Duluth-Based Cartographer Creates Stunning Fantasy Maps

Thorn created his headshot, which is also, technically, a map. The photo is "a screenshot of a map where I stylized my face on an arbitrary location," he says.

After crafting maps during his day job, Duluth-based cartographer Ross Thorn unwinds by bringing his map-making skills into his gaming experience.

Using real-world mapping software, Thorn started creating fantasy maps about three years ago to enhance his own custom Dungeons & Dragons campaigns.

His first available map is one made of Exandria, the world in which most of the Critical Role events take place in. The world was later adopted by Wizards of the Coast after its inclusion in the weekly web series. The data that Thorn included on his fictional map of Exandria comes from both these sources.

Wizards of the Coast released a book last year that included details about Exandria, titled "Explorer's Guide to Wildemont." Before that, Critical role released an independent book "so they had city details and descriptions," he says. "I took the populations from the book and then [made] kind of bridge [between] the descriptions of each location."

Describing his process, Thorn says, "I'm not actually really good at drawing. So I would take elevation data and essentially flood it, and then pick island shapes that I like."

The measure tool allows players to see how much distance traveled between cities with the quick click of a mouse.

The maps are meant to act as a reference and companion to the game for both dungeon masters and players. "There's an accurate in-world measuring tool and play search," helping players to look up information. Thorn described that having a virtual map has also been helpful while playing from different locations during the Covid-19 pandemic since all players can easily pull it up on their phone or another device.

When creating a campaign, Thorn "always starts with a map, a very Tolkien-like approach, I guess. And because I'm a cartographer and geographer it's really easy for me to do that."

But it isn't just map-making that has drawn Thorn to playing the game. "What I found in these games is that you get a huge masterclass in empathy [while] blending your personal identity with the identity of a character in a game." He describes that this happens because characters have "different risks and different needs than you personally."

Thorn did his master's thesis on video game maps. While working on his thesis, "there was a researcher that [he] looked at that talks about that sort of identity concept of blending your identity" and how it forces "you to become a little bit more empathic."

In addition to playing Dungeons and Dragons, Thorn has been playing and collecting Magic: The Gathering cards for about ten years. He also enjoys other board games and video games. Another map he has started creating is based on the world of Animal Crossing and can be found here.

Eventually, Thorn would like to take commissions for his fantasy maps once he has more time. For now, Thorn's creations, map-focused streams and tutorials can be followed on Twitch, Instagram (@redgiantmaps), Twitter @RealRossThorn) and Reddit (@RedGiantMaps).


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