Staves have not been part of treasure piles in my recent campaigns, which is a travesty. I’m not sure when I stopped using them as treasure or NPC possessions, but that’s going to stop today.
When I played first edition D&D, staves were given out like candy. Oh how we loved to roll them on those treasure tables in the DMG. Staves were so darn useful. With their range of spells and powers, they were our magical Swiss army knives for adventuring. Then times changed.
It’s time to bring them back again. Here are several tips on how you and I can get the most out of staves our Pathfinder games. (Some advice is useful to D&D 3.5 GMs too.)
A New Staff Holds 10 Charges When Created
Staves offer excellent game balance. Hand them out more often without fear of building undefeatable PCs.
10 charges is pretty balanced. Consider how wands have up to 50 charges, and rod powers are usually on demand or on all the time. 10 charges offers limited impact on an ongoing campaign.
Even better news is many staves have powers that cost 2 or 3 charges. The Staff of Life has a function that costs 5 charges! The PCs will blow their wads in just a few encounters and the magic items gets spent.
There’s a big campaign design opportunity here: hand out staves more often.
1. Character Uptake
First, more supply encourages PC use. When supply is low, PCs tend to horde, then forget. When supply is generous, they’ll use up charges freely.
2. Up the Fantasy
Second, with staff powers flying around, encounters become more fantastic. Cool magic creates cool effects. That’s a sure recipe for fun.
3. More to Think About
Third, deeper puzzle skills come into play, which delights many types of players. With a wide range of options for each staff, characters have more ways to make an impact. Groups have new options to trick or harm foes, rescue the hostages or overcome hazards. Imagination gets rewarded.
Those are only a few reasons. With some staves, combat goes faster, characters get more adventure out of a day, or more roleplaying takes place during encounters.
Note I said a new staff holds 10 charges.
Hand out staves with less than 10 charges to tweak more balance if you need it. Plus, when do PCs get magic items that have just rolled out the factory doors? The previous owner would have likely used the staff at least once (just to test it works, at the least).
All optional, though. You pull the strings. Could be no one has figured out how to operate the staff since its original owner lost it to war, bandits, gambling….
Oh, I neglected to mention what I think is the biggest benefit to increased staff use in your games.
Variety. With more staves floating around, getting used and getting used up, you have more magical things of different types happening in your games.
I don’t care who you are, a +5 Vorpal sword becomes just a numbers bump after a hundred swings. But when a new staff enters the game, something cool and shiny captures everybody’s attention again.
Recharge Your Game
You can recharge staves. This puts a bit of a concern on game balance, but not much. Here’s why.
First, you need a spellcaster who knows a spell from one of the staff’s powers.
Second, the spellcaster must be able to cast a spell that’s at least as high as the highest level spell the staff can cast. That means you can’t farm out recharging to a low level caster.
For example, the Staff of Adjuration can cast Repulsion, which is Wiz/Sor 6, Clr 7. The PCs would need access to a 13th level wizard or sorcerer, or a 15th level cleric to recharge the staff.
Third, you can only recharge a staff with one charge per day. It’ll take awhile to get an expended staff up to 10 charges again. That also means at least a two or three day delay to regain 2 and 3 charge powers in a fully spent staff.
Fourth, a caster can only charge one staff per day. That means get in line buddy, if more than one staff needs a boost.
Fifth, the recharging caster loses for a day a spell of the highest level the staff can cast. That is a big deal for adventuring spellcasters.
And if the PCs are hiring a caster for recharge service, the caster will charge them according to the spell slot expended, not the actual spell cast, and that gets expensive. Actually, it gets terribly expensive.
How Much to Hire A Recharger?
Let’s say the PCs need to put 10 charges again into their Staff of Abjuration. The highest level spell the staff casts is Wiz/Sor 6, Clr 7. The PCs, only 7th level, opt to pay a 13th level wizard over the next 10 days to power up their beloved magic twig.
Spellcasting costs: the caster level x spell level x 10gp. So, 13 x 6 x 10 = 780gp.
10 charges will cost 7,800gp!
On the bright side, that’s better than paying 82,000gp for a shiny new one.
And it will take 10 days, hardly the fast food style of service that adventuring PCs demand.
The GMing Opportunities Here
That brings us to yet more campaign design opportunities.
Let’s assume the characters have one or more staves that need recharging. A simple rule of thumb is one staff will need a recharge per adventure completed.
