Game Plugins: a Working Definition

Here at the lame mage skunk works we’re always coming up with new ideas. And drinking coffee. Sometimes both at once.

Sometimes we come up with ideas that seem like they’d make great games, but making a whole game just to use one cool idea… well that seems like work. If there are already systems that do most of what we want to do, why reinvent the other three wheels? Why not just take that idea and attach it to an existing system?

Nothing revolutionary there — adding new rules to games has been around since someone made red chess pieces. But if the concept doesn’t rely on the mechanics of a particular system, why wed it to just one game? Why not make a portable rules fragment, a game plugin, that can work with a variety of games?

Why not indeed. Here’s our working definition of a game plugin:

1) It’s a chunk of rules that you use with another game (the host), not a whole game

2) It’s independent of the rules of the host game, so it can be used with any game that fits the concept

You might have already been making game plugins and not even realized it because you instinctively tethered your ideas to one system without thinking whether or not you needed to.

Lawman / Outlaw / Cowboy rides again!

Let’s take a concrete example. The Tripod of Deceit concept I used in my Western Paranoia game is pretty much a game plugin waiting to happen:

Game Plugin: Tripod of Deceit

Character creation plugin that establishes character-to-character deception, allegiance, and conflict. Characters might be who they say they are and they might not. Allies might really be enemies or vice versa. This plugin only works for settings where there are distinct sides and it is possible to pass yourself off as something you’re not. It should only be used if you are willing to have direct conflicts between characters and want to encourage inter-character distrust or tension.

Define two roles that are directly opposed and a third that is neutral or uninvolved. These roles should be central to the game theme. For example:

western — Lawman / Outlaw / Cowboy
crime drama — Cop / Crook / Citizen
espionage — Government Agent / Foreign Spy / Uninvolved Bystander
sci fi bodysnatchers — Investigator / Pod Person / Ordinary Person
vampire — Hunter / Vampire / Victim
witch hunt — Inquisitor / Witch / Flock

Each character should pick one of the three as their true identity and then one as their surface appearance. If both are the same, it means the person really is what they appear to be. Otherwise they’re hiding something:

A police detective (surface cop) who’s really on the take (secret crook)
A drug dealer (surface crook) who’s really an undercover cop (secret cop)
A gentle schoolteacher (surface flock) who’s really a witch (secret witch)
A threatening old crone (surface witch) who’s really just faking having powers (secret flock)
An ordinary guy (surface bystander) who really doesn’t know anything about the secret plans (secret bystander)

The surface trait is how society sees and reacts to that person. So even if a cop is crooked, he’s still a cop until he gets caught and loses that authority. An undercover cop has to be so undercover that other cops don’t casually know he’s on their side. Someone framed for murder is a surface crook/secret citizen because they are wanted by the law even though they didn’t do it. The player creates the rest of the character background based on the surface/secret picks.

For maximum entertainment value, have players conceal their true identity pick (except from the GM). Even if everyone plays completely honest characters, no one will ever be certain they’re telling the truth. Let the chaos unfold as people suspect truly innocent characters of harboring terrible secrets and put their undying trust in characters that are really on the other side.

See what I mean? You can use that plugin with just about any game under the sun without ever touching the host game rules.

Combining plugins with different host games can also make whole new mutant species of games. Some plugins might be small additions, others might completely change the tone of the game system. Take the example above: I added the Tripod of Deceit to Star Frontiers and got something a lot more like Paranoia. If I added it to a different host game or setting I might get a whole different result. That’s part of the beauty of the idea: lots of possible permutations.

Game plugins aren’t the answer to everything. Some concepts rightfully need to be part of the backbone of the game system. But others don’t. Here’s a hint: different games focus on particular things and have blind spots towards others. Those blind spots are fertile plugin territory. Just thinking about what isn’t in the game you’re playing, where plugins could be useful, can be interesting food for thought.

    Ben Robbins | June 12th, 2008 | | hide comments
  1. #10 ben robbins says:

    Thanks for the updated link Dorquemada. I think Levi switched it from a .com to a .org a while back (since that fit his concept for the site better).

  2. #9 Dorquemada says:

    The link to Amagi was a mis-print. Its http://www.amagi-games.org

  3. #8 Bif says:

    InSpectre’s central concept could make a good game plugin in some cases. While running Deadlands I started seeing how I could subvert rolls like Investigate, Notice, Streetwise, etc., by having them roll the appropriate skill, then hand them the reigns based on how successfully they rolled. Player: “I ask around town about the guy we’re after, and also to see what’s going on in general.” Me: “Roll Streetwise.”
    [Rolls a Success] Me: “No sign of your bounty, but you learn a few interesting things about the local area. What are they?” Player: “Huh?”
    ***OR***
    [Critical Success] Me: “You learn some interesting things about the town and find out your man was here. What did you learn about the town and what is the man reported to have done while here?” Player: “Huh?”

    After they get the hang of it, this could be so awesome. I’m going to try it in the game I run next week.

  4. #7 ars ludi says:

    […] extra credit, take 3 minutes and think how you could use this whole thing as a plugin for any game with lots of relationships with the gods (hint: all you have to do is remove the one […]

  5. #6 Levi Kornelsen says:

    Gambit isn’t, presently, tightly defined – it’s my quick name for a cluster of stuff, including techniques, plugins, and a few other things.

    And, yeah, Amagi is new. Something like two weeks old, now? But a fair bit of the stuff is reconstructed older stuff I’m polishing up.

  6. #5 ben robbins says:

    Also take a look at Levi Kornelsen’s stuff over at Amagi Games. I think the site is pretty much brand new but it’s already got a ton of stuff on it, including Levi’s own game plugins (which he calls gambits). It looks like we’re on entirely the same track. I couldn’t find a definition page for gambits, but it might be in there somewhere. Levi?

    Kudos to the mighty Gnome Stew for the heads up.

  7. […] ars ludi: Ben creates, defines and implements the concept of a game plugin for RPGs — a modular game element you can use in virtually any RPG. I’m not sure if […]

  8. #3 ben robbins says:

    Ding! Yep, plugins are a cool idea. The War of Ideas rules from Principia function as a plugin

    You mean the answer questions thing? I’m still grumpy we never got to really use that in-game because it was a lot of fun when we did the demo.

    I just finished a game plugin over at ars ludi, and I double-dog dare you to write up the War of Ideas as a stand-alone plugin.

    That’s two dogs Mr Dowler! Two dogs!

  9. #2 ars ludi says:

    […] a game plugin? Go read the working definition. Basically it’s a rules add-on that can work with any game system, so whip it out when you play […]

  10. #1 TonyD says:

    Ding! Yep, plugins are a cool idea. The War of Ideas rules from Principia function as a plugin, as do company rules from Reign.

    Something which is NOT a plugin, but should be, is PTA fan mail. I don’t know how many times we’ve said “this game needs fan mail”, only to completely fail to find a way to make it work.

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