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The description of this item is that it’s one-time use, so once the bird is dismissed/exhausted in some way, it’s gone forever. However, these are the following end conditions for the bird:

  • Flies maximum distance for a day.
  • Reduced to 0 hit points.
  • Dismissed as an action.

If my characters never have the bird fly its maximum distance in a single day, and never let it drop to 0 hit points, RAW seems to suggest that the bird just hangs around with them indefinitely, especially since the text dictates the bird’s maximum distance as 144 per day rather than 144 miles total.

While this seems correct, it also seems a little game-breaking. The campaign I'm running (PotA) takes place in a small enough area that 143 miles can get them from basically any important place to any other important place in under 11 hours with little to no chance of them to be hindered along the way. That seemed like it could be unbalanced, and seemed too strong for a rare item, and definitely seemed much better than all the other feather token variants.

Is this interpretation of the rules correct? If it is, any suggestions on if/how I should mitigate this somehow as a DM?

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You are correct, but it's not gamebreaking

You have listed the only circumstances the DMG provides with regard to when the Roc-like creature will disappear, but also note the limitations of Quaal's Feather Token: Bird (DMG, p. 188):

The bird has the statistics of a roc, but it obeys your simple commands and can't attack.

What you've got is a gargantuan creature that can carry stuff, fly quickly, and has pretty good perception. It can't attack and is therefore more of a support creature than something that's going to be useful in combat or other circumstances.

Untrained mount with a large carry capacity

Whether or not it can carry an entire party and their belongings is also up for discussion. Mounts don't discuss multiple riders and a concern about fast party travel speed is definitely limited by who can 'ride' the Roc. Having a transport that can only have a single rider (and remember, this is an untrained mount) and is capable of carrying a lot of objects really gamebreaking?

Probably not, and even if you've got a 'puzzle' where your players have to figure out how to return a heavy object to another location, this is a great solution for a one-time use Rare magic item.

But that fly speed (and other considerations)

Yes, 120 is a very fast speed, but that's a fairly easy thing to mitigate if there is combat or threats in the air. Alternatively, not always having the airspace for your PCs to play in is another obvious option. Hard to bring a Gargantuan creature inside :)

Simple Commands Only

The Roc only has an INT 3, which implies it is not an intelligent creature that can act independently, and it only "obeys your simple commands".

What happens when it experiences an event that requires it to react is going to come down to table play and how wide of a berth a DM gives those simple commands only to their player.

Duration

Theik's answer brings up a very interesting discussion. What is meant by "disappears after flying its maximum distance for a day"? Does that mean:

  1. Disappears after flying its maximum distance for a day (144 miles)?
  2. Disappears after flying its maximum distance for a day (144 miles in a day)?

#1 is what Theik is proposing, but #2 is an equally valid interpretation.

However, as Tiggerous commented, why include the "day" language if the limitation is simply 144 miles? By including it, it suggests that #2 is the correct interpretation.

Each token gives a different duration rule, so we can't completely use them as references, but they do give some guidance:

  • Anchor

    For the next 24 hours

  • Fan:

    ...for 8 hours. You can dismiss the fan as an action.

  • Swan Boat:

    The boat remains for 24 hours and then disappears.

  • Tree:

    Forever.

  • Whip:

    The whip disappears after 1 hour, when you use an action to dismiss it, or when you are incapacitated or die.

Each of these, except for the Tree, have a specific time duration. The Bird and the Tree do not have a time duration. Whether or not the Bird's duration is limited by total distance used ever or by total distance used for a day is a matter of interpretation that has not been clarified by the designers and is therefore up to the DM to determine at their table.

Ruling that the Bird Token is limited to just 144 miles of travel is a legitimate rule, but consider why you need to rule that. Is it an absolutely necessary ruling for 'balance', or is the Bird Token's already nerfed Roc okay for daily use until it drops to 0 HP?

Hungry hungry hippo

While this bird was created by magic, it's a bird with the stats of a Roc. And a Roc's gotta eat, just like a steed from Find Steed. And they mostly eat a lot of food:

A roc seldom hunts swift or small creatures, and it ignores towns and forests where prey can easily take cover. When it locates a large and slow-moving target such as a giant, a whale, or an elephant, a roc dives down to snatch its prey in its massive talons.

A longer life of the bird is definitely balanced by the cost of feeding it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ That's a good point about it's size; in a small dungeon this thing is going to be useless (except for getting home again afterwards... and assuming it was safe to leave it unguarded outside...) \$\endgroup\$
    – NathanS
    May 25, 2018 at 12:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Budgeting for pet food; yet another opportunity for RP. \$\endgroup\$ May 25, 2018 at 13:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that this is a crippled roc -- it cannot snatch prey in its massive talons, because that is an attack, and this roc cannot attack. So you cannot just "let it hunt". \$\endgroup\$
    – Yakk
    May 25, 2018 at 14:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Yakk Very good point, gotta hand feed the roc. Or are you saying it can't eat at all because that's a Bite attack? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 25, 2018 at 15:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ShawnV.Wilson While gargantuan, the Roc can't attack. If they can ground it (or have ranged attacks), they can kill it. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 25, 2018 at 17:40
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Consider its rarity

I also read the description to imply that, as you say, it hangs around indefinitely if it never flies its maximum in a day or is never reduced to 0 HP. This gives the party a way to effectively fly as a group and carry lots of stuff, unless I'm not seeing other uses for it.

