Hot Button: Magic – Mechanical or McGuffin?

Every gaming system handles magic a little differently, but one thing holds true in any gaming system that has a magical component. At some point it is going to be used to move the narrative along. When magic becomes a McGuffin, it’s going to break the rules.

“I’m sorry Vansha. While you can clearly see the princess is in this castle, she is protected by a magic force field that can only be breached with the sword of Armun.”

“This poison is very strong, and only a dose of the blood of a 3 toed griffon can be used to make the potion to cure him.”

“The only way past this door is by saying the correct word to release the magic barring it.”

Situations like these are pretty common. They sometimes seem to be the bread and butter of pre-published adventures. When magic gets used as a story element like this there are usually two types of responses:

Sure Why Not – Let’s Roll With It

“Ok, time to go quest for that sword!”

“Hmm, 3 toed griffon are rare. What skill would I roll to know where to find one?”

“Hmmm. Lets see, friend? What’s friend in Elven. It’d be something lame like that. Did we see a clue along the wall? Oh wait, this clue here says we have to go talk to the old man in the woods. Let’s go hiking!”

Wait A Minute, Page 89 Says I Got This

“Ok. force field right? I can use my 10 foot teleport to jump through, then jump out again. I’ll grab her and go back out. I can do that if I cast the spell twice and I’ve got two of it. This errata here says it will even work across dimensional barriers, so I think that trumps the force field. Wait, I don’t even need to do that. If this is Glamhorn’s Majestic Barrier Spell, I can bypass it with a roll and a piece of Iron dipped in rosewater.”

“You just need blood right, well I can shape change into any creature I know about. Since I made my roll to know about 3 toed griffons I won’t have any chance of failure. Just cut a few points of blood off of my wing and have the cleric heal me.”

“Ok, wait, no. I can use my consultation once a day to get the word, so uh, hey Generic Good God, wassup? U-huh. Yup. Yup. Ok, I say friend in elven. Open up.”

I’ve seen magic like this go both ways, and I’m sure you have too. When magic gets used as a story element it is usually meant to progress the story along or push the characters in a certain direction. Sometimes they go with it, sometimes they don’t. If the McGuffinish magic is based on the mechanical magic of the game system then there is probably a way around it. If there isn’t a way around it then there is probably another spell to trump it. It there isn’t a spell to trump it, the Game Master usually has to fiat it or think really really fast on how to do without wherever that McGuffin lead to. If the McGuffinish magic isn’t based on any mechanical system in the game then it can end up feeling like a one-way fiat.

So which is better? Should McGuffin magic be based on the rules? Should McGuffin magic be used as the story element that it is? Should McGuffin magic just be avoided? This is one of those questions that there are a lot of answers to – what’s yours?

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John Arcadian is a writer, gamer, art director, web designer, crafter, and kilt-wearer. You can find more of his writings on gaming over at For web-design projects, check out
  1. The_Gun_Nut     | Reply

    It should be based upon the rules presented in the game. However, imaginative, creative, and above all out-of-the-box thinking on magic use can produce some pretty hard-core story-fiat level of requirements. Working within limits set up by the setting will enhance the author’s creativity, not stifle it. It will give them a framework for creating interesting stories by keeping it grounded in the paradigm of the world (if I’m using paradigm correctly).

    The rewards are great. Your story becomes more believable by being grounded in what your players are familiar with. This enhances versimilitude and player immersion. Anything that gets your players deeper into the game is a good thing. Even if it makes getting past the obstacle a huge quest in itself, your players will jump at the chance to overcome it, because they know that it can be overcome and isn’t an obstacle “just because.”

  2. Clawfoot     | Reply

    I will, on occasion, use McGuffin magic (or McGuffin anything, really), because I’m a firm believer that if the rules get in the way of the story, then it’s time to throw the rules out. I will sometimes suspend the rules in favour of high drama, if the situation calls for it.

    The key here is that my players know this about my style and like it — I would not do it at, say, a convention game or a game with new-to-me players in it, because I recognize that some people might find it frustrating and un-fun. With players who know and like my style, however, I’ll do it.

  3. callin     | Reply

    I use magic to move a story along or to present challenges, usually done to make the players think outside the box of normal RPG play.
    I rationalize this with the understanding that whatever magic is powering the effect exists in the world as something the players can eventually learn…unfortunately it is either too high level or too rare for the characters to acquire.

