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Monster Defined Settings

February 8, 2015

One of the best ways to set up a fantasy setting is to have a single monster, or class of monsters, that changes the way everything in your world works.

Years back, I had this idea of a giant flying beast, wingspan large enough to cover valleys – it flew slowly, it never stopped flying, and any human caught under it’s shadow – died.   So all of human society was built around having these roofed way points and hiding spots for when it would come around.  The point was that the monster forced everyone to have to crowd up and deal with each other more, exacerbating personal drama between the characters in the community – pretty similar to how zombies work in a lot of zombie stories.

Videogames like Final Fantasy X also did a great job of presenting an uber-monster (“Sin”) that the entire society, religion and world was revolving around.  Recently, anime like Attack on Titan have become popular – again, a single type of monster – the horrific Titans, altering how everyone lives.

I remember seeing an RPG.net thread where they talked about a city built around a captured Tarrasque – it constantly would regenerate, so they could keep harvesting bits from it…

It’s a fun exercise to create a fantasy world that is different with a simple starting point and creates some interesting pressures and problems beyond “army of undead/orcs” or “random lich/dragon” problems.

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Signal Boost – Justice Points – “Dragons Aren’t Real”

February 3, 2015

Justice Points is a podcast I just got into, but the most recent podcast has my friend Tanya talking about I Need Diverse Games.

Towards the end of the podcast, there’s a pretty great conversation about games that try to deal with discrimination, but then fail to understand that racism has particular experiences to culture – the racism of the real world, Post-Atlantic Slave Trade, is not the same kind of racism (such as dealing with colorism) you’d get in a setting dealing with racism against elves.   This is a common issue I find in media – these really ugly and clumsy attempts to do parallels to racism, but effectively still operate on real world racism without even understanding how/why that works.

The tabletop RPG example I think of the most is the Anima RPG, where in the history lore, it had a part close to “the people here aren’t enslaved despite having darker skin”…which the game had zero note about skin color to slavery previously.  Or the first edition of Diaspora which had “Kill the White Devil” Aspect applied to “Savages” (which, to their credit, the publisher apologized and removed).

It’s so jarring and weird when modern racism bits are inserted into games or settings which… basically have no reason for it otherwise.

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Updates and a request for help

February 1, 2015

I try not to do too many posts here about my personal life, since, I figure folks are here to hear about gaming.

I know a lot of you supported me in 2013 when I first got diagnosed and thank you for the support.  My recovery hasn’t been as fast as I had hoped, and I’m still struggling to make rent and move on.  I’ve put together a video about some of the experience and what you can do to help your friends or family who might be going through cancer or surviving a serious health crisis.

If you can help support, it’d be much appreciated.  Thank you again.

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Toxic Commitment Design

January 21, 2015

This talk from Raph Koster on subscription/microtransaction service videogames has some really important parallel issues for tabletop RPGs.  The relevant stuff starts about 9 minutes in, particularly the points of how to keep players engaged in your game (in a long term hobby sense, not moment to moment of play):

What’s really interesting is at 12:11, there’s a list of emotional drivers – which is the key point of what I’ve been thinking about.

Emotional Pressuring

You’ll notice that guilt is the first thing on Koster’s list.  I don’t think it was intentional on his part, though it certainly is a major tool for keeping people into high commitment activities – you can see it appear in church attendence, exercise programs, community groups, and so on.

“Advice”

First, there’s plenty of games which have pages upon pages of an identity based on a form of One True Way-ism to cover for bad design, espousing what “good roleplaying” looks like, “good roleplayers” and how “creative and special” gamers are, often with jabs or insinuations at what the opposite is like.

This makes the text itself, in communicating how the game works, the philosophy and the goal of the game, a form of propaganda in this way.  “This is what good gamers are like, therefore you must do these things to be a good gamer, or you’re a BAD gamer.”  Simply parroting the ideas creates a pressure between actual group members as to a value system – identical to any other cultural formation.

Questioning people’s self esteem to “dare” them into doing what you want, or hitting on emotional triggers to reduce people’s critical judgment skills in decisions is well known to anyone who’s worked in aggressive sales, advertising or done media studies, and taken to more extreme levels shows up in abusive behavior and the emotional manipulation tactics of con artists and “pick up artists”.

