Applied Phlebotinum
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Basic Information

This entry is about a narrative trope.

Applied phlebotinum is a substance that provides an effect necessary for the plot. This could be alchemical reagents, nanotechnology, mutagenic substances, and so forth.

Phlebotinum tends to fall into one of three categories.

  • Green Rocks - Phlebotinum with multiple, sometimes unexpected uses, often with little internal consistency. Also called Handwavium.
  • Minovsky Particle - Phlebotinum with consistent rules and properties, that are applied the same way from scene to scene and story to story.
  • MacGuffin - Phlebotinum that does nothing, except be valuable or desirable, and thus drive the plot by extension. It's not really phlebotinum, but it serves a similar purpose.

To further explain those three categories, we'll briefly discuss Gold. In the real world, gold has various applications in science and technology, and obviously obeys the laws of physics, making it the real-world equivalent of a Minovsky Particle. However, in most fiction, if gold is mentioned, it's purely for its monetary value and they way that pursuit of it motivates people, making it a MacGuffin. In order for gold to be the real-world equivalent of green rocks, it'd need to unpredictably magical, turn people into fearsome mutants, or the like.

If the phlebotinum is weaponised, expect it to be considered Depleted Phlebotinum Shells - whatever form it actually takes.

Possible Phlebotinum

Here's some links to pages on things that might work as Phlebotinum in your campaign. You're of course welcome (and encouraged) to invent your own, but sometimes it's easier to steal from science, alternative science, alchemy, or the movies.

Related Tropes


Tv Tropes Wiki entry on Applied Phlebotinum
Wikipedia entry on Gold

Game and Story Use

  • Adventurers will crave applied phlebotinum if it gives them some sort of power, and go to great lengths to retrieve it.
  • Alternatively, it might be "too dangerous", and require the player characters to figure out how to destroy it.
    • Though it's likely that the player characters will still figure out some way of using it to their advantage. They tend to be inventive like that.
  • Which of the three categories your Phlebotinum falls into will define the type of campaign you're running, or vice versa.
    • Minkovsky Particles provide the most verisimilitude, and tend to be useful in cerebral and serious games.The players can rely on this form of Phlebotinum to behave in predictable ways, figure out clever new applications for it, and understand it in-character. If you want your phlebotinum to be a resource for the players, or enable them to play a knowledgeable expert on the Applications of your campaign's Phlebotinum, it'll be worth the extra effort of making things logical and consistent.
    • Green Rocks keeps the plot extremely exciting, powering up all sorts of craziness from session to session. If you're looking to keep the players on their toes, try green rocks. The downside is that it's really hard for someone to play a character who is an expert on Green Rocks, since they're so unpredictable and operate on the Hand Wave principle.
    • A MacGuffin is the most mundane version. Like dilithium crystals in Star Trek - we know they're valuable, and they somehow power a warp core, but mostly they just exist so we have a hand-wave explanation of why the ship has to stop at this week's Planet of Hats to refuel.
  • Green rocks works really well for something that is meant to be chaotic but powerful - Games Workshop's warpstone is presented as solidified chaos and useful for a wide variety of uses - powering magic, used as fuel, ammunition or propellant and even as food or a drug substance - but always with nasty side effects including mutation and insanity. In setting there is very little basis for saying that warpstone can't do something if applied properly.
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