Building a Game/Campaign is like Building a Computer

Found: Maybe it’s just the fact that I’ve been knee deep in computers for the last few weeks, but the more I look at the silicon and wires, the more I make comparisons to creating a game. Every structure inside of a computer has a purpose in providing the experience to the end user. So too does every structure in a game. So let’s see how my thinking computes.

Motherboard = Social Contract
In a computer, the primary structure that defines what the system can become comes form the motherboard.  It controls all of the connections between the various pieces, what the operating speeds can be achieved and what types of extras can be added in.  

The Social Contract functions in a similar way. By providing the framework of the game, it makes certain things possible. If the GM says she wants to run a dungeon crawl, the structure of the game is set and other factors (such as Rules System, types of dice or the kind of characters expected) can be appropriately plugged in.

Operating System = Rules System
The operating system of a computer provides the general framework for how a computer will process information. The sorts of things the computer will be capable of, or the additional programs it will be able to run are dependant on the OS.

The rules system provides the general framework for what the game is capable of. D&D 4e will work very well for running dungeon crawls and tactical combat, and will also be the majority of what people play. White Wolf’s World of Darkness will work very well for running deep story games within a provided framework. Gurps will be incredibly complex, but with knowledgeable people you’ll be able to do anything with it.

So . . .
D&D = Windows
W.o.D. = Mac
Gurps = Linux

Hard Drive = Books/Prep Work/GM’s Notes
Storage space. Where everything in the computer is placed. The hard drive gives information to the CPU to process and output to the user.

All the things that the GM preps or uses are like the hard drive. The various rulebooks, splatbooks, house rules and other prepared materials are where the information is stored until it gets used in the game. It is always there, waiting to be accessed or modified and put back until the next time it is called.

CPU/Video/Sound = GM
The Central Processing Unit takes every piece of information and well . . . processes it. It controls what goes where, interprets instructions from programs and provides the information out to the end user, in conjunction with other components like the video card and sound card.

The Game Master fulfills all these functions. Taking information from the rules, the plethora of books and notes and turning it into something that the players can, and want, to work with is all in the GM’s capable hands.

Calculations = Dice/System Mechanics
All computers are made to compute, to work with calculations and process information. There are many ways to do this in a computer architecture. Floating Point Numbers, integers, binary numbers, hexadecimal numbers, etc. are all different factors of the calculations that a computer does.

The system mechanics, be it rolling d20, multiple d6, wagering dice, drawing cards, etc.  function like the calculations of a computer. They help the Game Master process all of the information and determine what kinds of results can be derived and processed.

Memory (ram) = Anything on “screen” or in use at the current time
R.A.M. (Random Access Memory) is the temporary storage of a computer. It is the information that is currently being used. The amount of R.A.M. available to the machine controls how much can be worked with at one time.

In a game, anything that is in use at the current time could be considered part of the R.A.M. If an NPC is engaged in conversation or combat with the players, it is in R.A.M, so is the landscape or area around it, any other NPCs in the area, any rules that are governing the interaction between the NPCs and yes, the characters themselves.

Keyboard/Mouse = Characters
When a user manipulates a keyboard or mouse (or other such controller) it has an affect on the system. The CPU interprets the instructions and modifies processes and instructions that are part of the O.S. and programs.

The player’s characters, more than anything, are the players input into the game; just like the keyboard and mouse are the user’s input into the computer. Through the character’s actions, the game is affected and other components (like the GMs Notes or the scene that is  on “screen” at the time) are modified.

Users = Players
A computer user interacts with the computer. A player interacts with the game. Each serve as the defining purpose. Without users, computers wouldn’t do much. Without players, games wouldn’t be played.

Attached Components = All the wonderful and glorious ways that the game can be changed
Another component of a computer is all of the additional things that can be added onto it. Extra functions that can be added in through component cards, programs that can be run or installed from removable media, upgrades to key system components and extra information that can be accessed over networks, etc. And this is the moral of the story:

Like computers, games can be changed in innumerable ways. Once the game is in your hands, anything can be modified about it. The Game Master can overwrite programs and documents on the hard drive. Players can use their inputs to change how the system functions, through the CPU/GM. The O.S. can be wiped clean and you can start playing with a different gaming system. The Social Contract has jumpers that can be changed to determine how it operates.

These analogies aren’t always perfect, but any new way of thinking about the way we structure our games helps us to deconstruct them, and make them work for us, just a little bit better. So, how’s the computer analogy work for you? What would you change about it?

