Cursed Items and Illusions

Here’s an idea for a topic I had the other day, not sure if they’ve come up in the past.

Cursed Items and Illusions are something that every newbie DM and even some veterans struggle with getting their arms around, and I’ve seen most people just ignore these things over my 40+ years as a DM in their games, sort of if I don’t acknowledge it then I don’t have to deal with it. Hell I was guilty of this b/c it wasn’t something I felt comfortable with for a long time. So let’s talk about them and how to help struggling DM’s get a grasp on these topics b/c they can be great fun.

Cursed Items are both an item that can give your group a wealth of role playing opportunities and be a pain in the ass. So pretty much in every edition, as far as I can remember, to Identify the item the spellcaster is supposed to touch the item (2e/3e/5e), 1e the item has to be held or worn as would be normal for the item. Identify doesn’t detect the curse, though I’m remembering something about a 1% chance to detect it, but I can’t seem to place where I picked that up at. Legend Lore is said to be able to give hints to a possible curse, again going off memory here so that may be wrong. I’ve seen many DMs over the years just use Identify or LL as a means to find the curse and just move on. Why even bother putting in a cursed item if that’s the case. I mean outside of Wish spell I don’t know of any sure-fire means of detecting a wish and who really wants to do that? I like to think of cursed items as semi-sentient so they are actively trying to hid from any detection, slipping around hiding behind other enchantments. So if you do allow Identify or LL to have a chance of detection, and I sometimes do (depends on the game and the guidelines set down in session 0), but the curse gets a save (hidden rolls of course) against being ID’d with the DC increasing with the severity of the curse/item. So you’ve ID the curse so now how do you get rid of it, in 1e, 2e, 3e and 5e remove curse breaks the enchantment (attunement) so you can throw the item away but doesn’t get rid of the curse. If the players want to remove the curse that can be an adventure hook to destroy the item, or I’ve also allowed another attempt to remove the curse with the increased DC. If the caster fails the attempt the curse has a chance to jump items and fool the caster into thinking the curse is gone. Well technically it’s gone from the original item but it has attached itself to something else in the party. So how do you handle Cursed Items in your games?

Illusions are not something that my players use a lot of, outside of the phantom noise or something like that to use as a distraction. I’m not opposed to using them but most of the players I’ve had never use the fancy, look there’s a dragon, giant, or horde of orcs coming at you. When I’ve used them against the players I typically have the giant or whatever appear. They make their saves, the ones that do save see the critter fade away into nothing or fade into a washed out shadowy ghost of itself. The ones that don’t attempt to react to the critter as normal. I don’t have a lot to add to this topic like the cursed items one, but it came to mind when I was thinking about the cursed items. There’s a ton of old Dragon articles and advice when it comes to illusions, but it might help pad out a topic on thorny subjects that can give new DMs a spot of trouble.

terry

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I like this topic idea! I’ll get this into the rotation for sure

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I agree. This is a HARD one.
I think the BEST case, in my opinion, scenario, is that the player knows and tries like hell to play that the character doesn’t. And that’s no easy task.

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A cursed item can be a game destroyer. I have run successful cursed items campaigns, but usually they were lower level and the adventure had to do with the item or curse. …“Yeah a ring and a mountain comes to mind”…
It usually takes a committed player to successfully roleplay a cursed item. It can often get in to the touchy area of player agency.
I had a player want to make a cursed item as part of his back story once. This worked of for the most part since it was his idea. On occasion I would have to ask what his sword would think of his proposed plan of actions to keep him on plot. Just little reminders, but over all he did a good job and things worked well.

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Just remembered a cursed item from a game I was actually NOT the GM for. A game where the GM rolled a helm, or shield, or armor, or something of arrow attraction. But, it DID have an AC bonus, so we absolutely used it, and that fighter would charge first, and had all the combat buffs. He meat shielded and everyone charged behind, impervious to missile weapons. It was great for casters, because all arrows and the like went straight to the fighter.

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This is my take on Cursed Items, too. Cursed Items are most interesting if there is some measure of risk/reward. Sure, the One Ring will corrupt you, but it makes you Invisible (and provides even more benefits if you are powerful enough to use them).

That’s my take on roleplaying Cursed Items, too, then. The situation takes care of itself because, once the players understand the curse, there is inherent tension—and clear-eyed understanding of its potential consequences—in its use.

I think Illusions, however, might require a bit of intrusion from the Referee. I can see my players reacting to an Illusion as inconsequentially as possible. I’d let them roleplay a bit. Then, if I wasn’t entirely satisfied with their reaction, I’d make their characters respond in a more appropriate way.

