Sunday, April 26, 2009

Give Your Cursed Items a Reason to Exist Part 4: Flawed Creations

We were going to look at terrible blessings next, but since we’re working up the ladder from mildly cursed items to the dread artifacts that consume souls and worlds, we’re not quite ready to step up to such malignant items. So this week, let’s look at flawed creations instead.

Like quirky items, flawed creations were created to be beneficial magic items. In both cases something went awry: In the case of the quirky item the defect is (relatively) minor. In the case of the flawed creation, it is more serious. (And it must be said that not much separates the two categories; the transition between one and the other is pretty fluid.)

Accidentally flawed creations are probably quite rare, for two reasons. First, accidentally cursed items are a very small subset of the items a competent mage enchants over his career. Rules for failure during magic item creation vary from system to system—or are non-existent—but in the creative spirit let’s say three percent. Thus, a remarkable mage who creates one hundred magic items in a very long career might expect maybe three to go wrong. Most mages produce far less. So fatally flawed items are rare because the failure rate is low.

Second, most mages are not eager to circulate their failures. Who wants word to get out that his magical creations have the potential to harm the user? What ethical mage could knowingly unleash a cursed item on an unsuspecting world? Most mages destroy or carefully hide their failures as soon as their flaws manifest themselves. So now they're even rarer because, of the small number produced, most are disposed of before they can hurt anyone.

In the end, of course, some flawed creations escape into the world. Items can be stolen by thieves or lost to storms or war. Hidden caches of flawed creations may be brought to light by descendants or tomb robbers. Something as simple as a lost or misread will might result in flawed creations being auctioned off in a wizard’s estate or passed on to unsuspecting relatives and colleagues.

Some mages, who after all have invested quite a bit of time and effort into creating their flawed items, may elect to sell them to recoup at least the material cost of producing them. Of course, in most cases, only the most unethical sort of wizard would essay such an action. Flawed creations disposed of in this fashion might be discovered by the characters anywhere, from tombs to citadel armories to the stock of a fencer in a major city.

But not all mages who dump their failures on the market are necessarily unscrupulous. What better way to confound one’s enemies or rivals than saddling them with a passel of cursed items? To take a Forgotten Realms example, imagine a Waterdeep mage selling a supply of flawed -1 shields to an arms merchant known to supply the Zhentarim. If this happened not long ago, the characters may acquire the shields from defeated Zhent warriors. If it has been awhile, again, they could be anywhere, perhaps in the hands or grave of someone with nothing to do with Zhentil Keep, or locked away in a strongbox in some Zhent stronghold.

And you know, this works the other way too. Mayhap there's a drow sorceress down in the underdark somewhere looking to ditch some cursed rings in the hated city of the humans, or—let's hit a little closer to home here—even an enemy of the characters who desires to slip them a present or two via an unsuspecting intermediary. (Oh, but we'll get to terrible blessings soon enough, and that's a much more promising road to travel if that's the sort of thing you want to do.)

So, having thought a bit about how flawed creations escape into the wild, let’s take a closer look at what form they might take. In many ways, this is a no-brainer: most of the “generic” cursed items we all know and love qualify as flawed creations. A survey of the tables offered in the SRD will generate many ideas for curses.

It's probably best not to get too exotic with the powers of flawed creations. In most cases the curse should have some bearing on the effect the enchanter was attempting to achieve. Most likely, he produces a version that does the opposite of what he desired. A mage creating a +1 blade or a potion of giant strength might inadvertently produce a -1 blade or a potion of weakness. This category best accounts for the majority of cursed magic items without a specific history: the 1- axes, the -2 suits of chainmail, and so on.

Cursed Items of Opposition are especially appropriate as flawed creations. The Cursed Item of Opposition is my catch-all term for the plethora of cursed braziers and chimes, pipes and scarabs to be found in various editions of the DMG that look just like similar magic items that provide some great power. I wrote a little essay not long ago theorizing on the design origins of these items, but now is our chance to make sense of them in a campaign context.

Take a look at two brooms drawn from the original DnD rules and Supplement I:
Broom of Flying: This device allows the owner to fly at Dragon speed (24"/turn). The user must know the “Word of Command” to make it function. The Broom of Flying will come up to 24" when its owner summons it with the command word. It will carry two persons but its speed is reduced by one-quarter.
Animated Broom: A broom which exactly resembles a Broom of Flying, but when such an attempt is made the broom will attack the user, beating him severely about the head and shoulders with the bald-headed end of itself. Only destruction of the broom will make such abuse cease.
Hey, even a bald-headed broom of flying rocks. What student of witchcraft or wizardry wouldn’t want one? Probably more than can safely pull off the enchantment. Thus did animated brooms (a.k.a. brooms of attack) enter the world.

You can go down the line of published cursed items and pick out many other examples: the bowl of watery death as a failed bowl commanding water elementals, a loadstone as a failed luckstone, a chime of hunger as a failed chime of opening, gauntlets of fumbling as failed gauntlets of dexterity, and so on.