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John Arcadian is a writer, gamer, art director, web designer, crafter, and kilt-wearer. You can find more of his writings on gaming over at For web-design projects, check out
  1. Quaid Rayn     | Reply

    “D&D = Windows
    W.o.D. = Mac
    Gurps = Linux”

    Fate 3.0 (Spirit of the Century, Starblazer Adventures and Dresden Files) must be, according logical progression, Ubuntu- it can do everything the other three can, but far better, faster and more enjoyable! 😛

    Great post, John.

  2. Matthew J. Neagley     | Reply

    Fantastic! Now, what I’d like to see as a follow-up article is the decisions you make when you’re building a computer, and what these same decisions relate to and can tell us while building a game/campaign.

  3. John Arcadian     | Reply

    @Quaid Rayn – I sat there for at least 20 minutes working out where other games would fall. The wide variety makes it hard to accurately make an analogy. Was chainmail Dos? What about wargames, the bevy of personal electronic appliances like GPS and DVRs? The various varieties of Linux, Beos and Unix can be considered all the various Indie games, but some could also be applications that are built into web-browsers or on top of other platforms, like Java, Ajax, . . . the list would be boundless.

    function boundless (i,a)

    @Matthew J. Neagley – Thanks. It took me much longer than I had anticipated to write this. I kept thinking over what the various computer components could correlate to in terms of gaming, and I kept coming up with multiple places where each could fit. I might do a followup, but I’d love to see that question play out in the comments or a forum post. There are so many ideas and discussions that could build off of this. I.e. if you make your RAM size huge, with lots of stuff happening at once, then how do the players keep track of it all and keep it all in mind. What happens with concepts like shared narrative, are the players part of the CPU at that point then? Is it distributed computing?

  4. chabuhi     | Reply


    This would make a great checklist (meaning no offense, because your article is much much more) to help keep oneself in check when building a campaign.

    The few attempts I’ve made in the past were very organic in their development and so a lot of holes emerged that were hard to fill. With this article as a framework the process will be much more fluid and consistent for me.


  5. BryanB     | Reply

    I used to enjoy building computers and I used to enjoy the mechanical aspects of game prep. Now I pretty much hate both, so you probably have a good analogy going here. 🙂

  6. NeonElf     | Reply

    Gurps = Linux, I think you’ve never played heroes if you think Gurps is complex. Besides that nice analogy, I think I’d agree with all you’ve said. Good choice, as I suspect many D&D players are also techie types that build computers, so are familiar with your references.

    However, I’m not sure there is any benefit to thinking it his way. When I’m buying and assembling computers it’s usually a price vs quantity/quality thing. Set a budget and squeeze out as much as you can from that fixed value. Skimp on one area so you can spend on the other.

    I’d have to agree with Matthew J. Neagley, a follow up on how to use this analogy might be useful to prove your point.
    On the other hand perhaps it would help GMs realize that like a computer you have to understand what is the “important part” for you (and your group). However, none of these things can really be emphasized over another. I guess you could say if the characters (mice/keyboard) are important to your story you should spend more time developing and integrating them.

  7. John Arcadian     | Reply

    @chabuhi – No offense taken. I did aim for it to be more of a comparison that people could draw their own assumptions from. I actually, like you, organize my games more fluidly, taking more cues from what the players are looking for. It does leave a lot of gaps, but you have to ask your players if they ever remembered any of them. Players are so wrapped up in their own experience, as they should be, that they just remember if it was fun and what impacts they or other had. They don’t remember if you flubbed up and called an NPC by the wrong name, used the wrong stats for a creature (unless it’s something major, like giving a gnoll colony’s worth of treasure out for each gnoll killed . .. . that was a fun game) or had to retcon the plot a little.

    @BryanB – I hadn’t got deep in the guts of a computer for a while, so when I went to buy a new graphics card to fit my old AGP 8x slot, I was amazed to find that AGP was barely used anymore. I knew that the PCIe stuff was out, but I didn’t know it held prominence. Talk about being out of the game. . .

    The mechanical aspects of game prep are always a little cumbersome, just like putting together a system. But when you think about the end results (doubling your memory, being able to get that new graphic design program running smoothly, etc.) it is worth it.

