Sunday, April 19, 2009

Give Your Cursed Items a Reason to Exist Part 3: Dark Gifts

Dark gifts, like quirky items, promise naught but good, but conceal drawbacks that undermine the user. Unlike quirky items, however, which are merely annoying, dark gifts ultimately seek to control the users. Terrible blessings, which we’ll cover in our next installment, are similar, but seek to destroy.

As mentioned in the first installment of this series, cursed magical items are too much of a bother creating without a specific use in mind. Who is going to spend a decade cranking out generic rings of clumsiness or boots of dancing? Cursed items created as either dark gifts or terrible blessings should have a history. Someone was highly motivated to have them made—why? Revenge? Jealousy? Ambition?

The nine rings Sauron gave to the Men of Middle Earth are undoubtedly the most famous, and probably most extreme, example of a dark gift. These precious rings confer upon their owners immense powers, but also at length corrupt them until they become slaves to the Lord of the Rings. Their maker had a very good reason for creating them.

One motivation for creating dark gifts is to provide servants or allies wondrous items that increase their utility to their master but also contain a controlling element. If you’re the evil high priest of the land, a mace of blood is an excellent way of ensuring your chief lieutenants lay the smack down while staying firmly in your court.

Or imagine a +1 sword that charms its wielder into loyalty to its maker if he doesn’t successfully save versus spells each time it kills? How about a wily dragon who has a few weapons like this tucked in her hoard, which she generously offers as the first fruits of victory to the heroes who “beat” her in some contest of skill or wits?

What would happen if such a weapon was found in some treasure pile centuries after its maker and cause vanished? Would its seduced wielder become obsessed with reviving the lost cause? Resurrecting its leader? Seeking out a contemporary group with similar aims?

There are other ways of controlling a user. How about a potion of giant strength or speed that’s addictive, or provides a temporary antidote to a poison or disease already inflicted on the target via a previous dose? An evil high priest or merchant lord may appreciate giving his honor guard an edge in combat while discouraging the freelancing ambitions of its members by letting them know that only another dose within a day or so will hold the mummy rot at bay.

A variation on the theme of positive magic items with a creator-inflicted drawback is the magic item that fuels its enchantments with the user’s life energies. The Call of Cthulhu RPG and supplements are replete with magic items that siphon off the magic points of users to enable another person to cast powerful spells. Perhaps an unscrupulous enchanter has discovered that she can take short cuts in creating a potent item by tapping into the user’s vitality. Obviously, such an item shows a callous disregard for one’s servants and allies, but to a wizard morally flawed enough to create such a monstrosity, no one matters but herself anyway.

Such an item might take the form of, say, a lens of true seeing that depresses the wearer’s intelligence by one point as long as it is worn. Or perhaps a suit of armor that when worn offers its wearer +2 protection by lowering his Constitution by 1 point. (To balance such items, you might establish a cumulative chance that the loss is permanent or that the ability score penalty increases over time.)
Thus far, we’ve discussed cursed items that the creator regards as well, cursed. But a curse is in the eye of the beholder, and if the creator considers the cursed state to be an improvement over any other, the dark gift may be provided as a boon, not a burden—however the recipient may feel about it. Fairy tales warn visitors to fairy courts and revels not to accept any food or drink offered, lest one in accepting fairy hospitality be unable to leave their realm. Fairies, of course, do not regard this as a terrible fate.

Or what of Llorio the Murthe in Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth, who plots to turn an enclave of wizards into witches to serve as her entourage? This misandrist sorceress regards such an enchantment as a singular honor, however much her ensqualmed victims might disagree while in their right minds.

Magic items that enable the user to assume the shape of an animal—perhaps a wolf or great eagle—but also carry the potential for making the change permanent if used too much or too often—are fairly common in RPGs. The user may or may not know of the danger before it makes itself known.

Certain artifacts created by, say, a centaur, dryad, or lizardman mage may turn its users into a member of its race in exchange for certain powers. Perhaps the powers the item provides can only be used by a member of that race, so the user must take on aspects of that race for the item to be effective (such items may fit better under “Dedicated Weapons,” more of which in a future installment).