In which case we’ve probably brushed up against the topic of Trust in RPGs.

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Agreed.
Which is why I’d HOPE people would play their characters buying in ,but I sure can’t make them.

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Listening to the episode now put me in mind of a scenario from my 3e days involving a “blessed” item.

Here is the Artifact of Power. A great god, a hunter, missed his shot at a cosmic deer. His arrow landed like a meteor in the terrestrial plane. It is a “soul sucker,” receiving +1 to hit and damage for every character it kills. In the hands of the PCs (into whose hands it came) it is an atom bomb.

Such a thing should not remain in the world. Soon a Paladin comes along to an inn at which the PCs are staying. The Paladin is outside, asking the host if he has seen a certain party of adventurers.

The Rogue in the party is particularly dastardly, and she chooses to shoot this Paladin with the… well, now I call it a cursed arrow. With great relish, I, the DM, describe a holy light shining on the Paladin, lying, fallen from his horse, in a pool of his own spreading blood leaking out from around the shaft of the divine arrow in a great rent in his breastplate. The PCs see the soul of this holy warrior start to float up to this light.

Then—what’s this?—concern covers the Paladin’s spectral features. His ascension has been arrested. He looks down. Black, snaky tendrils have reached up from the arrow to bind his legs. The bonds drag him down. The heavenly beams of light start to fade. His soul is sucked into the arrow, just one more shade to join so many.

My reflection here shows a “blessed” and “cursed” item that became a driver of plot and drama. It’s one of the better “war stories” from my gaming life.

In my current campaign, I “blessed” a character with an onyx war helm of bull horns. It became clear that the helm allowed the user to see in darkness and to see magic. It also allowed him to detect auras of evil—but the character pretty quickly determined that the helm was deceiving him in this regard, identifying good or Lawful characters as Chaotic.

The PC decided to part with it, but it could have been so much fun.

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While listening to this episode, I couldn’t help but think of a larp where you play adventurers who just reached the big treasure room and inside is an ancient, powerful artefact. The artefact is portrayed by another player, who plays this intelligent object trying to learn about these heroes and who is worthy of claiming them. The artefact is clever and devious with psychic abilities to know your flaws, your fears, and your sins. It wants to leave this chamber with a person who will take it away. The catch is that this item is cursed to destroy the world BUT will grant the wielder something they truly desire or need. The game then becomes about confronting each other and trying to find a way to leave without taking the artefact.

Great episode once again!

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Item I’ve never forgotten, way back in high school. AD&D game, my 3rd or so level character found a sword (with a great backstory, all those things that make things better than a generic item) that was +2/+4, only it did 1 HP of damage to the wielder per round. Was it cursed? I mean, I COULD use a different sword. But why the hell would I??

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Great episode on Cursed Items!

I’d have to agree with @sean, nailing a character with a -1 sword as a gotcha moment is a dick move. It does nothing to add flavour to the game unless the DM can get the players to embrace the idea that removing the player characters curse is the next adventure and an opportunity for more fun.

It’s far more interesting to introduce cursed items of consequence of importance that will add value to the game and bring dramatic moments to the fore.

I ran the Breaker of Chains module in our Curse of Strahd campaign. The morally questionable wizard in the party ended up coming into possession of a dagger which was linked to a demon in the abyss. The demon began to contact the wizard while they rested, playing to their ego and corrupting them with visions of power. The player’s attitude shifted, they became more cruel and ruthless. The cleric believed it was a result of the dagger. Players got freaked out when remove curse didn’t work to remove the dagger from the player. Strahd also became interested in the item and its powers, eventually stealing it when the player was unconscious. Being physically separated from the dagger had horrible consequences. The party cleric had to cast restoration every day to prevent the wizard from losing one hit point a day permanently. And as the DM I loved the roleplaying opportunities of acting out a demon prince! It was awesome! That item created a boat load of drama for our game.

I’ve another example from a Descent to Avernus campaign. Our DM is doing a fantastic job of incorporating cursed items into it. We tracked down a shipment of hell fire weapons to be destroyed. A player started using one and he began to play his character differently as a result. His whole attitude changed from a timid tabaxi to this nasty feline. I think he and the DM were sending each other notes between sessions, discussing how the use of the items would impact the character. It led to a huge player vs player battle to get the hell fire items away from him. Again, huge in game drama. And don’t even get me started on another player who is wielding the Shield of the Hidden Lord. The communication going on between it and the player has been done right creepy! More awesomeness with inevitable consequences to come in the future! I can’t wait!

Looking forward to the next episode as always guys!

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