Behaviors

But most of these games don’t stop there, they also will often include specific advice to socially pressure the group – the easiest example is the “punish the character to passive-aggressively force a player to change”.  Advice on how to lie to players, or similar, also can be found.

These behaviors are about pressure and conversion – and unsurprisingly the behavior pattern is the same as religious fanatics.  If you talk about a different way to game, or even play in a way that is different than their chosen One True Way, they fall into projection and assume that you are trying to stop them from playing however they want to play, and will take it away from them.

Selling “identity”, not design

Together, both the text and behaviors encouraged produces a situation where people are trying to live up to a standard of “good gamer” and a social responsibility to the group, which isn’t necessarily built on fun.  It’s an easy way to dodge out on having to live up to better game design.  “The game isn’t broken, you are.”

Back in 2006 when I wrote my “Fun Now Manifesto”, people got very, very angry – some people saw me saying “play with people you like” and claimed “Chris wants me to get rid of all of my friends!!!” (… … …wow… …).  But when you look at it in this lens of building a gaming identity off of some kind of duty or identity to live up to, and not… actual fun, it makes sense why they are so vehemently upset – all the sunk cost of effort and unpleasantness they’ve had to put up with just to be “good gamers”, I’m saying is worthless and senseless suffering.

It’s why “No play is better than bad play” was such a revolutionary idea – it shifts the point of play back onto what it should be – fun, not some obligation to suffering. (or, the fact that suffering should be considered normal in roleplaying as an activity anyway…)

Love, Community, Creativity

There’s a lot of other emotional drivers on that list that tabletop RPGs can hit quite well.  It’s a lot easier these days with the power of the internet and cheap computers – you can share the things you love about your style of play, your chosen game – you can make a blog where you come up with new monsters, spells, dungeons, robots, campaigns, etc.  You can record your game sessions or write up actual play reports.

This has been the reason open source design, free rules, fan-wikis, and so on has been a net positive for many roleplaying games – it allows fans to become the promoters and build their own community.

Easy Alternatives

When you make it easier to play a game – easier to start, shorter expected commitment, you don’t need to shame people into sticking into it.  Because it’s easy to get into, people have an easier time getting into play, and they’re not left unable to play for months on end because they “can’t find anyone”.

Second, when you have compelling design that does something fun, people will start talking about it.  People become fans and advocates all on their own and they push your game for you.  It’s also worth considering that many games are not in competition for exclusive play – many people enjoy both Monopoly and Chess – as boardgames, it’s not like people are choosing between the two, and in the same sense many roleplaying games can provide unique enough experiences that you can build a network of potential players without having to fearfully indoctrinate people against playing other games.

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The Adventures of Yellow Peril & Magical Negro

January 11, 2015

My friend Na’amen and I had been talking about doing a podcast for over a year now.  We finally started, where we talk about geeky shit from a POC view.  First episode, rambly and longer than we expected, but still fun. Show notes here.

Covered everything from Dragon Age: Inquistion, steampunk alt-history books, anime, comics, and more!

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Flag Framing 2: Running the Game

January 9, 2015

Running the Game

What would be interesting to see the player characters face in challenges and complications right now?

That’s your guiding principle.  That’s pretty much the whole process in a one-sentence nutshell.  It’s very easy.  Everything you’ve done as prep in the previous article?  Those are tools to make this question easy to answer.

I really want to emphasize how easy this is – I’m about to throw a lot of words of advice and people assume that means it’s difficult, but it really boils down to answering that question, over and over, during play.

Scene Framing

Many roleplaying games talk about using scenes, but few really give good advice about how to actually run them.  In the end, a lot of people end up with the classic “What do you do next?” cycle that ends up dragging play along.

If you’ve ever tried to write a story, draw a comic, or do a film, you know that scenes and pacing are what make or break things and they’re also a giant pain in the ass.

So here’s my rules for scene framing:

1. Opening Scenes

Start the scene just before something interesting is likely to happen.

Look to the question at the top of the post here – “What would be interesting to see the player characters face in challenges and complications right now?” – that’s your guideline.

Don’t make the players work to get TO an interesting situation, don’t make them guess what might be interesting about it, and don’t put it far away so they don’t see it.

