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Review of Planet Generators

Drawing maps for your games can be fun, but sometimes it's convenient to use generators to speed up the process.

I have recently tried out some of the planet generators that's available, both free and commercial, to see what they have to offer for RPGs.

Planet Map Generator

The Planet Map Generator is a simple web-based generator. To get the actual land forms, you rely completely on the random generator to come up with something good, ie. landforms cannot be edited. The only way to alter land outlines is to change the waterline level. It’s still one of my favourites among the free generators, however, mainly because it produces some of the best looking continents.

Images of the map can be exported in several different projections and color schemes. With a bit of work in Photoshop or Gimp the end result can turn out very good. I often find the options Bump map on land only, Non-linear altitude scaling and Make more wrinkly maps add a nice touch to the maps.

Planetary Generator 4 for Filter Forge

For photo-realistic blue planets seen from space, this is the best planet generator I have found. It has numerous parameters but is simple to use. There's an optional cloud layer that looks very realistic and is highly tweakable. Photo-realism, as is often the case, takes some time to render though: a final quality image will take 10 minutes or so to cook.

The biggest drawback to Planetary Generator 4 is the cost. The generator itself is free, but you need both Filter Forge and Photoshop to run it. Both of these will set you back a good deal of hard-earned cash. The good thing is that you can try Filter Forge free for 20 days. Coupled with a free demo of Photoshop you’re good to go for almost a month. Hopefully enough to finish a private project or find out if you like the app.

The feature I’m missing most in this package is exporting a rectangular map of the entire planet. As it is, all you get is a beautiful mapped sphere.

Donjon

Donjon is one of the major hubs for random RPG generators. Like many of its other offerings, the planet generator is easy to use. As with the first generator described above, the only way to change the actual landmass is to create a new map or change the waterline – no editing is possible. There are several different projections and colour schemes to choose from. A feature missing from the other generators, but that Donjon provides, is a long list of information regarding the planet. It includes atmospheric conditions, gravity, any lifeforms or colonies and so on. Very nifty.

My biggest problem with this generator is that so many of the random maps are useless. Landmasses are way too big and have a computer generated look to them. With enough tries and some patience, a good map will eventually occur, but they are indeed rare. And that reveals another problem: when rendering the map in bigger pixel dimensions rather unsightly streaks criss-cross the landmasses. It's not bad enough to make them useless, but still not what I like to see in a map.

Fractal Terrains

This last option is a completely different beast. Fractal Terrains is a professional tool from ProFantasy, the makers of the popular Campaign Cartographer. And it shows. This is a deep, well-developed program with a lot of flexibility. Not only does it offer several different procedural algorithms to generate landmasses, but the results are also highly editable with a number of sculpting brushes. On top of that, river flows, climate, rain and erosion can be calculated. With Photoshop to continue work on a map results can be stunning.

There are several types of brushes used for editing, with the raise/lower land seeing most use. The Wilbur Ridged Multifractal algorithm produces nice landmasses, but in general you need to hit the generate button a handful of times before finding a map that truly works.

The biggest problem with Fractal Terrains is that once you try it, you will not be content with anything less. I was perfectly happy with the free generators listed here until I tried the Fractal Terrains demo. After going through a tutorial with the demo, I was hooked. (And no, I'm not affiliated with ProFantasy in any way.)

Excellent tutorial on how to get the most out of Fractal Terrains: http://fracterra.com/CGTutorial/index.html

Do you have a favourite planet generator that's not been covered here? Just reply to this email and I will post an updated list on our webpage.

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