Automated GM Tools and Cartesian Ontology

Tod's picture

René Descartes defined this division between Res Extensa - the stuff of the world of extension - and Res Cogitans - the stuff of the world of thought. In the radical view of Cartesian Dualism, of course, these are separate substances existing on separate planes. Within a materialist worldview, it is the former plane which is the primary one, and to phenomenologists it is the only one.

But when it comes to narratives and art, the dependency is turned upside-down. Narratives are 100% Cogitans. They need little or no "extension" (in the philosophical sense). The purpose of Res Extena relative to a Narrative is to make the events and ideas "real", thereby collapsing them into a Story.

Maps and Statblocks are Res Extensa to the gameworld. These provide fiction-empirical details and add verisimilitude to an emergent Story.

NPC Notes and Information To Be Revealed Conditionally - as well as every idea a Player has while playing - are Res Cogitans. This is what the actual (emergent) Story is comprised of.

Existing GM tools do a good job of modeling the former, but less on the latter. Due to their genealogy as software service systems and their temporality as first-wave technologies, it is to be expected that such systems will present us with an essentially reductionist materialist model. That works for maps and resource tracking but there's a whole other plane out there, and most of the fiction lives on that other plane of Res Cogitans.

An ideal structure for an automated GM tool might be something like a HyperCard Stack (for those of you who don't remember those, it's basically like running a small website on your desktop). This is similar to the well-known VTTs like Roll20 etc, but with added support for the less "empirical" stuff.

Res Extensa might be visible as the "map" on the screen, complete with "zoom in" and "pan" capabilities. Res Cogitans might be represented by clicking on boxes or lines viewed on that map, causing subwindows to open with the pertinent information. The tricky part is UI design. The GM needs to be aware not only that Cogitans content exists (for instance: if a box is red-bordered or has a small icon, click it to see the info), but also needs to see the "big picture" which would have to be represented as some sort of fluctuating overlay - looking more like a shifting mindmap or relationship map than a literal map - visible at the same time as the physical map and Player movements.

In many games, there's very little physical action but lots of mental action and information exchange. In such a game, the physical map is barely necessary at all, but the mental map is of paramount importance. This needs to be reflected in our GM tools.

Paul T.'s picture

Are you basically suggesting that there is a visual or informational tool for tracking past and future events in the fictional reality we play? Where we came from (the realized) and where we are going (the potential)?

DeReel's picture

Campaing wikis are going in that direction. If I read you correctly, Tod, between the simple hypertext notepad of the 90s and the writers suites of the 00's, no game breaking GM tool has emerged, and that's strange. I guess the fact that few are willing to pay for (developing) a tool they expect to be powerful, intuitive, and visually pleasing, is a big factor.

Tod's picture

Are you basically suggesting that there is a visual or informational tool for tracking past and future events in the fictional reality we play?

Well, yes. I am suggesting that we are capable of creating that.
It may be rather abstract - especially the first generation - but it's basically a UI design and dynamic information architecture problem, yeah? A new sort of data visualization tool.

Paul T.'s picture

I do remember a few attempts at such things about ten-fifteen years ago... but clearly none of them really caught on :)