  4. Tegemea     | Reply

    Personally, I love the McGuffin magic – I feel like it adds compelling detail and flavor to a game. However, I will only use that sort of set-up if I’m sure I’m playing with a group that feels the same way and wants to play along.

  5. Roxysteve     | Reply

    Nah, McGuffin trumps mechanics every time, though you need to have a compelling reason for it and an in-game believable reason *why* they can’t just go round the side.

    I’d come up with an artifact-based thing I think.

  6. Roxysteve     | Reply

    Sorry. As in “the force field isn’t *just* a force field, it’s Mordenkainen’s Superior Wand Of Force in action. Unique item. Severely limited in how it works.

  7. The_Gun_Nut     | Reply

    Like I said earlier, I think being aware of and using the mechanics of the game enhances creativity. Saying it works, or doesn’t work, “just because” is a bit lazy, IMO.

    Roxysteve came up with an in game explanation on why said force field couldn’t be easily bypassed. Sure, it’s a bit old hat, but it still stays within the mechanics or paradigm of the setting. It produces a reason for the players to go after the Sword of Whosit: That’s the weapon made specifically to counter artifact level force-fields. It might have a function or two outside of knocking down a magic wall, but it really doesn’t need it.

    Having a reason for what’s going on behind the scenes, even if your players don’t look behind the curtain too often, will help you, as a GM, get into the game more. Which will help your players get into it, as well.

  8. Roxysteve     | Reply

    Well, in my defense I’ve got an old head.

    Perhaps, if magic has become so mundane that it presents as just another skill set with added optical FX, it’s time for a rethink at a more basic level. There’s only so many times a lockpick skill can be rolled to save the day and remain interesting after all.

    As a relevant aside, I also think that when a game becomes all about the interest level of the players and not a bit about the interest level of the GM, that’s a game that is on the rails to boredom city and eventual lack-of-GMism.

    If any problem the GM sets is solvable there and then with a die roll there’s no incentive for the game to be anything more than an encounter on the grid with some half-hearted preamble. Those games are fun on their own level, but they don’t constitute a halfway decent basis for a campaign since the challenge is largely a matter of good/bad dice rolling.

    I think the question asked in the article should cause us to think about the S&S stories and movies that excited us most.

    If The Ring is susceptible to a +5 axe and a STR bonus 4 attack, the Fellowship never sets out from Rivendell, and if magic beats all then Harry Dresden never gets beyond page 4. This is the key to the issue.

    So: If you have the problem solvable by reference to the ever-ready rulebooks (and can stand to sit around while Mr Wiz finds the rule he *knows* is in there somewhere) you need to have a plan as to why the results will fall short of solving the basic challenge. Doesn’t have to be based in magic either.

    Otherwise there’s no point setting up the scene in the first place.

  9. Rafe     | Reply

    This is a situation where you can finally deny players their over-analyzed/-rationalized mechanics ideas:

    “Sorry, it’s magic, but not that kind of magic.”

    Or, what I’d probably say:

    “Okay, it worked. Well done. You guys cancelled plans to game, drove 15 minutes to get here, took 15 minutes to set up, and the game lasted 5 minutes. Thanks for coming! … or, you guys can accept that there’s more to this, as I’ve hinted at, and choose to pursue a means of arriving at a decent resolution.”


  10. John Arcadian - Post Author     | Reply

    Hmm. Nice answers. An informal poll shows a bit of leaning towards the use of McGuffin magic. With that in mind, here is an add-on question for all:

    If the magic is McGuffinish and the players come up with a solution that would logically work and be fun, do you let them give it a try?

    While bypassing plot elements can be incredibly frustrating for the Game Master, having a really good idea shut down can be frustrating for the players. Do you give a chance to really good ideas that make the game more fun? Does it depend on the situation?

  11. Patrick Benson     | Reply

    If the players come up with a nice plausible explanation that gets past the magic McGuffin don’t deny them their win. They outsmarted you and they did it fair and square via the rules of the game.

    If you want to avoid this do not say “it is” say “it seems to be”. “It is a forcefield.” means that the rules regarding forcefields apply, “It seems to be a forcefield, but there is something else at work here.” This leads you to say “Good attempt, but it didn’t work and if it were a forcefield it should have. You now have another clue as to what this magic is.” Reward that failure with some very useful information.

  12. Patrick Benson     | Reply

    Mangled that one when I was distracted.

    “If you want to avoid this do not say “it is” say “it seems to be”. “It is a forcefield.” means that the rules regarding forcefields apply.

