Saturday, May 2, 2009

Give Your Cursed Items a Reason to Exist Part 5: Terrible Blessings

The cursed items we have discussed thus far are not entirely irredeemable. Quirky items present some drawback to using an otherwise useful item, while dark gifts seek to exert a hold on the users while imparting some advantage. Flawed items are messed up, but they weren’t meant to be.

Terrible blessings have no such excuses—they are meant to betray and destroy. To accept such a malefic boon means the end of your life as you have known it, whether you know it or not.

We enter at last the realm of the true cursed item, and it is well-trod ground indeed. It’s becoming a refrain, but it’s worth restating: cursed items always have a story behind them. And in this installment, many of those stories originate in Hollywood.

Do you remember what you were doing when you first witnessed a cursed item being created by a powerful mage? Playing D&D? Reading The Fellowship of the Ring? Naw, before that. Unless you grew up in Tibet, I know exactly what you were doing: watching Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs:
“One taste of the poisoned apple, and the victim’s eyes will close forever in the Sleeping Death…”
These are the first words of the Sleeping Death spell as cast by the evil queen, and the deadly apple that resulted is a terrible blessing if there ever was one.

Snow White presents another fairy tale meme we might appropriate for terrible blessings—that the agent of doom is presented as a gift by someone thought to be a friend. In this case, the queen in her disguise as a harmless market woman presents the poisoned apple to Snow White as a wishing apple that will bring the consumer her heart’s desire (last year’s Enchanted used a similar trick with a magic well). Keep this meme in mind when concocting a suitable tragic origin story for a terribly blessed item you intend to unleash on the characters.

The story of "Snow White" is a widespread tale with many cultural variations, and the curses don't end with apples. “Myrsinathe”, the Greek version, features a poisoned ring that inflicts a living death. Then there’s “Giriococcola ”, the Italian version:
"But the sisters and the astrologer weren't about to give up! Here came the woman with an embroidered gown for sale, the most beautiful gown you ever saw. Giricoccola was so charmed with it that she had to try it on, and the minute she did, she became a statue."
Don’t neglect petrification as a curse effect. Because it doesn’t appear in the SRD rules set, your players may not be looking for it.

While we’re on the topic of fairy tales, Sleeping Beauty introduces an interesting variation: the curse that would be much worse but for the intervention of a friendly agent who provides partial relief. Recall that the evil fairy’s curse was that Sleeping Beauty would die when she pricked her finger on a spinning wheel. One of the friendly fairies modifies the sentence of death into one of, well, sleeping death. She also thoughtfully places everyone in the castle under the same curse and protects the castle with an impenetrable hedge it until the curse could be lifted.

We can apply a similar concept in our fantasy campaigns. Consider the possibilities of a cursed crown forged by an evil regent who does not relish relinquishing authority when the young crown prince comes of age. While the crown is supposed to slay the lad outright during the coronation, the court wizard has just enough time during the ceremony to evoke a limited wish that changes the nature of the curse. Perhaps, in keeping with the above examples, it causes the prince to fall into a deep sleep until the curse can be undone. Alternatively, it polymorphs him into a shape that enables him to escape the immediate danger, or one that negates his claim to the throne (a child, orc, pixie, whatever)—neatly preserving his life while removing the threat to the regent. In any case, the crown might still be around, its modified curse intact, for characters to dig up in their adventures and try on.

As suggested above, the terrible blessing often takes the form of a gift that conforms to the target’s interests. This isn't to be wondered at: one’s guard is down when being presented a charming present by a trusted figure. Witness the fate of the Sultan of Basra in the Thief of Bagdad, a foolish ruler with a passion for magic puppets. When the traitorous Jaffar offers him the Silver Maid, a marvelous mechanical girl, the sultan is transported with joy. He is soon thereafter transported to paradise when his new magical toy plunges a stiletto into his neck.
The venerable Necklace of Strangulation seems a likely candidate for a terrible gift. Was it a key element in an assassination attempt against a wary merchant lord? The present of a jealous queen to her husband’s lover? The heirloom of a legendary dynasty of spymasters, passed down from father to son as a precious tool of the trade?

The old bait and switch is another popular terrible blessing, as Donovan discovers when he drinks from the false Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He didn’t get eternal life as promised, that’s for sure.

Let’s cook up a bait and switch backstory for a common cursed item. Perhaps the ambitious younger brother of the king commissions his mage to fashion a duplicate of the king’s heirloom bracers, and the unsuspecting liege rides out to battle wearing what we might know as bracers of defenselessness or gauntlets of fumbling. A switch back to the proper items when the king’s fallen body returns to the castle and the regicide is chalked up to a bad moment in battle. Meanwhile, what becomes of the cursed items? Two hundred years later they might be discovered in a forgotten chest by the younger brother’s descendant, worn into the Dark Doom Wars, and wind up in a night hag’s hoard awaiting the arrival of our heroes.

