The many hardcover adventures of D&D fifth edition are known for their stellar maps. Whether they’re packed with detail and color like Jared Blando’s, or old-school and easily legible like Dyson Logos’s, or lush and realistic like Mike Schley’s, you’re bound to find something you like in the broad diversity of D&D’s maps. I have my favorites, and I want to know yours, too. What are your favorite D&D maps?
As for mine, rather than making a simple Top 5 list—that seems a bit simple and clickbaity, doesn’t it?—I would instead like to talk about a few qualities that I think make for good maps, and show off a few maps that exemplify those qualities.
The best maps are those that a DM can easily redraw on a vinyl battlemat in 60 seconds. If you’re like me, and play your D&D games in person using minis and maps, then a map that you can’t replicate in about a minute is more trouble than it’s worth. Obviously, your mileage may vary—especially if you play digitally or if you prefer to play Theater of the Mind-style, dictating the features of locations to your players rather than drawing them.
Maps that are easily copyable are often made out of simple shapes, with clear and easily defined features. Simple circles, or square or rectangular rooms are best—a triangle is complex as I would go, though sometimes a hexagon is useful if you want to make your room broad but have trouble freehanding a circle. This comes with the added benefit of being visually striking. The simplicity of basic shapes often has a magical or grandiose quality that can lend an air of mysticism or dread to a map.
Mike Schley nailed this feeling with the map of Yester Hill from chapter 14 of Curse of Strahd, based on a sketch by Chris Perkins. Even though the oblong topography of the hill isn’t a perfect circle, it’s easily freehanded and its concentric appearance lends it an ominous atmosphere. Appropriate, given the sinister acts that transpired here.
Printability isn’t necessarily an artistic quality that a map can have—though it’s easier and cheaper to print black-and-white maps than it is to print color ones. Instead, I’m talking about how easy it is to acquire high-resolution images of maps from published adventures. Many adventure maps by Mike Schley and Jared Blando can be easily found online, and in truly absurd resolution. You’ll have to pay a bit to get access to these mega high-quality maps, rather than the lower-res images you’ll find on D&D Beyond or in your handcover books, but it’s worth the three-to-five bucks you’ll pay for the image file.
Schley and Blando’s maps make up the majority of maps from older D&D adventures from Hoard of the Dragon Queen through Tomb of Annihilation, as well as from boxed set products like D&D Essentials Kit and Acquisitions Incorporated. However, if you discover that you can’t find a map for available for purchase on the cartographer’s website, don’t despair. I’ve had success getting in touch with them directly, and asking to buy a digital copy over PayPal. Other notable cartographers who, as far as I know, don’t have an online storefront for their maps, include Jason Engle (you’ll recognize his Waterdeep city map, as well as maps from 4th edition D&D), and Robert Lazzaretti who has done maps for Tales from the Yawning Portal, as well as maps for classic 2nd edition adventures like Dead Gods.
Finally, one last tip: for a reason I don’t fully understand, the Dyson Logos-made dungeon maps from Ghosts of Saltmarsh can be downloaded in blisteringly high resolution straight from D&D Beyond. The map of the haunted house from Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, the first adventure in Ghosts of Saltmarsh, is huge. If you take a ruler to your computer screen, you’ll find that the image is large enough for its 5-foot squares are massive 1.5 inches wide. This large size will help you print maps straight from these files with no distortion at all, allowing you to make a beautiful black-and-white battlemat for your Saltmarsh campaign. You may have to do a little bit of image manipulation to make it print at the proper size, but shrinking images is always preferable to trying to upscale them. Dyson Logos’s black-and-white style is well-suited for printing, too, since eschewing color significantly lowers the cost of printing.
If you’re going to be playing D&D with maps and miniatures, you might as well lean into the tactical side of the game. I love the simplicity and speed that Theater of the Mind can provide, but I cut my teeth on 3rd edition D&D, and I’ve played strategy RPGs for most of my life. A map that allows players and DMs alike to make tactical decisions in the midst of combat is a map worth spending ten minutes drawing, in my book. The most tactically complex maps tend to have different types of terrain, obstacles that can be used for cover or to impede movement, and maybe even create interesting roleplay moments.
As such, tactically deep maps tend to be detailed. Sometimes excessively so, making it challenging to draw them quickly at the table. This makes it best to get these maps in the form of poster maps or in high enough resolution that they can be printed easily. Fortunately, Mike Schley is the king of tactically engaging maps, and he makes just about every map he’s ever created available for purchase on his website. Of his many maps, Schley’s work from Tomb of Annihilation always stands out to me, specifically the varied and densely detailed Jahaka Anchorage from chapter 2 of that adventure.
Jason Engle is also a master of the tactical map—no surprises there, as many of his maps featured prominently in the tactically dense adventures of 4th edition D&D! These maps aren’t associated with any fifth edition adventures, but Wizards of the Coast is printing them as beautiful, full-color poster in the “Tactical Maps Reincarnated” map folio. You can even get them as digital images on D&D Beyond, if you prefer to play digitally. Also, the DMs Guild Adepts (myself included!) wrote a book that gives every map in that package four distinct encounters, each one chock-full of monsters, magic items, and story seeds. If you’re looking for some adventures to accompany your maps or inspire new adventures, I’ve got to recommend Tactical Maps: Adventure Atlas.
In “Drawability,” I mentioned that simple shapes are useful tools in maps, since they’re both easy to draw and have a certain mystical appeal to them. Some simple shapes—circles especially—aren’t easy to draw, but they still have that punch to them. I would never call Dyson Logos’s map of Xanathar’s Lair from chapter 5 of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist easy to draw, but it absolutely smacked me in the face the first time I saw a sketch of it during Dragon Heist’s development. The two huge circles, Xanathar’s audience chamber (X18) and the arena (X6) both leap off the page, especially when combined with the curving hallways (X14 and X17).
In the world of Dungeons and Dragons, where most dungeon rooms are squares or rectangles, or otherwise made of straight edges, curves and rounded chambers stand out as distinctly alien or mystical. If you’ve ever played a Legend of Zelda game, they also give off big boss fight energy, so players will always get apprehensive when they step into a room like this.
Another way to kick a viewer in the head with visual oomph, so to speak, is to go big and go dense. Maps that are massive and detail-rich stimulate the mind like a summer blockbuster. Combining it with art, like Will Doyle did in Storm King’s Thunder, is just icing on the cake. The exemplar of this style, to me, is the hill giant lair of Grudd Haug, from chapter 5 of that adventure. The combined effect of the art, the map, and the colorful details included within the map itself makes the final product stand out in the players' minds. Even if you make all of your maps yourself, and you aren't an artist, pairing your maps with a piece of art you've found online and showing it to your players will help you achieve that same level of impact.
These are some of my favorite maps from fifth edition, paired with some of my favorite map qualities. What are your favorite maps? If one of your favorite maps is one you made yourself, share it with us in the comments!
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their feline adventurers Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.