    If you say “It seems to be a forcefield, but there is something else at work here.” and the players come up with a way to get around a forcefield you can still have their attempt fail because this is not a forcefield at all. This leads you to say “Good attempt, but it didn’t work and if it were a forcefield it should have. You now have another clue as to what this magic is.” Reward that failure with some very useful information.”

  13. unwinder     | Reply

    RE: “Playing within the rules forces the GM to be more creative”

    This is a pretty good call, and I have worked within the rules for pretty much every mcguffin quest I’ve ever done, but I don’t think it’s always the best answer.

    “Forces the GM to be more creative” is another way of saying “forces the GM to spend more time on it.” If you have a time-strapped GM (and most players do) I would recommend that you appreciate the work that the GM has done, and go along with it. If you try to magically McGyver yourself through the scenario and ignore the prepared quest, you’re basically punishing him/her for not spending even more valuable time on the game. Even if your idea for getting through is pretty clever.

    Also, even if the GM has enough time on his/her hands to figure out how to necessitate the mcguffin mechanically, would you rather they spend their time on making the force field work right, or would you rather that they spend that extra time fleshing out an important NPC, or adding a novel new dimension to a combat encounter? I’d rather put the GM’s effort where it counts, and treat the mcguffin as a mcguffin and nothing more.

  14. Razjah     | Reply

    I have used the McGuffin and the mechanical approach. I prefer the McGuffin because it allows for interesting quests and role playing opportunity. I will allow the PCs to logically attempt to overcome the quests.

    My players tend to be forgiving of the McGuffin as long as the quest gets them some good stuff or, I explain that I wasn’t ready for them to move on to X so fast and didn’t prep them.

    I tend to find a brief metagame discussion at some point to be a great help with knowing if my players want McGuffins or not. Generally they do, but sometimes they want to be able to overcome any obstacle by using the mechanics.

  15. John Arcadian - Post Author     | Reply

    @unwinder – You make a good point about time strapped GMs and prepared elements. If the McGuffin was supposed to push the party in N direction and they overcome it in some unexpected way, well you’ve just lost all the prep work you did for N direction.

    On the other hand, the players (and GM) can have a great amount of fun overcoming what is prepared. While players are usually pretty good at understanding the GM perspective and following the signs, sometimes they just want to break the molds and take the world/story into their own hands. Instances like that can really throw the GM off though. In the end, I think it is all situational. Overcoming a story element in one situation can really throw the GM for a loop and kill their hard work, while in another it might cause some really great roleplaying and fun.

  16. Rafe     | Reply

    It’s really extremely context specific. There would be instances when a GM could easily re-prep to allow for clever player circumvention, but there are also times when being outsmarted by players brings the whole thing crashing down.

    As a player, I’d say “Just re-word it or alter the magic so that my X doesn’t work in this instance. Give me a good reason, but…”

    The bottom line is: A good player isn’t going to want to shut down his/her GM any more than a good GM wants to shut down his/her players. There’s no hard and fast rule for this sort of thing, though most people like the McGuffin angle (as do I).

    Story > mechanics, imo.

  17. evil     | Reply

    I prefer to play within the rules. If my players have to do so, then I feel compelled to do the same. Should they find a way past a trap that I’ve created, it’s usually because they’ve done something ingenious and I run with it. Should they particularly block me on a point I’d prefer they didn’t, I’ll usually give them a line like “As you put the finishing touches on the spell, you feel a dark power growing behind the force field. Are you sure you want to continue?” If they do, they suffer the consequences. If not, then the story continues on the path I originally set.

  18. The Minsterel in the Gallery     | Reply

    I have to rule against the McGuffin.

    First off, while I’m somewhat diabolical as a GM, I play fair. I roll in the open, let things happen as they will, but also allow the possibility of an anti-climax when they steamroll a powerful foe. Why? Because they have to earn it- as a player, nothing bothers me more than knowing the GM fudged to allow us a win-it makes victory hollow. Therefore I play it straight- following mechanics just as close as I would if I were a player.

    Second is the suspension of disbelief. As a player I hate when magic works differently for me than it does for the foes. (actually this might annoy me more than the fudging thing) If the foes don’t have to follow the rules of magic and magic items, than why in Odin’s name should I? If the game says that magic works X way, it can’t work-Y way too. I like consistency in a GM so I do my best to deliver it.

    That said, I’m not against custom items or spells, I merely feel they should exist in game terms- that magic force field should have a spell level and casting time, and an exact list of effects (the players may not find out about these exactly- they may never succeed on the spellcraft roll). The game should be the same on both sides of the screen.