The characters can spend their loot to recharge an empty staff or top up a used one. In my campaigns, that means cashing in other magic items, equipment, gems, and valuables earned while traipsing around helping people solve their problems or questing for the Big Kahuna (which, with any luck, is a staff that needs future recharging).
That gives you a great campaign economy. Not only are the PCs spending their treasure, but they are using it to make something they already have useful again.
I would also offer recharge services as reward. NPC favors or bartering makes great plot hooks, plot lubrication and roleplaying. It makes interacting with spellcaster NPCs worthwhile for yet another reason.
Going outside the box a bit, let’s look at another GMing opportunity.
Treasure that recharges other treasure. This sounds like excellent quest material to me. How about you?
- Perhaps a sacred spring in the wild north is rumored to recharge divine staves with a simple ceremony.
- Perhaps a special oil, whose recipe requires rare and dangerous ingredients, can be crafted to recharge a staff three charges per batch (I’m always on the lookout to use monster parts to fuel rewards).
- How about a Staff of Charging?
- What about a legend of an ice volcano that charges arcane staves?
Here’s a bizarre one. What about an NPC with the gift of recharging a staff once per day just by laying hands upon it? What would happen to that NPC in your world and campaign? Would he be kidnapped by villains, cloistered away by greedy priests or seconded into towers by powerful wizards? Would the NPC try to escape or seek help? What kind of plots and adventures would the presence of such an NPC spawn? And, naturally, the great reward at the end is a recharge of the party’s staves. Wow, that could be worth 6 figures in gold pieces to the PCs!
Wide Range of Physical Properties Gives You a Rainbow of Flavor
The rules say staves are 4 to 7 feet long. Think about that for a second.
The first thing that comes to my mind, design-wise, is you can tailor staves to suit individual PCs. Players love stuff designed just for them. For example, short characters get short staves, tall PCs tall ones.
Further, short or long, a staff is going to be hard to hide or stow.
And a PC will need to carry his staff in his hand when he wants to keep it ready for use, which will likely be always. That’s noticeable.
Roleplay to the Hilt
There’s a roleplaying opportunity there. First, the staff can become part of the PCs’ identity. What would happen if you walked into work each day with a 6’ staff that you parked in your cubicle? You’d become known as that staff guy.
So too it could be with NPCs reacting to the staff, asking questions about it, talking about it amongst themselves, and best case…speculating about it. “What is it? What does it do? It doesn’t look like a regular walking stick, so what powers does it have?” I love juicy NPC gossip!
Then think about the tallest staves. 7 feet long. Holy cow. That’ll make an impression.
Did I mention the rules say staves are 2 to 3 inches thick?
A 7 foot long staff that’s 3 inches thick is going to make a huge impression. It’ll be heavy, strong and imposing.
Even a 2 inch diameter, 4 foot long staff – the minimum specs – is cool. I’d be tempted to go to the hardware store, buy a piece of dowelling, and cut it to length. Great prop, especially painted and engraved. At the least, your player will get a real feel for this thing his PC carries and brandishes.
Now we get to the best part yet. “Many staves are wood, but an exotic few are bone, metal or even glass.”
This great range of materials lets you further customize rewards to PC kits. It also lets you keep rewards interesting. The number of materials you can use to make each staff distinct is amazing.
- Just think about the different types of metals there are in our world, not to mention the possible fantasy metals.
- And wood–how many types of trees are there, including special ones unique to your world?
- There’s a type of bone for every boned critter out there.
- Even glass comes in different colors and opacity (get out your old marbles or look at your kitchen glassware for design inspiration).
Hand out a swirly purple and white glass rod, then an oak one, then a stonewood staff, then a tarnished copper one formerly used as a stewpot stirring stick.
Shape is Up for Grabs Too
“A typical staff is like a walking stick, quarterstaff or cudgel.”
Even more design options, with two of them as potential weapons.
Imagine the great surprise when a player who gets the magic cudgel realizes it’s also a staff. Double the love by giving a quarterstaff Staff of the Woodlands to the druid, or a cudgel Staff of Conjuration to the wizard (assuming the wizard can wield a cudgel like a club).
