Maguffin is a term for a motivating element in a story used solely to drive the plot. It serves no further purpose. It won’t pop up again later, it won’t provide resolution. Really, it won’t do anything except possibly distract you while you try to figure out its significance. The classic example is, of course, the Maltese Falcon from the movie of the same name. We never learn much about the object; in fact, the characters never even see it until near the end of the movie. But without it that story wouldn’t have happened.
Maguffins have a place at the gaming table, and can serve to keep your players pleasantly (at least for you) occupied or distracted. You don’t have to get too heavy-handed when introducing a maguffin into your game. In fact, the more you let the players tell you what they want from it, the better. Maguffins work best when they feed off of the wants and desires of the players and their characters.
That said, here’s a list of potential maguffins. I’ve tried to keep them general enough to fit most campaigns, and they’re (with one exception) system neutral. Feel free to use them as you wish, and change details to suit your own campaign.
- A matched pair of knucklebones, carved for use as dice. Instead of numbers, each die has six different and unintelligible symbols, one to a side. When rolled, the dice emit a faint hum and a flash of light. No other effect is apparent.
- Small clear-quartz statue of an imp. Starting at dawn, the statue slowly becomes both warmer to the touch, and more red. At dusk the statue is almost too hot to touch, as well as a deep ruby red. As the night passes, the effect reverses, leaving the statue clear and cool by dawn.
- A battered silver cup with the name “Fleance” expertly etched on the side. Found alongside other treasure, it obviously occupied pride of place (on a pillow on a pedestal, for instance). If checked, it does radiate a very faint magical aura, not much stronger than the weakest of spells.
- A small pink object, about the size of a matchbox, with a USB port on one side. If plugged in to a computer or other electronic device, the object gets slightly warmer. Whatever device it is plugged into immediately turns off. When turned back on, it’s found the device works better and/or more efficiently than it did before.
- A regular looking Zippo lighter. When used, the flame colour is occasionally blue, red, green, purple, or a combination of one or more of those colours. And though this isn’t immediately apparent, the lighter never needs refilling or new flint.
- A pretty talking doll, complete with frilly dress and pull string. The GM is free to make up phrases for it to say, but at least one should be, “Hello, [insert character name], will you play with me?”
- A large jar of pickled flumphs. If a character chooses to ingest one, the GM is free to determine what effect, if any, this will have. Beyond a bad tummy ache, of course.
- A small brass hand bell. When rung, it never emits the same tone twice in a row, sounding anywhere between “tinny and tinkly” up to “booming cathedral”.
- A plain key with no markings. Though not immediately noticeable, the key changes shape and design every day, though it is always without visible writing. The GM can decide what the chances of it fitting a particular door on a particular day might be, but it should be extremely unlikely.
- By all appearances, a plain white chicken egg. It is slightly warm to the touch as if freshly laid. It is also, by any means the players can devise, unbreakable.
Have maguffins of your own? Share them in the comments below.