Monday, June 19, 2017

Plot Traps Volume 3

I’m changing some things up with the blog and looking at a variety of new and old ideas in gaming.  I’d like to spend part of today talking about some recurring tropes and ideas that crop up in fantasy storytelling and how they can be used (and abused) in an RPG to some sort of effect.  Today’s volume is going to feature the Sacred Maguffin of Power phenomenon.  There are a variety of ways this idea can be used to great effect in a fantasy rpg.  Let’s take a look at how that can work.

Plot Point 3  The Sacred Maguffin of Power
This iteration of the plot trap involves an “Item” of reported power. This item reportedly has great powers and is capable of influencing the world in a manner of ways.  This power is either symbolic, and provides a focus of social or political power (the lost sword of the king can unite the disparate lords of the realm) or the item has actual power (perhaps it can bind the powers of other magical rings created across the land).  There are a couple of ways you can experiment with the item and its effect on the campaign around you.  

Symbolic Item

In this iteration of the plot, the item itself is purely symbolic in power and provides its wielder no direct benefits beyond being able to claim ownership of it.  This could be an ancient artifact of a lost kingdom, proof of a lost royal lineage or the sacred texts of a lost church.  By themselves they don’t have a lot of power on their own, but they can move others to action in the right circumstances.   

Magical Item

In this iteration of the plot, the item actually has magical powers and is capable of having a much more direct influence on the world.  These items are typically artifacts of a long lost era, or are the treasures of the gods themselves. These are usually much more powerful than typical Dungeons and Dragons magical items and probably ignore the general restraint your DM shows when deciding you need a new magical item.   

Collectivist Item

In this iteration of the plot, the item is a hybrid of the above two selections.  In this idea, the item is a symbol that is easily recognizable by people and it draws power from the people who follow the teachings or ideas attached to it.  As the number of people who believe in the item increases, the item itself becomes more powerful until it can do virtually anything.  

Why is this a Plot Trap?

Sacred Maguffins of Power can be campaign defining.  The One Ring, The Rod of Seven Parts, the Hand/Eye of Vecna, Stormbringer, Excalibur are just a few examples of tremendously powerful items that can reshape the world.  Defining what exactly the Item of Power is (and what it’s limits are) is essential for putting this item into play.  These items can easily overpower other elements of the story and can wash out the characters in the story.  If you have the notion that “If 1 is good, two is better,” consider that idea very carefully.  There is an interesting idea for a story to be told between warring artifacts, and i will cover that at the end of this piece.  
Key Elements of this plot device
  1. The Item: The Item is an inherent component to the Maguffin, since it is literally the plot point.
  2. The Power:  Whether the power is magical, symbolic, or something between, defining the power is essential for putting together this plot element.
  3. The Struggle:  These items typically trigger some sort of conflict when they appear.  Whether ancient armies stir to life, or political struggles threaten to engulf the kingdom, these items typically have consequences when they appear. Consider these when you are putting this plot together.  


There are a couple of variations on this theme that all work roughly the same way.  Let’s take a closer look.

The Item is Sentient

In this instance, the item is an intelligent item and has a semblance of control over itself.  The most powerful and dangerous items of these items have agendas of their own and are capable of taking control over their wielder.  Even good items of tremendous power can be terribly dangerous when pursuing their own goals.    

The Item must be destroyed

The item has a terrible power and in order to restore balance and stability to the world, it must be destroyed.  The circumstances of its destruction are probably a quest of their own and may require a myriad of specific conditions and obstacles to be overcome in order to see the item’s destruction.

The Item must survive

In this variation, the item is responsible for holding in a great power or protecting the world at large from an extra-planar force.  Forces at large in the world want to see this item destroyed to allow that force or power to be released.  Like the previous version, destroying an item of power like this requires a lot of steps and potential trials to overcome and the characters have ample opportunity to prevent the bad guys from destroying it.    


The Sacred Maguffin of Power can have a lot of things going for it.  It allows you to introduce powers and abilities outside the normal range of a magical item for the setting and put into motion events that can reshape your campaign world.  These also work very well with a couple of other Plot Traps, namely the Evil Mastermind and The Hero’s Journey  Remember when you put one of these into play that defining its abilities is key to determining what it can do and how it will shape your campaign.   
I hope this gives all of you some insights and ideas on incorporating this style of a Plot Element into your game without it becoming a burden to your fun.  If you’d like to see more of these, or have a question about a specific plot element that you’d like to know more about, drop me a line on twitter, which you should be able to see over there on the right side of the screen.  Game On, Game Fans.  
Almost.  Like i said above, i’m going to give you a campaign seed for using a version of this plot trap in a hopefully not crazy way.  

Campaign Seed:  Ancient Stirrings

So this seed revolves around the idea that two ancient artifacts have recently been returned to the modern world and that they are diametrically opposed to each other.  They have a grudge that’s lasted for eons, and their recent awakening could spell the end of the world.  
Item 1:  The Sword of Star’s End
An ancient blade of the lost Eyterian Empire.  It’s an Intelligent magical sword with the ability to channel sunlight and other cosmic light to perform many tasks.  It hates the following item because it blames the item for the destruction of the ancient world.
Item 2:  The Crown of Starfall
The ancient crown of the Kings and Queens of Starfall.  It’s an intelligent magical item that seeks to control the power of the stars themselves in order to predict the future and guide the world to a better future.  It blames the above item for interfering with its task of shaping the future.  
Starting point for these two items in the campaign:  Rumors of ancient tombs beneath the wilds beyond the frontiers have turned up stories of fabled treasures and antiquities.  If the rumors are true, then vast fortunes can be made by brave adventurers willing to risk the traps and guardians.
Progress 1:  The Items are both found and with their power, take control of their retrievers.  
Progress 2:  The items begin to make moves towards their respective goals, PCs hear stories of bizarre capers and strange acts around the country/world.
Progress 3: The items become aware of each other and start to take active steps to destroy each other.  This means looking up even more ancient objects of power and suborning them to their causes.
Progress 4:  The Items have amassed enough power to start destroying portions of the countryside.  Things will have to be done quickly to attempt to stop the two items before they can destroy the world.
How to stop the Items:  They are too powerful to be destroyed, but they can be lulled back to sleep away the ages in the ancient temple of Starfall far below the world.  The items will have to either be physically brought to the location by adventurers capable of taking them off their bearers, or by being lured into the temple by rumors of power.  However this happens, there will be a reckoning in that temple unless characters can prevent the items from destroying the temple and the world around it.  
That’s our 20 minute writeup of a campaign that could feature these items and how to use them.  Game on, Game Fans.  

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