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.

Advertisements

ATTACK!

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

One of the most common types of rules interpretation errors involves attacking. Attacking is deceptively simple in Pathfinder because there are many different ways to attack. Resolving the attack action will be the topic of today’s GM Guide. Today’s guide is going to lightly feature some of the Action Economy ideas from my Action Economy 101 guide, so you might want to keep that link handy if you forget how the action economy works. With that said, let’s get busy!

Ways to Kill

When we talk about “attacking,” there are four default ways in the game to attack an opponent. Let’s get those out of the way first.

  • Attack: You make a single attack against one target as a standard action. This means that you can’t attack with your iterative attacks (–5 to hit for a second attack) but you can still take a move action during your turn.
  • Full Attack: You make one or more attacks against an equal number of targets as a full-round action. You can only take a 5-foot step when you make a full attack unless you have a special ability like pounce, but otherwise you get more attacks in during a full attack action then you would during an attack action.
  • Charge: You move and make an attack with a +2 bonus to hit and a –2 penalty to AC. When you charge, you can move up to your speed as a standard action or double your speed as a full-round action, so unlike the other actions charging is rather flexible in how much of your action economy it requires. The other thing worth noting is that charging requires that you move in a relatively straight line, so keep your movement in line.
  • Combat Maneuver: Some combat maneuvers are not considered attacks, meaning you can’t take them during an attack action or a full-attack action. The big ones are bull rush (though this one can be made during a charge action), dirty trick, drag, grapple, overrun (though this one can be made during your charge), reposition, or steal. The other combat maneuvers (disarm, sunder, and trip) are made in place of a melee attack, meaning they can be made during an attack action or a full attack action.

In Between the Lines

Now that we’ve looked at the general types of offensive actions in the game, let’s look at some feats and special abilities that interact with them.

  • Power Attack/Deadly Aim: All of these feats state that you can take a penalty when you make a melee attack roll to gain a bonus on melee damage rolls. The term “attack roll” is general enough that it can apply to any ability that requires a melee attack roll. That’s why the feat has to specifically state that it doesn’t work with melee touch attacks. If it didn’t, it would. As a result, Power Attack works with any of the actions listed above that make melee attack rolls, and so on for Deadly Aim.
  • Combat Expertise: Combat Expertise has the same wording listed under Power Attack, except it states that it can only be used when you attack with a full attack or attack action. So no to other types of actions.
  • Fighting Defensively: You can fight defensively when attacking as a standard action or as a full-round action by taking a penalty on attack rolls. Again, this means you have to take the attack action or the full attack action in order to fight defensively.
  • Manyshot: Manyshot specifically states that your first attack during a full attack fires two arrows. This means you can only gain the benefits of Manyshot when using the full attack action.

Pretty easy, right? Don’t worry, it stays fairly easy.

Special Actions

Many feats and special abilities give you the ability to attack in special ways that don’t fall into one of the four categories listed above. The most famous of them is Spring Attack.

  • Spring Attack states that you can move up to your speed and make an attack at any point during the movement as a full-round action. Nowhere does the feat claim to interact with one of the four action types listed above; it is an entirely separate action from the attack or full attack action. This means abilities that only modify the attack or full attack action do not modify Spring Attack. This includes, for example, the haste spell.

Action Index

Let’s look at some common actions players take and define them in the terms of one of the above categories.

