My recent beau of roleplaying games, the Relationship Map.

My recent beau of roleplaying games, the Relationship Map. This is my first attempt at the beast (second, really; but the first time my group used it and took part in its creation) and I’m amazed at how helpful it was during world burning in our new Burning Wheel campaign.

Everyone could visualize immediately all the connections and characters and places and plot threads. It helped create buy-in; something I was worried about because of the seemingly disparate PCs. But boy was I wrong! Seeing the whole picture makes it way easy to bring them together (and in the darkness…yadda yadda).

And making changes is quickly evident to everyone at the table. It solidifies the plot/character changes in a way that’s beyond simple mental notes. It’s a physical change; something about that means so much more to the players. They even asked to keep it out during play. Good stuff!

I need to find some colored pens to highlight things, I’m running out of easily discernible shapes. Plus color will lend itself better to my chicken scratch than my attempts at shapes-as-categories.

0 thoughts on “My recent beau of roleplaying games, the Relationship Map.”

  1. When you first started talking about r-maps months (years?) ago here on G+ I was skeptical, plus it looked like a ton of work. Turns out, they flow together when you get everyone at the table involved and you ask the players questions.

    Using their answers (or modified answers that fit the big picture and setting) was a relief. Less work for me, buy-in for them. Plus it was fun for everyone. I think I get games like Microscope now.

  2. I do wonder if the hesitation/skepticism I sometimes hear is rooted in what looks like is going to be “more work.” Dunno, it sure seems like less work. But it’s so baked into my table method now that it feels like it’s missing when I don’t do it (one-shot freeforms, some specific ttrpg formats).

  3. I have never used one but I think this may come into play when I get around to running MYZ. It seems like something that game could benefit from with tying the players together with various factions on and possibly off the Ark.

  4. Paul Beakley it’s my trad gamer innate reaction to certain things, I think. “This is different so it can’t be good or easy.” It’s silly, but it’s a thing I battle with constantly.

  5. My resistance to them is simply that they’re really messy. My OCD doesn’t really mess with me all that often, but trying to work with something like that would make it kick in big time. Hell, just looking at it kind of makes my teeth itch. I just want to redraw it about a dozen times until I can make it crisp, clean, and neat

  6. John Willson yeah but it’s buried in my collection somewhere. It’s pretty recent! Try digging back … oh I don’t know, a couple months at the most.

  7. Derrick Kapchinsky I have no idea what to say to that! Other than — bear with me for a second — that it’s an active tool and not documentation. It’s not really meant to preserve anything for any amount of time.

    That probably does nothing for you, I know, but maybe for other folks feeling self-conscious about their “drawing skills” or whatever. Believe me, I am a truly terrible artist.

  8. Paul Beakley – that might actually help, except for one thing. How is it not documentation? I get that it’s a living document and meant to shift and change as the relationships do, but that still strikes me as documentation. What am I missing?

  9. Derrick Kapchinsky I mean it’s not meant to be uh…encased in amber, or framed, or really regarded as anything more meaningful than a shopping list.

    So yeah a shopping list is “documentation” but it’s not bound into a folio for later review. Does that make sense?

    The link I’m about to post also mentions the word “documentation” so I know it’s not the perfect word.

  10. (I will also confess that I kind of wish I kept my r-maps and did put them on display somehow. But I’m super okay with them being crazy and messy and that being part of the attraction.)

  11. Paul Beakley – I remember reading that when you first posted it a few weeks back. I think for me, it just might boil down to a difference in how I process info. The Map here, I can process, but it’s unpleasant. The one for your NMC game, I wouldn’t even know where to start with it. It’s completely opaque to me.

  12. Derrick Kapchinsky you bring up an interesting point. For me, there’s an almost… uh, therapeutic? … value in R-Maps mess.

    I’m often very fussy about the aesthetics of my gaming materials. I like clean, straight lines and good, easy to process documentation. So big messy R-Maps often itch at me the whole time I’m looking at them.

