Paul’s R-Map Method

I’ve long been a proponent of at-the-table relationship maps, and of setting them up with everyone’s participation at that table. It started as a thing at my home tabletop games, but I’ve been doing them at conventions for years as well.

Why oh why should you bother? I’m glad you asked. Here’s my case:

* Visual information is the strongest information (until I can come up with an r-map method that uses smell instead of eyeballs, then game on)

* It is a living document, easily changed and grown as the game proceeds.

* It is a central and theatrical process, which draws everyone’s attention to the table during creation and play. This last one I cannot emphasize enough.

This photo is from my Space Wurm vs Moonicorn one-shot I ran at NewMexicon for Joe Beason, Tomer Gurantz, Patrick Riegert and Brendan Conway last weekend. It’s a good example because I use a lot of different methods at once on this one. The game also works especially well for relationship mapping; I’ll talk at the end about games that don’t really do great with an r-map.

0) I either use my roll of butcher paper at home or, if I’m on the road, an easel pad. This one in particular is:

I also use a plain black Sharpie, not a ball-point or skinny felt-tip. At home, I’ve got a full-spectrum Sharpie set and I’ll use 2-3 colors. But not more! 3’s really the max IME.

Close-up of the Space Wurm vs Moonicorn r-map.

1) I started with the most important character at the table, which in this case is Space Wurm (played by Patrick). That’s an artifact of the game’s structure! Not all games will have stars.

Character nodes get three things in my method:

  • A circle shape around them
  • A gender (including modifications for genderfluid, transgressing, or neutral options)
  • Their age

Updated 7/11/20: I’ve been asked a couple times about why I specifically call out gender and age. Here are my thoughts on that:

  • These are my bare minimum notations, and I’m not excluding other notes. But these two things have proven to be universally interesting across all games that benefit from a relationship map.
  • Gender performance and expectation is always present on the map from personal experience. Most trad players in my very long history of gaming are dudes and characterize only dudes. Leaving gender out was weird and unignorable the way the absence of children is once it caught my attention. So it’s a visual cue to myself and to the players that NPCs aren’t just an endless stream of peers.
  • Age is there because it carries social power dynamic assumptions that I find interesting across most games and situations.

Because a primary goal of this is to notate relationships, I then am careful to leave a lot of room between future circles.

2) I arrange all the other character circles around the r-map, but within the central say…half of the sheet. So! That means leaving about 1/4 of the sheet as a margin around the cluster of central PC circles. Everyone gets name, age, gender, maybe other notes as needed.

3) Specific to SW v M but a general Best Practice idea: I then add notes about factions or faction-analogues in that 1/4-sheet margin. I will note here that I’m now also narrating everything I’m doing. I don’t just write “Interstellar Transport,” I’m saying out loud “okay! Interstellar Transport is one of Space Wurm’s elements that he can control. Let’s talk about the elements and how much control…” and so on. It’s a chance to repeat rulesy things that I think will be important, whether it’s a con one-shot or a home game with old-timers.

Narrate narrate narrate. This is the central theatrical act that keeps everyone focused on the sheet of paper.

4) Now we start drawing lines between everything. In SW v M, everyone is connected to one of the factions/fronts so that kind of takes care of itself. But really the mission-critical bit here is to start asking for actual context. In PbtA style games that’ll be where we talk out Bonds, Hx, Strings, whatever. In Burning Wheel it might be Beliefs and Instincts. In Sig it might be the faction/community/career connections. If you’re doing this in a game that doesn’t have any explicitly mechanized connections, narrate through them anyway here: how did you meet? What’s your current relationship like?

Write a summary of the relationship along the line and draw an arrow to indicate asymmetry. Asymmetrical relationships are best in every game I can think of! Nothing is more tedious to me than “we’re each other’s best friends.” Blaaaah.

5) I will also notate game-specific things with their own shape on the sheet. In this game, there are groups (like the “Engineering Guild” and “Blood Cult” diamonds in the lower right corner) and there are planets (the circles with rings around them). They need to be different and quickly noted as such!

6) When I start adding NPCs, I usually make them rectangles. I screwed that up a little here because I was moving fast and I was tired, but they’re definitely different-looking than the PCs. They also get age and gender notes.

An example from an ill-conceived 3am game of Urban Shadows! Circles are characters, hexes are NPCs, triangles are organizations.

7) Once we’ve knocked out the mechanically important connections between PCs, NPCs, groups, fronts, and locations, I’ll then do another pass to draw connections that are merely implied by the stuff so far. This is a good place to use another Sharpie color.

First draft of a Sagas of the Icelanders r-map, generated during the first session’s setup.
Revised draft of the first map, visually reorganized around specific homesteads and other map features.

