Cursed items in tabletop role-playing games can make for some pretty shitty situations for player characters. “OH! Yeah, you’re always at minus two to hit.” That can suck. However, there are other ways to make cursed items quirky, fun, laughable yet not too obnoxious. Thanks Ahzad for the inspiration!
We’ve only had two memorable cursed items. One of those more “annoying” and the other the result of a spell fumble.
The first was a dagger. Detect Magic indicated it was very powerful. We discovered that it was sentient. We discovered that it was indestructible. We also discovered that it was “comfortable” as it was and didn’t want to actually do anything. I mean…it cut well. It had enormous power and potential. But we could never convince it to act. “Why?” “Nah. I’m comfortable.”
The second was the result of a spell fumble in Rolemaster. Our Rogue had lost his hand in a fight when he was 2nd level. He got a prosthetic hand. We had a Mage who, after a few levels, was able to animate his prosthetic so that he could use it. Since the Mage didn’t want to keep casting that spell every day, he made a whole stack of scrolls during downtimes and gave them to the Rogue so he could animate his prosthetic whenever he wanted. When making one of those rolls, the Mage fumbled. I checked, and he didn’t notice. It was months later real-time before the Rogue selected that particular scroll and cast it to animate his prosthetic hand. It animated…and proceeded to try and kill him. Now, ordinarily, this would be bad enough, but the Rogue had just coincidentally come to be the proud owner of a pair of ‘Gauntlets of Ogre Strength’. He managed to hold it at bay long enough for the Fighter to cut it from his arm…where it scuttled off into the undergrowth.
That hand followed him for the rest of the campaign, unexpectedly dropping from trees, from rafters, attacking while he slept. It became more intelligent, too, and started setting traps. I swear the group was more paranoid about that hand than the whole Order of the Dark Gods that were also after them.
I think you teased out a really good point in this podcast. The best cursed items are the one time “gotcha” items, and by one time, I mean either they do something bad up front, or they are continually bad until you break the curse.
The best cursed items are the ones that are useful and tempt you to use them, because they aren’t 100% bad. That’s essentially what The One Ring did to Bilbo and Frodo. “Sure, I’m going to claim a little bit of your soul, but don’t you want to disappear from sight at the moment?”
One of the recent ones I used in a Midgard campaign was a bone scimitar that let the user burn hit dice to do more damage, as it drank their life force. But if the sword didn’t get to draw blood often enough, it would just start sucking the life force out of it’s weilder. So the character needed to pick a fight every so often to keep it fed.
Also, as a nice twist to the 5e rules, the sword didn’t like to strike non-lethal blows, so if they wanted to take someone alive, someone else needed to do it.
Then again, the halfling ranger that ended up with it was pretty bloodthirsty, so they got along pretty well.
I think a good follow up to this discussion might be artifacts and relics . . . super powerful magic items that you don’t want the PCs to keep long term, that could do some major things to the campaign, good and bad, because of their sheer power levels. How do you use them? How do you design them for your game?
Artifacts and Relics is a topic I’ve had on my mind for a while so I think it’s time to pull it forward
something like this eh?
I can neither confirm nor deny that that particular scene my have informed my ad-hoc notes on the fumble roll…
I think what really freaked them out was that the hand was in the city where they were currently active…and that there were a number of thefts recently of magical rings. They didn’t know for sure that there was a connection, but…
Coincidentally, that same player is in my current game. He has nifty armor, no encumbrance, protects like chain, looks like reddish leather. It’s just that it drains blood to provide that protection, so he takes damage whenever he uses it. It’s not cursed…that’s just how it works. So far he’s happy with it.
First, I only recently found you guys and I have to say you have become my new favorite RPG gaming podcast. I really enjoy the show, keep up the great work.
I have been gaming on and off since the mid-80’s but never have I had to experience a cursed item. And I have never used one in a game I was running.
That said, I had an idea for my current game to put a small crystal skull in the pouch of a dead npc. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it but I thought it might be fun. After they discovered it, and the crazy goblin bard snapped it up, it occurred to me that it might be fun to make it a cursed item of some sort. I started thinking of maybe having the item level up with the characters the way many magic item systems are starting to work. So right now they are level 3 and have just found it. Not too much of a curse right now, but as they get more powerful I will have the item start to cause more problems.
