Worldbuilding #8 – Mountains

WB IconWe have finally come to mountains. The long awaited mountains. Mountains are extremely important for when we make our map, yet we have designed a great many other things first. Most worldbuilding resources will tell you to start with mountains, and for good reason you should. However, in this tutorial we didn’t ask we needed to get many things out of the way. Think of it as a puzzle. Before you can get the main image of what the puzzle creates, you have to start with the border pieces.

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As stated several times already, mountains are the most important geological feature when it comes to map making. Mountains will tell us where deserts are located, where rivers are placed, where farmlands and forests are located. It also tells us where tectonic plates are located.

Mountains are a large landform that stretches above land. Mountains are generally steeper than a hill, and larger. Mountains are formed through tectonic plates crashing into each other or one going under another, or through volcanic activity.

Mountains get their shape through erosion. Often times the erosion is through rivers, weather conditions, or glaciers. Generally you find mountains in large groups called ranges, but there is the occasional mountain that is isolated.

Mountains are most noticeable on the land due to their size, but mountains also exist underwater. The largest mountain range is the mid-ocean ridge, spanning 40,000 miles around the globe. The longest ridge on land is the Andes in South America, spanning 4300 miles.


Higher elevations produce colder climates. As clouds increase their altitude to get around mountains, it becomes more likely to release its moisture, causing rain or snow. This creates snow caps on mountains and also rivers that flow downhill.

What makes higher elevations cold for mountains deals with the greenhouse effect. You hear about the GHE in relation to humans and pollution, but this is actually a good thing in this case. The sun energy warms the ground, and then releases heat in the air. Greenhouse gasses reflect the heat back towards the Earth. Without this, the energy would go into space. As elevation increases, there is less greenhouse gases, so the temperature goes down.

While every mountain is different, it is generally accepted that every 1000 ft, the temperature decreases by 3.5 degrees F. Which means that moving 100 feet on a mountain is similar to 45 miles towards the nearest pole.

There is a wide variety of definitions for what is a mountain. Often times things are considered a mountain if someone says it is. Such as Mount Davidson, standing at 928 feet, makes it a hill. In America, the standard is 1000 feet make it a mountain (300m). In the UK, the standard is 2000 feet (610m).


There are 3 types of mountains: volcanic, fold, and block. All these types are formed by plate tectonics.

Volcanic mountains form when a plates goes under another plate. With mantle below it and water above, the rock melts and forms magma, which reaches the surface. This begins to make a mountain on the ocean surface, which then makes an island.


Fold mountains occur when two plates collide, they begin to crumble at the point of impact, and move upward. Often times, this will merge plates together.

folded mountain 3

Last is block mountains. When two plates slide against each other, one plate rise while the other stays level. Or two plates move away from each other which causes the land to sink.


The foot of a mountain can often be considered a hill. Depend on what side of a mountain, will often have vegetation. As we increase in elevation, the mountain will have less vegetation. Not completely devoid of life. This is called altitudinal zonation.

Animals found in altitudinal zones tend to be isolated due to the conditions. Little food is up that high.

Most of the world’s rivers are fed from mountain sources, with snow acting as a storage for water. A majority of humanity depends on mountain water.

I wouldn’t worry too much about what type of mountain you have unless there is a specific look and geological feature you have. Of course, this is just a brief introduction to the science behind mountains and tectonic plates. Be sure to do additional research if you have more questions.

Now, let’s design our mountains.


Looking at my world, I see my deserts. On my east continent, I see a desert in the middle. I’m certain this is due to the fact that it is so far inland, that it doesn’t get the moisture it needs. But I do have a few by the coast that should have a mountain nearby.

Now you can do this one mountain at a time, or all at once. I will show you how to do this all at once. You can follow the same instructions for doing it all at once, just don’t use SHIFT+Click. There are two layers we are using for this.

