March 29, 2014
A MacGuffin is something that serves no other purpose than to drive forward the plot of a story. It is a trope of movies, television, and certainly role-playing games, and can be a very annoying one at that. It was a term popularized by the famous Alfred Hitchcock, who credits a screenwriter of his with the actual realization of concept, as well as the name.
In role-playing games, especially fantasy role-playing games, MacGuffins have this tendency to come up anytime the characters find themselves facing an apocalyptic doom beast or simply just an apocalypse, with some exposition-spewing NPC telling the characters “You must find the legendary (insert name of specific MacGuffin here) before (insert threat here).” Now, while this works for a fantasy story, and the adventure to acquire the MacGuffin can be a lot of fun, focusing your stories on acquiring a MacGuffin that is clearly a MacGuffin risks losing player interest. After all, this is so recognizable as a trope that many players have developed a knee-jerk response to a MacGuffin quest in that they lose the capacity to take it seriously. In such an instance, the game goes from an epic tale to slapstick, which is oftentimes disheartening for players and Gamemasters alike.
So, what can be done to prevent this? A simple answer is “don’t have there be a MacGuffin,” but this is often easier said than done. Many Gamemasters will not even realize they have created a MacGuffin until after the fact, namely when it is pointed out by an observant player. The idea of the MacGuffin is so ingrained into fantasy storytelling that they do have this tendency to slip in under the radar. No, I think a better answer is to make your MacGuffin more than just a MacGuffin. Remember, a MacGuffin is something that serves no other purpose than to drive the story forward. Give it another purpose.
Lets look at J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The One Ring is often cited as a classic example of a MacGuffin, and it certainly risked being that, but technically it is not a MacGuffin. It certainly has the trappings of one in that the characters must take it to Mount Doom and toss it in the fires in order to banish the evil of Sauron from Middle Earth, but the One Ring proved to be so much more than a simple plot device. The One Ring was a corrupting influence to the characters, particularly in the cases of Frodo, Gollum, and Boromir, it actively sought to be reclaimed by the forces of Mordor, and in many ways it was a character in its own right. All of these things helped define the One Ring as something more than just a MacGuffin. They make it an interesting element of the story.
The trick to having a MacGuffin in your stories is not not let the MacGuffin simply be a MacGuffin. Flesh it out. Give it character. Give it a reason for being other than simply to do whatever it is the story needs it to do in order to progress. If this means giving an inanimate object a dark will of its own, then do that. If this means giving your player characters more hardships to overcome, all the better. Be mindful of the story elements you make use of and take care not to rely on too many tropes. Sure, many of them have become so ingrained in our minds that we do not even realize when we make use of them, but these are the ones you need to watch out for most of all. Do not be afraid to make use of them, but when you do make sure that you put in the time and effort to make them your own.
As always, thanks for reading and I wish you all good gaming.
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