A relationship map is a well established design pattern for tabletop roleplaying, a useful tool for not only visualizing relationships but also suggesting opportunities for interesting play. Running Sagas of the Icelanders I’ve found them essential. For convention play, where time is a sharp constraint and I want to foreground actual play, I developed a beginning in media res situation and present it as a relationship map with blank spots for players to fill in. Any spot not chosen is either occupied by an NPC or a dead person.
This works great; players not only get to position themselves in a place they find compelling but are also immediately immersed in the lines of connection and friction within the situation. In the one I linked, for example, answering “what’s the deal with the Goði’s sister and the groom?” is always exciting.
Sure, the players arrive and when we’re ready to play, I present the situation and r-map. There’s going to be a wedding between two powerful families. Choose a playbook and a place within the structure (most playbooks have two possible locations to fit in, a few do not).
In one session no one chooses to play the bride or groom - we have the Goði, his son the Huscarl, the groom’s sister the Skjaldmey, and her mother. The really interesting questions that arise from these choices are who Rafnar Straw-Hair is (he is somehow connected to both the Skjaldmey and the Huscarl). Those two players decide that he is secret lover to both of them, which is a pretty exciting choice - it means they can be at odds over this guy. We stop and have a discussion of homosexuality and agree to be ahistorical and relaxed about it.
As GM I have to tighten things up for the mother of the groom and the father of the bride. It’s pretty easy - I make the bride reluctant and wanting to patch things up with her ex-husband, the loathsome Hafni Sturlasson. For the Matriarch, I up the diplomatic stakes by making them desperate for the money and status that the marriage will provide. I invite the table to help decide what is going on between the groom and the Goðis’ sister. It turns out the Matriarch’s son (brother to the Skjaldmey) is romantically involved with his future mother in law, which is decidedly uncool. If the bride finds out it is going to wreck the whole deal.
So we’re ready to go with a charged situation that involved:
Each player making a simple positional choice (for the Skjaldmey and Goði, no choice at all)
Filling in the blank spots they did not choose with people who have interesting things going on related to the PCs, both arbitrarily and by asking the table.
It was very fast and simple. Everyone is immediately invested in co-creation. As a GM, it’s always fun to see what choices people make and creating a completely new situation every time from these fairly rigid bones.
Seeing the map you’ve set up, how you work through it, and then the “sample from play” with notes on it is really cool and instructive.
I love this kind of approach to play, even if I haven’t messed around with specific relationship maps like this in a while. This is a good reminder to experiment some more and try some techniques! What a great thread; I’ll be coming back to this one at some point.
Question 1. The topic of effectively making situations in play has been discussed for a while in Adept Play. Turns out it’s underdeveloped in a lot of roleplayers, and particularly we’ve found that prep only goes so far. A lot of people have problems actually making the situation in play, independently from prep.
Do you remember how you went from filling in and deciding the details—I’m calling this step prep—to actually inserting them in play, fully framed and actionable? What about the points of conflict and uncertainty? Who framed scenes? How did you get to triggering moves? What did the humans at the table do?
Question 2. You mentioned everyone being “invested in co-creation”. Could you explain what you mean there?
Question 3. Since you’re talking about convention play, did you ever have to deal with the timeslot ending early? Do you tailor the graph based on how much time you have? Is it even possible to predict (this is rhetorical, I don’t think it is)? Did you ever run out of time?
It’s a PBTA game; once the situation is created it is completely actionable. As facilitator I can look at this and have the NPCs act if I need to. Ingrid disappears to go see Hafni, what do you do? Torsten, Rafnar cuts you off and declares his love for Fulla. Fulla, your oath prevents you from a romantic entanglement, what do you both do? Rafnar, your sister is fucking the groom-to-be, what do you do? Usually I don’t need to rely on these since folks at the table will have their own ideas and want to address these questions immediately without prompting. I love Sagas of the Icelanders because the moves are crystal clear indicators of what you should be doing, and the relationships are very dramatic and straightforward.
The act of establishing this R-map requires everyone to think as a group, work together, and build off one another. We’re co-creating and it’s a good way to model behavior I’d like to see throughout the session.
This particular R-map is finely tuned for my facilitation style and about three hours of play. I’m confident I can run a satisfying session with it, with time for an introduction, discussion of safer play, character and situation creation, actual play, and plenty of time at the end in four hours. On rare occasions I’ve told the group that we need to make some choices based on time considerations, elide some things, speed up others, 2/3s of the way through. I think this is just being a competent facilitator.
Is it? That’s such a wild blanket statement that I don’t know how to process it. Let’s take a step back from “this is a game of X type” to a specific instance of play.
Let me rephrase: I didn’t ask for hypothetical examples. I asked for an instance of when you did it for real as a group, and how you went from e.g. the diagram you showed, filled in by everyone, and invested together, to having a complete situation in play, framed, fully actionable, playable, resonant. Possibly, up to your first roll. I’m not interested in what you did as a facilitator to get people to do things, but to what all the humans at the table did—how they contributed, what did they say, how they interacted—hopefully of their own volition.
I also have some questions. How conscious is your design process for putting together a relationship map like this? Is it largely intuitive, or do you lean on a particular size/shape, particular topics, issues, etc?
Were there particular historical or literary sources that you used here, and, if so, what was your process for that?
You seem to have a keen eye for knowing what needs to be filled out or “spiked” once the players choose their “field positions” on the relationship map. If that is something you’ve brainstormed or have a particular technique for, I’d love to hear about it. Do you look for anything in particular? Otherwise, the examples are great, and I might ponder if some of them are generalizable into general relationship-map-usage-technique.