Thus far, our examples have centered on rulers and various relatives, but terrible blessings don’t have to be political. There is a more base reason for creating terrible blessings: protection. While there are many ways to protect, say, a manse, temple, or royal tomb, this special form of protection beguiles the intruder or attacker before striking.

Imagine a fine painting of a ship tossed in a stormy sea hanging in a wealthy merchant’s study. Thieves breaking in to ransack the place are drawn by its artistry and gleaming gold frame. If they touch it, they are drawn into the painting and trapped there. (Yes, I steal from C.S. Lewis, and with pride.)

How about a collection of five enchanted daggers of incredible design that teleport themselves and their thieving bearers into the locked basement of a warehouse owned by the daggers’ rightful owner a few hours or days after they are stolen. That might make for an interesting turn if the daggers are discovered by the characters centuries later and a thousand miles away from the basement—which is buried under lava rock!

Or… ever seen the splatter flick Hostel? Say you have this ring of decadent nobles who get their kicks torturing arrogant adventurers, or making them fight one another. So, same daggers, same basement in the same warehouse, only the daggers are out there as bait, waiting for the right greedy fool to come along and grab ’em. That could be the start of an interesting adventure.

What about those scarabs of death ? Great tomb guardians. I think we’ve all seen The Mummy and know what a couple dozen of those buggers can do. And I can imagine a dragon placing one or two rings or helms of contrariness in choice spots on her hoard as her last revenge against foes who kill her and explore her piles of treasure. It's really hard to split an immensely valuable haul peaceably when folks are busy being violently contrary!

Well, we’ve barely scratched the surface, but this is getting rather long, so let’s wind it up here and brace for next week, when we meet crusading lances, macabre masks, and singing harps. That is to say, Dedicated Weapons. The problem with some of them is that they have wills of their own…
Gelia’s Tears
Gelia’s Tears is an extremely valuable necklace fashioned from high-grade silver and large diamonds. It was originally the heirloom of the ruling House Leomonde, by tradition passed down from the crown mother to the king’s new wife on the wedding day.

It was last received with joy by Princess Gelia, who came from a southern kingdom known for its cypress forests, ziggurats, and blood magic to cement an alliance with King Meda of Leomonde. Queen Gelia wore it happily for several years, until the dark whispers began—she had yet to produce an heir.

As more years passed, the whispers grew louder. The queen, who loved her husband, refused to take a lover, which might have resolved the issue. At last, when the talk turned to replacing Medas with a rival brother who had a ready heir, the king reluctantly ordered his wife sealed alive in her quarters until death took her.

It took her two weeks to die, and long did she cry and curse her faithless husband and whatever broodmare might have the misfortune to join with him. When the servants unsealed her apartments, they found her sprawled on the floor at the center of a great circle of mystical symbols written in blood. She was wearing only her necklace.

The king took a new wife, and when the necklace was placed on her neck on her wedding day she asked if anyone else could hear the faint strains of a lullaby. None could. She bled to death a few weeks later.

Necklace or no necklace, no Leomonde male or female ever produced an heir again. The family ceased to exist a few short decades later.

As for Gelia’s Tears, it claimed a few more victims before being cast aside in fear. Before it vanished from history, it reappeared one last time, when a certain skilled jeweler was pressed by his noble sponsor to remove the previous stones. It is said that upon removing the first stone, the jeweler heard his wife’s wail. Their two babies lay dead in their crib…
Gelia’s Tears. This cursed necklace has lost some of its potency since its creation, but is still destined to break the heart of any man or woman who wears it. When first worn, the faint strains of a lullaby from the victim's own childhood can be heard as the curse takes effect. The necklace can be removed and put on as desired and no further harm will come to the wearer. But the damage is done—the cursed individual is forever barren or impotent. Only a limited wish or remove curse spell can restore him or her to health.


  1. The generic remove curse is a bit bland - finding, readying and applying the cure of a curse could be an adventure in itself.

  2. Good point. I agree—if remove curse is a spell available just anywhere. I might rule that knowing something of the item's origin and creator might be necessary before the spell will work. That brings into play its history and the need to do some adventuring.

    My last article in the series is going to be on using curses in the campaign, and that sounds like a good point to address. Cheers!

  3. Boots of dancing are another interesting one. Since they act like another kind of boot outside of combat (and cost less than the most expensive kinds of magic boots), they're actually pretty useful.

    It's easy to imagine a wizard showing off his floating castle by giving his guests some teleporty boots to see for themselves. If they decide not to return them, though...