I have also started entertaining the idea of making the item intelligent though also level appropriate. So right now the intelligence is kind of ‘asleep’. As the character gains levels the intelligence ‘wakes up’ more and more. No sense wasting a desire to conquer the world on a low level character who doesnt yet have the power make that happen. Ah, but as they get more powerful, NOW they become more useful.
I have slept since listening to your podcast on cursed items so I wont attempt to quote you on anything. There were some great ideas in there and I plan on re-listening to it once my characters get a few more levels and I find I need some more challenges for this item to throw at them.
I would ask one question though. Currently they dont know the item is cursed. I dont want to just tell them “oh you take a -2 to your attack because you have the cursed item”. Any thoughts on how best to reveal this to the character holding the skull in her backpack?
Thanks again for your great show.
Hey Mr. Underhill!
Yeah, I’d play with the idea of the skull waking up and coming to life slowly. When the goblin attacks or does a skill check that would usually be a success, but now suddenly isn’t due to the curse, I’d explain how they hear a weird clacking sound. Don’t identify where it’s coming from. Basically, the teeth are banging together in the pack, the sound is muffled, something like that. The player won’t know where it’s coming from. Keep playing off that. Have that repeat anytime they miss the roll due to the -2 on the curse.
Eventually, they may suspect the skull. I would keep the skull dormant initially. Sure they detect magic on it but it doesn’t do anything until the player reaches a certain level. Then the skull becomes more animated. Now it starts to talk. Maybe it even flies around the goblins head, annoying the heck out him! The curse gets worse! That would make for some good rping!
Hmm, this actually reminded me of another “item” found by one of my old D&D group but it was actually more of a creature. They found a gear spirit (from Planescape, basically an animated object like a key that could manipulate locks) in an underwater dungeon. When they picked up a rusty old padlock, it turned out to have a face on it and began to talk. Because there were no rogues in the party and learned this thing could literally open doors for them, they brought it with them.
Looking back on it, that gear spirit was a kind of cursed item for fun reasons. First, it’s name was Useless. It’s full name was Useless Piece of Shit because it’s former master HATED this thing because it would… not… shut… up. Whenever it would talk, I would stand up and do a very loud and annoying John Cleese impression… for about two minutes. He wasn’t intelligent so much as verbally spewing anything he thought was relevant to the topic at hand. While the players got a kick out of him, the characters were very annoyed and dreaded needing its help. If they wouldn’t use him for a while, I’d have Useless pout or sometimes cry because he thought they were better than his old master. That gear spirit could lay on the guilt trip.
When a pit fiend threw Useless into molten lava and destroyed him, the party was PISSED. Swore revenge and one player literally swore at the table they would die to avenge Useless. Great times.
Thanks for the kind words and glad you like the show!
I’ve often secretly apply the -2 after the PC rolls. They roll a total of 17, which would hit the AC 16 creature, but it misses because of the -2.
Instead of pissing the player off with “you miss” and answering the “WTF? Why? Bob hit with a 15!” with a “You just do.” I use language like this:
Me - “You feel like something is tugging at your sword arm, dragging it down and making the swings less effective.”
Player - “What? Where’s the coming from? Did someone cast a spell on me? Do I get a save?”
Me - “You can’t tell, but you’re certain no one cast a spell on you.”
Me - “That dragging, tugging on your weapon arm is there again and you miss. It feels like someone behind you, tapping the back of your mind, making your reflexes slower than usual.”
Stuff like that. I like to use phrases that are linked to the source of the curse e.g. confusing your mind, brain feels like it’s swelling, invasive thoughts, distracting headache, etc - These are clues to the source of the curse.
My favorite cursed item was one that my players couldn’t do without.
They were a low-level party in 1E, and between the five of them had only one magic weapon, a cursed +2 sword.
When they first used it, the PC heard the sword whisper “Wielder’s Bane” when they hit and took the damage instead of the opponent.
They learned that curse would activate whenever the sword switched users or after the next new moon.
Their first encounter that required a magic weapon to hit was epic. The wielder went down during combat and the rest of the party argued over who would pick it up since their attacks were not damaging the monsters. The thief grabbed it and rolled max damage on his first hit, taking himself down. The players continued to fight over who had to use it as party members dropped as fast as their cleric could bring them back.