Monday, December 20, 2010

Pathfinder Zaniness: The Staff of Vomiting Win

A staff is an interesting magic item.  It allows a spellcasting character to cast spells "early".  The staff contains a spell, and a character whose class could eventually cast the spell can use the staff to cast the spell as if he or she was eighth-level.

Admittedly, there are more complicated staves.  But that's the basic idea we care about.

All staves have 10 charges.  Only a spellcaster that really can cast the spell can recharge the staff.  But a first-level character with a fully-charged staff could still use it ten times to pretend, in a small but notable manner, to be eighth-level.

Our question for the day is "How cheaply can we equip a first-level character with an insanely powerful staff"?

Obviously we could give a first-level character one of Pathfinder's most impressive magic items or artifacts to allow the character to do far more than most first-level characters.  But if the goal is to allow a first-level character to become an adventure's dangerous main villain, how inexpensively can we do this?

(There may be options for a cleverly designed first-level dangerous villain besides a staff.  Suggestions of lesser expense are welcome.)

Well, staves are fairly expensive.  They are overpriced compared to wands for first-level spells (trust me on that), so no sensible mage creates first-level staves.  But staves are affordable compared to wands for second-level spells and above.  Therefore, the least expensive staff that would be reasonably crafted would contain a single second-level spell.  That costs 6,400 gold pieces.

What would we use as an super-powerful second-level spell?  We need a spell that becomes much more potent when cast at eighth level?  Few spells qualify: usually a spell's raw power depends only upon its spell level, and the caster's level only increased duration or provides other minor benefit.

Our best choice is the attractively named spell Vomit Swarm.  How much win do we have?  An eighth-level caster creates a swarm of wasps.  This is a horrific monster.
  • The wasp swarm is fast.  It flies faster than most characters can move.
  • The wasps are diminutive creatures, so the swarm is immune to weapon damage.  It also cannot be grabbed, making normally powerful low-level spells like entangle useless against them.
  • Swarms are "distracting", making both spellcasting and skill use very difficult within the swarm.  The wasps are unintelligent and immune to mind-affecting spells, therefore immune to most of the other powerful low-level spells like sleep and silent image.
  • The wasp swarm automatically causes 2d6 damage to everyone it touches, and anyone damaged might be distracted in a second sense which causes them to lose their next action.  So not only is the wasp swarm nearly impossible to harm, but those inside it often can do nothing but impotently try to flee.
  • The wasps are also poisonous.  Their victims are probably losing Dexterity as well as hit points.

There may be other magic items costing less than 6,400 gold pieces that are more dangerous in the hands of a first-level character.  But, if so, I do not know which.  Suggestions are welcome.

This staff could become the focus of an interesting adventure for low-level heroes.  An evil, powerful villain creates or buys the staff, charges it, and bonds it with retrieve item (using a wand if not a spellcaster).  Then this villain works from behind the scenes by convincing or charming a first-level alchemist or witch (the classes that will learn vomit swarm and can thus use the staff) to use the staff to terrorize a city.  Each act of terrorism is scheduled at a certain time of day, so that after each use when the underling sets the staff down the main villain can retrieve it without attracting attention.  However, the underling is sloppy and the first few nights targets his or her personal rivals instead of random innocents, allowing the heroes to eventually solve the mystery and find the killer.  The climactic battle is tense as the low-level protagonists rush to defeat the underling (ending the spell and banishing the wasp swarm) before the neigh-invulnerable wasp swarm kills anyone; heroes with superior detective-work will be better prepared for this fight, realizing the "ferocious monster" is a swam vulnerable to gust of wind or area-of-effect fire magic.  The adventure ends with a cliffhanger: if the heroes learn about the staff, they claim it but it vanishes before their eyes after they set it down, or if the heroes are still ignorant about the staff then a few days later a "copycat killer" strikes who is really a new underling using the same staff.

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