Using Tanglegrams for Planning RPG Sessions

As I facilitate more roleplaying games, I find myself leaning more towards sandbox experiences with a large cast of NPCs. I establish a starting scenario to introduce these characters over the first few sessions without much of an idea of what the narrative is going to be. This is not to say that I do not plan any story – I often like to have something happening at the forefront in a session but it is determined by player and NPC actions instead of pulled from a plan. To do this I maintain session notes to remind myself of who interacted with who and how it went but this becomes painful when I need to trawl through notes from multiple sessions. Here is where I believe a tanglegram could benefit my and your campaigns.

A tanglegram is like a mindmap except it focuses on the interconnections between people and things. It was originally proposed by Ian Hodder in his 2012 book, Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things, where he argues that humans live to sustain a material world. I believe this could be used to track the many NPCs, objects, factions, and PCs in a roleplaying game between sessions to aid with identifying story seeds and generating initial session situations.

Though untested, here is how I may approach this in future campaigns that I facilitate.

  1. Create a cast of characters (including PCs)
  2. Map the connections between the NPCs and PCs by using colour-coding or labelling to identifying the type of relationship and whether or not it is one-sided or not
  3. Add in various objects, locations, and factions of significance as independent entities
  4. Review the map and make necessary changes after each session and then use this in the planning process before the next session

Create a Cast of Characters

We all develop and create NPCs in a variety of manners and with varying degrees of depth. For the purposes of illustrating the use of Tanglegrams I am leaving each NPC at a single, brief sentence and only including a few.

  • Newt, an ancient witch preparing a blood ritual to revive her long dead sister and using Dr. Patella to gather bodies
  • Eye, Newt’s long dead sister who leaves the streets of Amberbrooke bloody
  • Residents of Amberbrooke who are working hard to establish a new life here
  • Meretah, a self-proclaimed detective who is often found nose-deep in a book or other people’s business
  • Chaypin Patella, a world-renowned doctor in the recent employ of Lord Amber
  • Rose, a local herbalist that tries to watch over Amberbrooke and its residents

Initial Mapping

To make use of these more easily then identifying the type of relationship between two entities is crucial but it is best to keep these brief. As you can see the relationships between each character is known and those who do not have knowledge of others is easily visible.

Figure 1. The initial map of the tanglegram demonstrating the relationships between various characters.

Adding in the Rest

In this step the locations, objects, and factions should be added in as separate entities with attached relationships. As you can see below, I colour-coded my blocks to distinguish between characters, objects, and locations. It may look something like this:

Figure 2. A tanglegram demonstrating the relationships between characters (yellow), locations (blue), and objects (purple).

Review and Planning

Over time these tanglegrams could become monstrously large but by displaying the relationship between all entities within a sandbox campaign it may be easier to identify story seeds or situations that players find themselves in. For example, the players may be out strolling at night and may see Chaypin Patella at the ruins or Meretah at the tavern. One evening the players may visit the doctor to find that Rose is banging angrily on his door and asking him to leave the healing to her. This could be left as a brief scene to introduce characters or it could blossom into something more.

An obvious limitation of this visualising method is that it represents a tangled web of relationships – I suppose that is the point. With the understanding that we do not require to understand or see every relationship at once, just those relevant, it becomes less of a problem. Some software could also reduce this problem by allowing a use to click on an entity and have the relationships to it highlighted or to select multiple and have the pathways between them highlighted. I do not know this exists, but it could support the use of tanglegrams well. In the end, this is nothing more than a tool to facilitate the generation of ideas and note-taking that I thought might be interesting to try out the next time I facilitate a game.

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