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. "