Of course, equipping flawed creations with an oppositional power every single time gets a little old, so what else can we do to stir things up? Some flawed creations may actually work as designed—to a point.  The chime of hunger is an example of this type: it works as a chime of opening a couple of times before horribly malfunctioning. What are some flawed items that might make for an unhappy party should they suddenly stop working as designed? Flying carpets and wands of teleportation come to mind. Oh, yeah, teleportation. What could possibly go wrong? Remember this? I'll admit it; I had me some nightmares before Christmas in 1979.

Some items may just warp the creator's original intentions in unexpected ways. Cue the chime of hunger again. What would happen if a rod of resurrection went wrong? Nothing good, I'm pretty sure.

Why bother to decide that your dust of sneezing is a flawed creation rather than a generic cursed item? As a spur to your creativity, of course! It’s the first step in developing a backstory for the item, and this in turn spawns adventure ideas. Consider again our example of the cursed shields sent to the Zhentarim. If the ruse was discovered in Zhentil Keep, it may put into motion a retaliatory plot that draws the characters into the feud. Thus the provision of the shields form the backstory to the present adventure, which may feature nocturnal assaults on inns in Waterdeep, attempted kidnappings on the coastal highway, and perhaps the reappearance of the shields themselves in the hands of a band of thugs hired to attack the characters.

For a fully realized example of how a flawed creation forms the backdrop of an adventure, refer to the Judges Guild adventure the Corsairs of Tallibar , in which a potion created to increase the power of the corsairs instead drives them mad.

Of course, cursed items with a history can also form the basis for a quest. Suppose a wealthy collector has learned that one of Alleon’s prized Swan blades (see below) was spied being purchased in a bazaar in a far-off city by a certain slave trader, and will pay the characters a princely sum to acquire it for him. Only if they succeed do they realize that it is one of Alleon’s forgotten flawed creations and not the mighty blade that he made famous…

Next week we’ll pick up our discussion with terrible blessings. See you then!
Alleon’s Swan Blades
Alleon was reknowned for his great skill in producing elegant enchanted daggers for the nobility of his day. Most of the daggers engraved with his trademark swan emblem are priceless heirlooms still jealously guarded by the families that commissioned them. Very few have found their way into the open market, and they are highly sought-after collector’s items.

As great and careful a wizard as Alleon was, he had his share of failures. During his long career, he produced seven cursed daggers, each a result of error or imperfect craftsmanship. Unwilling to destroy his creations, he kept them in his workshop as a reminder to himself and his apprentices of the need to strive for excellence.

When Alleon neared death, he resolved to hide his failures from the world lest they find their way into the hands of an unsuspecting public. Ever the artist, he created a fitting final resting place for his wayward creations—a stout strong box constructed of oak and lined with fine green felt.

He entrusted his remaining apprentice with the task of burying the chest where no one would find it. The apprentice obediently carried out his master’s instructions, but Alleon’s gardener, who had discovered what the chest contained (but not their nature), followed the man and watched him bury the box in an isolated grove. Returning after the old man’s death, the gardener unearthed the chest, and carrying it to a large city, sold off its contents to a purveyor of fine weapons.

Over the centuries, the cursed swan blades have mingled with the genuine items, and scattered across the known world. One resides in the collection of a prominent grand duke, another lies in the watery lair of a giant turtle deep beneath the waves of immense Lake Collan. Through misadventure, most have been thankfully lost to the world. Until, of course, some enterprising adventurers come along to rediscover them.

Every swan blade, cursed or otherwise, is a gleaming jewel of a weapon, both beautiful to behold and a joy to handle. Each is finely balanced, suitable for hand combat or throwing. The blue steel blade is engraved with the mark of Alleon’s swan, and speaking his name causes the mark to glow faintly with a magical light (an effective measure against common non-magical counterfeits). Every swan blade is a unique creation, with a hilt customized to suit each client.

Even as cursed items, the swan blades are valued to certain collectors. Most can fetch a handsome sum in the right market. However, characters must consider the ethics of unleashing a cursed dagger on the world, and realize that even if they warn their buyer of the curse, such knowledge might not be passed on to the next owner. Characters of lawful alignment, particularly priests and paladins, must be extremely cautious in who they entrust such a weapon to.
Alleon’s Flawed Swan Blades. Four of Alleon’s seven cursed daggers are -1 blades and two are -2 blades. Their curse merely renders them unreliable in combat; unlike some cursed weapons, they may be freely discarded when their faults are discovered. 
Alleon’s Dagger of BackbitingThe curse on the remaining dagger is more potent, because Alleon was attempting a more ambitious project. It is a +2 throwing dagger, 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 his intended target. When the curse takes effect, the dagger twists in the hands of its wielder, automatically dealing the damage to the wielder. The curse even functions when the dagger is hurled, and in such a case the damage to the hurler is doubled.
Previous Installments
Part 2a: Another Quirky Cursed Item: Maldric’s Cloak of Flying
Part 3: Dark Gifts 

1 comment:

  1. Many systems (including D&D) have ways that characters can decrease the cost of creating magic items, but by doing so increase the chance of making a cursed item. In that respect, many cursed items can fit into this (the creator was cutting corners).

    For the sword -2, the fact that you can't get rid of it would be really beneficial on a better weapon.