Maybe it was just the people I gamed with during the late 90’s and early 2000’s, but whenever a Vampire: The Masquerade (and later, The Requiem) chronicle came up, it became very clear that the Storyteller Characters of [insert current city] were lovingly detailed and had a myriad of conflicts that us players could muck around with. That was all fine and good, but it often left just the slightest hint of bitterness that our characters were the ones running around messing with the Storyteller Characters’ relationships, rather than having them mess with ours.
It wasn’t just semantics, either. When the Smallville Roleplaying Game debuted the Cortex Plus Dramatic system, one of its core features was called “Pathways.” It was a whole system that supported the creation of those Coterie Charts that appeared in the back of the Chicago By Night sourcebook for Vampire and later World of Darkness books, except it wasn’t there just for the Storyteller’s reference: it was the basis of character creation, creating relationships between the player characters and the NPCs that the players felt would be important to them.
Join me as we take a trip down re-framing the Coterie Chart through the lens of Smallville’s Pathways, casting the player character Kindred as the stars of the show and building your chosen City By Night™ as a means to challenge the PCs’ relationships between each other, connections to their Havens and other Backgrounds, and, just maybe, their Humanity.
At its simplest, the Relationship Chart is a visual tool that places the player characters as the axis that all other things rotate around. The PCs form a wheel of relationships between one another, and various things connected to them — locations that are important to them (including their Haven), contacts, mortal family members, Ghouls and retainers, their Sire, members of the same Clan (or Covenant in Requiem) — branch off, sometimes connected to an individual PC, other times connected to multiple PCs.
While books like Chicago By Night featured relationship charts like this for various Coteries, Clans, or power groups within a city, building such a chart for the player characters first will reframe the entire chronicle around them: the Storyteller doesn’t need to (and probably shouldn’t) build much of anything in advance, except maybe just picking the city and perhaps a Theme and Mood as described in the Vampire rulebook. The players get to choose how their characters are connected to one another emotionally (and perhaps physically), beyond the simple statement that they are “in the same Coterie.” The following process will then reveal not only what can be connected to each PC on the chart, but how it is connected to the chronicle.
The fundamental pieces of the Relationship Chart are the Player Characters (PCs), the Targets, and the Relationship Lines.
Player Characters. It’s so important, it bears repeating: the Relationship Chart centers everything about the chronicle on the Player Characters. Add their names to the chart with plenty of space to add social connections, locations that are important to them, and one-word or short phrase descriptions of the relationships that bind them together as a Coterie.
If it helps frame things properly for you, remember that Smallville refers to the Player Characters as the Leads. Though they may not be physically present in every scene together, these are the characters who carry the plots and arcs of a an entire run of a television show. Only rarely will one die or get written off. While your chronicle can be more deadly or feature more turnover than that, or might be significantly shorter (like a BBC series that’s only 6 episodes), the point is that the Leads — whether alive, dead or undead — should have a significant impact on the types of stories that are told and a lasting impact even once they are gone on how the people and places of the world are interconnected.
Targets. Put any location or social relationship on the Chart. We’ll call these “Targets”: they are the things with descriptive relationship arrows pointing to and from them. In complete honesty, it’s more accurate to say that those relationships are the targets (you’ll see why under Storyteller Characters as Wedges), but semantics is for people with bad arguments.
Not all of the important locations and Storyteller Characters need to come from the traits of the Player Characters, but that’s always a great start. Consider every trait that directly involves a specific character or cast of characters, and any location, as a Target to place on the Relationship Chart:
- Allies: add them individually (“Chet – Bill’s Ally”) or as a group (“Bill’s Allies”).
- Black Hand Membership: add them strictly as a group (“Black Hand”) to the chart.
- Contacts: add them as a group (“Bill’s Contacts”) to the chart.
- Herd: you could take or leave this treat from the Chart; it’s not usually so central that it requires a relationship. Adding Herd pretty much requires you to say to the players, “Hey, I might screw with your Herd. This could affect your hunting rolls. Is that okay?”
- Retainers: add them as a group.
- Merits: many Merits make great Targets to add to the Relationship Chart. Consider all of the following, plus any new ones from splatbooks that work along similar lines: Broken Bond (the regnant is added to the Chart as a Target), Mole, Old Pal, Prestigious Sire, Spirit Mentor, True Love.
