All Hail the MacGuffin!

Welcome to the third installment of Everyman Gaming’s GM’s Guide articles. In this GM’s Guide, we’ll be talking about plot MacGuffins.

Oh man, I’ve been promising this article for a few months now! Its time we talk about one of the most problematic elements in plot design: the MacGuffin.

Defining a MacGuffin

The term “MacGuffin” actually comes from cinema where it is used to define a specific type of plot device. Before we can define what a MacGuffin is, we need to first define the concept of a plot device, which is thankfully easy. A plot device is anything that moves along or maintains a story’s events (also called its plot). For example, the One Ring in the Lord of the Rings is a plot device; it gets Frodo out of the Shire, builds up a legion of elves and men, and both kick starts and drives the entire story along. That said, the One Ring is not a MacGuffin.

The difference between a MacGuffin and any other type of plot device is that a MacGuffin has little or no narrative explanation. This doesn’t mean that a MacGuffin is mysterious; the perfect example of a MacGuffin that everyone in the story knows about is the briefcase from Pulp Fiction. Narratively, we (as the audience) are not given much information about the briefcase. We know it glitters like gold and that its worth protecting (and probably valuable) but that’s it. In contrast, we know what the One Ring is, how it works, who made it, why it is important, and what will happen if the heroes fail in the narrative.

MacGuffins in Roleplaying Games

MacGuffins are in a bit of a weird place in Roleplaying Games. They certainly exist; for example, you can argue quite easily that Aroden’s death in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is the MacGuffin that drives the entire Inner Sea Region. For those that do not know, the God of Humanity mysteriously up and died one day, but nobody knows why. This is a MacGuffin; it is a plot device that explains much of the current turmoil experienced in the Inner Sea Region. That said, are MacGuffins good for every campaign setting? That’s a bit of a tricky question.

We’ve mentioned before that combat is the heart of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. That’s true mostly because mechanics and rules are the heart of any game. (In my opinion, the complete absence of rules from roleplaying is make-believe; the presence of even the smallest rule makes it a roleplaying game). When we talk about the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, 90% of the mechanics rules you see involve combat, which is where I’m coming from when I make this claim. So for that reason, if you involve mechanics then the mechanics themselves can’t be a MacGuffin. For example, if you have an all-powerful object that keeps the forces of Hell at bay, functioning as a massive magic circle against evil spell but never explain how the object was made, who made it, or how the object functions, then you have an acceptable MacGuffin. The MacGuffin’s isn’t explained well in the narrative, but it is mechanically sound in what it does. Likewise, the example of Aroden is fine because gods have few to no mechanics in place as it is, so understanding how a god can die is literally out of the realm of the explainable with the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game anyway. You don’t need a sound narrative for a plot device in a story, but if it functions in game terms, it needs to provide some sort of mechanics to it.

MacGuffins Mechanics

So, let’s talk about “When MacGuffins Go Wrong.” A MacGuffin goes wrong whenever it provides a clear mechanical benefit that can’t be explained by the mechanics. For example, you don’t need to know why a pulsating shard of a wardstone gives you a massive, mythic boost: you only need to know what game mechanics that mythic power gives you.

But when you possess a magic ring that just sort of makes things happen for no reason, then you have a mechanical MacGuffin. In my GM NPC article series, I told the story of my friend who gave an NPC a magic compass that allowed him to teleport the ship, its cargo, and its crew (but not the raiders on the deck) to a random location. Now, teleportation is a clearly defined mechanic in 3.5 Edition. However, no teleportation spell explained for how every enemy on the deck was “spliced,” turning their bodies inside-out and killing them all instantly. This is what we would call a mechanical MacGuffin, and they’re often problems in the long run. Not because GMs should never, ever stray from existing mechanics or anything, but because poorly defined mechanics often turn into commonly abused player crutches. As an example, what if every time we were raided, we just used the magic compass to teleport away and instantly kill our invaders. It is hardly a challenge for us, while the invaders apparently can’t do anything to stop it. But the moment they can, then we the players cry foul because the GM is “ruining our super awesome trick” that was never really ours to begin with.

Unreal MacGuffins

Now, of course, the above only matters when we stop and talk about MacGuffins that you can fight with. When a MacGuffin doesn’t do something that involves mechanics, then you don’t need to keep them as rigidly defined. For example, if you have a magical dart that can be used to slay a god and nothing more, that’s fine. Go crazy. The rules can’t tell you how to slay a god or what slaying a god entails, so there really isn’t a good way to abuse that. When your MacGuffin’s “mechanics” go beyond the scope of the game’s rules, then you should feel free to do what you want with them.

For example, the GM who runs the game that I play Kyr’shin in has a MacGuffin that acts as “the key” to an anciently powerful artifact that has an extreme level of power, but to what effect we don’t know. As far as we know, this key has no effect except to activate this other artifact and no one in the story really has a strong idea of what it is or how it works. But we need the key to defend and repurpose the artifact, so the key is an essential element driving our plot forward. It is a MacGuffin in the truest sense of the word, but it effectively has no mechanical benefit to us as PCs. This is the sort of MacGuffin that you can leave as-is; it does something, but that something isn’t defined by the rules anyway, so it doesn’t need to be defined either.

Moral of the MacGuffin

The moral of the story is simple: narrative MacGuffins are fine. Mechanical MacGuffins become tools that the players come to rely on and seek to trivialize encounters with. Even the most mysterious narrative MacGuffin needs to have codified mechanics to it in order to prevent the PCs from trying to abuse it or become dependent upon it. Now, that doesn’t mean that you have to TELL the PCs about every little power that the MacGuffin possesses; you just need to be fully aware of what the MacGuffin can do and why.

And that, folks, is all I have to say about MacGuffins for now. What did you think? Do you use MacGuffins? How do you use them? How do you feel when your GM has a poorly codified thing like a MacGuffin in his story? Are MacGuffins a good thing or a bad thing? Leave your answers, comments, and questions below and I’ll see you next time for another installment of the GM’s Guide!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long over 90% of his colleagues. Affectionately called a “budding game designer” by his partner at Radiance House, Alexander is the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series (Radiance House) and a handful of other Third-Party Products. Before founding the Everyman Gaming blog, Alexander gained notoriety for writing the GM’s Guide to Challenging Encounters, which remains accessible to this day. His favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune MacGuffin, but I don’t know what that class is or what it can do.

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One thought on “All Hail the MacGuffin!

  1. I generally use the term MacGuffin as any item that is necessary to the advancement of the plot. For example, the black arrows as depicted in The Hobbit would probably fall under MacGuffins as they are the only thing capable of stopping Smaug.

    I’m not typically a big fan of the MacGuffin as it can sometimes be the worst kind of railroading in the game because PCs won’t be able to advance without the aid of the MacGuffin. Like an ancient doorway that needs to be opened in order for the PCs to enter the realm of the BBEG threatening to destroy the world. But the door can’t opened unless they have the Eldritch Key of Amaroth. So they have no choice but to seek out the key and enter the deep dungeon that it’s located in. The door can’t be destroyed, can’t be bypassed, you must pass through the door, and you must use the key to open it.

    The above Key has no real mechanical advantage at all, it’s just a narrative plot device that forces the PCs to go somewhere in order to advance the plot.

    I am not opposed to other types of MacGuffins that can give the PCs a mechanical edge, but aren’t necessarily crucial to the advancement of the plot. Like in Curse of the Crimson Throne where the PCs are encouraged to seek out an ancient weapon to aid in taking down the BBEG. It’s not necessary that they do so, but it will make the job easier if they do get it.

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