In our last game, the players worked their way through a series of fiendish traps into a high security vault, where they recovered a Staff of the Magi. After the game I looked at the stats, and realized that (oops!) the staff is massively overpowered for a part of level 2 players.

I don't want to just retcon akin to "You thought it was a staff of magi, but it's actually X", because that seems really mean. I've already told them what it is and I don't want to just take it away by GM fiat.

So now I'm trying to think up a good in-game way to part them from the staff, which won't feel like I'm taking away their new toy. Therefore my question is:

If I have accidentally given a massively overpowered item to a party, how can I get it away from them without making them feel cheated?

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    A bunch of low-level heroes find an object of incredible power? That sounds like the start of an excellent adventure to me. – Zibbobz Aug 19 '15 at 14:56
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    This question is attracting many answers, some of which amount to “I can't speak from experience, but here's my opinion.” Prospective answerers are reminded that good answers will speak from more than mere armchair opinion. – SevenSidedDie Aug 20 '15 at 3:14
  • Summon monster IX sounds extremely useful for a level 2 party. – Tyler S. Loeper Oct 8 at 19:25

18 Answers 18

up vote 91 down vote accepted

Make it be cursed.

A very powerful item will make many adventuring parties suspicious, but if yours are just happy to go forward using it, they are in for a surprise.

I would pick an "interesting" curse that makes them wary of using it but still leaves them (technically) with the option to do so. For example, every charge used could alert some extraplanar attention, or kill a fairy or whatever you can come up with. Let them know about it somehow (ingame) after a couple of uses.

Whether this works with your party is for you to decide.

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    That was the first thing that came to my mind when I saw the question :) Some nice sinister effect, not obvious on first glance. It doesn't have to kill puppies on every use outright, but something like XP loss "You start feeling weaker, as if something is draining your power..." should work well. Attracting the attention of shady characters would also work, demons included, of course. Or even just finding that the staff forces you to do things (though this requires a lot of GM nuance, to make sure it's not you ordering them around, but the staff). – Luaan Aug 21 '15 at 7:22
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    @called2voyage Yes indeed and make destroying it, the next quest in their adventure. – wolfdawn Aug 22 '15 at 12:20
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    I really like the "kill a fairy with every charge" notion. Not because I'm a sadist, but because the creator of the staff would presumably be evil (assuming these are good fairies). Exactly as you said, the players can use the item, but is it worth the cost? It's not just, oh no, something might happen to kill us and end our campaign but can we justify killing a being of good for the Greater Good. And as zehelvion pointed out, if they then become opposed to the existence of the item, give them a way to destroy it. – relt Aug 26 '15 at 21:15
  • Maybe the curse requires a concentration check of 25 to succeed, and on failure you take damage. Seems like a nice way to keep it out of use until higher levels. – Tyler S. Loeper Oct 8 at 19:26

Reward the PCs with attention

A group of level 2 PCs with a staff of the magi will soon find that everyone wants it. Many of these will be bad guys, but a few of them will be good guys. The GM can reward the PCs for their superior play by having the good guys contact the PCs and offer to take the staff off their hands for their own safety (instead of, for example, the bad guys showing up and just stealing the staff).

The GM should avoid trying to compensate the PCs directly for the artifact with money.1 There isn't enough money, and trying to do so puts the GM in the same spot he was in before: the PCs punching way above their weight. Reward them instead with membership in or an alliance with the good guy organization. Have this bring with it appropriate perks suitable to adventurers of their caliber (e.g. free healing, a library, the occasional spellcasting service), and every once in a while have a higher-up in the organization that the PCs haven't met before say, "O, so these are the fellows who brought in the staff of the magi? Well done."

This kind of reward advances plots and gives the PCs what they actually need. Level 2 PCs certainly don't need the kind of negative attention a staff of the magi will inevitably draw were they to hold onto it for very long.


1 There's usually someone only concerned with cash. Most of the time peer pressure persuades that guy to be satisfied with what's offered, especially if the other players realize how far in over their heads they are with the staff. The GM can still throw a little get-by cash at PCs, but compensating the greedy with the trappings of luxury (e.g. a classy room at the best inn, high-quality food and booze, a masterwork haircut) is usually sufficient.