1. Create a new layer (I should get a T-Shirt that says that)
a. Name it Dark Mountains
b. Make sure it is on top of your Layers list

2. Go to Land Start layer
a. Select your magic wand
b. Set threshold 15% – 20%
c. With your magic wand, do a Shift+Click on the brown green or green right next to one of your deserts
d. Don’t worry if it overlaps

3. Set primary color to: 544600
a. Go to Dark Mountains

Now many of your deserts will be covered, especially if you did 20%. You can either use the erase tool and manually uncover your deserts, or cheat.

4. Go to Desert layer
a. With magic wand, select an open area
b. Do Ctrl+I to invert
c. Click on Dark Mountain layer
d. Press DELETE

Now all your deserts are back. Now for the second phase.

5. Create a new layer
a. Name it Light Mountains
b. Go to Land Start layer
c. Set Magic Wand Tolerance 5% – 10% (good to go higher
d. Where your Dark Mountains are located, do a SHIFT+Click in the middle of the brown.
e. Set Primary Color: 917900
f. Go to Light Mountains layer

Go ahead and press ESCAPE to deselect.

So we now have our basic mountain range. But there are a couple of problems.

Problem 1: There are a lot of jagged edges and holes in our mountain.
Solution: Go to the Light Mountains layer and click an open space (don’t do SHIFT+Click). Then invert your selection. Once your mountain is selected, hit Backspace. Do the same with Dark Mountains. May have to redo step 4.

Problem 2: There is a green outline between my deserts and mountains
a. Go to Dark Mountain Layer.
b. Set Primary color is set to 544600.
c. SHIFT+Click Magic wand on the outside of your mountain.
d. Do not invert the selection.
e. Once everything but your mountains are selected (the rest of the world will appear darker)
f. Go to Effect->Selection->Outline Selection.
g. Make sure the color for Outline Selection is set to your Primary color. Fill in the boxes with the correct values as needed.
h. Set width to 2
i. You may still have some Green. SHIFT+Click the mountain this time, make sure your Tolerance is set above 45%.

We want to make sure we select all of the mountain (sometimes some little pixels don’t get captured, just keep increasing tolerance until it does).

j. Invert selection
k. Do outline selection again, same settings, set width to 1 instead.
l. There might be some holes in the mountain again. Select outside the mountain, invert, then hit backspace to fill in.

Repeat this process as many times as you desire. After the first time of doing width 2, keep doing width 1 until you get what you want. A little green is OK, as it can always be an oasis.

Problem 3: The Light Layer appears jagged
a. Make sure Primary Colour is set to 917900
b. Go to Light Mountains layer
c. Shift+Click the outside
d. Do Outline Selection, make sure the color matches your primary color.
e. Do width 1

This will smooth out the edges of that mountain. We really don’t want to do any more than this, as it may overlap with the dark mountain. We don’t want that.

Dark Mountain is lower elevation, where the light mountain is higher elevation.

With all of this, there may be some overlapping with Oceans, Lakes and even beaches. As far as beaches go, some mountains do go right up to the water. You may choose to do that. Your best bet is to go to the the basic beach layer, magic wand the outside, invert, go to both layers and Press DELETE.

For Lakes and Oceans, you could go to each individual layer, but there is a faster way. Go to the layer Define Lake, SHIFT+Click the ocean, go to each layer for the mountains and press DELETE. Now you see why I don’t delete those layers. They do come in handy.

Now, with your eraser tool, start shaping the land you want. If you want to be cautions, create a duplicate of both layers, name one set DO NOT CHANGE then uncheck them, and start editing your new set.

This is the very basic design of our mountains. It seems so simple to do, yet it requires a lot of instructions to do. It might seem intimidating, but a lot of trial and error will get you on your way to making some nice mountain ranges. Get use to this technique, we use it a few more times.

Worldbuilding 8

Please leave a comment with any questions you have or show me what design you’ve come up with.


Help Keep This Site Running

This site is a great achievement for me, but due to being unable to work, I may not be able to keep this site running. With your help, I might be able to.

I need $125 by October 30th, 2017. Anything you can give will help.

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