    Now, you may notice a d20 bias in my examples, but that’s what I play- what I know. Less rule intensive games, like Savage Worlds or Fudge-work differently. Some games require a GM ruling often and the rules are more of guidelines, therefore the players have different things they can do-changing the GM’s toolbox.

  19. Rhamphoryncus     | Reply

    I prefer a more open ended, sandboxy style, so I’d prefer a mechanical approach (even if that includes a Dimensional Anchor on the princess to foil teleportation.) If a premade adventure falls apart due to this I’d tend to blame the adventure, not the players.

    However, if everything revolves around it then give the players points for breaking the plot, then hang a lampshade on it. We’re here to *play*, even if we need to look away from the obviously flaw to get things moving.

  20. XonImmortal     | Reply

    I have used McGuffins. They can add another level of information to a game, another aspect of the history of the setting.

    However, I think one of the problems with McGuffins is in some game systems, everything about magic is already known. Yeah, you can research new spells… but that’s because everybody knows how everything that already exists works. You have recipes for this potion, instructions for making that item, these components are required for that spell for these reasons…

    Interesting that a society that can’t figure out a warp-drive has created a fictional world where magic is so well-known that any wizard can take metamagic feats with impunity. The laws of magic are know, but the laws of physics are beyond us.

    The worlds I create have mysteries left intact. There are wonders from bygone ages no-one can duplicate. There are natural wonders that defy explanation. If the only mystery your world has left is where the Duke’s daughter is being held, you’re doing it wrong.

    In the world of Kergammon, a past age created the Great Seals. These are large disks, with clockwork parts, runes inscribed, strange materials, etc. There are some that still work, there are some that have stopped working. Many have been duplicated, but nobody can get them started. Why? Nobody knows, but they are still trying.

    Sure, I could let a group of players experiment for a few years with WAGs… but what is the point?

    One group of players I had, were tasked with investigating a temple infested with a Seed of Destruction, a solid piece of Uncreation that corrupts everything it comes in contact with. Dispel magic or sanctuary is not going to comabt something like that.

    If you use a McGuffin, do it with style. And come up with a darned good reason that the usual “quick fixes” won’t work.

  21. knowman     | Reply

    When you say McGuffin, I hear “creativity.” I’ve bee playing in the same 2nd Ed D&D campaign for 11+ years, and everyone involved has been gaming for 25+. If our DM was limited to only using monsters or magic in the books, it would be a fairly boring campaign, not to mention an illogical one. Thankfully he is both clever and creative and even if it occasionally makes us hate him for that brief moment when we realize we’ve been thoroughly outsmarted, it makes the game interesting and fun.
    PCs can research and create new variations on spells, why can’t NPCs do the same? Maybe that forcefield is a modified version an NPC mage came up with after having hero after hero casually ignore his forcefield. Maybe it’s a just more powerful forcefield (i.e. a higher level spell). There are lots of completely rational explanations why mechanics don’t derail the story.
    I guess I just don’t get why someone would bother to play and RPG where mechanics trump the story. Don’t they have boardgames for that?

  22. Rhamphoryncus     | Reply

    @knowman: I don’t get why someone would play an RPG where the DM’s plot trumps player creativity.

    Of course I don’t really disagree with you. It’s a challenge to accommodate and reward player creativity while still moving the plot forward.

  23. The_Gun_Nut     | Reply

    Whenever I see someone say that “story > mechanics” or “story trumps mechanics” it usually boils down to “GM story > player story.”

    It’s the same reason I think White Wolf’s name for a GM, “Storyteller,” is pretty pretentious: Everyone at the table is telling a story, not just the GM. Each player is telling the story of how his character acts and reacts within the world. The GM is telling the story of the events of the world and how the players actions affected it.

    I usually present an event, or series of events, to the players and how they react and move because of the event affects what happens later in the game. It may start with a set adventure, to give the players the information they need to play the game if they are new or to give them an idea of what style of game I’m running (easier to understand if you see it rather than having it explained to you), but after that it opens up to what the players want to do.

    This requires prep time only for the initial set up of the world. After that, I only need to spend the following week or two thinking about what happens after the previous game. All the numbers have already been crunched, with the exception of a few notable NPC’s I dream up during the off time. I keep several either in a notebook or in my head (or both) and move them along with the players story.