Perhaps such items are the ancient remnants of a colonization effort or even provided the origin of the species: “There weren’t no such thing as harpies before the Oil of Ollander began flowing into the waters of the temple baths that ill-favored spring of long-ago…”

Or maybe they were created to “convert” specific people, but have over the centuries gone on to inflict their enchantments on others. Many fairy tales talk of men taking non-human wives (like the swan maiden), and one can readily imagine the creation of a jewel that would confer humanity on her for the sake of her lover. One can as easily imagine a jewel that makes a drow out of a human for the same reasons.

Speaking of forced conversion, where might helms of opposite alignment come from? There might be a number of such helms knocking about the world, each a remnant of a past event or power struggle. It’s easy to imagine such an item tipping the balance in some political or actual battle—in such cases the expense of creating a cursed helm may be justified by what is perceived to be at stake.

In the case of an actual war, perhaps a wizard general besieging a city feigns surrender, and plies the “victors” with weregild—among them magical helms for each of the opposing commanders… Renewing the siege with ready-made traitors commanding the enemy troops makes for a short fight!

So there are some thoughts on dark gifts. Next time we’ll take a look at their close cousins—terrible blessings. Unlike dark gifts, terrible blessings are not meant to control, but to kill—or at the very least, to betray.

But before we go, let’s put a new face on an old classic. And here’s a challenge for you: select a cursed item from any edition of the DMG and provide it with such a compelling legend that your players will be eager to find and use such an amazing artifact.

Armor of the Stone Queen
The archmage Astrophel dominated his age, and due to his thirst for conquest and capacity for cruelty had enemies without number. The greatest of his generals was the medusa Vashti—the Stone Queen. She rode at the head of her mighty army, and few could face her and live.

Indeed, most opposing troops, seized with great fear at her approach, avoided her vanguard entirely, striking out at lesser units. This greatly displeased Astrophel, who enjoyed watching his hill giants smash the statuary that littered the battlefield with their immense hammers as they marched.

One day, Vashti appeared at the front of her army clad in gleaming plate armor—adorned with glowing, writhing dragons—created by Astrophel himself. The veterans who in past battles had fled from her were filled with a righteous anger at the sight of this abomination wearing the armor of a nobleman. They charged her vanguard, filled with renewed determination and courage. As they neared, Vashti raised her helm and they fell rank after rank, petrified at the sight of her flashing eyes.

Again and again this scene repeated itself, and the legend of the Stone Queen and her infamous dragon armor grew as army after army recklessly charged her, only to fall before her fatal gaze. Bards say to this day that none so much as marked her armor with blade until the coming of the warrior king Dungeld.

It was he who at last cut down the Stone Queen and her dread master. Her legendary armor, however, survived the final battle, and was taken in victory to Dungeld’s royal city, Austerlitz. Dungeld, who had no female knights, never found a use for it, and it was lost in the sacking of the city centuries ago. It lives on in a famed sculpture in Austerlitz’s main square, which depicts the final struggle between Dungeld and the medusa, clad in her distinctive armor.

No doubt it lies in some forgotten tomb or ruin, awaiting the arrival of a lithe female warrior who can don it and discover what mighty enchantments Astrophel laid upon it to aid his champion.
Armor of the Stone Queen. This armor is similar in appearance to breastplate of command and functions as a suit of +1 full plate. However, when it is worn, the armor causes the character to take a –4 penalty to Charisma. All unfriendly characters within 300 feet have a +1 morale bonus on attack rolls against her. The effect is not noticeable to the wearer or those affected. (In other words, the wearer does not immediately notice that donning the armor is the cause of her problems, nor do foes understand the reason for the depth of their enmity.)
Previous Installments
Part 1: Give Your Cursed Items a Reason to Exist
Part 2:  Quirky Items
Part 2a: Another Quirky Cursed Item: Maldric’s Cloak of Flying


  1. I like this a lot! This series has given a lot to think about when considering the purpose of all magic items, not just the cursed variety.

  2. Glad you're enjoying it. Stay tuned, because we're nearly through the happy fun curses. The really nasty ones still lie ahead of us...