NPCs should always use the tools at their disposal, not hide them away in treasure chests. So give staves (intended as treasure) to NPCs who initially surprise PCs when the magic item gets used. The leader of the alley ambush suddenly uses his cudgel to summon a swarm of spiders. That’ll sap the strength of the PCs, for sure.
As an aside, when NPCs wield magic items, try to make the most of the opportunity to build up excitement or suspense.
- The PCs might hear about deadly swarms of vermin afflicting the area in the past two days.
- In a later encounter, they meet a witness who saw a swarm of spiders just disappear into thin air, which clever players can deduce were magically summoned creatures.
- Then, talk about a robbery reaches the PCs. People say robbers brandished a strange medallion and threatened to summon demon spiders to kill the victim unless he gave up his purse and jewelry.
- Finally, the group gets robbed by this gang. The medallion is brandished and the game is on. The leader will use his cudgel Staff of Summon Swarm only if necessary.
As GM, you can play up the fake medallion and look for opportunities to deceive the PCs for maximum surprise. Maybe the rogues have captured five black widows and release them as “the swarm” if combat erupts, further muddying the truth.
Add Chocolate Sprinkles and Nuts
“A staff often has a gem or some device at its tip or is shod in metal at one of both ends. Staves are often decorated with carvings or runes.”
This is icing on the cake. A special GM treat. You can dress up your staves with all kinds of cool end pieces to truly make your magic items cherished.
“…some device at its top…” gives you leeway to put a skull on your staff, a wondrous snow globe, a flag or anything else you can imagine, be it functional, valuable or for decoration and roleplay only.
Further, you can put runes and carvings on the item. That gives us the exciting opportunity to turn staves into puzzles! This just keeps getting better and better.
You can make a rune puzzle reveal the command word. You can make the runes into a prophecy puzzle, in which the staff is a key piece (leading to plot advancement or a new plot).
You have a one-two punch opportunity here to make understanding the runes or carvings the first puzzle. Then you make the message they deliver into another puzzle or plot. This is great GM stuff.
Activate More Gameplay
Staves use the spell trigger activation method. That means just a command word and class casting ability of the same type the staff uses. So, spellcasters only, please.
This gives you opportunity to reward some classes where magic treasure is a bit harder to target. Druids are sometimes tricky to find that something special for. Now you can give them a staff – or three.
Here’s an old GM trick you can use a number of clever ways. The command word that triggers the staff is up for grabs for each design. The rules advise not using common words else risk the staff going off unintentionally. (But if that happens which spell power releases? I’m not clear on this logic.)
Nevertheless, you can do neat things with the command word.
- You can give the command word a second meaning. Turn it into a clue.
- You can make the command word for multiple staffs form a sentence (when ordered correctly) that is the command phrase for something new and awesome.
- You can make the command word something awkward for the group. “Die humans!” is a nice one when in the city, for example.
- You can make the command word awkward for a PC. “Orcus, come to my aid,” is a good one for, well, good people.
- You can also make the command word important to NPCs, especially enemies. Imagine an enemy who learns the command word of a PC’s new staff might be a clue for him. If the bad guy has brass balls, he might attack the PCs (or have his minions attack, more likely) just to get them to use the staff and command word. Nice encounter hook, that one.
The rules advise making the command word gibberish or something foreign. I advise you turn it into a great game element.
Play Staves Up
The wielder must hold his staff in at least one hand. That seems like a good opportunity to use disarm. Foes might want to steal the item. Build a NPC or two with Improve Disarm, then attack and see how it goes.
Along similar lines, challenge the PCs with foes who have Improved Sunder. There’s nothing better than scaring players with destruction of their prized possessions.
Give leaders in various parts of your world magic staves. Make them part of a leader’s symbols of power. Give them ceremonial uses, especially during holidays and political events. Give them to kings, popes, and leaders of creatures and cultures. In this way, staves are celebrated and woven into the fabric of your world. They help world design, and are part of your world’s design.
Create a Staff Today
Hopefully I’ve built a good argument for bringing more staves into your campaigns.
I suggest we go to our GM place right now and create at least one using the tips above. Make something special and unique for a PC and drop it into your campaign as treasure.
While you are at it, submit this creation to my Magic Items Contest over at roleplayingtips.com. Over there I blogged about a 3 Minute Magic Item template. With this effective template you can work on your campaign during the commercials of your favourite TV show.
Great RPG books and software are up for grabs. Check out the template and enter your staff creation for a chance to win.