- Flaws: many Flaws make great Targets to add to the Relationship Chart. Consider all of the following, plus any new ones from splatbooks that work along similar lines: Bound (the regnant to whom you are bound is added to the Chart as a Target), Catspaw, Enemy, Escaped Target, Haunted, Hunted, Hunted Like a Dog, Infamous Sire, Loathsome Regnant, Old Flame, Rival Sires (both your Sire and the rival could be Targets added to the Relationship Chart), Sire’s Resentment (the Sire is added to the Chart as a Target), Sleeping With the Enemy.
You’ll notice Status isn’t there (this is just personal standing), nor is Resources (your money isn’t necessarily in a set, physical location). We don’t care about your Charisma or Appearance score (as well as various Merits and Flaws that modify interactions with storyteller characters), despite their use in social interactions.
Relationship Lines. The relationships that are entered on the chart are made up of a line from a PC to one of the Targets, a descriptive word or phrase that defines the nature of the relationship, and an arrow that designates in which direction that word or phrase flows (it could flow both ways, signifying a mutual feeling).
In the example below, you see that Celestine and Louis are courting one another (the arrow flows both ways), while Lord Hugh is not just the cousin of Isabelle of Valois (a relationship that would by its definition flow both ways), but also molested her (a much more one-sided descriptor!).
There are few rules on how the arrows flow; this is almost entirely dictated by the types of storylines and issues the players and Storyteller wish to deal with. Storytellers should, however, use the flow of relationships (and thus the arrows themselves) as a method of controlling the themes and mood of the campaign, if and when these are established. If every character is having sex with everyone else and there’s no one-sided relationships that suggest jealousy or unrequited love, there isn’t much conflict to hang stories off of.
Keep It Organized!
We’ll discuss the actual physical medium of the Chart in a second, so suffice it to say that you want to keep things organized: don’t write down “Bill – Caitiff” and then somewhere else write down “Herd 3″…write down that it’s “Bill’s Herd 3” or whatever it takes to keep things organized. Obviously, the relationship arrows serve as a useful tool for keeping track of who has what traits (Targets), but consider — as in the example — different colors for PCs vs. Storyteller Characters, and perhaps even trait-driven characters or locations vs. non-trait derived ones (i.e. such as one Cainite being a character’s Mentor Background while another one is simply the Prince and no one is connected to him by a specific trait on their character sheet).
If colored pencils or sticky notes aren’t handy, consider using different shapes around the character, trait, or location to denote what’s what. Squares around the Player Characters, circles around Storyteller Characters, and diamonds around locations might help keep things easy to reference at a glance.
In the Flesh
To some degree, the medium you choose to record your campaign’s relationship chart on depends on whether or not you need to reference it for more than one session. If it’s only a one-shot thing, just use a whiteboard or piece of paper and you’re done. But if you need something that lasts for the entire campaign, and need some ideas on how to keep it flexible but without it falling to pieces or being lost to the ether, here are a few thoughts.
Whiteboard. Whiteboards aren’t going to be a permanent solution, but they are great for the initial character and campaign setup, just to get your ideas down. Dry erase or wet erase; doesn’t matter. Once you’re done, take pictures with your cell’s camera and find a more permanent solution for reference throughout the campaign.
Paper & Post-its. You’ll want to keep the post-its small if you’ve got more than a handful of characters, so look for those small, thin bookmark-style post-its.
Poster board. Need more room? Hit the 99Cents Store and pick up some poster board (you can get flimsy cardstock or more durable foam board) and slap some post-its on there so you can move them around a little; you can use the bigger post-its for this. Write in light pencil or use differently colored post-its as a temporary notation of the relationship; you can trace over or replace this with permanent marker or something once things are solidified a bit more.
Flowchart Software. If you’ve got a program that is good at building flowcharts, organizational charts, or something similar, go with that. Just be aware that in the early stages of character and campaign creation, things will be a bit fluid, so you need to be adept at making changes.