Thanks for the excellent questions. Sagas of the Icelanders seems to work well in this confined format (the convention game) when paired with typically tense moments in the sagas - a wedding, a funeral, a fjórðungsdómur Quarter Court, the arrival of Norwegian royalty, the return of locals who have been a-viking. Often at those moments you get to best see the game’s mechanisms in action (men are murder robots and women point the men at one another to achieve familial and personal goals), which consciously emulate the sagas, where honor culture routinely spills out of control.
So putting together this R-map (and I’ve made others for Sagas as well), I started with a wedding and built out kinship relationships from there. A sister, a brother, an aunt, a mother, a father. All these get mapped to playbooks. Then I add affinity and romantic relationships (an ex-husband, an undefined guy who connects two siblings-in-law for undefined reasons). A few static NPCs (a rival Goði, etc) in the mix. You can easily tune this for tone - make one that consists of a single family, make one that excludes certain playbooks, etc. In terms of complexity this is the right size for a 4-hour convention slot - everything is pointed inward at a small group that includes the PCs.
With all this in place, and after the players have built up a situation within this scaffolding, and I find it easy to look at any character and find a reason for them to be in motion - to want something, to need something - that is going to cause interesting friction. For example in one session Rafnar Straw-Hair was the family Huscarl and a fellow warrior of the Skjaldmey and the rival Huscarl (in that game an NPC). I made the rival Huscarl insult the Skjaldmey and try to convince her loyal friend that her behavior was ungodly. They were best friends but her Huscarl was like “he’s right”. And that was enough to give the Skjaldmey’s player lots to do.
A good example there, as well. It seems like you drew on a particular NPC to jump-start the potential for conflict present in your setup - an effective GM tool.
I only ran Sagas once, and it was a medium-term game (something like ~10 sessions). I also found that I got a lot of great material out of just including every playbook in the game as an NPC. They have strong concepts and hooks and inform your understanding of the historical milieu and the kinds of conflicts that can arise. My Skaggi (a cross-dressing berserker) was a particularly memorable character, I thought - wounded mortally early on by an axe-throw, she wandered, insulting and murdering, for most of the rest of the game, occasionally appearing at night or at significant events… while people whispered amongst themselves, wondering whether she had, indeed, somehow survived that axe blow, or whether she was now some kind of revenant or spirit of vengeance sent to punish them for broken rules of honour or hospitality.
We’re probably using actionable in different ways. To me it means “ready to play the game after all preliminaries have been completed”. I’m afraid I can’t provide a specific example in detail, they all sort of blur together. I know people who can lovingly recount the specific details of a game session years later and I am not one of those people.
As I said earlier, I’m back! This is a great technique, and I like how simple but yet complicated your relationship map is here.
I’m looking at the symbols with curiosity, as well.
I guess the “little boxes” are simply NPCs you wanted to preset, not available as potential PCs. (The grey boxes, in other words.)
Do you have a particular logic for which these are? Why is the Godi in Langisandur available for play, but not the Godi in Eyrarvatn, for instance?
Rafnar Straw-Hair seems like a potential troublesome shit-disturber, in terms of the scenario… is that because you felt this kind of NPC was necessary for the GM to play? Or could you see making his “spot” available to play, too? (I’d imagine it’s trickier when the character isn’t directly related to either the groom or the bride, which may have been your criteria here; easy for him to remain unentangled, perhaps.)
I guess that solid black lines are family relationships, whereas dotted lines are non-blood relations, but something significant (like love and lust or grudges).
And why do some characters get a little “flag” symbol? Is it, perhaps, indicating a position of leadership?
Anything else you can remember about conscious choices you made in drawing this are of interest to me, as well!
Hi Paul, The grey boxes are pre-set NPCs, which sort of anchor the situation in place. The Goði of Eyrayvatn isn’t central to the wedding, and is only relevant because his son is mysteriously involved somehow. Ifyou’re going to choose to play the Goði (and my assumption is no duplicate playbooks), I want to point you at a Goði in the middle of everything.
Rafnar should be a shit-stirrer, and he’s non-playable so the GM has some shit-stirring tools on hand. Same logic as the Goði of Eyrarvatn - not central, why make it available? It’s a family drama, keep it in the family.
The flag is for “this person is nominally the head of the family”. Which might also present some interesting information about Sturla Lapstrake if someone plays his son the Wanderer.
Looking back at the R-map, my thinking was: Two families coming together, so options on either side of that divide, of both genders. All playbooks represented. Both obvious and ambiguous relationships. As few characters as possible while still keeping it charged. Set things up for a political game, a romantic game, a score-settling game, as reflected by player choice.
@Paul_T here’s another one I’ve used, for example. This one is a little more complex and is clearly oriented toward exploring issues of autonomy and succession. IIRC it was inspired by the Icelandic film Hafið. Enslaved people, a politically-charged foster son, three adult children wrapped up in some craziness, lots to chew on. Honestly I like the wedding better for a one-shot.
There will definitely be empty boxes. All become NPCs and as GM you can make a judgement call as to whether they are relevant based on the player’s choices. If so they are already well integrated. If not, they can be present but unimportant, or away for the season, or dead.
Great answers, Jason. I had come to similar conclusions about your markings here, so the implications are evident enough, I suppose! It’s a really nice format. Thanks for the great explanation; it’s actually quite useful and interesting to hear how you go about putting this stuff together.
What about the question marks next to some relationships? Is that supposed to indicate that it’s mysterious, or, vice-versa, particularly important to clarify? Or a reminder to turn it over to the group and ask about it?
It’s great to see a second example for constrast. I’m going to look it over and come back later with any thoughts or comments or questions. Nice!
That’d be actually great to expand on, Jason. On average, how much of the relationship map do you end up “using”—as in, they become either PCs or relevant, non-background, NPCs? Is there variance in this? Have you ever used the entire map, or have you ever used only a little bit?