    However, they do a good thing for me, even while they are irritating me with their messiness — they remind me that a roleplaying game is messy and big and often lacks easy documentation or central control. Every time I look at it and think “ugh what a mess” I force myself to think “yea, but it’s our mess.”

    And that helps me, somehow, somewhy, accept the messiness of multiple-contributor fictional mess.

    (It was actually Jackson Tegu who made me realize this. We were playing in a historical game where I was laying paper all over the table in big overlapping stacks. Durring a break he commented that all the paper had been off putting to him, as it was all messy. Until he just accepted that as the point — history is messy.)

  13. I attempted an R-map to explain the politics of a court in Godbound. It was my first attempt to do such a thing at the table with the players. I had difficulty finding the pacing. I would talk faster than my pen and then abreviate my notes to the point where they might not be useful. I also stopped using it once it was set up. I would point to it, but I think I need to keep showing how the web is changing.

    I think I need to be thinking about triangles more as well. I am hesitant I think because I’m fearful it’ll bring out antagonism between the players, which is something godbound doesn’t handle well. I need to keep using it. I have some con games coming up and i’m hoping to be up to snuff to use it there.

  14. Derrick Kapchinsky it might be different if you sat there and participated. It’s not just made by me! I mean I hold the pen but you know what I mean.

    But you very well might not process it well. I’ve run into that before, it’s not unique. I know Mikael Andersson completely redid one of my r-maps for Sagas of the Icelanders last year in a more traditional family tree kind of way, because he couldn’t make heads or tails of the process.

  15. Okay, I’m read up. Some questions for you, Paul Beakley, if you don’t mind. These are system-agnostic questions:

    > You ask questions to sharpen up a relationship before writing it down. What is your criteria for a good/useful relationship?

    > When does a PC have enough relationships? How about an NPC, a faction?

    > How do you (the GM) use the R-map during play? How does it help you to make the game awesome?

  16. >Good/useful relationships:

    Is it problematic? Do questions naturally arise in my mind when I look at a line between two nodes? Does it look unbreakable and how seriously do I or they take that? Ambiguity bad, specificity good, but what I mean by that is that a specifically ambiguous relationship is fine. What is not is when the player and I aren’t solid on what the line represents.

    I’m decoding my own intuition and habits here so I’m probably missing something important. I’ll keep thinking.

    > Enough: Mostly the canary in the coal mine is to spot the characters who aren’t tightly bound into the situation. The PC or NPC with just one link.

    > Use: I use it to remind myself of what each of the players probably already knows (because they have bonds or relationships or whatever). Or to remind myself of the history that’s passed between them. Or to look for scene ideas at the start of a session: weak triangles, connections boiling with questions. Or to remember all the elements in play so I can create surprising or interesting combinations of elements. That last one is great in my Space Wurm v Moonicorn game because of the fronts-oriented structure. It was also good in Urban Shadows for remembering who all was tied to which faction.

  17. My hesitation for trying this out can be traced to a few practicalities. One, it’s hard to edit. Two, space at the table is always an issue; does this get put up on the wall? Before every session? It’s logistically tricky. That unwieldiness also comes into play between sessions; how to consult it? Unfold it and overflow the desk space while sitting at the computer? It just doesn’t seem practical. Great to set something up, or describe a snapshot moment, but as a living document used at the game table, I just don’t see how it can be worked in.

  18. Thanks again Paul, great stuff!

    I have used R-maps mainly as a prep tool for mystery and fishtank games, before/between sessions, to make sure my situation is sufficiently primed for action and intrigue (but completely missing out on the theatrical aspect that Paul mentions).

    Re: editability, I have tried a couple of times to make R-maps in sw/apps like Visio, The Brain, etc.. It would be sweet to be able to drag things around to make room as the R-map evolves. But I never found one that allowed you to label the relationships, and that could do asymmetrical relationships. Maybe better tools are available now.

  19. John Willson I believe the free online (connected to google drive) lets you do two-way relationships, though it’s not designed to label each direction independently. I think we resorted to manual lung inserting the labels.

