Day 2: What game created your most elaborate relationship map? How much of it did you actually use?

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.

26 thoughts on “Day 2: What game created your most elaborate relationship map? How much of it did you actually use?”

  1. TechNoir actually has r-mapping as part of the game play and codified rules for when you add new nodes on the map (IIRC it’s add something the second time it comes up, connect it the third time).

    Do you have pics of your badass r-map like Eloy Cintron does?

  2. Aaron Griffin I think I took a picture of it, yeah. It was ridiculous. MadJay Brown​ sat in as a guest player on that game and we tried to explain it, but after a few minutes he glazed over. So iirc I just showed him what NPCs needed killing and cut his Wolf loose.

  3. I’m probably going to lose my indie gamer card but my largest R-map was for Call of Cthulhu. It was for all the people in the Caribbean Queen, a speakeasy on a luxury cruise boat. Everyone on the boat died. The characters woke up in a shallow grave a week later. It got pretty impressive. It was a 2 year campaign. I think I used about half of it.

  4. Ha. I actually stripped r-mapping out of my new game because mine immediately devolve into illegible cobwebs as I draw them. Instead, I’m using a hierarchy, as the most important relationship is the degrees of separations leading back to the “boss monster,” ala Ken Hite’s conspyramid for Nights Black Agents. (Also using a pyramid Tarot card layout because awesome.)

    When I’m running a game I leave plenty of room on the NPC sheets to record who has met who and how they felt at the end of it. I try to use the minimal number of NPCs so that PCs interact with the same people over and over, develop feelings, and then give a crap when someone’s kidnapped, threatened, killed, etc.

    Loooooong way of saying I’m bad for this topic.

  5. Nicholas Hopkins I was running CoC’s Fungi from Yuggoth this year and as part of my GM prep I did r-maps for each chapter – they were fairly complex! IMO that speaks well of the game. Paul Beakley  I totally love r-maps too. They are probably my fave bit of indie tech that I bring to every game now.

  6. I need some best practices for making R-maps. Whenever I try to making them I always run out of space. The lines or arrows get lost in the clutter or everything reads as too vague or similar. I totally understand the utility but have never made a map I would actually use. Most of the time I end up with a piece of paper with names on it.

    Paul Beakley
    I didn’t know you laid out your R-maps on the table in front of your players. Do you have players who really hook into that sort of visual information, or is it a necessity with having such a large piece of paper?

  7. Aaron Berger I think the best practices are simply “add a person to the graph if they’re important”. I draw relationships when they’re KNOWN because I try for an investigative slant, but you could easily draw all relationships upfront for a more social/political thing.

    The only codified r-map rules I’ve ever seen were in TechNoir and Minimus –

  8. I think bigger paper would def help. I also like the idea of placing it in front of the players so they’re all on board. It would also force me to work on it and make it coherent. Maybe I’ll try to set one up for my BitD group.

  9. Robert Bohl I’ll ask you what I asked Aaron Griffin: did you think I was fucking kidding?

    I am but I’m also not. So far the discussions have been good! Mostly! That PbtA clusterfuck of yours, even.

  10. Also: please do let me know if there is a for-real “war” or whatever going on. So far it’s been super fun! But I do not doubt there are folks who are privately tearing it apart, which makes me sad but I can’t be responsible for that.

  11. Hmm. /scratches chin. The most complex was probably Hillfolk. And virtually none, which is kind of my experience with them. I might do a post on how I generate the same stuff you seem to like about them ^_^

  12. Have to admit I stole the relationship map idea from Paul. I find the r-map most useful when I am making up the outline for the story. It helps me keep things focused and managable. I find if used in the pregame it forces a more complete setting. That version stays in my GM notes, and the larger PC version is created as we play through the game. Very interesting to compare the two when it is all said and done.

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