A couple weeks ago Sam wrote a cool article on how to incorporate a MacGuffin into your RPG plot [here]. We received feedback from readers asking for more specific examples, not of existing MacGuffins but of ones that could be used effectively in an RPG format. The collaborative nature of story-telling in roleplaying games can sometimes make it difficult to use certain literary devices effectively. For example; if the bad guys want a mysterious object in a film, it’s fine for the viewer to never know what the object is because the characters in the film usually do. In an RPG players want to to know. Worse yet, if it’s something powerful they want to use it! A great RPG MacGuffin needs to have the following aspects:
- It needs to motivate the action. Powerful people want it, or want to destroy it!
- The characters need to find out what it is, eventually!
- It needs to be something “other” people can use but not intrinsically useful to the heroes.
- It could have the potential to launch follow-up adventures.
So with that in mind (especially #3), and in response to feedback, here’s my list of MacGuffins for use in your RPG. Remember, there is usually a big difference between what the heroes think of as “powerful” and what motivates the movers and shakers of the campaign world. It should also be noted that I tend write from the fantasy genre perspective but these ideas could work in almost any genre with a little tweaking.
- Documents confirming that the prisoner in the dungeon is the rightful heir to the throne.
- The contract between a devil and the mortal that sold their soul.
- Plans and blueprints for an important structure.
- Information that that reveals a long-held belief is wrong.
- Letters between a powerful person and their secret lover.
- Evidence of an atrocity committed by someone well respected.
- Evidence that a “good” organization is actually led by evil forces.
- Mortal remains. Someone needs to speak with the dead!
- The cure for a magical plague affecting the land.
- The potential cause of the magical plague about to be released.
- One of the “cornerstones” of reality.
- Information that proves the neighboring kingdom is preparing to invade.
- Or, information proving the neighboring kingdom is peaceful.
- A key (the heroes don’t need to know what it goes to).
- Evidence of a long-denied threat returning.
- Proof that evil enemies were once good, but good races were responsible for their turn to evil.
- A mundane artifact of a long-dead hero that may inspire rebellion.
- The secret recipe for the most popular wine in the realm.
- An old peace treaty.
- The last will and testament of a powerful individual.
- A vessel containing someone’s soul.
- The secret alchemy formula to something economically valuable.
- The deed to a section of land or a claim to a mine.
- Documents with a listing of the identities of a network of royal spies.
- An intricate brass cog that belongs in an important device, which is useless without it.
- An extremely rare alchemy reagent.
- An infant child that is the key to an ancient prophecy.
- A wizard’s familiar.
- The client roster of an elite up-scale brothel.
- The personal journal of a noble.
- The sacred texts of a powerful religion.
- A famous painting (which secretly hides important documents).
- Evidence of a fundamental misunderstanding in the texts of a long-standing faith.
- Evidence that a popular noble is a spy for an enemy realm.
- Proof that the high-priest is possessed.
It can be difficult to motivate the heroes over something that may not hold personal value to them. Consider the idea of patronage of you’re thinking about using a MacGuffin. The heroes might not value the MacGuffin but if their patron does than the adventure is on!
The MacGuffin is a time-honored plot element that can be used to great affect in nearly any story-telling endeavor. However, there in lies a potential problem for its inclusion in an RPG; how focused on story-telling is your game? To work most effectively the MacGuffin requires at least a little buy-in from your players. If your game and players are story focused, then the use of the MacGuffin may be just thing your adventure needs.