3×5 Index Cards. You could just layout index cards on the table (or on the floor, if you’re a filthy barbarian) and write a name in the middle in bold letters (permanent marker works), and then write in name & relationship notes in small, pencil-written text in the corners or edges that face other cards, arranging as necessary to get the relationship chart you want. Take a picture or something for the permanent overview, and then hand each person their card, so they have their own, personalized relationship chart. Lots of characters, use a bigger card, or be a better human being and learn to write smaller. (#KiddingNotKidding)
Building the Relationship Chart is a collaborative effort between the Players and the Storyteller, and in many cases will take up a short session’s worth of game time. The players can come with their characters already created, or go through the character creation process, adding Targets and relationship descriptions as they build their characters.
Step One: Place the Player Characters
Add each Player Character’s name to the chart; feel free to note the player next to the corresponding name if you wish, especially if you’re playing with new players or at a convention. Avoid the temptation to add additional information next to each character name: there’s no need to note Clan, Generation, or any other aspect about the character.
Step Two: Place the Background Targets
Once the players have reached Step Four: Select Advantages in the Character Creation Process (Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary p. 80), jot down any Backgrounds that make appropriate Targets. (See the list, above, and feel free to add others from various splatbooks that make sense as Targets.)
Remember to keep Backgrounds listed relatively close to the corresponding character, and don’t let them “block” a straight line to or from any of the other Player Characters. Basically, Backgrounds (and Merits & Flaws, added in the next step) should “satellite out” as a separate set of relationships from the corresponding character.
You may have other Player Characters eventually draw relationship lines to another Player Character’s Backgrounds (or Merits & Flaws), so keep that in mind, but don’t stress now. If you have to do some moving around, erasing, or re-sticking of post-it notes, so be it.
Step Three: Place the Merit & Flaw Targets
If you use the optional Merits & Flaws traits, add appropriate ones near the corresponding character, just like you did for Backgrounds.
Step Four: Add a few Storyteller Targets
For every Player Character, the Storyteller now adds a single Target. This can be a Storyteller character or group, such as The Prince, The Sabbat Infiltrator and The Primogen Council, or it can be a location important to the Kindred, such as The Succubus Club or Chadwick Manor (Elysium).
While the “one per Player Character” rule is essentially arbitrary at this point, it does place a hard and fast limit on how much the Storyteller is building, and it forces everyone at the table to consider where these Storyteller-added Targets are placed in relation to the Player Characters. Will everyone have some kind of relationship with The Prince? Will only some characters know that Chadwick Manor is Elysium at the start of the chronicle?
Step Five: Create Relationships
At this point, every player gets to decide how they feel about each and every other Player Character, as well as each and every Target that is directly related to them (their own traits, as well as any Storyteller-placed Targets that are conceivably “near” them on the chart). In most circumstances, it’s simple enough to let players handle this entirely themselves, but discussion should be encouraged.
Alternatively, a Storyteller could impose some limitations, or a specific order of placing relationships. Perhaps only the Storyteller defines the ones to Storyteller-placed Targets. Perhaps every Player Character gets a free “turn” in which they can define a relationship for one other Player Character (say, if Bill gets a free turn and defines Kathy’s relationship with the Prince as “contentious”). Make sure to discuss before hand if there are any rules like these, and keep the playstyle of the group in mind. If you or other players are defining relationships for someone, it takes great trust and care not to undermine their vision for the character they want to play.
Whatever the case may be, draw a line and arrow from the Player Character to the Target and write a one-word or very short phrase that describes the relationship. Whether it’s a one-way arrow or a two-way relationship is up to you (and yes, it can be a one-way arrow going from the Target to the Player Character, unreciprocated at this time by the PC). The Storyteller and players may choose to impose rules about the direction of arrows, but this is something that should be discussed beforehand. At a minimum, every player should be able to define their relationship arrows pointing toward every other Player Character; players should not be forced into relationships not of their choosing. Since relationships can often feature secret rivalries, unreciprocated love or friendship, and so on, it’s easy enough to have pretty divergent relationships between two characters, so long as each player defines their feelings without feeling required to match the other player.
Step Six: Finishing Touches
Once all relationships have been defined by the Player Characters, there’s very likely to be a few missing arrows or definitions from various Backgrounds or other traits, or there might be obvious Targets to add to the playing field now that some amount of discussion has taken place. Often, this will mean adding some more important locations that weren’t previously defined by traits (havens, Elysium, Clan-specific hideouts or gathering spots).