Therefore, I view it as comparable to a Carpet of Flying:

You can speak the carpet's command word as an action to make the carpet hover and fly. It moves according to your spoken directions, provided that you are within 30 feet of it. ... A carpet can carry up to twice the weight shown on the table, but it flies at half speed if it carries more than its normal capacity.

Seems quite similar to me. However, the Bird is better in that it holds more and flies faster (given that the larger carpets move slower than their smaller variants), although the carpet can fly indefinitely and there's no mentioning of HP. Nonetheless, the Bird performs better so long as the party is smart enough not to use all of its movement in a day.

So if the Bird is better than a Carpet of Flying, which is a very rare item, you could argue that the Feather Token should be at least very rare as well (instead of rare) or maybe even legendary, although that might be a bit far given that the Bird also has the drawbacks I mentioned above.

Threaten it

If the party already have one, then considering its rarity is a moot point, in which case my only other suggestion is to start having enemies target it. Not necessarily exclusively, this isn't just the DM targeting it out of spite, but if it makes sense for certain enemies to consider it a worthwhile target, they should try to attack it. This way, at least there's the "cost" of the party having to try to defend it, and the risk of it being destroyed.

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    \$\begingroup\$ In a similar vein to "Threaten it" you could just be sure to play up where this bird is when they aren't actively using it. Does this giant roc follow them into caves? Does it fit? Would townfolk allow it to roam through the street? Don't let them off the hook and just fiat that this thing follows them around and they'll start putting it in harm's way, allowing you to either just take it away from them as you see fit, or at least providing battle scenes when they fend off wolves or recovery quests when they follow the trail of feathers to the bandit camp that took their bird. You have options. \$\endgroup\$
    – Euch
    May 25, 2018 at 13:04
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It disappears after 144 miles total

The description of Quaal's feather token (Bird) says:

You can use an action to toss the token 5 feet into the air. The token disappears and an enormous, multicolored bird takes its place. The bird has the statistics of a roc, but it obeys your simple commands and can't attack. It can carry up to 500 pounds while flying at its maximum speed (16 miles an hour for a maximum of 144 miles per day, with a one-hour rest for every 3 hours of flying), or 1,000 pounds at half that speed. The bird disappears after flying its maximum distance for a day or if it drops to 0 hit points. You can dismiss the bird as an action.

The bird's "maximum distance for a day" is 144 miles.

The bird disappears after flying its maximum distance for a day

Notice that it says "its maximum distance for a day", not "in a day". Replace "maximum distance for a day" with the numeric value, and you get:

The bird disappears after flying 144 miles

I believe that the wording is written somewhat poorly, but the way it is written to me implies that it disappears after 144 miles total, which is its 'maximum distance for a day'.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Eegads, poor wording in this system? Surely you jest. That borders on blasphemy. \$\endgroup\$
    – Slagmoth
    May 25, 2018 at 13:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure the assumption that it's written poorly is correct. I'm not seeing a grammar difference for a day and in a day enough to justify the wording changes you have to support your point. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 25, 2018 at 13:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ Wouldn't it be for 9 hours, rather than 144 miles? what if you have speed altering affects? \$\endgroup\$
    – goodguy5
    May 25, 2018 at 13:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @goodguy5 The way it is written, to me at least, does not seem to imply that the bird can fly more than 144 miles per day if it flies slower, so I don't think that its the speed that matters, but the distance. Taxi birdcabs in the Forgotten Realms are very strict. \$\endgroup\$
    – Theik
    May 25, 2018 at 13:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ If it disappears after 144 miles regardless, they'd be no reason to ever mention how far it could travel in a day. While you argument is axiomatically logical, I'm not sure the conclusion makes sense of the full wording. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tiggerous
    May 25, 2018 at 13:46
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I think one key point is missed here.

with a one-hour rest for every 3 hours of flying

It can only fly for 48 miles before it has to land and take a rest for one hour. That is 3 stops for 3 hours in its full day of rest it has to make There is a whole hour that your party is vulnerable. The bird can't be attacked, but it doesn't say that other creatures can't attack the bird; especially since:

The bird has the statistics of a roc

Now, low level enemies would have a hard time killing a creature similar to a roc with all of that HP and all, but mid - higher level enemies could probably make quick work of it.

If you don't want your party to have the bird, there are ways you can take it away. If you are just looking for a way to present a challenge to your players with this item, it's easy enough as well

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