Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Lost Art of the Cursed Item

People these days seem to misunderstand cursed items in D&D. Players find some magic items and divvy them up. Then one player finds out that their item is cursed, and they now have some sort of drawback. And they probably bitch and moan a bit, and depending on edition and how high level the PCs are, they probably cast (or purchase) a spell to remove the curse, grumble a bit more about getting screwed over by the DM, and carry on.

But it's not intended to be that way. Back in the earlier editions of the rules, especially for cursed swords and armor, the rule was that if you could get the curse removed, the item then reverted to a beneficial item*. So curses were a means of providing an adventure hook.

If a player found a cursed weapon or armor, at low levels they had to deal with it until they could find a high level NPC to remove the curse (requiring paying large sums, a quest, or both), or go on a quest  of their own to a location (in a dungeon or far out in the wilderness) where the curse could be removed. Getting a curse was a means of providing the players with a goal - remove the curse. And there was a reward to it besides just elimination of the penalty. The weapon or armor that was previously lowering combat efficiency would improve it instead.

Yes, this post is inspired by my 5E gaming. It seems like newer gamers just don't see the value in things like curses, save or die spells (a double edged sword, yes, but also fun!), or dwindling resources. And WotC seem to also have this mistaken idea that any sort of hindrance is unfun. Everything is awesome! Everyone is special! All the time! Well, to tell the truth, that's NOT fun. Getting cursed and then having to jump through hoops to get rid of the curse is fun and satisfying! Getting cursed (or level drained, or finger of deathed, etc.) adds spice to the game if it actually affects you. If you just need to have the party Cleric come over and cast a spell and it's over, what's the fun in that? Where's the challenge? Where's the satisfaction?

Probably more to come along this line of thought if I have time to blog again soon.

*Yes, cursed scrolls, potions, rings and miscellaneous items don't have this benefit. But it's easily house ruled for the permanent rings and miscellaneous items, isn't it?


  1. The items I really like are those which offer a sort of devil's bargain. They can do something really cool and/or useful, but they have this drawback that comes to the edge of balancing the cool.

    Do you still want the item? Is the cool/useful part worth the drawback? For instance (using Dungeon Crawl Classics rules), would you want a +2 sword that also increases your fumble die by one step up the dice chain?

  2. Oh yeah, those are great, too! Make the players consider the trade-off of the power with the curse in another area. That's one of the things that makes Artifacts in the Master Set so awesome.

  3. To be fair, an explanation like this of the usefulness of cursed items should really appear in the intro for cursed items.

    If the writers of the DMG are going to include advice for every other aspect of the game (under the assumption that any potential buyer might be a 13-year old that's new to the game), they should have explained this as well.

    I started DM-ing back in late 2e, and I've NEVER heard or thought of this. it's a great idea!

  4. I detest cursed items that steal a player's agency but I love when they add to imerssion or carry a price.
    Here's a cool cursed sword " Hey look a +2 sword that shoots fireballs, you just have to kill a good sorceror to recharge those fireballs or it loses it's attack bonus and all sorcerors can see the sword for what it is. "

  5. Funny, I don't remember this rule at all, though I'm willing to believe it's in older edition rules somewhere. (I do remember curses being basically easy plot hooks for GMs, just not the "the item keeps its beneficial qualities if you remove the curse" thing. )

    My go-to for fantasy RPGs these days is LotFP, in the classic (magic-poor, historical horror/dark fantasy) flavor, and basically magic items in that game are almost always, by default, what we'd have called "cursed" in the old days. They have a benefit, but the benefit comes with a cost, and a lot of the challenge is surviving the cost and figuring out whether it's worth the benefit. (It often isn't except in specific situations.)

    Because of that, I'd assume removing the curse would probably disenchant the item: the devil's bargain is just part of how magic works. But you'd also never (or only rarely) find magic items that are *just* cursed; the curses are basically the cost offset of the benefit. I suppose a sadistic mage could craft a straight-up cursed item to screw someone over, or for revenge or something.

    I've extended that yin/yang balance to spellcasting, too, in my game: spellcasters who overclock their level-based spellcasting limits have penalties and saving throws risking instead getting lot of weird wild magic results. Lots of the results are goofy or mildly beneficial, but lots are also aggravating, some are pretty uncomfortable, and a few are outright horrific. (And my players continued to love it even after one miscast indirectly led to a really brutal TPK.)

    As for magic that "steals player agency" I think it's more fun instead to just give players things to roleplay: a helmet that adds to their AC but also makes them paranoid, say, or an addictive magical substance that a player has to fight hard (saving throw) to resist reusing, despite the negative consequences. I'd be careful with, say, sentient sword that swaps "bodies" with the PC on a failed saving throw—it could be fun for a session if the player was up for running the sword's personality instead, but stuff that like shouldn't be a regular feature—but magic that messes with the PC's mind seems really fertile ground for roleplaying, to me.

    Oh, and hi from another tabletop RPGer in Korea! :)

  6. Oh, and reading earlier posts, I see you were thinking of using a spellcasting wild magic system like that too. Did you work one out?

    I like the idea of the failed casting table that I've heard DCC uses (and which LotFP seems set to adopt) but to me that seems like a lot of work and referencing. Unless I could copy and paste everything into an app to to run fouled castings, I think it's too much flip-flip-flip, and am happier just having a random generator on my campaign website. (I can add options, re-weight the more- or less-harmful effects, and so on. My game ended and I've yet to start a new one, but when I do I think I'll be trying to add a lot more variety to the spellcasting fumble generator... assuming the party has a mage, that is. (Clerics are rare in my games, so I never had to consider whether they need spellcasting fumble rules; I think I'd probably just put them in (quest-hookish) debt to their divine benefactor, or exact a physical cost on the PC instead.)

  7. Hey Gord. We've never met but I recognize you as one of Justin Howe's friends (from way back when he was on Facebook). Thanks for the comments!

    I haven't done anything with the random magic thing. I'm busy finishing up my Chanbara game right now, and when it's finished I have two other ideas I want to work on that don't involve wild magic.

    About the curse rule, it's something we overlooked or ignored back in the 80s/90s. I rediscovered it when I did my Mentzer Basic cover-to-cover posts. I think a lot of people may have been like my friends and I, passing over or forgetting that rule.