Depending on the game, there might be a lot of implied relationships! So for example, Sagas of the Icelanders is all about families, right? When I ran it at Dreamation 2016, Mikael Andersson started doodling up a more traditional family tree to uncover the connections, and it was totally vital to help us remember oh yes, if I have an uncle and we’re cousins, then I guess that uncle is your dad! and other obvious-after-the-fact relationships. SWvM doesn’t need that so I don’t really bother.

8) Once the game is up and running, don’t be shy about adding new things to the r-map. Absolute worst case scenario, you draw a fresh one for your next session.

As characters die, X them out, big and bold. As we learn more about setting details (planets and fronts here), continue adding notes to them. As new NPCs get revealed, add them to the sheet and immediately start drawing connections to what’s already on the sheet.

And talk. Keep talking. Every time your pen touches the sheet, say out loud what’s happening. Engage a couple senses and everyone will (mostly) stay on the same page.

Disclaimer: There are players for whom this method totally does not work. I don’t know how to adapt it so it will. But I listen and check in once in a while to make sure we haven’t left anyone behind.


To recap: use a bold marker on a big sheet that everyone can see, narrate as you go, use different shapes for different entities, add synopses each time you draw a line, and check in regularly to make sure everyone knows what you’re doing.

Don’t Bother With This If…

I’ve run into some games where this method either doesn’t make sense, or is actively detrimental.

* Road trip games. I thought about setting one up for The One Ring when we were playing that, but it doesn’t really make sense there. The only continuous relationships are those between the Fellowship members, and they may go many sessions between locations. In my head, I have tiny r-maps for each town, with a single circle for “the Fellowship” and that town’s NPCs around it. It just doesn’t make sense given the additional load of maintaining a useful r-map.

* Tactical/mission games. Moooostly I don’t bother. I did one for The Sprawl, which is heavily mission-oriented, and it felt like more trouble than it was worth. But it did give me a place to add NPCs as they’re created by that game’s rules. So, maybe? Ehh. Ditto Blades in the Dark, although in that case I might do it specifically because it might take the players’ minds off the mission and help them think more about the larger context of their lives.

Aaaand I think that’s it. AMA.

39 thoughts on “Paul’s R-Map Method”

  1. As someone new to this but who’s seen Paul use it for multiple games and systems, it works exceptionally well. (And Paul is a great facilitator) I was consistently impressed. I’ll be adopting this system for my games — especially PbtA games.

  2. I did an R-Map for The Sprawl to make sure I could keep track of PC relationships to Corps and Corp relationships to each other. It probably wasn’t necessary for the short-term game I ran, but I found that there were lots of little emergent elements, especially as the players tarted creating contacts and then tying their contacts back to specific Corps and specific events.

  3. Would you do this for Tales from the Loop? Should I?

    Oh, wait — you don’t have your copy yet.


    Seriously, TftL has you create relationships as part of chargen, but play involves a lot of mystery-solving. Does that warrant an R-Map? Or does that count as mission-focused play?

    (Disclosure: I’m not sure I’ve ever used an R-Map for anything other than a BW one-shot.)

  4. Mark Delsing you injure me, good sir. Also I do have it!

    I did an r-map for Mutant: Year Zero because the ark politics are so acrimonious and fluid. I don’t know that there’s an equivalent in Tales from the Loop, is there? It might be useful to add some context between the adults in the setting, though, and that might be fruitful.

    I guess I’d need more context, and I haven’t read that far yet. If there are more meaningful NPCs, factions and/or settings than just the PCs and their little cohort, the answer is probably yes.

  5. Paul Beakley TftL players create relationships for the Kids to each other and to NPCs, some of whom may be integral to the mystery, others who may be their Anchors, i.e., people they go to for “healing” and guidance. Inter-Kid relationships may also be asymmetrical.

  6. I’ll second what Patrick Riegert said, but with less experience, since I only sat in on the one SWvM game (where this image was from).

    I’m a fairly visual learner, and this helped me remember key facts. Honestly, I rarely looked at the paper once it was written out, but it was essential the few times I needed to refer to it (and I’m guessing helps eliminate many of those “who is that guy, again?” type questions from the players). Also, just seeing it laid out spatially helps me internalize many of the relationships and components in the game.

    I think this is KEY: “It is a central and theatrical process, which draws everyone’s attention to the table during creation and play. This last one I cannot emphasize enough.” I’m probably going to use it for this, almost as much as the rest!

  7. I’ve been doing this in Roll20 for Urban Shadows. I actually use the same circles for PCs and rectangles for NPCs thing. I try to toss some defining trait on there for each NPC.

  8. It’s great to see a procedure for the infamous Beakley R-maps. Also thanks for a link to the sketch pad since that gives me a good idea of dimensions.

