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Relationship Mapping

Posted By Phil Vecchione On November 8, 2012 @ 4:00 am In GMing Advice | 9 Comments

In my continuing quest for a campaign, my group has recently picked a Savage Worlds super hero game with a home-brewed setting. As we started working on the characters, I wanted the players to not only have a background, but to have NPC’s that I could use during the sessions. Sounds plenty reasonable, and something that I have done in a number of games before. Rather than doing the normal list of NPC’s, or pulling them from their backgrounds, I wanted to do something a little different…

More Than Leaping Tall Buildings

When one thinks about a supers game, their first thoughts are all about super battles with costume heroes and villains duking it out in a downtown city, with energy beams, and cars being thrown around. A supers setting is far more than that, otherwise combats would be the only thing in comic books, and we know they are not.

Supers stories are about relationships; the ones that the person has and the one that their alter ego has. The drama of a supers game comes from the struggle a person has managing their relationships, the responsibility to use their powers for the greater good, and the consequences of the actions taken and not taken.

There are a number of different kinds of relationships a character can have. Just looking through comics we can see many examples: Peter Parker and Aunt May, Bruce Wayne and Alfred, Clark Kent and Lois Lane, and the list goes on.

I want my players to have some of these relationships, but I wanted to make sure that my players were thinking outside of their comfort zones. Too often players (and GM’s) only create in the places where they are the most comfortable, and that can lead to a lack of inspiration. For this I would need something visual…

A Map Perhaps

Inspired by a number of recent story games, I wanted to have the players create a relationship map, a visual representation showing the different types of relationships a player could have. I like visual representations because they are easy for me to grasp, and easier to see patterns in.

To construct my map, I needed to come up with the various components that would go into the map. The first part was easy, it would center on two parts: the character and their alternate identity. Next, there are the general types of people with which the character could have a relationship. These could be grouped into some large generalizations:

  • Family- A character is always related to someone: parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, etc.
  • Friends- A character has friends either in their normal lives and as their alter egos.
  • Enemies- There are people that do not like the character or their alter ego.
  • Acquaintances- There are people that are not quite friends, and for sure not enemies, but that are still part of the characters lives.
  • Loved Ones- There are people that the character loves and may love them. These are significant others, spouses, crushes, etc. People that are not family.

There are also different types of relationships that people can have. These relationships can be symmetrical (equal between both people) or asymmetrical (one direction). These too had some general categories:

  • Hatred- some people do not like each other, be it for personal or professional reasons.
  • Love - a person can be in love with another person.
  • Support - there are people who help us, or call for help.
  • Compatibility- there are people who we get along with easily, and others where much more work is required.
  • Identity - this one was specific to the supers game. There are people who know a character’s identity, and those who do not.
  • Miscellaneous- there were a few other relationships that did not fit in with any of the above categories, but I thought would be fun to add.

Laying Out The Map

I could have made this exercise as a series of lists or in a narrative form, but again I wanted this to be more graphical. I am a big fan of the graphical setup of Fiasco, and wanted this to have something similar. My first thought was to do something handwritten, but was worried about how legible the maps would be when they were filled out. I decided to create the map in Google Drawings. The starting relationship map looks like this…

The players can then take the relationship boxes on the right, and drag them over to the groups on left. The names in the boxes can then be edited to the NPC’s that players define. Because the map focuses on both the character and their alter ego, each one gets a different color, and the color of the box is changed to reflect which person the relationship is connected to. A filled out map looks something like this…

From the completed map, here are a few interesting things:

  • An NPC relationship can have more than one facet (Linda Balor).
  • Negative relationships are not just for Enemies (Uncle James, Cindy).
  • You don’t need to balance between the character and his alter ego, but it does make things more interesting.

Picturing Relationships

The Relationshp Map is a method to diagram relationships for a character. The map shows at a glance not only the relationships, but based on distribution of the relationships within the groups, gives an indication of what groups have more meaning for the player/character.

For those that are interested in this map, I have made a copy of the map available for viewing on Google Drive.

Make a copy if you like, alter it to your own needs. Feel free to change out the relationship types, etc.