A lot of RPG time is wasted in what I call “Traffic and Introductions” – the characters are wandering around or going back and forth (“Where do you go next?”) and then when they meet NPCs, there’s a long awkward conversation period of trying to figure out what the NPC’s angle is and so on.

Movies & TV don’t do that.  They skip it – travel is a short cutshot of the characters racing across town, or just a cut to them walking in the door, initial introductions are snappy conversations where introductions are quick and personality is dripping from the NPCs from the moment you see them.

That said, the moments before something interesting is about to happen gives it the space in play to see what might come of it – maybe it’ll go more or less like you expect it to (“Yep, it’s going to be a fight”) or maybe it goes very different (“You’re going to cut a deal? Well… it makes sense!”).  Those surprises are fun for everyone involved.

Assume Competence

Sometimes you might start a scene and a player will go “Wait, wait, I wanted to do X before!”.  As much as you can, assume the characters are competent, and if it seems at all reasonable, “Sure,  you went and got the evidence before you showed up, that’s fine”.

Once in a while X should get it’s own scene, but most of the time it’s just a logistics thing the player wants to establish and isn’t actually that interesting to play out, even if the implications for this scene, or a future scene, might be big (“Wait, you switched it with poison?!? Oh boy…”)

Regularly assuming competence of the player characters will get the players to trust that you’re putting them into interesting conflicts and not just putting them into “gotcha” moments to screw them over.  It’s an important shift for players used to deathtrap dungeons or railroading GMs to understand as well.

First Scenes

The first scene of any session for any given player character is a bit special – this is the only time you will have time in advance to consider, in depth, what kind of opening conflict or scenario would best hit their Flags and set up further problems.   It sets a tone and if it’s a good situation, no matter which way it goes, it will set up further complications that you can improvise scenes out of from the consequences.

I find two types of scenes work great for First Scenes:

  • “What is the best course of action?” – a discussion/argument between characters, usually with important stakes involved
  • Revealed information/event that shifts your situation significantly (“So… one of us here is a spy.”)

In both cases, these have no specific direction or “right answer” but they do let the players show you what they’re interested in and the way their characters think or operate.  Their choices in these First Scenes tell you directions to consider following in.

2. Closing Scenes

End the scene just after something interesting has happened, or just after NOTHING interesting has happened.

Closing scenes is the hardest skill out of all of these, but it improves your game experience by a great deal – closing scenes quickly and on time creates a momentum.  Everyone will find themselves amazed at how much you can get done and how much energy the group gets to push forward in play when you can do this right.

If it looks like nothing interesting is going to happen (and none of your NPCs are going to push it forward) close it right away.  Sometimes players will want to stretch it further, mostly because they feel like they’re missing an opportunity or something, but you should simply ask them, “Was there a thing you were going to do?  If not, we can assume you spend the time doing X and go to the next scene.”

Once something interesting happens, it’s a good time to cut the scene.  Cutting the scene quickly after that allows the players to take the energy and excitement into the next scene and gives a real flow to play.  If it drags out, then things slow down and it gets harder to pick up again.

Aiming at Player Flags

The players have told you what kinds of things they find interesting and want the game to revolve around – so that’s what you aim your scenes around.  Again: What would be interesting to see the player characters face in challenges and complications right now?

You can ask these questions and get good ideas of how to make a scene on various Flags they give you:

  • What makes a (relationship) /achieving (a Goal) complicated?
  • Will you do (Goal) /fulfill (relationship) even if it costs you? (choose between goals and personal costs)
  • Will you do (Goal) /fulfill (relationship) even if you have to wrong? (choose between goal/relationship & ideals)
  • Is this still the right thing to do? (things that make you doubt your cause or relationship)

These are the interesting things that make a character’s journey worth following.  Finding out how far a character will go, where their lines are, and what they will, or won’t do… and along the way finding out what ideals they hold and who they care about and how deeply.

Twisting the Knife

Game designer Paul Czege once told me that the trick to this is that the issues that the Flags are based on are like a knife, and you basically keep twisting it – “Do you still believe in this?  How about now?  How about NOW?” etc.

Obviously, how these Flags get tested and pushed on depends on the genre and style of story you’re trying to tell.  Golden Sky Stories, The Friendship Game, Breaking the Ice or Clover all are games that can be rather light hearted and fun, but still hit emotional points without being grimdark or brutally intense.