    I have two long running campaign games that could maybe benefit from this. There is a Godbound campaign where the PC’s get their own faction at level 2, and the PC-NPC triangles start to get a bit much fairly quickly. Be nice to point to have a visual aid to explain the status quo.

    The other campaign is one for the Sprawl, which has gotten fairly complicated. Between shell companies being fronts for other megacorps and PCs having the +owned / hunted tag with megacorps… That one might be really big and probably digital. We’re operating in the roll20 virtual table top, where I’ve been running to space/clutter problems. Between the corp clocks, a city map, PC directives and now an R-map i’ll probably have to find some sort of solution. (multiple pages that we’ll have to flip between maybe…)

  9. I suspect my methods are mostly useful in an analog play space. You kids and your Roll20s and digital whiteboards and whatnot!

    My r-maps are best experienced by the light of a fire pit flickering against the walls of our cave.

  10. Aaron Berger oh would you mind sharing a screenshot of Roll20 for that? i’d like to see it.

    Also, I saw a BitD setup where they went way vertical with it, so you could sort of scroll through the stuff as you went.

  11. I’ve seen several very sick BitD set ups on roll20. My only concern would be for load times. I”m not sure how roll20 does under the weight of 20 high fidelity jpgs. But yeah I’ll post updates and questions as I encounter them. The vertical slide is a good idea.

    I’ll work on a digital fire pit so as to properly project our imaginary digital shadows.

  12. Paul Beakley What is the complaint you hear when you encounter poeple for whom the R-map doesn’t work out? Trouble following along, unengaged by the visual/auditory? I guess i’m looking for common complaints that might let me know this isn’t the process for someone.

    Can we also talk more about implied connections and why you might do them in another color? I get the family tree example but trying to think of examples outside of that and I’m stumbling. What would implied connections look like in say Mutant Year: Zero and setting up the ark?

  13. Aaron Berger Don’t get too focused on the r-map as an end-state; it’s all about the formulation and creation of relations/interactions. It’s certainly nice to have as a reference after the fact, but it earns its keep during the generation itself.

  14. Aaron Berger some folks can’t follow the process, or have trouble reading what I’ve written, or can’t really evaluate the connections. Like…it’s just scribbles. I’m sure the running commentary can be a problem as well, if they’re focusing hard on their character sheet.

    Implied connections: different color only to point out which ones have mechanical oomph. In MYZ, that might be the Elder’s Chronicler or a Boss’ Enforcer. I’m also super into having typical normal human connections, right? So lovers, spouses, children (not in MYZ), friends.

  15. You can add my name to the list of folks who have experienced Paul’s Rmap-ing and deeply appreciates it. It’s a fantastic way to sit down at a table and have everyone work on the game /together/.

    I’d like to highlight a favorite aspect of mine: All the exploratory questions. As Paul’s talking and writing through the Rmap process, what he’s writing out includes the take aways from the maaaannny questions put to the table at large and the individual players.

    It’s collaborative, encourages player curiosity, and actively invites (expects) players to have input and opinions. Paul is notably well practiced, and I loved observing as he elicited what players were stoked about via this process.

  16. Andi Carrison oh that’s interesting! I guess I do that, just didn’t notice or realize. But now that you’re saying it, yeah, I can totally see that that’s part of the process. I know that if something occurs to me during a PbtA type setup (bonds, hx, strings, etc) I’ll follow up with clarifying/sharpening questions.

    I probably need to put a camera on myself (ugh) to really catch everything that happens at some point.

  17. Paul Beakley You’re so deeply in the middle of Doing The Thing when you’re leading an Rmap-ing, it’s no surprise that there is an aspect or two that you’re still bringing into the full light of day.

    In particular with Asking Questions, I have a hunch that it’s a behavior or responsibility that is assumed to be part of the larger role of a skillful game facilitator/GM/MC/etc. Thus Asking Questions is a behavior that we assume will be included in the Rmap-ing process because it’s being lead by the game facilitator (and they’re responsible for Asking Questions).

    Cameras can be useful! To be sure, it may be a bit spooky to consider. You’re a great speaker and you can always experiment with some low-bid opportunities to see what you can glean from the material.

  18. I love r-maps too! And I love them even more with pictures. For online games we often use Google Draw, and update the map in real time (example from a Dungeon World hack in its early stages:

    At conventions I bring lots of headshots I find interesting, and pick from them and glue them onto the map (example from a Drama System game, Colony Wars:

    In continuing tabletop series, players bring a picture of their choice.

  19. I recently played While the World Ends, which actually uses an r-map/geographical map hybrid for play. That was quite interesting! Adding relationships to the map is part of the strategy (which you need to win).

    When we play online, we’ve had pretty good experiences with shared Google docs, which we update as we play. It’s not perfect but it works. – While the World Ends, Map

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