Beginning Mapping in Inkscape

By Tom. Filed in Maps  |   
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As I mentioned in my last post, I like making maps.  Primarily I’ve done starship deck plans.  You can find examples of several I’ve done for the TSSS Dart, CSS Nightwind, TSSS Morning Glory online (I need to get that last one into the wiki as my website layout has changed and the pages are all messed up now).  As such I get asked occasionally by members of the gaming circles I inhabit for tips on getting started on map making.  Since it has come up more than once, I thought I’d compile my tips and suggestions here to save having to rewriting the information individually to each new query.  Now I can just point them to my blog.

My maps are fairly simple.  As such I have never used any big mapping software.  I just do my mapping in Inkscape, a free vector graphics program similar to Adobe Illustrator (which I have the CS3 version of but never have learned to use).  The following tips were generated in response to a request for help I got a few months ago and were designed to get someone completely new to the program started on some basic maps.  Hopefully they help you as well.

Tip 1: Open the File->Document Properties dialog and set the size of the paper to be big enough to hold your map at the scale of 50 pixels per grid square with 50 extra pixels on each side.  I use 50 pixels per meter for all my maps so that if you print them out you can use the [Star Frontiers] counters  (which are 1/2″ squares) on them.  For example if I was doing a map that was a 10m diameter ship I’d make the image 10m x 50px/m = 500 pixels + 100 pixel border = 600×600 pixels in size.

Tip 2:  In that same dialog, select the ‘Grids’ tab and create a new rectangular grid.  Your tools and such will snap to this grid and make lining things up much easier. Note that this grid is only for use in inkscape to assist in drawing.  If you want an actual grid in the final image, you have to draw that yourself on a separate layer.  The sad thing is I’ve never figured out a way to automate that and so have had to draw all the lines and then copy and paste. :(

Tip 3: Use layers.  I usually use at least one for the underlying grid, one for the map itself and one for the labels).  That way you can turn things on and off as needed.  You might even consider doing one for the walls and bulk equipment and another for the furnishings.  Turn on the layers dialog (that will show the layers and allow you to manipulate them) by selecting Layer->Layers… in the menu.

Tip 4: In the bottom right of the program window is the information about your cursor position.  You can use this to line up things and put them right where you want them.  If you’ve got the grid on (and snap to grid on which is enabled by default), you’ll see a little red box or ‘X’ show up on the nearest grid point to your cursor.

Tip 5:  Pressing the 5 button zooms to the page.  Pressing the 3 button zooms to the object you’ve selected and pressing 1 zooms to 100%.  Pressing + and – zoom you in and out.  You can see the shortcuts if you pick View->Zoom from the menu.

Tip 6: (This one was prompted by a specific question) Drawing a circle. There are two ways to do this.  The first is to draw from the upper left to the lower right.  For example if you were drawing a big circle to be the outer hull of your 100m diameter ship, go the the upper left of the image 50 pixels in from the edges.  Assuming you set up the page size based on tip #1 the cursor position in the bottom right should read X:50, Y: 5050.  Click and hold the button down as you drag down to the bottom right and stop at X:5050, Y: 50, release the button and you’ll have your circle.

Now if you have the grid turned on (File->Document Properties, Grid tab, New button) you don’t have to get exactly on those coordinates as it will ‘snap’ to the nearest grid point.

The other way to do it is center outward.  Go to the center of where you want the circle and click and start to drag to the lower right.  Then press and hold the shift key while you’re dragging.  This will move the center of the circle to your first click point and you just drag it out the size you want it.

Along the bottom in the status bar you’ll seed something that looks like Ellipse: 100.00px x 100.00 px (with the values showing you how big in x and y your object is).

Now for the pro tip on making circles.  If you also press the control key while you’re dragging out your circle in either of the methods above, it constrains to ratio of the x and y sizes to be integer ratios.  This means that as long as you go basically down or up diagonally, it will stay 1:1 and you get a perfect circle.

Tip 7: Changing line thickness.  In the bottom left is a Fill: and Stroke: label with colored lines near it (just under the color bar).  Next to the color line by the Stroke label is also a number.  This is your line thickness.  Right clicking on it will bring up a list of sizes that you can just click on to thicken or slim your line.  If you don’t want one of the choices there you can get finer control.  Double clicking on one of the color lines will open up a dialog with three tabs, Fill, Stroke Paint, and Stroke Style.  The first entry in the stroke style tab is width.  Adjusting this allows you to set the width of your lines to anything you want.

I also encouraged him (and you) to do a web search for “inkscape tutorials”.  There are a lot of good tutorials out there to help you get going and solve particular problems you might run into. That was all my original inquirer needed from me to get started and he cranked out some pretty cool maps for a spaceship he was writing an adventure on.  I hope those little bits help you get started.  Feel free to post questions in the comments and I’ll try to address them.  Happy mapping.


  1. Comment by Jon:

    Automatic grids are easy! Go to Extensions>Render>Grid… and you can set how big you want your grid!

  2. Comment by Tom:

    I’ve never noticed that before. Thanks for the tip!

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