Conspiracy maps are a rich cultural image in pop culture, fed by police procedurals, noir detective stories, thrillers and that one mailroom scene from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The draw isn’t hard to understand - our pattern-loving brains naturally draw connections between discrete bits of information, and seeing those threads actualised with bright, red twine is, honestly, thrilling.
Jack Harrison and Nevyn Holmes, two tabletop RPG designers working on their own separate games, would agree. They found the conspiracy map - or relationship web, crime map, evidence wall, etc. - complicated the usual interactions between their players while also opening up new and interesting methods of telling stories. Harrison’s The Slow Knife and Holmes’ Justicar might tackle separate archetypes, but the kismet of two titles with a shared mechanic was too much to ignore.
While not the first to bring a corkboard and push pins to the tabletop - Turtlebun’s Noirlandia used the map as a representation of city districts - these games feel like a natural progression of storytelling RPGs that ask their players to solve a mystery. There’s flavours of Brindlewood Bay, Blades in the Dark, The Quiet Year and For The Queen melded with an emphasis on the physical table that creates an irresistible pitch.
Holmes told Dicebreaker that Justicar arose from a freeform roleplay session where they played a judge, using hashed-together, Powered by the Apocalypse-style moves power a crooked courtroom drama. Creating and solving a murder together was thrilling, and Holmes believed it would make for a compelling RPG experience.
Four players each fill the asymmetric roles of judge, jury, prosecution and defense. The group will begin the game by outlining the crime on trial - suspects, evidence, and connections are introduced before the first scene, and the conspiracy board serves as the public record.
“I wanted the crime web and its creation process to guide players to create something unique and enticing to everyone at the table,” Holmes said via Twitter message. “The purpose is to both have a really fun time making what essentially boils down to a relationship map centred on a crime but also give everyone at the table a whole lot of fuel to use for roleplay during the trial phase.”
Holmes discovered that this map, while not the focus of play once the player-characters begin their best Ace Attorney or My Cousin Vinny impressions, generated a great deal of investment in a game that can be difficult to explain with words alone. If the group is composed of folks who aren’t familiar with each other, that map of connections provides a foundation for discovering a character within the disparate facts and clues. No hidden information also lets groups explore the game’s bent towards dramatic irony - Justicar focuses more on the twists and turns of a court case rather than a logical puzzle box solution.
Holmes especially likes that the board serves as an artefact of play once the game is completed. Designed for two to three-hour sessions, Justicar will leave groups with a thematic record of the arguments that hinged on realising the critical link between two pieces of evidence. “I thought about scenes in crime dramas, mysteries or conspiracy films where people are trying to put together their puzzle pieces, and how they’re always laid out with pushpins, red strings and scribbled notes,” Holmes said. “It’s evocative, and I wanted the stuff you make in Justicar to be just as interesting and fun.”
Harrison, the designer behind solo RPGS Artefact, Orbital and Bucket of Bolts, found his playtesters for The Slow Knife relying on the board in much the same way a traditional group would a game master. Whenever they had a question, or there was a lull in the action, all eyes would turn to the intricate map at the centre of the table.
The Slow Knife’s gradual tale of revenge more heavily relies on the board, and the players will gradually build it out over the course of their sessions. The group acts as members of a dark conspiracy that brought a noble figure low in the past, but now that individual is enacting revenge on them by carving apart their lives, piece by piece. The conspiracy board shows how seemingly unconnected accidents, tragedies and odd occurrences reveal themselves like a spider’s web only after the villains are snared fast.
Keeping all of the characters’ sins and vices, betrayals and heel turns in players’ heads was a tall order, so Harrison figured a physical record to be a neat solution that also kept everyone focused on the story - each addition would build on the existing structure instead of branching off into interesting but ultimately unfulfilling tangents.
“I definitely feel like any story game benefits from more physical elements that capture the story and its details,” Harrison said. “It unlocks a whole new level of storytelling that you otherwise couldn’t really do because you can represent much more story than you could typically keep in your head.”
The Slow Knife was designed for those with less roleplay experience in mind. Nothing in the game explicitly prompts scenes between characters, and while groups can certainly indulge their dramatic tendencies the cards create a “slightly more transactional” relationship with the players all acting as storytellers or narrators.
Like Holmes, Harrison hopes players will appreciate the conspiracy board as a complex memento that survives long after the Knife has claimed revenge. “One of the things I like to recommend is to create ephemera for the board between sessions: newspaper clippings, weird symbols, etc. Those sorts of things can be difficult to do in the moment.”
The Slow Knife owes a lot to Noirlandia, according to Harrison, which more tightly ties the board to its mechanics. Players must roll dice to discover clues and leads, and the decision to link those pieces moves the game closer to solving the inciting murder mystery at the heart of the corrupt city. Noirlandia’s designer Evan Rowland said he was surprised by how much utility the conspiracy board brings to tabletop RPGs.
“Growing up, most of the conspiracy boards I had seen in media were presented as mockery⁠ - like, look at this ludicrous mess, this character is clearly out of their mind with paranoia⁠ - but when you’re at the table, putting together your own board piece by piece, it’s actually a completely legitimate tool for tracking a mystery,” they said.
We’re accustomed to the table between players housing battle maps, miniatures and character sheets, while more abstract storytelling dwells within the theatre of the mind. But it’s worth considering the possibilities of less conventional boards. Whether used as a record of past sessions, a repository for ideas or a real map of a fictional world, pinning evidence to the game room wall might be exactly what your group needs.