Subscribe to the Roleplaying Tips Weekly Newsletter - game master tips

Rebalancing Your Game-Dealing With Powerful Items

Derek Bousfield

Introduction

Sometimes things go wrong. Computer systems can crash and need re-booting, or in extreme cases, need to be returned to their original settings. Cars will go wrong, will not run right, and things on it need fixing. It is in the nature of everything we touch, that things will go wrong - nothing is perfect. And so, when your game becomes unbalanced, through the use of extra-powerful magical items, as inevitably it will do at some stage, it's up to you, the DM, to be roleplaying system support engineer, world mechanic and game corrector all in one.

For Example

It seemed like a good idea at the time-the PCs, hungry for glory, were throwing themselves into every fight with utter abandon and were paying the price. To both aid and test them, you pitted them against a powerful and evil foe with a vicious weapon. Should they win, the prize was theirs and you wouldn't have to watch them roll up characters session after session. The fight was epic but the survivors wrenched that Spear of Soul Devouring out of Gorack the Butcher's green-clawed hand after putting him to the sword and freeing the village of Bremertown. The Spear, starting from +0 with every new wielder, adds plus +1 to its magical enhancement bonus with every 10 creatures killed. It has now reached the dizzying heights of a +17 weapon in the hands of your party's Wood Elf Fighter-Rogue, Str: 18, Dex: 22. Every fight, out it comes. It is plunged into the breasts of orcs; skewers spell casting Ogre Magi; impales Vampiric Trolls - none can stand before its terrible might, and the players, drunk with the power of this uber-weapon, are feared across the land by friend and foe alike. You know you've made a mistake allowing such a weapon into the players' hands, but how on earth do you deal with this situation? Heavy-handed DM decision making, by forbidding the weapon, or having it 'disappear', will be resented by your players. You have to be cunning, you have to be a DM, and you have to (a) manage, or (b) have the PCs lose those too-powerful, game unbalancing weapons, through role-play and adventure.

Suggested Solutions

  1. Whilst out in the woods on an adventure, the PCs are charged by a small herd of Gorgons. They plunge into the battle, darting in and out, goring the PCs and wheeling away. To one side a Giant Gorgon stamps and snorts and watches the battle - astute PCs note something odd, something...human about the Giant Gorgon's demeanor - he's controlling the battle! Our Trusty Elf Fighter-Rogue hurls the Spear of Soul Devouring into the Giant Gorgon. With a bellow and a stamp of rage, the Giant Gorgon turns and flees off into the distance, Spear of Soul Devouring impaled firmly in its back. The surviving Gorgons regroup and in a bid to defend their leader, gore and attack the PCs, preventing pursuit of the spear impaled Giant Gorgon. The PCs, bereft, never see their treasured weapon again.
  2. On a diplomatic mission to secure the defense of their liege lord's kingdom, the PCs journey into the Mountain realm of the Dwarven King Khurgan the Black. Khurgan, an insular king, caring little for the fates of those outside his mountainous realm, nevertheless has a large and foreboding army. Khurgan likes shiny things, like gold, gems, and Spears of Devouring. If the PCs want Khurgan's help - they must part with the Spear. If they politely and diplomatically refuse, the dwarves throw them out; if they refuse point blank without a successful diplomacy check, they may find themselves fighting their way out, or they may simply be stripped of all their belongings and thrown out into the mountain snow. Either way, Khurgan may opt to expand his realm at the cost of the beleaguered kingdom the PCs were trying to protect.
  3. The battle is fierce and the casualties mount. The Lawful Evil Gnoll monks of the 'Order of the Sleeping Dog' are pressing the PCs hard. An attack roll is fumbled, or a weapon sunder roll is successful, the Spear is disarmed and is dropped on the ground. Grrafraf, Gnoll Monk and grandmaster of the order, deftly flips over the PCs, grabs the spear and lands as lightly as a cat. Grrafraf orders his monks into an orderly withdrawal, protecting him as he makes good his escape with his new prize. Even if the PCs hack their way through the gnoll monks, kill Grrafraf and recover the spear, as a new wielder, he reset the spear to +0 enhancement bonus.
  4. The Black Night Rogues Guild, furious at being foiled by the PCs' misguided and Lawful Good actions which broke up their profitable gnome-slave trade ring with the Drow of Nezzobirranium, plot revenge. They have had a Spear, Backbiter created which looks identical to the Spear of Soul Devouring. They attempt a strong but silent penetration into the PCs fortress of solitude, base of operations, or inn in which they are staying. If detected, the rogues may already have penetrated the PCs armory and may be wielding their weapons against them (nothing upsets your PCs more than having some rogue wielding your dwarf fighter's war hammer +5 against him while he's dressed in a night shirt and using a chair leg and food tray for protectionc). If they aren't detected, the switch is made. The rogues may simply disappear from view for a while (though shadowy individuals will, inevitably, know of the rumors of the rogues' achievement, possibly allowing the PCs to hear about the switch at some point) or they may force a show down with the PCs just to see the Backbiter in action.
  5. Helfurien, demon of the nine hells has just come to the end of his 99-year banishment from the Prime Material Plane after being vanquished by Sir Hedrick Helsbane, long dead Knight of the Mark, and one-time wielder of the Spear of Soul Devouring. Helfurien vowed to exact his vengeance on all who would wield the Spear. The groups' bard, during downtime and doing hero-historical research, stumbles across the tale (or the PCs hear the Bard-Songstress Mira Belle regale the tale in the local hostelry), does the math, and realizes Helfurien could arrive at any time. The choice is simple, get rid of the Spear of Soul Devouring, or face Helfurien's wrath.
  6. Unbeknownst to the PC wielder, the Spear of Soul Devouring doesn't just devour the souls of the victims slain. With every 50 victims, the Spear drains and blackens the soul of the wielder in some way. Good PCs whose abilities rely on their alignment have trouble using them: Paladins cannot cure disease; Clerics have trouble learning their spells. Other PCs find their hit point increases upon gaining new levels are set to the minimum and, healing spells and potions heal the minimum amount (Cure light wounds heals 1hp+1per caster level to a maximum of 5, therefore C.L.W. heals 6 hp). Additionally, natural healing takes twice as long for the wielder. Ridding themselves of the item stops future problems, but does not erase the existing stain on the wielder's soul.

Of course, with a little thought, or work, such ideas can be applied to any item which you think is beginning to unbalance your hard-crafted campaign world. Your PC wizard, Redd Bluddweomar, has a Staff of the Everfire, which allows access to all fire-based spells persistently. Even if he can live with the loss of his ability to learn or cast cold and ice based spells, Luskan Hosttower Mages and the Red Wizards of Thay will hear of the staff after even the first few uses. They are unlikely to ask Redd nicely for the item... Shadowy Harry, your groups' ghostwise halfling rogue might find that the previous owner of his Speedy boots of silence and stealth, one Guildmaster Garrigan Blakk wants them back...; Toban Dane, Fighter of Cormyr, with the Improved Critical: Great sword feat, may find his super-keen Vorpal Great sword +5 has little effect in combat against Drow weapon-master Sevizzt who happens to be dressed in Drow Plate Armour of Fortification and who wields The Sundering Scimitar, a +5 drow weapon which improves Sevizzt's ability to Sunder his opponent's weapons... As DM, your options are endless...enjoy thinking them up!