  • Awesome Blow (Special Action)
  • Bullying Blow (Special Action)
  • Claw Pounce (Charge Action)
  • Cleave/Great Cleave (Special Action)
  • Clustered Shots (Full Attack)
  • Cockatrice Strike (Special Action)
  • Combat Expertise (Attack or Full Attack Action)
  • [Combat Maneuver] Strike (None)
  • Dead Shot Deed (Special Action)
  • Deadly Aim (None)
  • Deadly Stroke (Special Action)
  • Dimensional Dervish (Full Attack)
  • Fast Bombs (Full Attack)
  • Felling Smash (Attack Action)
  • Flurry of Blows (Special Action)
  • Flyby Attack (None)
  • Focused Shot (Special Action)
  • Gorgon’s Fist (Special Action)
  • Hammer the Gap (Full Attack)
  • Manyshot (Full Attack)
  • Medusa’s Wrath (Full Attack)
  • Leaping Shot Deed (Special Action)
  • Power Attack (None)
  • Rapid Shot (Full Attack)
  • Ride-by Attack (Charge Action)
  • Risky Striker (Attack or Full Attack Action)
  • Scorpion Style (Special Action)
  • Second Change (Full Attack)
  • Shield of Swings (Full Attack)
  • Shot on the Run (Special Action)
  • Sniper Shot (Special Action)
  • Spell Combat (Special Action)
  • Spring Attack (Special Action)
  • Stabbing Shot (Full Attack)
  • Stunning Fist (None)
  • Trap Wrecker (Special Action)
  • Two-Weapon Fighting (Full Attack)
  • Vital Strike (Attack Action)
  • Vulpine Pounce (Charge Action)
  • Whirlwind Attack (Full Attack Action)

Whew! Lot’s of actions, eh?

Sadly, that’s all the time I’ve got today for this one. Leave your questions and comments below and be sure to visit next week for some more sagely advice from 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 archer, because who doesn’t like making ten attacks per full-round attack?.

Destroy All Titans!

Welcome to Iconic Design, where we discuss the creation of exciting new character builds for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game!

Yup. I’m doing an Attack on Titan build. Specifically, a build for Eren Yaeger. I know you Attack on Titan fans are SQUEALING right now, so I’ll say this: this guide has spoilers from the first 10 episodes of Attack on Titan, so if you have 5 hours to kill and don’t want to be spoiled, WATCH IT. Oh please, for the love of god WATCH ATTACK ON TITAN.

Thank you.

Background

Since Attack on Titan just started airing on Cartoon Network, I’m not going to go too much into who Eren Yaeger is. All you need to know is that he lives in a world where humanity is hunted by giant humanoids called titans. They catch and eat people because they think humans taste delicious. Attack on Titan has some of the most horrifying imagery of people getting eaten that I have EVER seen. Coupled a healthy dose of uncanny valley and this show is both dark and terrifying in its own, weird way. If you like Lovecraftian Horror (not the monsters, but the premise of humanity as insignificant on a cosmic scale) then you will ADORE Attack on Titan.

Build Concept

So, how are we going to build Eren Yaeger? With STYLE AND OVERPOWERED ARCHETYPES! (But mostly the latter.)

  • Ranger: Remember my trick for getting monk unarmed strike damage that I used with my Steve Irwin build? Yeah, we’re gonna need that trick.
  • Summoner (Synthesist Summoner): Oh yeah, baby! We’re bringing back the most OP character archetype in the game here on Iconic Design! Seriously though, we need the synthesit summoner as it is the only way to get a PC large enough to be a titan without something like monstrous physique. So specifically, it’s the only way to do it without being a wizard/sorcerer while getting pretty close to the concept at 1st level. To those GMs out there who have had their games ruined by this archetype, I’m sorry.

Early Levels (1–7)

  • Classes: Ranger 2 / Summoner (Synthesist Summoner) 5
  • Feats: Improved Unarmed Strike (Human Bonus), Two-Weapon Fighting (1st), Monastic Legacy (Combat Style), Skill Focus: Knowledge [Dungeoneering] (3rd), Eldritch Heritage: Aberrant (5th), Feral Combat Training (7th)
  • Abilities: Combat Style (Irori), Favored Enemy (Aberrations +2), Fused Eidolon, Fused Link, Shielded Meld, Summon Monster III, Track, Wild Empathy
  • Evolutions (8): ability increase: Strength, improved natural armor, improved natural attack: slam, magic attacks, reach: unarmed strike, slam (replaces claws), unnatural aura
  • 2nd-Level Spells: barkskin, lesser restore eidolon, protection from arrows
  • 1st-Level Spells: ant haul, enlarge person, lesser rejuvenate eidolon, life conduit
  • 0-Level Spells: acid splash, arcane mark, detect magic, guidance, read magic, resistance

So the real trick in this build relies on an FAQ that the development team put out last year. In the FAQ, the team ruled that you can cast spells that target humanoids on yourself/the eidolon while wearing it as armor because the synthesist summoner does not trade the eidolon’s share spells class feature, which lets you cast spells on the eidolon even if they are not appropriate for its type. Using this FAQ, we can make Eren big in titan form. REALLY big.

