What’s faster than a gaming Wiki? More powerful than a random dungeon generator? Able to help you plan entire game sessions in a single hour? Look! Out on the Web! It’s a game aid! It’s a presentation tool! It’s… IHMC CmapTools!

The Institute for and Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) is a research center that studies how computers can facilitate and empower the human thought process. I am working with IHMC on a joint research project at work, but I first heard of CmapTools from a completely different source: an old friend of mine who is a practicing psychiatrist.

CmapTools is a very interesting computer program that helps organize ideas and visually represent their inter-relationships. It’s simple on the surface — all it does is draw diagrams — but innovative in that these diagrams, called “concept maps,” are based on principles of cognitive psychology. A concept map is a natural learning aid because it organizes information in much the same way our brains naturally do. Contrast this with (for example) Microsoft Powerpoint.

I’ve used CmapTools at work for software design. But I use it more frequently at home, for game planning. It’s a great “sandbox” for figuring out how the characters, scenes, and events in a game session connect together to create a meaningful plot.

Here is an example of a very simple concept map. This concept map is a quick-and-dirty replacement for a section of dungeon map.

Concept maps illustrate the essential inter-relationships between arbitrary concepts

Example concept map applied to D&D

Notice how the concept map puts emphasis on the relationships between rooms, rather than the size and shape of each. When planning a game on a tight schedule, I find it’s more important to get the overall flow of the adventure figured out, rather than worry about the size and shape of each individual room.

Concept maps have an unlimited number of uses. For instance, they would probably be a great way to capture player’s notes after a game session. They have non-gaming uses as well: imagine mapping a menu of meals for the week and the ingredients each requires, to make a grocery list. Concept maps are an abstract, general-purpose aid to recording, learning, and experimenting with complex relationships.