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    If you are playing in Golarion, the typical good guy group would be the Pathfinder Society itself, but you can use a more localized group as needed (Hellknight Orders, the Eagle Knights, the Mendevian Crusaders). OTOH, the typical bad guys would be the Aspis Consortium, or maybe an individual or small group with enough influence/money to request a Red Mantis assassin (Warning: Very tough encounter to pull off effectively). – MrLemon Aug 19 '15 at 14:03
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    Or to put it briefly, "what would the PCs do if they learned of a Staff of the Magi in the hands of a small group of 2nd-level-equivalent monsters? Exactly" – Steve Jessop Aug 20 '15 at 12:49
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    You could even have the good guys offer to keep the staff safe for the party until they are strong enough to look after it themselves. Even if the characters refuse, it is a strong hint. – TimLymington Aug 22 '15 at 0:03
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    And here we have the answer as to how powerful magic items end up being gifted to temples. "Here. I get the good karma, and you get the problem. Have a nice day." ;-) – DevSolar Aug 25 '15 at 9:26
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    "Reward the payers with attention" is a great phrasing. I would add to make the attention progressive, don't just have a 20th lv NPC drop on their head and take the staff, that's not fun. Instead have the PCs hear of some powerful people asking about them and give the party a chance to run/hide/whatever. Then have some opportunistic thugs who heard the asking try to mug the party, etc. The point being that the PCs can deal with challenges appropriate to their power rather than feeling robbed by DM fiat. – Sparky Oct 22 '16 at 15:05

While a lot of the other answers are perfectly valid and good ideas, I'd like to offer an alternative solution that hasn't been mentioned yet which can also work in some situations: deal with the problem out-of-game, not through DM fiat, but rather through admitting you made a mistake. DMs shouldn't be expected to be infallible. If you can explain to your players that you messed up by giving them a too-powerful item, and how it will break the balance of the game and make it less fun for everyone, some people will understand and allow you to fix your mistake, presumably by replacing the item with a more-appropriate-but-still-impressive item.

This option isn't inherently better or worse than handling it in-game, and it depends largely on the players' attitudes and opinions which method is more effective. It won't work for every group, especially if they're the types that actually enjoy effortlessly steamrolling everything all the time. But for completeness's sake, the existence of this option should be mentioned.

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    +1 for pointing out that this isn't for every group, but also for presenting a sound option. – KorvinStarmast Aug 19 '15 at 15:59
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    On a few occasions, I have seen this method successfully tied in with the options presented in other answers. Simply telling the players flat-out out of game that you screwed up giving them something and hinting that the next campaign you're going to build some plot off of repairing the mistake. With the right group, having them KNOW that your intent is to take their new toy away, BUT that you intend to compensate them somewhat, can be the difference between hurt feelings and helpful players. – CrusaderJ Aug 19 '15 at 18:40
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    You could even ask the players for suggestions. The player is not the character, and if they agree the game will be less fun being too overpowered, they may have their own ideas how to get the item away from their character. – Benubird Aug 20 '15 at 10:27

The Brinks Job, The Italian Job, Willow, or Charlie Varrick?

the players worked their way through a series of fiendish traps into a high security vault, where they recovered a Staff of the Magi.

Your low level PC's broke into a secure storage site and stole something extremely valuable. Hollywood movies are packed with this trope: a big heist and the ... uh oh, someone is after us! I won't comment on why you put that treasure there, but before you do anything else, first figure out:

  1. Whose was it?
  2. Why was it in that vault?

Then, pick a variation of a standard Hollywood plot, either as a main story or as a running gag / side feature throughout their adventures to come.

Some choices for you in the next chapters of your party's heroic story ...

  1. Consider your party to be Frodo.

    The One Ring is way too powerful for Frodo. He knows it when an NPC (Gandalf) explains it to him. All of these people are chasing him down, trying to take it from him! Until it is disposed of they won't stop. Complication: half of the good guys the party meets won't touch it, as they don't want the hassle.

  2. Charlie Varrick. Your party is Charlie and his accomplices (Link in the title of this answer)

    This movie from the 70's had Charlie leading a small bank job that ends up with three quarters of a million dollars worth of the Mob's money! The rest of the movie is spent on the run from the Mob. Charlie has to use his wits to stay alive.

  3. The Italian Job - your party are the "good guys" in that movie, Wahlberg's gang

    Whomever they took the staff from wants it back. Chase scene! Fun with mounts, wagons, etc. The party needs to trap/ambush whomever is after them to discourage or defeat them. Throw in a twist: add a couple of more gangs and you end up with a McGuffin Melee. Arrange for multiple third parties to arrive at about the same time, so that your party can play one group against another and in the end dispose of the McGuffin (with the party coming out ahead instead of dead).

  4. Willow

    Willow is a low-level wizard who has a wand that is far too powerful for him. He has to find a sorceress to teach him how to use it. Along the way, his attempts to use it are frustrated because it is beyond his level of power. For your staff, which has a caster level of 20, making each attempt to use it require an ability check -- the DC should reflects the user's level versus the power/level of the staff.

  5. The Brinks Job

    The party pulled off a major heist, but they need to keep a low profile. If they use this staff too often, if they show it off, or if word gets out then whomever they stole it from will be bent on revenge with the full weight of the law on his/her side. (McGuffin Melee can work here too).

