Artifacts, MacGuffins, & Red Herrings Part 2

Today I wanted to do something a little different than normal.  I know, I know, I have said this before.  But today it is happening again.  We’re going to go with part 2 of looking at items.  The big picture stuff like artifacts and those ever-present MacGuffins and the little fun, distractions known as red herrings.  Granted, these don’t have to be items per se, but items feature heavily in these roles.  So, what is different about today’s article?  Well first of all, I am going to give you a special bonus entry!  Second of all I am not going to go with specific examples.  All the Resources articles have been books or websites that you can use, games and books to inspire you, or reviews of those things.  Today though, before I do any more of this specific series, I thought I would cover what on earth these things are and why they are important.  Some of you may be asking why, but they are terms that get thrown around a lot, and they are important plot devices, but what they are may not be clear to everyone.  I know I went a long time before I knew/realized what a red herring actually was.  So for those of you who aren’t clear on the subjects, here we go!


This is the easiest of the subjects of the article.  Most people know what an artifact is, in the real world at least.  Ancient items from bygone eras in history, this is what we see any time we visit a museum.  In the game world, these are exactly the same.  However, in the game world they have a lot more potential.  Why?  Magic, usually.  Artifacts can represent super powerful items that may have raised up the civilization they were made in.  Or laid it low.  Perhaps it is responsible for the rise and fall of nations.  Artifacts have a notoriety and a history, often shrouded in superstition and tales that may or may not be exaggerated.  Artifacts may not be powerful at all though, or they may be simple utility items, or they may just be important to NPCs.  Regardless, artifacts are important devices for a campaign.  Not for the power.  Not for plot driving.  Their greatest importance lies in the links they can provide to the worlds history.  An artifact can easily be used to expand the players’ knowledge of the world and its history.  Of course, artifacts can be used for more than one thing at a time too.


What is the MacGuffin?  Most epic stories have them.  Most simple stories have them.  The MacGuffin is THE thing that drives an overall plot forward.  It can be an item, a motivation, or a goal.  What is important is that the plot always continues moving forward because of it.  When one MacGuffin no longer drives the plot, it is usually because the story is over or another has replaced it.  The MacGuffin is the destruction of the one ring, the ark of the covenant, the destruction of the Death Star, and need to stop Moriarty.  These things are ever-present in the stories, but not the central goal of every scene.  Scenes play out, sometimes with complete disregard for the MacGuffin, but in the end we are always moving back towards that end.

The MacGuffin is one of ways many campaigns move forward.  Why are the PCs listening to this NPC?  Why are they exploring this temple?  To get closer to the MacGuffin.  It works on scales too, with low level PCs having a relatively small goal.  Do the PCs care why the kobolds took the crown jewels?  Maybe eventually, but their retrieval moves the game forward.  If there’s a roadblock you can always fall back on , what do we do now to get closer to retrieving the crowned jewels.  You can also have MacGuffins within MacGuffins, difficult to reach but smaller goals you need to accomplish before the over all goal.  The important point is, the MacGuffin is a desired end whose meaning and ramifications may not be completely understood, but is agreed needs to happen.  This need gives a forward motion, no matter what happens in the story.  There will always be the MacGuffin to move towards.

Red Herring

I love the red herring.  This plot device is something you can do a lot with.  It is also one you have to be careful with.  Why?  Well, the red herring is something that might be completely pointless.  But there are way to make sure it isn’t.  So what is the red herring?  Well in terms of name origin, the red herring (literally fish) was used to help train dogs.  By using that scent, it makes smelling for the trained item more difficult.  Distracted dogs are not as trained as those who can ignore the red herring.  In a story the red herring does the same thing.  It is a distraction, something that keeps characters from their goal or misleads them in their goal.  The red herring is the odd trinket found on the dead adventurer or empty room behind a trapped door.  The PCs will spend time focusing on the point of it, why it’s there, and why the GM would place it at all.

That’s where the danger comes in.  You can use a red herring to distract the team, give the villain time to escape, or provide a fun segue.  However, the PCs will focus on why it is there simply because you put it there.  You wouldn’t have if there was no point would you?  That is why you have to be careful.  They may not like you doing that, or they might.  But if you do it too much they may start to ignore them and accidentally ignore important things.  It is a thing of balance and care.  Nevertheless, red herrings can be utilized as a villain-side plot device that mean nothing to the PCs until the villain’s evil monologue.  It can also provide some excellent side quests.  So use the red herring, but do be careful.

Chekhov’s Gun

Named for the man who warned writers to take care in descriptions, Chekhov’s gun is the danger of a red herring.  The difference is a red herring is put there on purpose.  Have you ever added, say, a bronze statue to a room as decoration because it would be there and then accidentally spend too large a portion of the description on it?  Then the PCs spend the next two hours trying to figure out how or when it will come to life and murder them.  Only it doesn’t.  That is Chekhov’s gun.  To paraphrase him, never describe a gun hanging over the mantle if the gun never becomes important to the story.  In role-playing you do want to describe the rooms and include these interesting tidbits.  Just be careful of how you describe things and how long you spend on a specific item.  If the PC’s do become enthralled with the idea and your Chekhov senses start tingling, well your the DM there is an easy way to solve it.  Crush them with the statue!  I mean, let a battle occur so the PCs feel good about what they thought.  Or make it important in some other way.  Give the cleric insight into the creators’ ancient ways that may help them deeper into the dungeon.  The flexibility of table-top games gives you the ability to make sure nothing becomes a Chekhov’s gun.