    Omnigraffle isn’t designed specifically with assymetrical relationships in mind (like Visio, it’s either uni- or bidirectional), but it does make having multiple independent connections between the same two objects really easy. So when I did a relationship map with it, I’d just draw the connection ok one direction and label it, and then draw the connection in the other direction and label it. With a couple settings you can have multiple connections automatically avoid each other and be readable. Or you can manually clean them up later. – Flowchart Maker & Online Diagram Software

  20. Re: editing, I usually don’t go back and do a lot of editing of my r-maps (though I don’t do them at this scale, either), but when running Pendragon, I did keep an elaborate series of family trees, which are a form of r-map, I guess. I just did them in an OpenOffic drawings file, with different colours for player knights (and yet another for deceased player knights) and it let me move the individual bubbles and even entire trees around to make space for previously undiscussed aunts and uncles, or for when a player knight would get married and I’d want to go back a few generations​ for their new spouse.

  21. Andrew Shields can I share my experience with all that stuff? I mean I’m not here to sell you or whatever, but I’ve been doing it a long time.

  22. Sure! I’ve used mind mapping for writing stories before, but those are more static. I’ve had great experiences pulling players into world-building stuff, so I’m interested in how this has worked for you. More tools in the toolbox, right? =)

  23. Okay, the general theme of your comment is “it’s unwieldy,” would you agree?

    Some of this comes down to the physical space I have in my home (dedicated room, table for 6) or that I wrangle out of a convention space (i.e. a small table is straight up a showstopper).

    IME the dominance of the r-map in the middle of my play space is a feature and not a bug. I want my players looking at it, not their character sheets. I’m not sure if you looked back at the link I posted but the physicality is central to the theatricality: making and maintaining the map is a performance put on by me, with the player’s help.

    Editing is trivial: you just draw more lines. That’s why you leave a good margin around the edges. Again I go into this in that previous link. But! Things do get messy over many sessions. It’s totally okay to start over. When I did this in Sagas of the Icelanders, I redid the map every single session. That’s prep time. But it also allowed me to really kind of … meditate on the map again, you know? I added color codes (blue for the PC’s valley, purple for the upvalley community, green for those dirty Danelanders who’ve been raiding the coast., etc.). Paper is cheap.

    So I guess all the stuff you see as impractical I see as totally central: it’s impermanent (so go ahead and scribble), it takes up space (so everyone knows where to look), it’s quick to redo (so you have a chance to arrange your thoughts again).

  24. Paul Beakley, yes that’s it exactly. In fact, that’s the article where I learned about the fishtank technique.

    There’s also the “Fish Tank as Intrigue” article, same author: – Gnome Stew

    I like it better than a sandbox, because it’s more dynamic; I don’t have to wait for the PCs to dig for plastic dinosaurs. The NPCs are locked in a serious situation, and then the PCs arrive, and the NPCs all assume that the PCs are there to help them, or to oppose them! …and they react accordingly. The NPCs are “sticky”; once one has met the PCs, she can’t leave them alone.

    Actually, it was good to read those articles again.

  25. A big map in the center of the table is GREAT. In the old days we’d use miniatures and dungeon maps, because we were all about physical exploration; now our games are different, and we use relationship maps because that’s what we explore and manipulate.

    (Draug II is all about this.)

  26. I haven’t read a ton of this thread bc I am doing homework and tired, BUT, I wanted to say this is super cool, and I was wondering if you’ve ever seen Jason Morningstar’s relationship maps for Sagas of the Icelanders? Simpler, I think, but effective.

    Thank you for sharing this! I love these techniques.

    (Paul, I would love you to do a guest post on my blog sometime about your techniques like this!)

  27. Brie Sheldon​ I’d be happy to write a thing, sure.

    I’ve definitely seen Jason’s SotI maps. They serve a different purpose but it might be interesting to talk about those differences at some point.

  28. Paul Beakley Sweet, if you want to email me when your schedule allows (whenever is fine) that’d be cool – it’s

    Yeah, they do – I think it’s interesting to see different approaches and the different reasons why we make maps and representations of relationships or environments in games!

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