Cursed Items, Part 1

Curses were written about in Dungeon 182 in September 2010 by Peter Schaefer, and although I applaud Wizards for breaking out of their usual mold and suggesting that there are plenty of things out there they want to play with but have not written official rules for, I have to say I was a bit disappointed with their outcome to one of my favorite aspects to the game. I’ve always enjoyed curses, but even more, I’ve always loved cursed items. Cursed items go way back into the history of D&D and at one point I remember them being so prevalent that a player was practically paranoid of powerful-seeming items when they collected them for fear they would backstab them in some way. But we’ve evolved, and here we are with books and books chock full of items, all with unique powers and all that are ready and willing to bolster your characters no questions asked. There are a few ideas that have been presented that add more than standard flavor to your treasures, primarily artifacts, first introduced in the first Dungeon Master’s Guide, but artifacts are different, as I feel they should be, because they are plot items. Schaefer also believed that curses should be plot techniques and he built his idea of them being dispelled or complete when plot points were satisfied. Now, this is certainly a viable option (one could easily have a cursed item that is also an artifact), but I just don’t see why we need to bring the story into this. Further, if the party finds a cursed item, it’s a great means to bring in a skirting story or aspect to the campaign in the light without affecting the important story line at all.

What’s the Difference?

So here I am, looking for a means to bring cursed items into D&D again without their being any story involved (in the mechanics!) so we can watch our PCs squirm with both trepidation and hopefully a little delight. To do this, we have to figure out what makes an item cursed? I don’t mean what causes the item to be cursed, that’s up to the DM and there are one thousand ideas there from the get go. But what’s the difference between a regular magic item and a cursed one? In my opinion, a few things:

1/ A cursed item should not be allowed to be removed or denied without some special circumstances or aid
2/ A cursed item should grant exceptional power, but require exceptional expense
3/ A cursed item should be fun

That last one is a no-brainer of course for all things we’re making here at Rules As UNWritten, but I felt it was important to reiterate in this circumstance, mostly because the history of cursed items comes with it some sort of reputation for pain or punishment to the PCs, and delight merely to the DM. That’s hogwash, and completely not in the spirit of the game, so it’s important to remember that everything, EVERYTHING, developed for the game should be fun for everyone, even if it is at the detriment to the players. That’s a tough challenge though because players hate to lose. As a DM, I don’t want to see them lose, I don’t even want to see them struggle, but I do want to see them challenged, because overcoming a difficult challenge brings more delight than overcoming a cake walk. With that, it’s important to find a balance with dangerous encounters, formidable villains, and in this case, even a treacherous item. We need to make the item challenging, but also make it fun.

You Can’t Take it Off

So I’ve experimented with a new mechanic for cursed items, and here’s where I’ve discovered that balance. The first rule to cursed items is that whomever dons it, picks it up, or uses it (depending on the kind of item it is) is connected to it. The DM informs the player if they should want to take it off or put it down that they cannot, that they feel unusually bound to the item. This may incite a bit of panic for the player, especially if they picked up a dagger and they usually use a two-handed long spear. That’s okay, don’t gimp the player, that’s not good gaming. They can put the dagger in their belt, they can stow the mirror in their bag, etc, but the conditions to the item still apply. Implore the player, however, to use the item, as the benefits of using it should be on par with or even outweigh the use of their usual facilities. But no matter what rituals or spells in the world you use, you cannot remove the item until it has been used, at least once (details on that later). Use discretion in handing out items with curses that you believe none of the players could or would want to even use—again, that’s not good gaming. This is the same discretion you would use to not drop an incredibly powerful shield in a parcel for a group of adventurers who have no one in the group who uses shields.

No Really…How Do You Remove It?

How do they remove the item then? It’s not going to be too terribly difficult actually, but cursed items should inspire at least one attempt to use it, nay, they cannot be removed without using them. Cursed items come with a scale, very closely resembling Schafer’s model. You see, Schaefer was on to something with his affectation design: there should be levels of danger involved with a curse, in this case a cursed item. Bad things should either be affecting you, or happen to you when you utilize the item, but the fun comes when the player chooses to utilize the item for a greater benefit. Gimping a player straight out and telling them that they can shed the curse by finding an archon to grant them clemency is stupid. If you want to hook a player with an item, come up with something better than gimping them. Story hooks aren’t hard, there’s no reason you should tie a player to penalties to get them to find your archon.

Ability Checks

You get rid of the curse by removing it yourself. This is represented by an ability check. Before you gasp, this is precisely where an ability check is appropriate in this game: the cursed item requires you to break the curse in some way, internally or externally, by yourself, without help, because that is your destiny with the thing. That’s the concept behind cursed items, and no amount of book study on the feywild, wittily pleading with it, or even the use of powerful rituals (though they may help, details on that later) is going to make the mirror stop ringing in your ears. A constitution check, however, may be what you need to do—to outlast and out think the semi-sentient thing. But only if you want to, and only if you have tamed it so far.

Stages

So you’ve got stages with a cursed item, 1, 2 and 3. You start out at stage 1, and the risk reward is relatively low. You always want to lower a player down the rabbit hole, don’t toss them down there like a well bucket. While owning the item, or when they use the item, the player incurs a cost of some sort. I have found the most basic of costs is the taxing of hit points at the end of an encounter in which the item was used. After the player incurs the cost, that is when they get to make their ability check to determine how they deal with the item. There is an Easy, Moderate, and Hard DC to reach with the ability check. If the PC does not reach the Easy DC, then the stage of the cursed item goes up by 1. If the PC reaches the Moderate DC, then stage remains the same. If the PC reaches the Hard DC, they may choose to increase the stage by 1 or decrease it by one (removing the item if they are already at stage 1).

Remember that the trigger for this check is when they incur the cost or penalty, and the cost or penalty comes when they use the item. This means that the player must use the item at least once to gain a chance at removing it. This check also puts a bit of the power in the player’s hand. It is always best to put the well-being of the PCs in their own hands; if they want to dance with the devil, let them, half of this is their game and their story too.

It Can Be Useful Though…Very Useful

Using the item should come with some reward though. In my first example, below, you’ll notice that the item’s power doesn’t necessarily get greater (though the initiative bonus goes up), but the power is usable more and more times per encounter at higher stages. The power is pretty nice for any class really so it’s risk/reward should be an enjoyable choice for the player. After they use it once, they take the cost, which in this case is damage, and they make the ability check, which in this case is a Wisdom check. If they make the check and were unhappy with the results of the item, they can choose to release themselves from the cursed item and take it off. If they were happy with the result they may choose to upgrade to stage 2 if they make the check, but if they don’t then they may not have a choice.

In a design like this the DM is separated from directly doling out undo damage or penalties, and the player has somewhat of a chance to tailor their reaction to the item. Shown below is the item, which I’ve named Stigalda’s Ring, but feel free to call it whatever you like. In my campaign, Lady Stigalda was a practitioner of magic long ago, but something went awry. On her bony deceased finger the PCs find this ring, and after putting it on they might get a clue as to how Lady Stigalda died.

I’ll followup with another item next time and some more exploratory notes on designing cursed items. Until then, enjoy!

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