Behind the Screen10/25/2003

Curses! Foiled Again!

"What are you doing?" shrieked Ally as Melantha went negative with a backstab right in the brisket from Mikko's shortsword.

"Well, I have to break it to you all," said Michael, shaking his head, "but Eddie informed me before the session that this nice little keen shortsword is actually Balak's Blade of Backbiting, and it makes me lose the ability to tell friend from foe sometimes. And if I attack a friend, it acts as a wounding bane weapon that always gets a sneak attack the first round I attack a friend with it. Expect the unexpected!"

"Jeez, don't sound too happy about it, you traitor!" David said. "Hold person comin' atcha!"

"Oh, yeah--it also makes me immune to enchantments " Michael smirked.

"Nice," said Samantha. "But I bet it doesn't make you immune to baleful polymorph! Say 'hi' to all your friends in slug-world, Mikey. But don't worry--I heard salt is a good preservative. I'll undo the spell once we figure out how to get that cursed sword away from you."

"Cursed? This sword is great!" Michael said. "This is the most damage I've ever done in my career!"

Ally shot him a look. "That's because you weren't on the receiving end of that 'greatness.' I want that sword gone!"

"Hmmm . . . I don't think 11 is gonna save." Michael sighed. " Off to slug-world. Bye-bye swordie."


Should you place cursed items? Only if you want to deal with them -- and their consequences -- in the campaign. Be aware that getting rid of a cursed item often jumps to the top of the party's priority list, so it may derail other activity in the campaign. Don't overdo it, but one now and then can keep players from getting too comfortable.

Do you need curses? No, not really. You can just use spells and not call them curses, but it does add a dash of panache if a curse is something special.

Is one curse spell enough? Allow players to invent individual curses, or develop special types for different religions or cultures. Even add other curse spells if you want them stronger or with special effects (e.g., generational curses, multiple-use curses, dying curses).

Seek inspiration from a broad range of sources. The feel of the curse is more important than its effects, so find ideas wherever you can, including older versions of D&D or other games. The Ravenloft settingis a good place to start.

Make the cure fit the curse. Make sure a cure is possible and within the ability of the characters to achieve (though it may be hard). Put as much flavor in the cure as you do in the curse.

A cursed sword. As Michael points out, cursed items aren't necessarily all bad: His sword is still a keen shortsword. It just has this little drawback. Well, maybe it's not a little drawback, from Ally's side of the table! Cursed items are the most common place you see curses implemented in D&D, certainly the best explained and detailed in the rules. The Dungeon Master's Guide (pp. 272-277) has some handy tables and suggestions for creating and using cursed items. Objects and their effect range from the merely annoying to the potentially deadly, but they're always at least little bit complicated.

Mikko's sword is more than just complicated, though, and could be devastating to the party if its curse manifests at the wrong time. Its curse is nasty (though useful for the DM to remind players sometimes that all magic ain't good magic). You don't want to overdo the effects of a cursed item, or your players will get so paranoid (or angry) that no one will be having fun.

Be prepared for the possibility that the party may want to destroy or get rid of a cursed item, and be aware that they just might try to sell it. They might sell it not knowing its curse, or maybe they know and want to make a quick buck anyway! That's pretty scummy but certainly possible, depending on the alignment of the PCs. You have to decide how good NPCs are at detecting curses, and what will they do if they find out--whether the players knew about the curse or not.

In any case, cursed items are covered pretty well in the rules, but curses on people and places are less well defined. You have to ask what a "curse" really is. Does it just mean a place is evil? Haunted? Unlucky? Enchanted in some way? In the world of Harry Potter, a curse or jinx is pretty much the same as any other spell, though it's usually something nasty -- from locking your legs together, to making you barf slugs, to killing with the stroke of a wand. In the real world, curses evoke thoughts of King Tut's tomb or Indian burial grounds, mysterious places where bad things happen to people who mess around where they don't belong. Literature and even religion bring to mind family curses, terrible secrets handed down from generation to generation, and sins of fathers (or mothers) visited down upon succeeding generations.