Self Complicating Flags

Sometimes the players give you great issues and Flags to deal with from the start.

A player might set up their own goals, ideals or relationships at cross odds within their own character (“I love my brother the drunkard king” “My patriotism means I have to stop him from running our nation into the ground”).

Some groups might set up Flags that are complicated between characters – two people want things that are at cross odds, or suffer from a key misunderstanding between characters.  This makes it very easy to set up scenes around this stuff.

Let the NPCs take dramatic actions

I find the easiest way during play to answer the question “What would be interesting…” is to simply look at the motivations of the non-player characters and how they intersect with player characters’ Flags.

Since I set up the scenario and the NPCs in such a way that they’re already going to complicate the player character’s goals, ideals and relationships, all I have to do is follow the logical actions and reactions of the NPCs.

“Of course your sister doubts whether you are telling the truth…” “He thinks you tried to murder him.  He’s going to go all out at this point…” and so on.

Look to the motivations for your NPCs, and simply play your NPCs – they pursue their goals according to their personalities.

The players improvise by simply playing their characters – all I do is do the same thing, through the filter of “What would be most interesting right now?” and scenes become very easy to create.

Some possible dramatic actions for NPCs to take:

  • Make an attack (physical, social, political)
  • Make a public challenge, or talk trash
  • Make a demand or a threat
  • Offer a deal, ask for help
  • Reveal how they feel about a character or event
  • Ask how you feel about a character or event
  • Steal/Take/Break something
  • Reveal how they’ve changed how they feel about a character or event

Extreme Complications (use sparingly)

Extreme complications are things which change the situation drastically, but they’re not necessarily pushed for by any of the characters – a sudden sandstorm trapping everyone inside a building, the king dies from a sudden illness, etc.

Extreme complications shake up the situation for EVERYONE, which makes them both exciting and hard to handle (look at your list of NPCs, now consider that each of them might have to drastically reconsider how they’re going about things… yeah…).

When you do these right, the players become more invested – they’re either scrambling to protect what they’ve got or they’re saying “YES! This is the chance I’ve been waiting for!”

When you do it wrong, it feels cheap and unfair, and much like any other story media, like the writers are looking for a cheap bit of excitement and a dodge from the story threads they don’t know how to handle.

It has to feel reasonable for the setting and genre you’re playing in, and it has to basically impact everyone.  It can’t just be there to block the player characters from gaining influence, power, or success.

Escalating to a Climax

So you’re going scene to scene, asking “What would be interesting to see the player characters face right now?” where does this all go?

There’s an easy, natural tendency in how stories, work, which you’ll know because we’ve all grown up listening, watching, reading stories our whole lives – the situation will escalate.   The non-player characters will become more active, and the player characters will, too, and things will come to a head.

For the non-player characters, look at the list of motivations and decide as you go along:

  • Get more aggressive, escalate in how far they’ll go
  • Change tactics, try a different way to get their goals
  • Cut a deal, demand action from others, compromise
  • Find help, make new alliances with other characters
  • Bail out, give up, surrender, come clean
  • If they normally follow rules, they start breaking them
  • If they normally break rules, they try following them

At some point between the player characters taking action, and the non-player characters taking action, the situation resolves in a way that seems stable or answered for the near, foreseeable future.  That’s where you end the story arc.

The sooner you want things to end, the faster you have the NPCs put more and more on the line, upping the ante and risking more, until the whole matter gets decided.

Between Sessions

Between sessions, your prep time is very low, anywhere from a few minutes of reviewing your notes of Flags & NPC motivations to an hour if you have to push together crunchy stats for NPCs and so on.  The less a game depends on you prepping mechanical stuff for conflicts, the easier this is.

At the end of each session, consider if any of the NPCs may change their motivations, escalate, and so on.  These notes are worth jotting down for your next session.  Pay attention if the players have made changes to their Flags – that’s important!  Mull these things over before your next session and consider a First Scene or two to kick off the drama for your next session.

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Flag Framing 1: Setting up a Campaign

January 7, 2015

Flag Framing

An updated, comprehensive version of this style I’ve written about before.

This is a method to run RPGs that allows the GM to improvise and adapt to anything the players do in play, without requiring onerous amounts of prep or years upon years of experience.

