Cursed Items, Part 2

In my previous post about cursed items, I discussed how curses and cursed items need to accomplish three things: one, they must be used at least once (which translates to the fact that they cannot remove the item immediately); two, the curse or item will usually cost some expense but also offer some compensation; and three, curses and cursed items need to be fun for everyone, so don’t design anything that basically gimps your players. After that I revealed a mechanic that was built in stages, increasing in detriment and power as the stages increased or decreased. The mechanic hinged on an ability check that was the means to controlling the item’s stage so that, even though the check is based on a die roll, a successful check allowed a player to choose whether to continue being cursed because the boon was so strong, or overcome the curse and removing it. Failure on the check gives the player no choice but to accept the high risk / high reward upper stages.

It’s a decent idea, and though there is only one example as of yet, there’s always room for improvement and exploration of the idea. A cursed item like Stigalda’s Ring is a little more complex than maybe some players or DMs may want to get into. It could very easily have a longer lasting shelf life in a game than might be preferred, though the Remove Affliction ritual could do wonders to nix it entirely if a player was hating it. Regardless, it’s good to keep learning and providing new and unexpected challenges to the players in the world of curses, so I want to point out a few ideas I’ve seen lately that are very related and are beginning to gel nicely with the foundation of D&D 4e mechanics.

One of those ideas I found digging around a great little book called Soldiers of Fortune by Matt James published by Open Design. James does a great job in the supplement for coming up with mechanics and hooks for war time adventures and challenges in 4e, but tangentially, I found an item within that is cursed in a very elegant and streamlined way, see below. The mechanic for the curse is simply one line, it puts its removal all in the hands of the Remove Affliction ritual, but gives the cost of the removal a bit more risk by adding the level of the item as a penalty to the ritual’s check (kudos Mr. James—the lack of scale and scope with many restorative features and rituals in general can be deftly fixed by simply tacking on higher difficulty proportional to the risks the party is currently facing—another topic for another post though). The “curse” to the item is simply its mildly gimping property, which, along with its other more useful property, makes a nice little recipe for a simple, empowering, yet risky cursed item. This is a great way to bring a cursed quality onto any item out there: just add a mildly negative effect to an otherwise powerful item, and copy paste the “Cursed” feature from the Deserter’s Boots to provide a means for the player to be rid of it should they wish.

From Soldiers of Fortune by Matt James

The other idea that has sprung up lately because of its newness is the Deck of Despair from The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond boxed set, now available. The Deck of Despair has everything I’ve just been writing about in a simple, easy and conveniently collectible form. For more on the Deck of Despair I turn to a good review of the book at Loremaster blog. The writer, Squach (of The Tome Show), has favorable views of the boxed set, but goes into a bit more detail on the Deck of Despair within as it has brought on a feature to the game like the awesomeness of the madness mechanics from Call of Cthulhu. Squach goes on to tout the excellence of the Deck of Despair because it not only provides a means to present the players with challenge through detriment, flavor the scenario of adventuring in a dangerous and alien environment, but the key feature being that once the card is overcome, there is a particularly useful boon for the player. This does a lot for how the game is run: one, it inspires the players to continue adventuring as Squach points out, reducing the popular one combat workday; two, it colors a player’s natural negative reaction to detriment by adding a light at the end of the tunnel; and three, it doesn’t pin the process down to resource management (read: a ritual can’t simply wipe the condition) and therefore there is an unexpected and risky quality to the feature.

Squach is keen to see how this new deck can be ported out and used in other ways other than adventuring to the Shadowfell in your game, and I’ll leave his great ideas for you to read over there. But talking about it further, “despairs” are simply another word for “curses” and their immediacy and randomness is quite close to the tenants I’ve outlined so far: the players are afflicted, the players have something to gain from the affliction, and deciding the risk/reward of the affliction can be fun. The Deck of Despair just puts those tenants in a different order than Lady Stigalda’s Ring—requiring you to overcome the despair before actually capitalizing on the boon. Fine with me, it’s the same principle, and I look forward to trying out the mechanic for myself.

I still think the curse I’ve developed is pretty tight and I want to keep toying with it. After all, once the skeleton is in place, it’s a matter of changing the boons, penalties and dependent abilities for overcoming the curse that changes. Further, as any monk can tell you, a curse doesn’t necessarily need an item or weapon as a host in order to affect a player. Just as a ki can be anything or nothing, a curse can and should affect an item, or a person. Though it’s a lot cooler to say that a player’s *soul* has been cursed than just tell you that the boots your wearing have been cursed. Come to think of it, for some real visceral designing, why not curse a player’s body or body part and let the fun of squirming with the curse being *too* close begin.

So here’s the crunch for this installment that I hope you’ll steal and enjoy. The Greedy Hand Curse might be the spirit of a wronged powerful merchant or mercenary. It could be that it lingers on in life through a series of deeds that continue to trade blood for money. A PC might have a difficult time deciding when it is worth the coin to dole out drastic damage, or might even get away with paying very little for their abuse of the Greedy Hand. Either way, the Greedy Hand Curse can be interesting to drop on different kinds of players in certain scenarios. Consider, when introducing it in your game, the pacing in which you hand out coins; if the player has enough coins on their person they will probably consider the usage of the power worth it, but if coins become scarce, especially at higher stages of the curse, the trade could be detrimental.

Remember that the point of all this is for the player to have fun, so bait them with the mystical and mysterious nature of curses, but if they really hate it, give them the tools to get rid of it, and move on to the next thing. Either way, I hope you get a kick out of this bit of crunch for your game at home. Enjoy!

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