Several months ago, I said I would make a post about what makes a good fantasy map. At the time, I would have said that utility is the highest good. A gaming map should ultimately be usable at the table, and as such its primary purpose is to display the distances between two points so that the travel time and the number of random encounters that will occur between the two can be determined. However, almost a year later I have come to a different conclusion: every campaign setting needs two maps.
The first should be more or less what I described above. I'd prefer a true hex map, but different configurations are possible. The ultimate goal of such a map is to display distances and to help determine what random encounter charts the referee needs to roll on.* If it can also be pretty that's cool too, but utility is far more important.
The second map is the setting's equivalent of a mappa mundi. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a mappa mundi is a type of highly symbolic map used throughout the middle ages. The one pictured above is particularly famous for its detail, but simpler designs also exist. Mappa mundi are not meant to get you from point A to point B. Instead, they are meant to convey ideological information. The most simple ones show how the sons of Noah spread across the three continents, and more complex ones can tell the entire story of man from the Garden of Eden to the Apocalypse.
For gaming purposes I mean something a bit more like this:
This map doesn't do a terribly good job of telling you how far the Gates of the Moon are from Runestone but does tell you something about the character of the place and the people who live there. This is often difficult if not impossible to achieve with a typical hex map. Plus, this style of map is just more pleasing to the eye.
A good example of a setting that uses both is Harn. First, we have Harn's hex map:
While not a true hex map in the way Erin of the Welsh Piper uses the term, one can still uses this map to figure out how much time it will take to get from one point to another and to generate encounters over that period. One also gets a sense of how much farmland is present, which is a rare thing for a gaming map to do.
Now the mappa mundi:
This map is much better for giving Harn a sense of place, even if it lacks the utility of the earlier version.
Sadly, my talents are much better suited for the more hum drum sort of maps, even if I do admire mappa mundi. I may attempt one anyway, but my cartoony style will likely be a poor fit for the tangled forests and squalid cities of the Dark Country.