I’ve been feeling the tug to get back into mapping for some time. Installing and testing my mapping software the other day has had me thinking about it even more. So I’ve spent the last day or so tinkering and re-familiarizing myself. I think I’m about ready to take the plunge.

Traditionally, I’ve started with a piece of paper, sketched an outline, and then transferred what I had come up with into Campaign Cartographer. This is a fine process that has served me well in the past. But if I want to take advantage of the power of Fractal Terrains, I would then have to recreate my map from scratch in FT3. This is a herculean step that I just don’t have the skills or patience to accomplish.

Fractal Terrains is absolutely amazing at creating a random world. It is fast, easy, straightforward, and requires very little skill on the part of the user. Editing is a bit more involved, considerably so depending on what level of editing you want to do. But creating a world from scratch is far more difficult and requires a level of skill and understanding that I will probably never achieve. So I need to look at what is realistic for me to do, while still being able to take advantage of the beautiful creations I know I can get from FT3.

What Type of Map Do You Want?

FT3 can create a number of different types of maps. Typically, it is used to make random maps suitable for wrapping around a sphere. This means that when the map is laid out flat, distortion sets in and gets worse the further you are from the equator (becoming severe at the top and bottom). If you don’t want to deal with this distortion, FT3 can create a Planar map. That is a world map built on a flat plane. There is no distortion, but the map isn’t designed to wrap around a sphere. Therefore, it is necessary to decide upfront which of these two types of maps you want to create.

Next you need to decide whether you want FT3 to a) Create a random world, b) Create a world based on height maps that you supply (a pre-made map from an external program), or c) Create a blank map where the entire world has an altitude of zero (sea level) which you will then edit to create whatever world you want. The last two options are beyond the scope of this article, as well as my ability level, so we will stick to creating a random world.

Setting Parameters

It would be nice if we could simply sketch out a vague idea of what we want, and let FT3 create a world based on that. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible. However, we can supply parameters that will dictate the basic criteria for our new world.

By default, FT3 is setup to make a generally earth-like planet: 25,000 miles circumference, a maximum altitude of 30,000 feet above and below sea level, etc. I’m sticking to the defaults but these are easy enough to change if you wish.

But before you start cycling through random worlds, looking for that perfect one that you will call home, there are some other parameters that you will want to change in order to limit your search.

Click on the “World Settings” icon. Then click on the “Primary” tab. This is where you set the diameter and altitude range for your planet. There are three other settings: Roughness, Percent Sea, and Land Size (initially set to 0.75, 60, and 1.74 respectively). The easiest way to understand roughness is to try a couple different settings. I think it looks best between 0.60 and 0.90, with the default being an excellent choice. Percent Sea is self-explanatory. Land Size ranges from 1.00 to 10.00 (with 10.00 creating a lot of small land masses, and 1.00 creating far fewer but larger land masses). All three defaults are very reasonable, but play with them a bit to see what you like.

So far, this is all common sense. But there are a couple of less obvious settings that are crucial. Click on the “Fractal Function” tab. There are nine methods available on the “Method” dropdown list. These all create fractal patterns differently and presumably they all have their benefits. However, my primary concern is to zoom way in without generating weird artifacts. I’ve found that “RMF with Perlin’s Improved Noise” gives me the best results. Select that and then click on “Parms” (next to the method drop down list). Set Octaves to 24. This lets me zoom in insanely close and still have impressive detail.

Note that with all other settings unchanged, altering the method will drastically change your map, so be sure to select this method prior to starting your search for your ideal world.

Next, click on the “Editing” tab and check the box for “Custom”. Enter 8190. That is the maximum value allowed and this sets the level of detail you can achieve through the various editing functions. Be sure to also checkmark “Allow Prescale Offset Editing”. Prescale Offset functions give much better results when you start editing your map. Note that with an editing size of 8190 and prescale offset editing selected, this tab reports that you now have a resolution of 4.9 miles, and the map requires just under 1 GB of memory.

With these settings, I can zoom in to the point where objects smaller than 4.9 miles fill the whole screen and the terrain still looks very good.

One problem that I’ve run into is that if I make a change on other tabs, the editing size gets reset. Get in the habit of checking it after making any other change to see if editing size needs to be set back to 8190.

Lastly, click on the “Secondary” tab. Checkmark “Continental shelves at -1000 feet”. The exact depth is editable. Click apply. There should now be a visible continental shelf around all the land masses. Turn it on and off a few times and figure out whether or not you like them. You will need to decide now, because changing this setting later can significantly affect your map.

Note: The sea floor may currently be blurred out, in which case you can’t see the effect of the continental shelf being turned on or off. This is an intentional feature that may be the effect of other settings you may have changed, or changes to the default settings since this writing. If that is the case, click “Map” (on the menu bar at the top of the screen) and select one of the other views (Show Climate | Temperature | Rainfall | Gaia). If that still doesn’t change it, click the “World Coloring” icon, click the “Select Coloring Scheme” tab, select “Default”, click “Load”, and finally “Apply”. You should now see a beautifully detailed sea floor with continental shelves (assuming you set it to enabled).

Finding Your Ideal World

Now click on the “Next World” icon. This will generate a random world. Now do it again… and again… and again. Get comfortable. You are going to do this a lot! After seeing a few dozen worlds, you should start to get a sense for what it is that you want.

Also, think about how you want to view your map. Click the “Change Projection” icon. I prefer “Equirectangular” to see my world as a “flat” map, and “Orthographic” to see it on a sphere. Note that “Fit” and “Center Projection” are quite useful here.

When viewing an Orthographic projection, you can click the “Pan” icon and then use the mouse (while holding down the “Shift” key) to spin the globe.

Sometimes, a map will have a continent that wraps from one side of the screen to the other while having an empty area at some point in the middle. Click on the “World Settings” icon and then the “Secondary” tab. Enter a number in the longitude field (-360 to 360). This will shift your map right or left, so as to line up the empty area of the map with the edge of the screen. I think maps look 100 times better when continents are kept together like this, opposed to wrapping to the other side. Having a clear breaking point, somewhere across the map, actually became one of my requirements when searching for my ideal world.

Similarly, you can enter a value in the “latitude” field to rotate the map. This is less intuitive and will take a bit of practice for it to make sense.

Additionally, the Fractal Function tab has checkboxes to flip your map Vertically and Horizontally.

Beyond that, it is up to you to determine what you are looking for. Tweak various settings. Seeing what options were available helped me to determine what I was looking for.

One thing I found, that was important to me, was that I wanted my map to look good both on a sphere and on a “flat” projection. On a Equirectangular projection, there is terrible distortion on the top and bottom of the map if the land extends too far from the equator. Therefore, it became important to me to find a world restricted to the central 80% of the map (vertically).

Lastly, when you do find a world you like, save it right away. Finding it again will be tough. If you really like it, save it twice and keep one pure; never edit it. When you start editing, you’ll soon see why.

Editing Your Map

When you get bored cycling through random worlds, take a break, read all the docs and start familiarizing yourself with the editing buttons. Guaranteed, at some point, you will want to at least make some minor modifications.

When you get brave, practice making changes to a random map that you don’t care about. Don’t worry if things go horribly wrong. I assure you that they will. Even simple edits will take some practice. Get in the habit of making multiple backups and do so often.

I’ll try to post soon on what little I know about basic editing techniques.

If you would like some additional help, note that the ProFantasy Forums are filled with helpful people, including jslayton (the amazing programmer behind Fractal Terrains).