Wednesday, March 14, 2018
Curious Objects: Staff of Withering
There are several cursed objects in the BX magic items lists, but only a few seem to bestow curses or curse-like magic for the wielder instead of upon him. The Staff of Withering is one of them.
I've never placed this item or rolled it randomly. Nor do I recall a game where it appeared. It's strange for several reasons, so let's get to it.
First, it is a clerical item. Yet its extremely malicious nature would make it likely to only be used by chaotic types, so it seems like many PC clerics would avoid or destroy it. Sure, I can imagine scenarios where it could be helpful. e.g. A person has been cursed and turned into a baby and needs to be brought back to their correct age (or closer to it); but mostly, it's for stealing away a person's life a chunk at a time. This also lends itself to torture scenarios. A victim could be threatened with shortened lifespan unless they comply. Another decidedly un-Lawful kind of activity. I imagine many clerical types risking severe disfavor with their gods by employing this stick of incremental doom.
Secondly, there are no hard and fast rules about aging in BX. Not that I feel they are missed or needed, but this is one of the only times the issue of a PC's age comes up. There aren't even ghosts in the BX monster lists to unnaturally age a character. It's not hard to make some simple rulings about a 20-something fighter that suddenly find himself on the wrong side of 50, but as it can drastically affect the rest of the character's career (if any), it bears consideration.
One line stand out about this to me: "The effect of old age will be fatal to animals and most character classes," Now, there are two ways I can interpret this. One is the obvious, that old age kills and that the staff can –even with limited charges– age someone enough to put them in the grave. The other is that the effects of suddenly aging so much so quickly is a shock to the system and warrants a "save or die" roll. Personally, I think it's the former.
Another character aging issue is the line about elves and dwarfs ignore the effects for at least the first few hits. Demihuman lifespans vary from game to game and setting to setting, but I find the inclusion of that caveat interesting. The fact it does not affect the undead makes perfect sense, though a zombie turning into a skeleton would be a fun side effect.
Lastly, remember that as a staff it has limited charges. 3d10 in fact. That means it can steal a maximum of 300 years before it is used up. That, plus the fact it must touch the target, makes it even less of an adventuring item and for more specialized purposes.