happy to do what I could with the free one.
Scene maps: As a non-artist, I wouldn’t even try it. The scenes I’ve seen are gorgeous, and the tools look like they work in much the same way, but these kinds of scenes, as calling them maps at this point is a stretch, are the most visual of the lot. If you’re trying to cook something up quickly, and don’t have a strong artistic inclination, this might be the point to stop and rely on storytelling for your cave entrances, or mountain keeps, or shipwreck islands (to quote one of the featured pieces on the app). If you have a bit of time to get it looking good, or if you do have a bit of artistic vision, or even know exactly how you want it to look, then the tool definitely can work in your favour. It’s important to note here, that none of the tools that are geared toward this kind of scene are available on the free version of the app.
The app is seemingly run by two people – and they’re fairly active on social media with competitions and featured works, the community also seems busy, so it shouldn’t be difficult to find people to discuss ideas with or ask about any particular questions you may have. I did notice that I wasn’t able to post directly to their page, which was a bit frustrating for that aspect, and writing on a Saturday, I wasn’t able to get in touch with the page owners either. [edit: MATI got a hold of me first thing Monday, and was the single most helpful page admin I’ve ever spoken to] Either way, their wall is plastered with some really great works, and even if you don’t have an interest in participating in the community, I’d strongly recommend checking out the /r for inspiration with some good looking maps.
The tool has existed since about 2012 and is apparently still undergoing regular updates – if this keeps up then using the app means that it will continue to have more features added over time, which is always nice on any tool in any context.
- Many assets available (especially on paid version)
- Has created some gorgeous maps, which can be seen online
- Extremely easy to use
- Has free version
- Subscription only for paid
- Maximum map size and fixed canvas shape can be limiting
As far as tools for maps go, I’m definitely not done looking for the perfect tool for me, but I haven’t yet found one that I’ve enjoyed using as much as Inkarnate. It’s easy to learn, easy to use, and for anything I can’t do with it, I can always download my maps and do the rest with something like photoshop – though so far, it’s done everything I’ve wanted it to do.
Have any D&D related tools you want us to look at? Have any stories about your experience with Inkarnate or similar tools? Let us know below!