I hate cursed items. I want cursed items. I hate the traditional implementation, in which the DM hands a PC a bunk item at best, and something that actively causes harm at worst. It’s the game of punishing characters for not sufficiently vetting every single item that comes their way.
I understand that a lot of people like it this way, but I’m just never going to enjoy it as a DM and certainly never as a player. What I don’t need in my game is a lot of arbitrary “Gotcha!”. I’m going to minimize and eliminate that whenever possible. Let’s take an example:
Necklace of Strangulation: A necklace of strangulation appears to be a rare and wondrous piece of valuable jewelry and, short of the use of something as powerful as a miracle or a wish, can only be identified as a cursed item when placed around a character’s neck. The necklace immediately constricts, dealing 6 points of damage per round. It cannot be removed by any means short of a limited wish, wish, or miracle and remains clasped around the victim’s throat even after his death. Only when he has decayed to a dry skeleton (after approximately one month) does the necklace loosen, ready for another victim.
I don’t see how this can ever be fun. This would make a fun trap, with some tweaking. But a cursed item? Not really.
Or what about a classic cursed item:
Spear, Cursed Backbiter: This is a +2 shortspear, but each time it is used in melee against a foe and the attack roll is a natural 1, it damages its wielder instead of her intended target. When the curse takes effect, the spear curls around to strike its wielder in the back, automatically dealing the damage to the wielder. The curse even functions when the spear is hurled, and in such a case the damage to the hurler is doubled.
These are both taken from the OGL for 3.5, but both of these items have been around in D&D for a very long time. Neither are what I want in a cursed item. Sure, I get to nerf a player for a time, but I don’t want to nerf a player. I want to challenge him. I want to complicate his life. I want to give him good things and take them away, or even better, force the player to choose. I want to force the player to sacrifice.
I want cursed items. I want to give the player power and I want to complicate their life for taking it. But I just can’t use this model. What became my model is Stormbringer. Do items get more powerful than Elric of Melnibone’s cursed blade? Do they get more complicated? The only thing that needs tweaking is power level. Your campaign is quickly moving towards ruin if one or more of your characters are walking through the plains with Stormbringer-level magic items. Fortunately the concept of “power with complications” fits in any tier of play.
With that in mind, I created a vision of what a cursed magic item should be. It all starts with a little history.
History: The Tragic Imprint
Let’s think about cursed item creation as it exists in the game world. Why would someone make a cursed item in the first place? Magical item creation is a rare skill requiring surpluses of time and resources. If you had the skill, time and resources to make a magic item, would you use it making items that harm people for no reason, or would you spend it making something awesome? Imagine going to your local forger’s gathering:
“I created the Sword of Seven Suns, a blade burning everbright. It punishes the servants of darkness with every epic swing.”
“Oh yeah? Well, I just made a sword that stabs its wielder whenever he tries to use it!”
Not really much to brag about. Let’s assume that people create magical items to serve their own purposes or for the sake of craftmanship. Bad magic items are unlikely to be crafted.
Here’s what I think. All magical items are, to varying degrees, living sentient things that lack intelligence and will. Most magic items live “to serve” their owners. Artifacts are sentient but possess intelligence and will.
The cursed magical item has picked up the traces of an owner’s will. Profound and/or traumatic events in the owner’s life have left an imprint on this weapon. The cursed item is not intelligent. It has no will. It lives to serve the imprint of that influential owner even after it has left the owner or the owner has died.
The fatal flaws of that owner have imprinted tragedy upon this item.
All of this to say: A cursed item needs a backstory. Who was the user that imprinted himself upon the blade? What tragic flaw did he have? What tragedy befell him?
Answering these questions informs the rest of the cursed item’s design from its powers and curse effects to the conditions by which a player can be released from the curse.
I’ll say it one more time: We’re not going to make magic items that outright suck. If we’re going to make an item with complications though, we need to make an item that is worthy of complications. If you make a +1 sword with complications, there is absolutely no appeal to that. Players should be enticed to keep the weapon. Mechanically the weapon needs to be stronger than a typical item of the player level.
