The MacGuffin. A funny sounding little word that has probably both entertained you and frustrated you to the highest degree even if you don・・t know what it is. But what is a MacGuffin?
The MacGuffin is a plot device used ・・in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation・・ (Wikipedia). Very often, the MacGuffin is not important to the plotline of a story and may not even be revealed as to what it actually is.
A Briefcase・to Die For
One of my personal favorite uses of the MacGuffin in a movie is the film Ronin (1998). It stars Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgard, and a host of other fantastic actors. It is a spy action-thriller movie in which a team of special operatives are trying to steal a mysterious and heavily guarded briefcase while navigating a host of complications in the story. It・・s a fun movie to watch and has some of the best car chase scenes ever filmed for a movie.
In this movie, the heavily guarded briefcase is the MacGuffin. You don・・t know why it・・s important, other than numerous ex-special operatives are being hired to acquire it. There is a lot of money involved and people are willing to kill for it. And the best part, you never learn what・・s in the briefcase.
But in reality, what・・s in the briefcase isn・・t important to the overall story. It is the driving point of the story. The story really doesn・・t exist without it. Observers want to know what・・s inside of it but you don・・t need to know because it is simply a MacGuffin. It is the・plot device that moves everything forward.
A Gamemaster and a MacGuffin Walk Into A Bar
There are a lot of different types of MacGuffins and ways to use them. The use of the term is actually even debated somewhat within writing and film groups. Here some potential examples of a MacGuffin being used in a movie:
– Raiders of the Lost Ark | Indiana Jones and the Nazis battle over finding and securing the Ark of the Covenant, a lost relic from biblical times. No one knows exactly what the Ark is capable of but everyone wants it. In the end, neither Indiana nor the Nazis acquire the Ark. The Ark winds・up being packed and stored in an enormous warehouse to be lost and buried once again.
– The Lord of the Rings | In this trilogy, numerous forces of the planet of Middle-earth battle for control over the ever powerful One Ring. It is a small ring that looks relatively insignificant but contains an enormous amount of power. Some want it for themselves while others wish to destroy it. The world is nearly brought to the brink of destruction while fighting over it.
– Pulp Fiction | Much like in the film, Ronin, two hitmen are sent to acquire a mysterious briefcase. They don・・t know exactly what is in the briefcase・or why they・・ve been sent to retrieve it but the entire story revolves around attempting to acquire the item. In the end, John Travolta・・s character, Vincent Vega, opens the briefcase・and an incredible glow emanates from inside. You never learn exactly what is in the briefcase・but the movie suggests that it is either very valuable or very dangerous.
Whatever your MacGuffin might be, they typically work best when they have one of more of the following attributes:
– The plot revolves around it.
– It motivates villains.
– It is something to be discovered.
– It is a mystery to be solved.
– It is very powerful.
– It is completely insignificant.
As you can see, some of these attributes don・・t go together but that is the beauty of the device. Its actual definition is open to interpretation so it can be used in the best way the gamemaster sees fit for the story.
MacDo・・s and MacDon・・ts
If you decide to use a MacGuffin in your game, think about a few things.
A MacGuffin should be plausible and appropriate for your genre. It should be imaginative and creative. It should be a catalyst that helps move the story forward. It should appear when the story needs a boost to move forward. It should be an item that is hard to obtain, a mystery that is difficult to be solved, or a challenging obstacle that is in the way.
A MacGuffin should not be the star of the story. There may be times where it is the focus of the story but it shouldn・・t be the star. It also shouldn・・t be dwelled upon. Bring it in when it is needed and then remove it from view.
If the MacGuffin is not a mystery, then it is most likely the object that the story revolves around. ・In Star Wars, R2-D2 is・often considered the MacGuffin of the movie series. ・He isn’t necessarily the primary focus of the movie but he always seems to be there when major things are happening.
If the MacGuffin is a mystery, you may or may not actually know what it is. For example, in the example of the movie Ronin, the storyteller may or may not actually know what is in the briefcase. For the most part, it shouldn・・t matter. But as a gamemaster there may come a day when you will actually reveal what the MacGuffin is.
If you don・・t know what your MacGuffin truly is, keep a running list of ideas of what it could be. If your players suggest something that sounds interesting to you, write it down. If you think of something outside of the game that it could be, write it down. If the time comes where you are going to reveal what it is, hopefully you・・ve developed a list of ideas and can use the one that would make the greatest impact on the game.
If it is used in typical fashion, what it actually is should be fairly interchangeable. In the movie Ronin, the value and importance of the suitcase could have been anything. There could have been nuclear activation codes in it, a list of spy names for foreign countries, scientific data on a new energy source, a priceless item or heirloom, or any other similar item. The story would remain relatively the same regardless of what it was.
A properly used MacGuffin can be a great way to provide intrigue or mystery into your campaign and move it forward. If used improperly, it can become a cheesy circus act no one wants to watch that is being replayed over and over. I・・m a big fan of seeing them in written stories, movies, and roleplaying campaigns. ・I think they add a lot to the story when they are done correctly and can be a huge narrative benefit for a gamemaster that is trying to develop their campaign story.
What do you think about MacGuffins? Do you have a great, or horrible, MacGuffin story from your gaming experiences?
MacGuffin ・・ Wikipedia
Ronin (Film) ・・ Wikipedia
Oliver Oviedo says
Thank you for another excellent post.
Although I am very familiar with the MacGuffin with regard to films and shows, I find it a bit harder to translate that into an actual RPG experience. In my view, what makes a film good can be very different from what makes an RPG good. For example, in a film like Ronin you have a cast of cool characters that are essentially written in a way that throws them together for a common cause. In an RPG, you have a set of distinctly developed characters that must now somehow come together and form a team. So with this in mind, I see the main value of a MacGuffin (in an RPG) as a kind of focal point, with each character connecting to it in some way.
I liked your bullet point list laying out various MacGuffin attributes – would it be possible for you to put up a list of various ways the player characters might be connected to the MacGuffin? I think if you were to do that, things like how it drives the plot forward, why it is a mystery, or what the villains want with it might manifest themselves organically.
Oliver Oviedo recently posted…So What’s Next?
Samuel Van Der Wall says
@ Oliver – I agree that certain attributes of movies don’t always translate perfectly into RPGs.
As far as MacGuffins go, I think when it is a physical object it isn’t too hard. Look at the Ark of the Covenant in Indiana Jones.
– Indiana Jones believed it was an artifact that belonged in a museum for all to see.
– The Nazis wanted its potential powers to help them win a war.
– Others may have wanted it to sell it for money.
With the One Ring in Lord of the Rings, you also had lots of driving forces.
– Some good characters wanted to destroy it so evil couldn’t have it.
– Some good characters wanted it to destroy evil.
– Evil characters wanted it to destroy good characters.
– Some characters wanted it for themselves for various reasons (fame, power, etc).
– And, the One Ring actually made many characters desire it.
In Pulp Fiction or Ronin, it was a lot simpler.
– Various factions paid hirelings to go and acquire the item for their own unknown reasons.
I’ll ponder some ideas for other types of MacGuffins as well. That would make a good potential article and depend on the type of MacGuffin you’re using.
Thanks for the comment!
Samuel Van Der Wall recently posted…Challenges: On the Road