The basic premise is that the same way the players can show up to play every week and simply look at their character sheets and figure out “what would my character do?”, the GM can prep in a way to look at NPCs and the PCs and figure out “what would be most interesting to have happen next?” and go with that.

I first began employing this when I drifted the rules for Feng Shui, but it basically can slot into many traditional RPGs.  Many close versions of this exist in existing games – Primetime Adventures, Riddle of Steel, Burning Wheel, and so on.

What this does well – High drama action/adventure, feuds, blood opera, politics, intrigue

What this doesn’t do well – clue trail investigations, planned endings, combat games that are hard to generate combat encounters easily

Idea & Pitch

Before you do any heavy lifting in terms of prep, start with the idea phase, and get only the basics together so you can pitch it to your players.  This lets you avoid doing unnecessary prep work, and you can adapt after you hear their ideas as well, without much work.

1. Create a Situation

You should figure out a situation that is going to be a source of major conflict.  “Major conflict” can scale quite a bit, based on how long you want to play – “Who will be the honored warrior at the Tournament?” is one scale, “Who will control Christiandom after the Schism?” is another.

The shortest scale might be the outcome of a battle or an argument, but the largest scale can be the outcome of histories or planets.  The main thing is that conflicts are something where many parties are invested in seeing things go their way, and they’re willing to either risk their own safety and/or harm others to see that happen.

It should be a situation that as a GM, you can simply make up problems on the spot, because it inspires you to see what sorts of trouble would keep spewing out of it.

You can create this with your players or on your own and pitch it later in this process.  Just be aware that the players should buy into the situation and be excited to play in it.

Situation with a game that has setting

If your chosen game already has an established setting, it maybe a matter of picking a place, a time, and what’s going on.  This may involve juggling facts dealing with canon of the setting or stories you’re working from.  Figure out how to communicate that and make sure the players are on the same page.

Situation with a game that doesn’t have a setting

If your chosen game doesn’t have a setting, or you’re choosing not to use it, find a way to put what the players need to know into 2 pages, a quicksheet, you can type up, and print out.

2. Create Concepts for Key NPCs

You will have between two and a dozen core NPCs at this point.  You should describe them in 1-2 sentences, primarily looking at their position in the situation and their motivations.   Effectively, the NPCs motivations are what fuel the Conflict.  These NPCs might be against each other, or planned to be against the PCs.

3. Get the Player’s Concepts

Tell the players what the basic situation is and who the key NPCs are involved.  Get the players to pitch their own ideas about their potential PCs, who they are and why they’re involved or committed. These concepts need only be 1-2 sentences as well – giant backstories don’t help at this stage.

You should also decide if the PCs are supposed to be working together, at odds with each other, or shifting alliances or what, as well as what kinds of characters fit with the mood and genre of this game.

If the players want to create full characters at this time, that’s fine as well.  Games like Sorcerer or Burning Wheel encourage groups to do a group character generation session which effectively does just this thing right here.

4. Player Character Motivations AKA Flags

A Flag is a mechanic or aspect included as part of your character which is explicitly designed for the players to tell the GM and the rest of the group what kind of conflicts, or story focus they would like for their character.

When you choose a Flag, you’re telling the group that you want to see your character tested on how they feel about this and how far they will go.   These may change during play, but it’s a nice way to “flag” something, to say, “Look at this! COME OVER HERE!!!”  Will you hold to your ideals? How far will you go?  What prices will you pay?  You play to find out.

It’s really important at this stage to look for Flags that don’t fit with the game as a whole – if you’re playing a cheery superhero game and someone makes “Grimdark Murder Man” you need to look for those Flags and concept and find out if they really want to play the same game you want to run.  Sometimes this idea drift is habit or miscommunications, so fix it here before play starts.

Good Flags

Good Flags focus on a relationship or ideal that your character is willing to take a risk or cross a moral line for.

Moral Lines

“A moral line” has to mean something for your character – and it depends on the character!  If your character is a ruthless assassin, then killing probably doesn’t mean anything to them.  But maybe they have rules “I don’t kill children” or “Only if it’s in the contract” or whatever.  Whatever that line is, you can make a Flag about it.  If it’s not really an issue for the character, it’s not really fun to poke at in play.