Do you have your players go through a process for creating relationships for their characters? If so, how do you document the relationships? Is it in a text format or a graphical format?

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.




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9 Comments To "Relationship Mapping"

#1 Comment By Philmagpie On November 8, 2012 @ 5:14 am

Hi Phil,

For our new pirate-style campaign I had the Players create a relationship map in the style of Robin D Laws’ Hillfolk/DramaSystem.

This linked the Characters together in a web of relationships. I also asked them to create an external NPC or Faction linked to each Hero, and thus engaged the Players in creating parts of the setting for me.

I am now hoping to be able to use this relationship as a springboard for stories.

Thanks again

Phil

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On November 8, 2012 @ 12:09 pm

I like the look of your map! With Great Power, also a superhero RPG, centers strongly on relationships and their status. (I wrote about With Great Power earlier this year.)

One of the things that a traditional boxes-n-strings relationship map might encourage is overlapping; does Uncle James just hate Starblast, or all of the heroes? Does Linda Balor love Kyle but fantasize about [other player's Hero X]?

It looks like a fun campaign–armed with a sheet like that for everyone, it should be easy to make the campaign sing with more than fight-a-week plots.

#3 Comment By randite On November 8, 2012 @ 2:26 pm

Love the Diagram, Phil!
It’s only been in the past few years that I’ve started using visual aids like these in my games, and I’ve found them to be extremely helpful. I just can’t seem to pull it together as well as I used to from haphazard notes scrawled through a pad. Maybe my standards are higher or maybe I’m just not as sharp as I used to be. Either way, I’ve come to rely on diagrams and worksheets that visually present information in a consistent, helpful way.
I’ve tried to use the web style relationship maps before, but I find them to more confusing than helpful if more than 5 or so parties are involved. What I really like about Phil’s map is how discretely the information is presented. That kind of grouping just jives with my brain-box better than the free flowing stuff. Plus, the map has a definite perspective to it, the PC’s, which is perfect for character creation.

I’m definitely going to be purloining and modifying this for my own nefarious purposes. While I do like the prompts/descriptions to the right, I’ll probably do away with them. Instead, I expect I’ll make a sample list of possible/example descriptors and modify the whole thing to be filled out by hand.

I’ve mandated back-stories for PCs and had great success with them (we even roleplay through one or two formative moments during character creation), but often it seems that all of it gets left in the past. I think something like this would help keep things in the present.

#4 Comment By Razjah On November 8, 2012 @ 7:04 pm

This is awesome, thanks for putting it on Drive so that we can use it.

#5 Comment By clight101 On November 9, 2012 @ 12:43 am

You realize what you just did was create a type of framework for world building within character creation. The only thing missing here is some sort of mechanical element to back up all the pieces the players have created. It’s almost like Dresden character creation or similar to the Drama System without necessarily including the other players. Just throw in a couple of requirements that need the players to hook each other into their character relationship maps and then throw a setting rule on top which states anytime you put any of these people in danger who are loved ones or friends the player gets a benny, or if one of their enemies shows up to cause trouble for them specifically then the player get a benny. Now this really cool information sheet which will help you put together interesting sessions will also have mechanical relevance and reward the players not just narratively with hooks they created but will also reward them mechanically. It can also take some stress off the GM if the players suggest enemy X shows up to cause trouble or friend Y is on the scene and becomes endangered.

#6 Comment By EricG On November 9, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

Wow, clean, simple and efficient map, it’s awesome, this will do great to expand my player’s backgrounds

#7 Pingback By Links, Part 2: The Right Tool for the Job | intwischa.com On November 13, 2012 @ 9:32 am

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#8 Comment By R2R On November 28, 2012 @ 9:55 pm

Hello Phil!

Great article, nice idea, I like it very much. Thanks a lot!

Do you mind if I translate the post and relationship map template into Russian for the players who don’t read English?
With credits and links back to your article, of course.

#9 Comment By Phil Vecchione On November 28, 2012 @ 10:02 pm

Yes, you have my permission to translate the post and the relationship map into Russian. Credits and links to the article would be great.

Спасибо.


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