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The Birth of a Macguffin

June 1, 2011

Like this, but eviller.So, my game right now revolves around a classic device:  my PCs are being chased because they have this thing, this important thing that a bad guy wants real bad.  What’s interesting about this trope, recycled from a bazillion movies, novels, video games comic books etc etc etc? Nothing much, except that I never intended for this to happen.

From the outset, this game was meant to be a stripped down Olde Schoole Adventure.   My pitch was basically, “There’s this dungeon, see, and stuff inside it that your characters want, you know, riches and magic and stuff.”  Not to say that the game was generic, mind you;  I did my best to make the dungeon flavorful and interesting, I characterized Town as an Old West shithole run by an Al Swearengen analog, that sort of thing.  But there was no “plot” to speak of.

But then the PCs started asking around about the dungeon and the history of the Thraxian civilization, and at some point I had one of the respondents tell them about this book, this Concordia Infernalis (and honestly, I don’t even know if that’s proper latin, all I know is that it sounded cool when I wrote it down) that the Thraxians were supposed to have used as a sort of WMD during their many wars, and they got really interested.

Now, here’s what I had written down about the Concordia in my dungeon key, where I had just kind of stuck it into a secret closet as one more interesting thing the PCs might discover:

8 sickly green books, 1 red leather book.  Filled with horrific motifs and siturbing [sic] diagrams.  If a 5th level wizard or above studies them for three months, doing nothing else, they will learn to summon 8 demons who will do their bidding.  If a lawful character burns them, he/she will gain 1,000xp.  If a “good” cleric burns them he/she will gain 2,000 xp AND a permanent +1 to all hit dice.  Thus their god’s gratefulness is proved.

Not exactly earth shaking stuff, but when Ye Olde and Kindly Wizard told the PCs about this book, and about how it had been used by the Thraxians (I kind of played it up a bit more as they asked me questions, turning it into a weapon that could destroy armies more or less on a whim), the PCs began to treat the very idea of it with such gravity that it naturally assumed a more prominent position in the campaign.  They were always mindful of checking out the books they came across in their explorations, searching for clues as to the Concordia’s whereabouts, wondering what might happen if the Ratmen got their hands on it, wondering if they could destroy it if they found it first.

And then, one day, they discovered it.  And they had no idea what to do with it, finally opting to just leave it in its place, hoping that the deadly traps that had cost one of them a hand would serve as enough of a deterrent to keep their enemies from getting it.  But now they were worried.  When they added a powerful undead cleric (a, uh, “preserved” relic of Thrax) to that list, they got really worried.

What could I do?  At this point, they needed the Concorida to be a central element of the game.  Hell, with very little help from me, they had already made it a central element.  So, I gave them a little push.  Their employer, it turned out, had designs on the Concordia as well and betrayed them in a spectacular fashion (even if it wasn’t as fatal as it perhaps should have been), and boom, the game changed.

Now they’ve got this thing, and they’re running with it and being chased.  And, despite never having envisioned this twist, I couldn’t be happier.  This, to my mind, is how the game should work, it should be a synthesis of DM and player input and feedback.  Not like story planning sessions or anything quite so self-consciously meta-game as that, but rather a mutual adaptability.  Or, how about this?  Like a ouija board with several honest participants.  We are all touching the planchette and guiding it with subtle motions, but it seems to move of its own accord, to take on a life of its own and none of us really know where it is going to wind up.

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