Sunday, April 5, 2009

Give Your Cursed Items a Reason to Exist

There have been many articles and supplements over the years encouraging the GM to endow his swords, pendants, crystal balls, and other magic items with personality and a sense of history. There have been examples galore, describing not only the wondrous powers of a talisman, but also revealing the fearsome throes of its creation, the tumultuous events surrounding its use in the hands of heroes and villains of old, and the mighty battles or stealthy betrayals in which it disappeared from the annals of history, only to reappear centuries later in a dragon’s hoard or an abbey’s library.

Well, there is no need to restrict such wonderful details to the items player characters crave. Cursed items deserve no less. In many ways, a history is even more important to explain the existence of, say, a -2 sword as opposed to a +2 sword—there are many markets for a beneficial sword, while special circumstances must no doubt attend the creation of a harmful weapon of value to few.

Consider the motivations for creating a -1 dagger. In most cases it takes just as much effort, expense and work to produce a cursed blade as a beneficial one. Who would be in such desperate need for such an unconventional and expensive weapon? Revenge? Surely there are simpler methods at the disposal of a talented mage. For money? Perhaps.

We might suppose that most mages would consider it a breach of professional ethics (or a waste of time) to dabble in such unsavory areas of their art—even evil ones probably have better things to do with their time. These factors working in tandem makes cursed items rather uncommon, and therein lies the germ of an interesting history.

This Sunday kicks off a weekly series in which we'll survey the different sorts of cursed items out there, discuss ways in which they might be customized to your campaign, and provide a few sample items along the way. Here are the categories we’ll use to approach our topic, ranked loosely in order of nastiness:
  • Quirky Items: Otherwise beneficial items that have mild or significant drawbacks.
  • Dark GiftsBeneficial items designed to exert influence or control over others—like Sauron’s Rings. 
  • Flawed CreationsBeneficial items that just went wrong during creation. Ethical mages destroy such failures. Others…?
  • Terrible Blessings: Malefic gifts, like poisoned apples and necklaces that strangle.
  • Dedicated Weapons: A sword of troll slaying isn’t so hot if you’re a troll. There are plenty of magic items out there designed to hurt humans and demi-humans, and harmful to the hated foe who attempts to use them.
  • Traps or Vehicles of Vengeance: Hellraiser puzzle boxes, anyone?
  • Crosses to Bear: Dangerous items that must be borne and guarded lest they fall into the hands of the innocent—or the corrupt. Salazar Slytherin's locket from the Harry Potter series falls into this category.
  • The Mark of Cain: Artifacts sent to the world of men by the gods to humble or punish a presumptuous or arrogant person, nation, or race.
On the menu for next Sunday: quirky items. Possibly the most fun of all cursed items for the GM, because players are constantly torn between using the item and enduring its abuse or tossing it aside...


  1. Interesting that the same -1 dagger referenced above could fit into any of those categories with the right back-story. Underscoring yet again that it's not so much the mechanics as the story that sits on top of them that matters.

  2. You make a very valid point. In truth, most magic items needs some sort of back story. In many way, I don't think I've every liked the way cursed items are handled in most RPGs.

  3. Interesting. Will be looking forward to this series.

  4. It's true that many cursed items can fit under multiple headings. The first sample cursed item for next Sunday fits equally well under Flawed Creations, but because it does provide some benefit can be placed under Quirky Items.

    One of the reasons I think cursed items lack personality is that the classics captured in DMGs of editions passed were not created on their own, but as simply new pawns in the DM versus player gamesmanship of the true Old School. You just won't see a Gong of Amazing Blessings listed without a Gong of Horrible Nastiness that looks just like the nice version. Take it right down the line, from braziers and chimes to pipes and scarabs and there's an evil clone mixed in with the goodness. You can almost see the man behind the curtain cackling as he slips another one into the horde... "So you really jumped on that periapt, eh? Let's see you you like rotting the next time you see one! Buhahahaha!"

  5. I have often wondered why anyone would go to the effort of making a -1 dagger, when a wand of fireballs with range set at zero is far more interesting.