Every gaming system handles magic a little differently, but one thing holds true in any gaming system that has a magical component. At some point it is going to be used to move the narrative along. When magic becomes a McGuffin, it’s going to break the rules.
“I’m sorry Vansha. While you can clearly see the princess is in this castle, she is protected by a magic force field that can only be breached with the sword of Armun.”
“This poison is very strong, and only a dose of the blood of a 3 toed griffon can be used to make the potion to cure him.”
“The only way past this door is by saying the correct word to release the magic barring it.”
Situations like these are pretty common. They sometimes seem to be the bread and butter of pre-published adventures. When magic gets used as a story element like this there are usually two types of responses:
Sure Why Not — Let’s Roll With It
“Ok, time to go quest for that sword!”
“Hmm, 3 toed griffon are rare. What skill would I roll to know where to find one?”
“Hmmm. Lets see, friend? What’s friend in Elven. It’d be something lame like that. Did we see a clue along the wall? Oh wait, this clue here says we have to go talk to the old man in the woods. Let’s go hiking!”
Wait A Minute, Page 89 Says I Got This
“Ok. force field right? I can use my 10 foot teleport to jump through, then jump out again. I’ll grab her and go back out. I can do that if I cast the spell twice and I’ve got two of it. This errata here says it will even work across dimensional barriers, so I think that trumps the force field. Wait, I don’t even need to do that. If this is Glamhorn’s Majestic Barrier Spell, I can bypass it with a roll and a piece of Iron dipped in rosewater.”
“You just need blood right, well I can shape change into any creature I know about. Since I made my roll to know about 3 toed griffons I won’t have any chance of failure. Just cut a few points of blood off of my wing and have the cleric heal me.”
“Ok, wait, no. I can use my consultation once a day to get the word, so uh, hey Generic Good God, wassup? U-huh. Yup. Yup. Ok, I say friend in elven. Open up.”
I’ve seen magic like this go both ways, and I’m sure you have too. When magic gets used as a story element it is usually meant to progress the story along or push the characters in a certain direction. Sometimes they go with it, sometimes they don’t. If the McGuffinish magic is based on the mechanical magic of the game system then there is probably a way around it. If there isn’t a way around it then there is probably another spell to trump it. It there isn’t a spell to trump it, the Game Master usually has to fiat it or think really really fast on how to do without wherever that McGuffin lead to. If the McGuffinish magic isn’t based on any mechanical system in the game then it can end up feeling like a one-way fiat.
So which is better? Should McGuffin magic be based on the rules? Should McGuffin magic be used as the story element that it is? Should McGuffin magic just be avoided? This is one of those questions that there are a lot of answers to — what’s yours?