Cursed items offer power…at a price. That’s the core philosophy to keep in mind when designing a cursed weapon. Draw them in…
…then trap them. The player will be happy to have this awesome item, and will want to use it to the exclusion of all else. When they discover the drawback of the item, the item will have already locked them in. Now the player takes some manner of penalty when he uses anything but that item. Once the item has found a user, it won’t let go. Unlike an artifact, a cursed item lacks the intelligence or will to what its wielder actually does. All it knows is what it wants…
…which it “whispers” to its wielder constantly. This is completely roleplay, with no mechanical benefits or penalties whatsoever. The cursed item isn’t strong enough to force its demand upon the character through anything but its entrapment. All it can do is call for certain behaviors, with the PC deciding whether or not to comply.
You were wondering where the actual “curse” was, weren’t you? It’s right here. The cursed item gives but takes away at similar measures. A blade grants you luck, but also gives that same luck to your most hated enemies. Cursed items have a tendency to let you down when you need them most.
Mechanically, every cursed item has a daily power that the DM can control. Think of the cursed item as a coin. The PC gets one side, and the DM gets the other. Most of the time, the coin lands for the PC, but every so often it lands for the DM. It lands heavily and can cause real pain for the PC. A cursed item’s symmetry is the part of the cursed item that will make the player consider whether they truly want to keep the item. Once they decide to rid themselves of the item, can they manage to actually rid themselves of it?
Release is what a PC needs to accomplish to actually get rid of an item. The luck blade referred to earlier might have as the terms of its release that it must be lost as a wager in game of chance. Another might require the completion of a quest that was originally failed by its user long ago.
How a player seeks release from an item is going to be tied into the history created for it. Some items are simply passed from wielder to the next, others transform into more conventional weapons, while others crumble to residuum when their desires are fulfilled.
You put all these elements together and you’ve got a cursed item that complicates the game in a way that both the DM and the players can enjoy.
I promised examples, right? First, some ground rules.
Cursed: an item with the cursed keyword have a curse effect, which is a daily effect that the DM can trigger. The curse occurs when the player chooses to activate a power on the item. After the first encounter in which a cursed item is used, the PC who used it (or the first PC who used it if multiple players used it) is consider the item’s owner.
(The owner takes a -1 penalty to attack rolls using other items based on the item’s type. A cursed weapon applies the penalty to other weapons that the owner uses, and a cursed implement applies the penalty to other implements. If the cursed item is a wondrous item, then the owner gets 1 less daily use of a wondrous item other than the cursed wondrous item.)
Whispers: Gamble compels its wielder to stop calculating and to start taking more risks. Seek thrills, embrace chaos, luck and fortune.
This broad-bladed dagger feels incredibly light in your hand. It promises fortune and thrills aplenty. Gamble is a dagger with the following properties:
Known throughout the land for his chivalry and bravery Lorry Korrum never one retreated from a confrontation. He stood at the front line of every battle to keep the young king Frey Halmond enthroned. But one man cannot be an army. The boy-king was loved by the people but did not have the force of arms to deny his challengers. Soon his enemies stood at his gates. A defender to the end, Lorry chose to stand and fight the besieging forces.
Opportunities to see Frey to safety presented themselves, but Lorry would never retreat from a righteous battle. Lorry fought valiantly, but in choosing to fight he failed his king. The usurpers killed Lorry. They tortured Frey and put him to the sword days later. Lorry realized in his dying moments the error of his pride. His need for glory and valor doomed the king and the realm. The only remains of the knight’s chivalry is his sword, wielded in battle by a hundreds of doomed protectors. Each warrior’s name is etched into the blade upon his death.
Whispers: Valor compels its wielder to fight for justice always. All wrongs can be righted with a blade. All battles worth fighting are fought with mighty and just sword arm. Only cowards retreat. The innocent must be protected at all costs.
Writ in minuscule script on the bright blade are the names of hundreds of other valiant men and women who have wielded the sword before you, urging you on to even higher acts of bravery than before.