On fantasy maps, we usually use an isometric perspective instead of a top-down perspective like most modern maps. This means that every ‘item’ on the map (an asset) is displayed as a drawing, more than just a functional feature to show where is what. So basically your whole map will be one big drawing with lots of miniature drawings inside. This can make a fantasy map very pleasant to look at (or unpleasant if you do it wrong) beside just giving practical information.
If you scale things more or less logically, your mountains will probably be the biggest assets on the map. And because those assets are little drawings, they are likely to be the most important assets that you’re placing. An individual tree on a map you probably won’t notice, but mountains can make or break it. This is one of the reasons why I pay extra attention to placing mountains, although it’s not the main reason.
Mountains are often the ‘eye-catcher’ on a map. Your eyes see mountains first, then the rest
The main reason why mountains are always the first thing I place on a map is because of geography. Almost every geographic and demographic feature is influenced by mountains:
- rivers often start in mountains
- mountains block winds or rain which can create dry areas (e.g. deserts) or wet areas (e.g. forests)
- mountains can make a kingdom isolated, a region less populated or trade and travel difficult
- mountain ranges ‘continuing’ in the ocean can lead to islands
Mountains give meaning and sense to the geography of your world
If you start drawing rivers and forests or placing your cities first, you will have a hard time getting realistic mountains. You will have to place them correctly according to the geographic features you already chose, making it more of a puzzle than the creation of a world.
If you are not sure how to place your mountains and get a believable, more or less realistic geography for your world, the best tip is to look at real maps! And don’t go hunting for those exceptions, but just take a map of a country you know well and look what’s happening. Follow rivers, look how mountains effect the surrounding land and how mountain ranges look in general. I know, your map is fantasy and doesn’t have to reflect reality, but it’s at least good to know in advance where your world differs from reality instead of having to come up with excuses afterwards.
Remaking the map of Britain and Ireland helped me get a better feel for mountains, rivers, forests and coastlines
Lesson learnt: place your mountains before placing any other things on your map