Hey indie gamers! Everyone holding on? Feeling re-protagonized? Let us continue.
Peeps, I fucking love relationship maps. Love. Them. I’ve loved them since, uh….maybe the Operation Sprechenhaltenstelle module for Top Secret a thousand years ago.
I love them because of what they represent: a situation in tension, rather than a plot waiting to spool out. It’s something that, frankly, indie design has succeeded at most in moving the overall state of the art forward in game design.
Rolling out a giant piece of butcher paper and just scrawling out endless interconnected circles, awesome. It’s theatrical, it’s visual, it’s tactile. Not everyone hooks into what I’m drawing out, though! I was totally taken aback when Mikael Andersson stopped and completely rewrote a relationship map I was doing for a Sagas of the Icelanders game because a family tree made more sense to him. And he was right: we discovered some missing familial connections that the r-map had kind of elided (missing necessary offscreen aunts and uncles IIRC).
I think nobody will be surprised to hear that Urban Shadows wins my award for “most elaborate relationship map.” The thing is packed with moves that, left unchecked, will keep fractally generating situation until you choke on it. They’re good tools that are easy to misuse; there are definitely best practices (just like Belief writing in Burning Wheel, aspect design in Fate, and so on).
But because the tools are easy to misuse, we ended up with a ridiculous and unusable map after just four sessions. Four sessions! I think we focused on about a third of the generated content, with the rest of it feeling either wasted or looming. When I run that game again, I’ll definitely have a better idea of when to say enough is enough.
The presence or absence of a functional r-map is, for me, the quickest shorthand for whether the game we’re going to play is situation-driven or plot-driven. I don’t have a relationship map for our The One Ring game because we’re following The Darkening of Mirkwood. An r-map not only is unnecessary, it’d probably screw up the campaign’s progress.
Awesome tech. Great power, great responsibility, etc.