After spending the first two levels grabbing Monastic Legacy, you’re going to want to send your evolution points on stuff that improves your Strength. Titans don’t have claws, so I also traded the claws for a slam attack, as per the rules. Much more appropriate. I took the evolution that boosts the slam’s size for damage too and unnatural aura seemed very appropriate to me. Reach with unarmed strikes is also pretty awesome.

Spell-wise, Eren’s spells focus on buffs and healing. Specifically, buffs that emulate the titan’s own abilities. I really like life conduit (and its greater forms) for this build because Eren has been shown to be receive healing while he is within the titan. Cantrips are a little wonky, but cantrips never mesh up with builds well because there are such a small number of them. All that aside, our unarmed damage titan is going along smoothly.

Mid Levels (8 –14)

  • Classes: Ranger 2 / Summoner (Synthesist Summoner) 12
  • Feats: Improved Unarmed Strike (Human Bonus), Two-Weapon Fighting (1st), Monastic Legacy (Combat Style), Skill Focus: Knowledge [Dungeoneering] (3rd), Eldritch Heritage: Aberrant (5th), Feral Combat Training (7th), Double Slice (9th), Improved Eldritch Heritage (11th), Improved Eldritch Heritage (13th)
  • Abilities: Aspect, Combat Style (Irori), Favored Enemy (Aberrations +2), Fused Eidolon, Fused Link, Greater Shielded Meld, Maker’s Jump (2/Day), Shielded Meld, Summon Monster VI, Track, Wild Empathy
  • Evolutions (16): ability increase: Strength, improved natural armor, improved natural attack: slam, large, magic attacks, reach: unarmed strike, slam (replaces claws), trample, unnatural aura
  • 4th-Level Spells: communal protection from energy, purified calling, summoner conduit, transmogrify
  • 3rd-Level Spells: fire shield, rejuvenate eidolon, restore eidolon, stoneskin
  • 2nd-Level Spells: barkskin, lesser evolution surge, lesser restore eidolon, protection from arrows, summon eidolon
  • 1st-Level Spells: ant haul, enlarge person, expeditious retreat, lesser rejuvenate eidolon, life conduit, lighten object
  • 0-Level Spells: acid splash, arcane mark, detect magic, guidance, read magic, resistance

Note: Lighten object is a 1st-level spell from the Faiths of Balance player companion. It fits pretty well with the “I’m super strong and can pick stuff up with ease” feel of Eren’s build.

So now we’re getting BIG. And with Eren’s titan form, big is exactly what we want. Although we can’t afford to buy Huge yet, we’re at Large, which is still nice. When Eren uses his Enlarge Person spell (which should be almost every time he battles), he’s going to be a Huge creature with some massive benefits. At this point in the game, Eren is working towards unlocking the secret of his titan powers, so we’re going to replicate that with the Eldritch Bloodline powers. As mentioned earlier, aberrations are pretty close to titans, so I’m going with the aberrant bloodline specifically for those juicy 3rd-and-9th level powers. The ability to improve Eren’s already massive range is great and the critical hit protection is just as good.

Spell-wise, Eren’s mostly gets more spells that replicate properties of the titans. He’s got more self-healing for his eidolon suit and more neat little buffs, like fire shield (because we know that titans are HOT to the touch). He can also give himself some damage reduction via a splattering of spells, heal up his eidolon, and (my favorite), switch up his eidolon with the transmogrify spell. I think transmogrify is perfect for this build because titans are summoned based upon the shifter’s goals. I’m thinking of the time that he accidentally turns his arm into a titan arm to pick up a spoon.