  6. You can destroy the One Ring, as it were, and not let it take over your campaign.

    Your 2d level party stole it from a magically protected vault. Are they as strong as a high security vault with magical traps? Someone else steals it from them, or tries to. Then another someone else tries to steal it. When it comes to stolen goods, there is an idea among thieves that "stolen goods are anyone's for the taking" so you can take advantage of that. There are thieves guilds in your world ... right?

Have someone powerful show up and trade it with them for multiple other, less powerful items. Make it clear that the powerful person wants to trade because he is a good guy, not because he feels that he and the party are on equal footing.

Let him both explain that his trade of the major item for 10 minor ones is fair and better for the party, since they'll be able to get more use out of multiple items, but also that it's likely the next person to show up might just straight-up murder all of them and take it from their cold, dead hands.

Powerful items attract powerful beings and at the end of the day the characters are still lower level. Giving them a bunch of less powerful items in return won't make them feel cheated too much (they still have toys to play with) and the character you introduce can serve as a plot point later. The powerful character could end up a patron, quest-giver or a well of information for the party.

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    In a slight variation, this character can be the owner of the staff, who is impressed by the PCs ability to break into the vault, but he'd still "like his property back now". Also, having that character literally show up, without warning, at any random point should make it instantly clear that this guy is no pushover, and could just take it by force. But he's nice, and threats are so... mundane. – MrLemon Aug 19 '15 at 13:55
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    @MrLemon: In your variation, the owner need not be one of the Good Guys. I like it. :) (For that matter, the sides of Good Guys and Bad Guys are rarely clearly defined.) – Codes with Hammer Aug 24 '15 at 14:22

I would let things run the natural course.

So ask yourself the following question: is someone going to miss the Staff? The person who put it there, other people who were trying to break the vault?

If the answer is yes, then you have someone searching for the PCs, which may want to take it back from them by good or evil means. Someone with a crazy vault and a Staff of the Magi is probably quite a powerful/rich person, so I would do indirect stuff first: bounties, low level henchmen... This can prompt the players to search help from other groups or if they don't get the cue, make other groups contact them offering help. Escalate things slowly though, it can take sometimes a lot for players to realize they are punching above their weight.

If the answer is not, then basically life is business as usual for the PCs, no one really knows they have the staff. And this should continue like that unless they do something to let it be known. If they use the staff, but they are no witness, let them have their fun. The staff works with charges, so you have some leeway there to handle it.

Basically, continue things as normal, don't act differently because they have a Staff of the Magi (don't change monster tactics, encounter layouts...). If people come after them, make it clear it is because they stole something other people want, not because it's an item they shouldn't have.

And also, accept their decisions. If you make clear having the Staff is dangerous and that bad people are hunting them, and in the end they decide to hold it, well, their call. Imagine they surprise you again, and they manage to survive and hold on the staff, it's something they are going to remember forever.

As a slight twist on the other suggestions, you can have a good guy turn up and say that it is his staff and it was stolen from him. He will offer the players rewards (and I agree prestige, relations, favours, etc is better than gold) if they return his stolen property to him. He can provide proof that it is his of some sort, which could be as simple as a knowledge: local roll or asking around to find that everyone knows it belongs to him.

If they refuse then he will petition the local authorities to have the players locked up for being in possession of stolen property - and in addition various bad guys will get wind of this find and start coming after it themselves.

Admit your mistake and replace it with something proper. Sure you can do stuff with it in-game but it was an out-of game mistake to begin with so fix it that way too.

I would also suggest working the Artifact into a small story arc, where they get to unleash its true powers against opponents that they would otherwise not be able to handle. Then, at the end of the arc have the Artifact leave them, either by sacrificing it to save the day or by having a powerful entity or the Artifact itself say that now that they fulfilled the purpose they were lent it for, it is time to leave it behind. Make sure to give them something maybe a little bit more then level appropriate, but not overpowered as compensation. And I would have them have a dialog well before actually losing it, that hints that they were empowered for a specific trial, and that nothing lasts forever. That way the group is not taken completely by surprise, and they get a cool story and a lesser but powerful item. Make it seem part of the plan, then write it out in an epic way.

There is a potential solution in the item description itself, particularly if there is a spellcaster with a grudge against the party.

A staff of the magi gives the wielder spell resistance 23. If this is willingly lowered, however, the staff can also be used to absorb arcane spell energy directed at its wielder, as a rod of absorption does. Unlike the rod, this staff converts spell levels into charges rather than retaining them as spell energy usable by a spellcaster. If the staff absorbs enough spell levels to exceed its limit of 50 charges, it explodes as if a retributive strike had been performed (see below). The wielder has no idea how many spell levels are cast at her, for the staff does not communicate this knowledge as a rod of absorption does. (Thus, absorbing spells can be risky.)

