(this map comes from the Hexographer free map generator, read further)
Whilst I make with great care the maps that are required for the scenario, I have always needed more maps than those. Indeed, the players are bent to wander around and, after all, one of the attraction of space opera is the possibility to travel around in an almost limitless setting.
So, I also need to be able to populate parts of the setting that are not vital for the scenario. It is quite easy as far as stats are concerned (all rulesets have generation systems for sectors, stars and planets), but it can be very time consuming if you want to map all those planets, or even some of them.
That's where Hexographer comes in. It is a simple mapping program that lets you make normal maps. And, if you have never heard about it, you should have a look, it can make your life as a GM much easier.
But it also has a setting for icosahedral maps. And what is even more interesting, it can also generate maps from a few chpices (hydrography, mountain ranges,...) which are the kind of informations that your game system and scenario has normally provided. And then it lets you customize the generated result.
But it is even better: there is a free version here that is limited to planetary maps. It should be enough for what we are speaking about here, though I would advise you to buy the full version, it is not expensive and you won't regret it: it will give you access to other mapping functions, styles,...
Anyway, download it, open it and generate a few maps, it is fun and even addictive.
But, why stop there? Why not present those maps in a 3D way? Like this one:
This is simply the map shown above turned into a 3D view.
First, you'll need Sketchup to change the flat map into a 3D model. You can download it Here.
You'll also need the empty 3D model planet. It is a Sketchup skp file with empty faces, and you can download it Here.
Now, generate a map with Hexographer, we are going to turn it into a 3D planet.
Open the empty Sketchup planet file with Sketchup, it should look like this:
Click on the A1 Tab. Click once on the face that is in front of you to select it. Then, Right-click>Texture>Modify Image Texture.
The face A1 that you were facing should open itself in the graphic program that is associated with Sketchup (if no graphic program is associated with Sketchup, go to Preferences>Applications and choose one, something like Photoshop or GIMP would be perfect).
Now, open the map of the planet you generated with Hexographer and select the part corresponding to the A1 face, paste and resize it. Flatten the layers and save.
The new image should now be visible in Sketchup on the 3D map. And as there are twenty faces, yes, you'll have to do it twenty times (from A1 to C5).
To make it easier to select the part of the map associated with a face, here is a little sketch of them:
When you are finished, just save your Sketchup model.
You, of course, can re-open it any time and make any changes you want, using Sketchup.
But if you prefer that your players, whilst being able to see and manipulate the 3D map, are unable to make changes, let them open it using Sketchup Viewer, available Here.