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.
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.
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.
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.