Using a MacGuffin to Drive the Plot in D&D 5e
There are plenty of D&D plots and stories that center around thwarting the villain and saving the world. You know, kill the lich hell-bent on taking over the world or slay the dragon that is terrorizing the countryside. These are staples for a reason, they work well in the game and provide an engaging narrative.
There’s a villain, there are heroes, and there’s a reason why the heroes want to stop the villain. The heroes must go on a journey or adventure and become stronger to face the villain. It’s a well-balanced plot for a D&D game.
What if I told you instead of basing the story around a villain you could base it around an item? And, what if I told you that this item doesn’t have to be some immensely powerful object that you have to tediously homebrew? If this sounds good look no further than the MacGuffin!
What’s a MacGuffin?
A MacGuffin (or McGuffin) is an item, goal, or object that the protagonists aim to acquire. Most of the time it tends to be an object of value; value is measured in terms of money, power, or information.
That being said, the character knows of the importance of the item, but the audience has no idea. We don’t know what the item does or what its significance is other than that the character needs it.
The MacGuffin is revealed to the audience in the beginning of the story. They learn of its importance to the protagonists and the story, but then it quickly tapers off in importance.
Sometimes it’s revealed again at the end of the story when the character finds it, but really it’s just a vehicle to thrust the character into the actual story.
The Briefcase in Pulp Fiction is an example of a MacGuffin. We know that it’s an important item, but we don’t know exactly what it does or how valuable it is. It’s simply there to keep the plot moving forward.
If you want a more in-depth look at MacGuffins be sure to check out TV Tropes’ article.
What Makes a Good MacGuffin?
Any sort of valuable-sounding item could make a great MacGuffin. An item that reveals important information such as a book or hidden documents could also make for a great MacGuffin depending on the story that’s being told.
Regardless of what it is, it has to be something that could be considered tangible. The audience and the characters have to be intrigued by it and want to actively seek it out.
The party may never find the item, but they and the players should all believe that it’s possible to find this item or complete the goal.
I keep referring to the audience and characters when I talk about the MacGuffin because it’s an idea that originates in film. However, in this case, your audience is the players and the characters are the party.
This is one of those weird times where your characters may know more about something than the players do. The point of this, though is that ultimately it’s not necessary information for the players to even know about. It’s just a plot device!
Who, What, Where, and Why?
Who wants the MacGuffin?
The protagonists obviously want the MacGuffin. The party will travel to the ends of the world to find the MacGuffin or complete their quest, even if they don’t have to.
Your villain or antagonist could also want the MacGuffin. Perhaps it’s a valuable item or an item that will give them power. The story may turn into a quest to find the MacGuffin or stop the antagonist from acquiring it.
That’s a great way to introduce a “thwart the villain and save the day” story from an unconventional starting point. The party sets off to find a treasure, but ends up defeating a great evil instead.
Other people may know of the item or want the item, but the party will have to determine whether or not they are a threat to their quest. Obviously the party will want to ask around about the MacGuffin so ideally it won’t be something that only 1 or 2 people know about.
This opens up some dialogue between the party and the NPCs of the world. They have a reason to ask questions and learn more about not only the item, but everything revolving around it. They may discover new plot hooks and story-lines through their investigation.
What is the item?
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. It can be whatever you want it to be because most of the time it ends up being nothing.
What does matter is the value of the item. It needs to be something that the protagonists are willing to set out on a long, dangerous journey for.
The MacGuffin also needs to be something that antagonists, villains, and enemies wish to either seek out, or stop the party from acquiring. This is the way that you introduce these opposing groups to your party initially.
This is primarily a big difference in storytelling from the standard D&D story-line. Instead of showcasing a villain committing an evil act you can reveal them to be an opposing group in the race to acquire the item, or they are the group that is currently in possession of the MacGuffin.
Where is the MacGuffin being taken/where is it located?
This is a question that has absolutely no wrong answers as far as the MacGuffin is concerned. The party may believe that they know where the MacGuffin is located or being delivered to. Who’s to say that their information is accurate, though?
They may have to spend a good portion of the campaign finding out the true location of the item. They go to a dungeon or point on the map, fight through the hordes of enemies, but don’t find their item. Instead, they find a clue to the location. Rinse and repeat.
Another option could be that the party’s information is accurate. However, they are not physically able to storm the castle or keep yet. They need to become stronger or find a key to enter the area that the MacGuffin is being held.
Basically, this is a way to initially force the party to explore the world.
Think of Super Mario Bros. Princess Toadstool is basically a MacGuffin. The princess is simply a vehicle for Mario to continue exploring and fighting King Koopa. Even though you eventually find her she wasn’t anything more than a plot device.
Why do the characters want or need the MacGuffin?
This is pretty open-ended as I’ve stated before. The party’s intentions with the item can be anything, really. They desire money, power, fame, etc. and the MacGuffin is able to give them what it is they desire.
The cool thing about this though is that the DM doesn’t necessarily have to create the MacGuffin. It could be something that’s part of a character’s backstory. The player wants to find an important family heirloom or some lost treasure.
The best way to introduce a MacGuffin is to simply describe it to the party. Give them some lore and history surrounding it and emphasize what it’s thought to be able to do for those that acquire it.
The party can figure out their own reasons for pursuing the object from that point. This is a stronger way to present the plot device because the players now have their own reasons and will be more likely to pursue them.
Your other option as the DM is to say from the get-go that the reason for the adventure is to acquire the item. The characters can all have their reasons for chasing after the MacGuffin, but their goals are all aligned.
Using a MacGuffin is a more unique way to introduce your players to the story of the campaign. It’s less abrupt and cliché than the standard “defeat the villain that is committing evil acts”, but can still push the plot in that direction.
The story can revolve around the MacGuffin as much or as little as you’d like. At the beginning, it will be very heavily inserted into the story to force the party to go off on an adventure, but once they’re out there they may find other things to do.
I like the idea of a campaign revolving around a MacGuffin. It’s a nice change-of-pace from the usual D&D campaign. I could also see it working very well for an all-rogue campaign or some sort of heist campaign.
It’s definitely an idea that I’m looking forward to trying someday as either a short-term campaign or the beginning of a more serious one!