Consider – would you lie to help your child?  Steal?  Risk your life?  Murder?  Under what conditions?  The places where you can easily say yes, or easily say no, aren’t as interesting as the places where you have to think about it, or you say yes or no, but you don’t feel right about it and it sits with you.

You can also play with a reverse moral line – a relationship or ideal that would make your character draw a new moral line they never had before.  For example, the assassin who decides to never kill again, because of a promise they made to their son.   How important is it to honor that promise?

Pointing Flags at the Situation

The Flags the players are creating should aim their characters at the situation.  They should have strong ideals, morals, relationships that make them get involved.  They may want to support or oppose any of the NPCs you’ve already laid out.  Players must tie their characters into the core situation this way.  The more direct and clear reasons they have to be involved, the better.

This is not to say their motivations may not be complicated.  The Player Characters may have different reasons for getting involved, their motivations may be at cross odds, or any given character might have two or more conflicting motivations that complicate the situation (“I am loyal to the King and will see his wishes fulfilled.” “My family could finally gain power to deal with the rival faction if I favor my own instead.”)

4. Now flesh out the NPCs

The players have just given you a good idea of what kinds of conflicts they’re interested in seeing in this game you’re about to run.  Flesh out the NPC ideas you already have, add a few NPCs if called for based on what the players just gave you (“His kung fu master disowned him?  Yeah, the master has to show up for sure.”).

Focus on giving the NPCs motivations and Flags that cross with the Player Characters.  Just like the Player Characters, the Non-Player Characters have goals, ideals, relationships and lines they’re willing or not willing to cross – how these conflict with the Player Characters’ notions create great drama.

Reasonable NPCs are BETTER NPCs

“Reasonable” doesn’t mean agreeable – reasonable means the characters have reasons for what they want and what they’re trying to achieve, and if the Player Characters are in line with that, or can be made to a decent compromise, then most NPCs are willing to go with that or change their own plans.

In other words, NPCs also have a point after which they will either change their goal or their methods or both – either increasing how committed, aggressive, and how much they will risk to get what they want, or they will decrease it, potentially giving up altogether.

This is where enemies can become allies, allies might become enemies, a person who merely was friendly is now willing to risk their life for you, or a rival who merely wanted to best you, now wants to eat your liver.  And it makes the PCs important, because while the NPCs are acting and reacting, the PCs are a major part of how that happens.

You can have a few non-reasonable NPCs in the mix as well- they tend to spike the situation and make it hard for everyone else, often forcing people into polarized camps.

5. What does this Campaign Prep look like?

Time

Outside of the time you spend talking to your players, or the number juggling of whatever character creation system you have, it usually takes between 1-3 hours at top.  You can think up a lot of ideas during your daily routines, the official prep time is just organizing your notes and/or typing stuff up for the group.  For a pickup game I managed to think up ideas during an hour of dinner and then 10 minutes of prep, so it’s not a very involved process in practice.

Between actual sessions, you’re taking 10 minutes to an hour of prep, sometimes this is really just reviewing your character notes before play.

What you should have

You’ve got the general situation.  You’ve got the list of PCs and their Flags, and you’ve got a list of the NPCs and their Flags or motivations as well.    That’s really all this method requires – if your game makes it easy to improvise difficulties or challenges, then you can pretty much go from here.

You can try a few different ways to organize these:

a) List method

Have a list of the PCs, a list of the NPCs.  Put a sentence of their motivations next to them, or their full Flags under them.  This tends to work well if you have a dozen or less NPCs.

b) Conflict Web

This works great if the NPCs are generally opposed.  Write down the name of characters who are involved in the situation, and draw lines between characters who are opposed or support each other.  You can use notation or different color lines or whatever makes it easy to tell which is which.   This is also effective up to about a dozen or so people, before it becomes really complicated.

c) Relationship Maps

The Sorcerer supplement Sorcerer & Soul goes into using these, where you map blood relations and romantic partners, and basically use that as your visual cue of who is probably aligned or against whom and where shady secrets, forbidden relationships, and horrible behavior lies.

d) Index Cards

One card per character, put their Flags on the card.  Pretty useful to lay out on a table, easy to visualize, and you can rearrange them to whatever suits your needs in the moment.

Next Up: Flag Framing 2: Running the Game

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