How these subsequent relationships and additional Targets are added is up to the group, but it’s useful to consider a format that speaks to the relative experience level of the players, as well as the power-level of the characters.
For example, if you are playing a campaign of Neonate characters relatively new to unlife in the city, it’s probably best to just wrap up without adding anything else: you’ve got a lot of blank relationships and mysterious locales yet to be defined, and that will become part of the experience gained during play.
In a campaign of Ancillae or Elders as Player Characters, you may want to give every player one additional “round” of placing either a single Storyteller Character (or group) or location and defining their relationship to it, followed by a second round in which every player then defines a relationship to any one of the other player-placed Targets.
This is a great way to either provide a lot of undefined nooks and crannies for exploration, or to fill in additional details about other existing Coteries, Clan members, or rival Sects that have an established place in the conflicts and relationships that make up the chart.
Step Seven: Final Draft
At this point, the chart is likely filled with lots of eraser marks, scratched out post-its, or weird, loopy lines because stuff was placed way far away from where it probably should’ve been. Take the time to polish up the Relationship Chart in your medium of choice, remembering to make it as impermanent or permanent as your chronicle needs.
As a reminder, consider taking pictures or making duplicate copies of the chart if at all possible, to ensure it doesn’t get lost or destroyed. Additionally, the players themselves may want copies, or maybe to save yourself some trouble, you can assign a specific player as the “gatekeeper” that keeps the chart updated as Storyteller Characters die or move out of the city, and as locations get blown up. Because that’s what happens in my Vampire chronicles, at least.
Relationship Charts In Play
You’ve got the chart in some kind of finalized form, and you have all these defined relationships. So what?
The primary purpose of the Relationship Chart is to provide the Storyteller with a list of relationships to challenge. “Challenging a relationship” means finding the conflict in the relationship and bringing it to the fore by baiting the Player Characters into opposing each other on a related issue, or by coming between them in such a way as to weaken the relationship. Featuring Storyteller characters, groups, and situations that undermine a relationship, or bring out some secret between two characters that threatens to change the nature of the relationship (either one of the arrows or both!), are the primary tools for this.
Check out the article Storyteller Characters as Wedges (coming soon!) to see how you can build NPCs specifically geared to challenge the relationships between the Player Characters, their traits, and the things they value most in their city.
In terms of situations, you want to make use of the Targets as much as possible, often by having two Targets come into conflict with each other, or with multiple Player Characters, such that a line in the sand must be drawn. Alternatively, outside factors — people, situations — might threaten a Target, which threatens to redefine at least one Player Character’s relationship with that Target. Great situations threaten multiple Targets or relationships; the best situations feature multiple-pronged attacks on different Targets or relationships, or enough plotlines that threaten to run into one another, creating a bigger “blast radius” on the Relationship Chart and threatening lots of stuff on it.
For example, you can have one Sabbat Infiltrator as a Target on the Relationship Chart. And maybe the relationship between him and one or two of the Player Characters isn’t even antagonistic (maybe this comes from the Mole Merit, or perhaps it’s a more story-driven alliance of circumstance). But when the Sabbat sends a couple Packs into the city to do some recon for a potential invasion, that creates a situation that will affect anybody interested in the Masquerade and possibly several locations as a result. The Infiltrator will definitely be doing things that may strain any relationships, and if any Player Characters are discovered to have an existing relationship with him of any kind, they could be in trouble with their superiors.
Keep the Relationship Chart up-to-date as much as possible; some mediums tend to be better for on-the-fly changes, so plan ahead for whatever format you need to keep notes in order to update things as the chronicle progresses. For short stories or even one-off sessions, it really pays to be able to move things on the fly if you expect relationships to not just get challenged, but get straight up changed (or deleted if a character or location disappears off the map). Sticking to poster board and post-it notes can save a lot of hassle for short-term games, while having a digital org chart program or something can make longer-term charts more immediately handy for emailing or posting to a website for in-between-session referencing.
Have you used Coterie Charts like this, or in some other unique way? Have you played the Cortex Plus hack “Vampville” from the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide? Tell us what your experiences have been!
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