We’re at the home stretch with the build, and you know what that means: BIGGER TITANS RAWR!

Endgame (15+)

  • Classes: Ranger 5 / Summoner (Synthesist Summoner) 15
  • Feats: Improved Unarmed Strike (Human Bonus), Two-Weapon Fighting (1st), Monastic Legacy (Combat Style), Skill Focus: Knowledge [Dungeoneering] (3rd), Eldritch Heritage: Aberrant (5th), Feral Combat Training (7th), Double Slice (9th), Improved Eldritch Heritage (11th), Improved Eldritch Heritage (13th), Extra Evolution (15th), Improved Two-Weapon Fighting (17th), Extra Evolution (19th)
  • Abilities: Aspect, Combat Style (Irori), Favored Enemy (Aberrations +4, Humanoids +2), Favored Terrain: Urban +2, Fused Eidolon, Fused Link, Greater Shielded Meld, Hunter’s Bond: Companions, Maker’s Jump (2/Day), Shielded Meld, Summon Monster VIII, Track, Wild Empathy
  • Evolutions (22): ability increase: Strength, huge, improved natural armor, improved natural attack: slam, large, magic attacks, reach: unarmed strike, slam (replaces claws), trample, unnatural aura
  • 5th-Level Spells: greater life conduit, greater rejuvenate eidolon, repulsion, spell turning
  • 4th-Level Spells: communal protection from energy, purified calling, summoner conduit, transmogrify (1 freebee)
  • 3rd-Level Spells: fire shield, improved light conduit, locate creature, rejuvenate eidolon, restore eidolon, stoneskin
  • 2nd-Level Spells: barkskin, haste, lesser evolution surge, lesser restore eidolon, protection from arrows, summon eidolon
  • 1st-Level Spells: ant haul, enlarge person, expeditious retreat, lesser rejuvenate eidolon, life conduit, lighten object
  • 0-Level Spells: acid splash, arcane mark, detect magic, guidance, read magic, resistance

So when I sat down to make this build, I was originally going to take it to Ranger 2 / Summoner 18. And then I got to the 6th level spell list. I always forget how boring the summoner spell list is; it’s honestly a chore to make fun characters with what’s available to you from that list. With that in mind, I decided to stop the summoner levels at 15th and finish up the build in ranger.

Spell-wise, Eren and the titan get more healing; that’s about it. Feat-wise, we needed the extra push to get to the Huge evolution, so I took Extra Evolution twice and rounded the build off with an extra attack from Improved Two-Weapon Fighting. Well, not much to say here. Let’s take a look at the final damage numbers, shall we?

Final Damage Numbers

By 20th level, Eren has the unarmed strike damage of a 10th level monk (1d10). Because of Feral Combat Style, this 1d10 also counts for his slam attack. When Eren transforms, he becomes Huge (a jump of two categories), which increases this die from 1d10 to 3d8. When he uses Enlarge Person to become Gargantuan, his die improves again to 4d8. Plus he has improved damage for the slam, so the same goes up to 5d8.

Eren’s titan form’s starting Strength is 16. When he becomes Huge, he gains a +16 bonus, making his Strength a 32. He also has a +2 bonus from his Ability Score Increase evolution, which improves his total to 34. He’s also likely to have taken all of his ability increases in Strength, making his final Strength a 36 before enhancement bonuses. A Strength 36 has a modifier of +12, so Eren’s unarmed strikes deal 4d8+12 damage each and his slam deals 5d8+12.

And there you have it; an Eren Yaeger build from Attack on Titan! I’m already well aware that the numbers on this one are ridiculous, so I’m not even going to ask for your thoughts on Eren Yaeger. If you DON’T think this build is wonky, leave me a comment and tell me about it. Otherwise, I’ll just expect your messages that I’m a dirty power gamer and should never be allowed to play Pathfinder Game. Hope you enjoyed the design, and stay tuned for a new Iconic Design next week!

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 TITAN, and he watches Attack on Titan subbed.