There’s a reason that today’s comic references Tolkien. The One Ring represents the biggest, fattest McGuffin in all of fantasy. It is also exactly the sort of object that I’d hesitate to give PCs.

When an artifact registers on legend lore, comes with its own cut-scene, or otherwise elicits gasps of recognition from around the table, it ought to go without saying that it has the capacity to change the game world. Just take the Deck of Too Many Things. It can be wildly fun or dangerously wild, but it will shake things up. If you’re the sort of GM who’s set on introducing the thing, chances are you know this and have come to terms with it. You’re aware of how off-the-rails your campaign can get, and you think that’s good fun rather than a narrative-destroying nuisance. But when your McGuffin has a clear arc attached to it—when you’ve spent hours of game time debating at the Council of Elrond only to have some NPC wizard declare, “It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed.”—you’re moving dangerously close to railroading. The whole point of the Council of Elrond is that the One Ring has a single viable quest line attached to it. That restriction works well enough in a novel, but it does not play well with the chaos elementals known as PCs.

Be honest here: If your party were at the Council of Elrond instead of Frodo et al., what are the chances you’d have taken the prescribed path? I don’t know about you, but my players would have tried the One on for size, baited the Ring Wraiths into an ambush, told Elrond to stuff it, and summarily broken my plot in half. And that’s not their fault. It’s my fault for giving them more power than I’d intended.

Think about what artifacts really mean. When you introduce a super-powered object into your game, you’re handing narrative power across the screen and into the hands of the PCs. These are world-shaking items, remember? That means your world is gonna get shook. So if I’m not prepared to see a One-Ring wearing Aragorn march on Mordor, I’m not going to introduce the possibility. Imagine a new GM tossing a Ring of Three Wishes to a first level party, then getting upset about “throwing out my campaign notes” when they sail off in their new spelljammer. If your first reaction is, “Who the hell would give a first level party a ring of three wishes?” then you understand where I’m coming from.

My advice is simply this: If you’re going to give power to your players, make sure you’re prepared to watch them wield it. You can either protect your plot, or you can let your players go HAM on the game world, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

So what about it, guys? Have you ever seen a MacGuffin cast Warp World on a game? Did it annoy your GM, or was it a source of unexpected fun for all parties? Let’s hear your best tales of game-breaking items down in the comments!


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