    @NeonElf – Gurps is complex in the sheer number of options available. I like gurps for what it is, but I’m not the type who likes to sit down and crunch too many numbers when making a character. Old school gaming populations were definitely number crunching geeks. I’ve tended to notice that the gamers who are getting into it now are more diverse, especially as geekery comes into the mainstream more and more. You don’t get the hardcore computer programmers as the core of the community anymore. They’re still incredibly present, but they’re a subset amongst a societal subset.

    The characters to input device analogy seems skimpy to me, but it is the accurate choice. The keyboard/mice seem like such a small part of the system, but a user couldn’t do anything to the system without them. The same holds true for the characters. Its just one character in a whole game world, but there is no access point for the players without them. It just FEELS like it should be a bigger component.

  8. Kurt "Telas" Schneider     | Reply

    Heck, and I thought “GURPS = Linux” meant that the two fanbases are equally small and rabid! 😉

  9. blackcoat     | Reply

    @Quaid Rayn – You *do* realize that Ubuntu is a flavor of linux, right? It’s more like an edition of GURPS, not a whole new system.

    Also, from what I’ve seen (and this thread is gonna be great, re-starting both an OS Flamewar AND an RPG System flamewar) fate is more like BeOS: They *think* that it works better then their ulgier cousin, but really they’re just wanking themselves around and ignoring all the places that they don’t work as “unnecessary”

  10. Patrick Benson     | Reply

    As a techie and gaming geek I couldn’t keep quiet on this one. I would say that GURPS and the HERO game system are both more akin to a proprietary UNIX OS like Sun Solaris. Fudge is the system closest to Linux in this analogy, because way back in 1995 it was made open source to the public (long before d20 was) and it has since evolved or been forked into many different projects and distros (FATE being the most popular and the games based upon it – SotC, Dresden Files, etc.).

    Now being in a tech position in IT where I have to design whole systems let me say that I have no OS preference. Have to appeal to 1,000 end users who only need email and access to the Internet? Go with a Linux distro and lock them down. Need users to be able to install their own software because it is part of their job and they need the most compatible platform possible? Go with Windows. Email for 25,000 users look into SendMail on Solaris, email for 500 users look into Exchange 2007 on Windows. Mac for your graphic designers and marketting guys usually is a good bet because that is what a lot of them already know, etc., etc., etc.

    Never be a zealot with something like technology. Even if you specialize know the merits and faults of the choices available to you. Know what your end users or your business needs and then decide after investigating all of the solutions that you feel are applicable.

    My point here is that it can be the same with games. I once asked a gamer if he would like to join my Villains & Vigilantes one shot game, and he responded that “The only Supers game I would ever play is Mutants & Masterminds.” When I asked why he didn’t really have an answer. When I asked if he played M&M he said that he had not. When I asked if he played any Supers game he again said that he had not.

    It became pretty obvious after a little bit more discussion why he said he would only play M&M – it was a d20 derivative (although I don’t think that he understood how different it is from other d20 games). He just was a d20 zealot. So I just said “Okay, understood.” and let it be. Just like any OS zealot out there, he was convinced he would never need another system ever and that d20 was the best. I think that guy is missing out on a lot of great games because of his zealotry, just like OS zealots tend to miss out on a lot of great technology emerging from all of the OS providers.

  11. barasawa     | Reply

    I would definitely equate the White Wolf Games (including the World Of Darkness ones) more to BeOS than Mac.

  12. John Arcadian     | Reply

    @blackcoat – I’ve realized that those 3 lines have become the focal point of the comments. Oh well, I’m a comment whore, so it’s all good.

    @dmmagic – Gurps is definitely CHMOD 677 depending on the supplements you use and how you mesh them into your game.

    @Patrick Benson – Y’know, I kept debating how far down I wanted to go with this. Drag lots of games into various OS comparisons. In the end I decided to go with something that would still be accurate and that any non computer geek would recognize.

    And you’re absolutely right on the zealotishness. It never pays off and keeps people from trying new things. I love gaming conventions for the fact that they’ve got so many new games to try and check out. But running a nearly unknown game at conventions also puts me up against those people who only love their D&D or only love their W.o.D., or Shadowrun or Gurps, etc. If you’ve got something you like, great, but there is little reason to limit yourself if the game looks like it might be fun. If I had ever been like that I would never have gotten introduced to any of the games that I love, or met and stayed friends with many of the people I met through those games.

    @barasawa – Why do you say that? I’ve had very little experience with BeOS, though I’ve heard good things about it from the rabid fanboys and girls.

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