    As you might imagine, I particularly enjoy improvisation at the game table. I find it deeply rewarding, as the players are never 100% sure what’s going to happen next even when they are the ones directing the action (after a fashion).

  24. Clawfoot     | Reply

    @ The_Gun_Nut:
    Whenever I see someone say that “story > mechanics” or “story trumps mechanics” it usually boils down to “GM story > player story.”

    I *completely* fail to see how that’s the case in the slightest, mostly because I don’t believe the GM (i.e. me) HAS a story. The GAME has a story. There is no “my” story vs. “their” story. As you said, we’re all working together to tell it.

    Thus, when I say “sometimes, if the rules get in the way of the story, then it’s time to throw out the rules,” I can’t see how that’s *not* putting the players first, because it’s putting the game’s story first, which is what we’re all there to tell and enjoy.

    If I can enhance high drama and thus the players’ enjoyment of the game by sometimes throwing in a McGuffin magical item or allowing them to pull off a so-crazy-it-just-might-work plan that breaks a rule or two, why shouldn’t I?

  25. The_Gun_Nut     | Reply

    We’re talking about the players coming up with a good idea that completely bypasses an established obstacle, I.E. a magic McGuffin. In this case, ignoring the players abilities and saying they don’t affect the McGuffin is getting in the way of the player’s story. If, on the other hand, it doesn’t work because of an in-setting, mechanical reason that the players can discover and overcome, then this is just fine.

    I’ve seen too many GM’s put their ideas ahead of the player’s creativity and simply shoot down their ideas as a knee-jerk reaction to something s/he didn’t come up with. The GM is putting the GM’s story ahead of the player’s story by not supporting it with something the player’s have a chance of either knowing or being able to understand.

    Saying the “game” has a story is favoring the GM; after all, the GM is running the game, so any story in the game is due to the GM’s input or manipulation, and the players are just along for the ride. The game is just the setting and ruleset that allows the players and the GM to tell stories using common themes and mechanics. It isn’t an active participant and has no input other than providing the framework everyone agrees upon (and truthfully, the game doesn’t provide the framework, the authors of the game did that in its creation).

    Enhancing drama and the player’s enjoyment are good goals to strive for. It is, however, important to remember that everyone at the table is seeking enjoyment; the GM by being the one to provide an enjoyable experience for the players, the players by providing an enjoyable experience for the GM.

    If the GM is providing obstacles for the players, and the players are imaginative enough to overcome them swiftly and easily, then the GM needs to alter the obstacle or make it so that it wasn’t the TRUE obstacle. Quick thinking is required for this, and some people may not have the experience to do this well and entertainingly, but even if it doesn’t work, the GM learns a bit more about his/her players and what’s needed to run a game.

    As I said earlier I prefer to set up the mechanics and the base setting ahead of time, brainstorm game world events/NPCs and reactions to the player’s actions, and then improvise most of the game at the table. It requires me to know quite a bit about the game mechanics and the setting, but I find it highly satisfying. And I can usually make up/invent the “true” reasons that the players cannot overcome an obstacle right there. It isn’t easy, and it’s not for everyone.

  26. Kurt "Telas" Schneider     | Reply

    Whichever is more fun.

    Sometimes it’s more fun to find new ways to use the rules in order to solve the puzzle.

    Sometimes it’s more fun to go through the GM’s gauntlet in order to Save the Princess.

    Sometimes it’s more fun to let the players use their harebrained schemes actually work (or -even more fun- partially work).

  27. Necrognomicon     | Reply

    If a GM must use a MacGuffin, they should at least be aware enough of their chosen system’s rules to avoid problems, especially in ‘crunchy’ games.

    Frankly, from a player’s standpoint, if a GM’s plot device is easily thwarted using game mechanics, it makes me think that they don’t have a handle on the rules and/or aren’t paying attention to the PCs’ abilities. These GMs are often the same ones who slow down their own game while they look up the spell/skill/etc. used by the monster _they_ chose to include, and if they don’t know what their players can do, they usually aren’t able to provide suitable spotlights for them.

    As a GM, if the whole group is trying to subvert the story I’m telling, then usually I’m either telling the story wrong or simply telling the wrong story.

    If one player is intent messing up your plans merely for the sake of it, you can simply point out that merely nicking a polymorphed party member with a dagger will net them significantly less XP than they would have earned if they had stormed the lich’s lair and looted the 3-toed griffon blood from his cache as you originally intended. Then sit back and let the group peer-pressure that player into following your (possibly flimsy) premise.

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