Okay, that's all spooky, but how does it relate to D&D? The ability of undead to create spawn is sort of like a curse, but it has its own game mechanic in D&D. Mummy rot is a curse, in that you have to cast remove curse before you can cure the disease, but that's about it. No canopic jars or tannin leaves here. Lycanthropy is a good example of a very specialized curse, but like mummy rot, it's described in the rules more as a magical disease, an affliction, with elements of a curse. How do "natural" lycanthropes acquire the curse or get rid of it?

Even less attention is paid to the idea of curses on a place, and in D&D that whole idea is probably subsumed into guardian spells of various kinds. Mikko didn't fear the "Curse of the Reaver" when he violated the warrior's tomb; he just had to find and disarm the greater glyph of warding with a stored blade barrier spell. Curse, schmurse -- it's just a spell! Everyone who enters the Dungeon of the Yellow Sign goes mad? Sure, because there are symbols of insanity there.

So we're back to a "curse" being just another spell (or monster ability or item) with flavor text added. If you want to curse somebody, you cast bestow curse. The effects are nasty enough, but pretty generic. BOR-ing! It also says that you can invent other curses of about the same power level. That opens up lots of possibilities, but still you have to ask the question: Do you need more curses? Why not just use the spells we already have?

Well, you got me. There is absolutely no reason that you have to make up any new curses. You could just use the spells that are already there. But it is an easy place to add some spice to your game. In Dragon#50, the article The Glyphs of Cerilon offered 50-some glyphs of warding. You didn't just cast blast glyph-fire or whatever--you learned individual glyphs that did different things, and some churches (or alignments) might use some glyphs but not others. The same idea could be used for curses. So when Melantha busts out bestow curse she's choosing from the curses she knows. Each religion or culture might teach only a few curses, or most curses could be commonly known with a few being forbidden or illegal, like the "unforgivable" cruciatus, imperius, and avara kedavra curses of Harry Potter's world.

If some curses are stronger than a 3rd-level spell, you could add a few other curse spells to the list, like ancient curse, divine curse, and dying curse from the AD&DOriental Adventures book, or the Mulhorandi major curse and bane from the Forgotten Realms. Michael might be less sanguine about curses if Mikko's latest victim utters a dying curse that turns his hands into turnips! The AD&D Ravenloft campaign and Forbidden Lore boxed set had lots of atmospheric suggestions on how and when to use curses (and their remedies) in the campaign. A cursed item or creature or location could actually be possessed by an evil spirit, and you might use the corruption rules from the AD&DVan Richten's Guide to Fiends or the fiend of possession prestige class from the Fiend Folio, or pull out some creepiness from the Book of Vile Darkness. Other game systems certainly hold potential as sources of ideas for new curses; Rolemaster's old Spell Law supplement included a variety of culture-specific ones. The game mechanics are usually not hard to tweak, and the important thing is that a curse should feel different from just another spell or magic item.

While you're having your fun being an evil DM, don't forget about counter-curses: Every curse should have some sort of remedy. Arphaxad, Melantha, and Rashean are going to be very peeved if there is no way to get Mikko's cursed sword away from him. If the sword simply cannot be gotten rid of, then they will be forced to ditch the dwarf, and you can't really blame them--he can't be counted on not to betray and attack them. Now you've got four mad players, or maybe no players at all if they get mad enough.

That doesn't mean the cure has to be easy or cheap, but there must be some way of getting rid of a cursed item, or lifting a curse from a character. Allow them to research the history of the curse and figure out clues for how they can end it. Maybe Mikko's sword must be used to slay the ghost of Balak the Backstabber before the ghost and the sword's curse can be put to rest. The cure may involve a quest for some exotic device or substance, or the return of some stolen object (like the gold in the Pirates of the Caribbean film), or just a high-level spell. That last one is probably the easiest option but also the least interesting. If you're going to bother going with a "curse" for flavor reasons, then go for the gusto with the cure as well. The PCs may run away screaming once the curse has been broken, but the players will feel the kind of relief and accomplishment you can't buy at the magic fix-it shop!

About the Author

Jason Nelson lives in Seattle with his wife Judy, daughter Meshia, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is a part-time homemaker, part-time medical transcriptionist, part-time Ph.D. candidate in social and cultural foundations of education, and an active and committed born-again Christian. He began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one campaign while playing in two others.

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