The wielder will need to drop spell resistance if they need healing or to charge the item. There is the possibility of spells being cast against them for a round, that could potentially charge and explode the item (and cause a total party kill). Remember, each time an unknown spell is cast on the wielder and absorbed, they no longer know how high they can charge it. They have to either fully discharge it, or assume it was a 9th level spell, which caps how high they can then charge it themselves.

Additionally, there is the possibility of spells being cast on them without them being aware of it when they drop spell resistance. You are aware of spells if you pass a saving throw against them, but there are some spells (such as Message) that do not have a saving throw, and would have no noticable impact if absorbed by the Staff). Message is a cantrip, which generally means it counts as 0.5 of a spell level for things like absorbing spells, but probably shouldn't in this case, but there should be some other spells that target a creature and don't allow a saving throw?? This would be a last resort, because it would be quite bad from a player experience point of view, things would just continue on, until eventually you tell them that they all exploded.

I never like the "you find out too late that it is cursed" route. Nor the "changed history" one. They are very dissatisfying to introduce, it's normally very awkward and skews the expectations of the game. Give them "a chance" to keep it, however slim.

A flashy item like a Staff of the Magi is going to attract attention from those who are very much higher level than 2. The struggle to keep hold of it will be an adventure in itself, and one unlikely to have a happy ending.

For less flashy items this will still be the case but it will be a slower and, likely, more insidious a process, where the local Thieve's Guild or School of Magic get involved.

This could steer them into making a deal to sell it rather than have it stolen, which might be a bit dis-heartening, particularly if an evil wizard simply casts a fireball and kills them all to get it. The cash they then have will be a problem too, but more easy to deal with.

From experience in OD&D and AD&D 1st Ed., one of the best ways to deal with this general problem (not specific to Staff of the Magi, which has surely changed since I last dealt with one) is to let the party begin to be overrun with people (and monsters) trying to steal the overpowered item from them. They can either use up charges they can't replace defending it (if they can even use it), lose it when they can't beat one of the thieves, or realize it's beyond their capabilities to guard and actually puts them in danger, and find a way to safely dispose of it.

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    I'm not going to downvote this answer—it's too well supported by the literature—, but, really, this technique should be a GM's last resort, reserved for an adversarial group of players who ignore the GM and want to keep the staff even after the GM says Sorry, guys, I screwed up, and giving out that item was a mistake. – Hey I Can Chan Aug 19 '15 at 14:14
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    @HeyICanChan However, passive aggressive tactics like this are not really considered healthy by the standards of the current RPG era. (Whatever literature is suggesting using them.) – doppelgreener Aug 19 '15 at 14:17

Similar to the responses by Erik and MrLemon; A powerful individual, the owner of the item, could materialise or otherwise show up dramatically in an unexpected location and explain that they were set-up to steal it intentionally. They were (unbeknownst to them at the time) hired as a Tiger Team to pen-test where it was stored. That way the owner doesn't have to be "nice" and offer them any goodwill or future allegiance but treat the incident as a business transaction and pay them for their services. Depending how you decide to frame it, the owner can still have a negative disposition towards them depending on their intent and how they were set-up to steal it.

Make it into an artifact that needs to be developed to use its full power. Previous users were high enough level that they could use all its powers at once but the magic user is too low level to access all its abilities. Then the magic user needs training to access its power.

What do the PCs actually know about the staff? Did you say "it's a Staff of the Magi, here are its powers?"

If not, you could retcon it to be a lesser sort of item, with some similar powers, but more suited to the characters' level.

  • OP specifically indicated not wanting to retcon. – Dan Henderson Aug 24 '15 at 18:51

Another take on what do the PC's know about the item:

The Staff of the Magi is charged. Suppose it has only one or two charges left?

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    It can be recharged fairly trivially. – doppelgreener Aug 22 '15 at 5:35

I would say the staff is old and brittle upon further study on it. As you could easily hook them with the "brilliance seems dulled" or an "off aura is sensed". And when they check the staff put a low perception check and a moderatley high craft or appraise check on it. The perception will tell them its damaged as the appraise can enlighten them as to how poorly it is damaged. Then have an NPC conversation sound nearby for a follow up of "... rare fixes! Of course i do that..." then have the npc take it. Disappear. And return it later. Now no compensation is needed as someone fixed an artifact for free and they get the staff back later. And as a plus if they go to use it like greedy grubbers "poof the magic is lost and has become a stick (or a pile of ash depending on thier depth of usage higher risk scenario higher damage)." Plus(oh yes more plus') you get to create your own side scenario to get it back (nothing like a jaunt thru some woods). And you get to keep them deciding the true actions for the staff. Keeps the game from following one route to easily as give us the staff orthey kill you 😁.

I would just make that item break after single use (because it is too complicated for their low skill level), and then introduce a quest of fixing it which they can complete once they reach a certain level adequate for having that item.

protected by SevenSidedDie Aug 21 '15 at 0:42

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