Curse With Purpose

I have been hesitant to give out Artifacts and Cursed Items to players in my Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition campaign. Artifacts have intimidated me to a certain degree since it is one more facet of the game the players and I would need to track. I did not want to add another complication to the plot of the adventure, which has admittedly gotten away from me at times during the campaign. I could also never figure out how to adequately roleplay an Artifact, although experiencing the Narrator from Bastion gave me a fantastic template to bring an Artifact to life. I did give the party an Artifact in recent months, but they have ignored it for the most part (another article for another day).

“You have my axe . . . no, really, please take the bloody thing before it kills me!”

As for Cursed Items, I have been intrigued by them since reading through examples of items curses in Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium (p. 111-115). I am hesitant to punish players, and giving a player a cursed item certainly imposes a penalty on the player receiving the item and the party because the player with the item is now less effective. In a recent interview Monte Cook discussed the dangers of avoiding all forms of punishment as a game designer and DM. In recent sessions, several factors came together to grant me to opportunity to introduce a cursed item into the campaign.

Below I detail the circumstances that led to me giving out a cursed item to the players. I discuss how I provided clues to the players that the item was not all it appeared to be and emphasis how the item  fit into the story of the campaign. I discuss how the players have handled the discovery of the cursed item and conclude with alternatives to the specific Removing An Item Curse rules listed in Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium (p. 111), which seem quite anticlimactic.

From Flavor Text Sprouts Imagination

In recent months, I have provided updates on my players’ adventures in the Shadowfell. Several sessions ago, the players finally came face-to-face with a villain by the name Timmonen they had been chasing for quite some time. The interaction did not result in combat because the players were undercover to infiltrate his organization – plus they were hopelessly outnumbered even if they wanted to start a fight! I based the character on a villain detailed in The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond Campaign Guide. On page 103, a simple sentence was the genesis of all that follows:

He continually strokes the handle of his weapon, making it clear he would like nothing more than an excuse to use it.

Flavor text, which I enjoyed and acted out during the players’ encounter with Timmonen to breathe some life into the villain. One of my players immediately latched on to this behavior in the villain and openly hypothesized that the weapon was sentient, “He’s somehow being controlled or dominated by the sword! It’s gotta be an artifact or something.” I did not have to display a poker face since I had no such plans for his weapon to be anything other than – at best – a magical sword to drop if they ever defeated him in battle. In my mind, sometimes an altar is just an altar!

The player and a few others in the group continued to talk about the encounter and the possible reasons for the NPC’s behavior of stroking his weapon (and yes, lewd jokes were also tossed around the table at his expense). I considered doing something special with the weapon to match the players’ expectations, which presented a number of interesting options. In the end, I decided that this was a perfect opportunity to introduce a cursed item into the campaign. If one wanted to get really psychoanalytic about it, then they might say it is my subconscious need to assert my authority over the players by saying, “Hey, you want to create the story? Here you go, cursed item! Leave the story to me and get on the train and ride!”

For the record, I made sure I was not introducing the cursed item for that very reason and decided that my intentions bore no unconscious malice. I did think it would be fun (for me) but I attempted to make it a memorable event for the party as well. My players and readers can be the judge of success or failure.

Dust to Dust

The party eventually had the big showdown with Timmonen, who so often stroked the handle of his weapon. They brutalized him and his henchman and took him prisoner. While searching for loot, a player analyzed his weapon to determine if it was magical; as soon as he touched it, the weapon turned to dust. The villain smirked at the party but they never asked him about the transformation of the weapon. instead, the players ascertained through Arcana checks that the dust was magical but they could not comprehend anything else about the material at the time.

After taking Timmonen as a prisoner, the party shifted gears to the next portion of their quest.  Before embarking on the next step of their adventure, they pursued a variety of leads about other plot points and attempted to study the dust that was once the villain’s weapon. They were led by a scholar to a famed alchemist, Wobet Tinkertain, who indicated he could form a new weapon of any type from the dust. Wobet warned the party he could not predict the properties of the new weapon once created and the new weapon could be unstable. The players discussed who needed a new weapon the most, and the party agreed the Dwarf Fighter, Morin, should get a new axe. Morin also happens to be an archaeologist in his backstory, so he was able to learn a bit of lore on his own about the properties of the magical dust.

I took this moment to offer a dose of metagame humor to the party:

Wobet asks you to go on a fetch quest, which you promptly complete. You return with the materials he requested and he can now work on the axe.

I typically avoid metagame language but I did not want to force the players to pursue a fetch quest to convince Wobet to work on the item. At the same time, I wanted to indicate the construction of the weapon was not something easily undertaken. And I thought it was funny. The players got a chuckle and Morin replaced his +2 Axe with a +4 Magic Weapon (Axe) Item Card and the party returned to the main plotline.

Wait, What Just Happened?

Unbeknownst to the Fighter, the newly formed magical weapon carried a curse. I once again leaned on the material in Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium and used the exquisite Backbiter Spear template (p. 112). The Item Card (pictured right) displays the trigger for the curse. As the party engaged a collection of undead at the entrance to the City of Moil, I was curious if the curse would trigger. The players were aware something was afoot because every time the Fighter attacked, I would ask, “What did you roll exactly?” The curse has a 25% chance of triggering during each attack, but it could have taken several encounters to become a part of the game.

And then – magic happened.

Morin rolled a 4 while using his Dwarven Throwers to make a ranged attack with his new shiny magic axe. I was not anticipating a ranged attack to trigger the axe but was able to improv well enough:

Morin sizes up the zombie and throws his axe. The axe slices through the air but suddenly stops as if pulled by an invisible string. The axe reverses direction and spins back into you before you have a chance to react. The blade digs deep beneath your armor.

At this point, I gave the Fighter the updated magic item card with the details of the curse. The player took the revelation in stride and it produced several memorable comments around the table. He also knew that any roll of a 1 or 2 would trigger the curse again; and sure enough, the die came up with one of those numbers just two or three rounds later. The curse triggered twice in the same encounter and the Fighter suddenly found himself bloodied and wondering just what in the Nine Hells to do about his new axe. The session ended after the conclusion of the combat, and our group will be picking up from that point this weekend.

Warforged Barbarian: What caused Morin to hit himself with his axe? Such strange Dwarf tactics.

Removing Curses

I very much realize that poor Morin is being punished by the cursed item. Every attack roll for him not only carries the anxiety of rolling low, which would result in a miss, but also has the added consequence of potentially triggering a curse that will result in him suffering damage from his own attack. The cursed item has certainly added another element to each combat and builds upon a story that the players have helped to create. But a curse must somehow be lifted so the player with the item is not punished for the entirety of the campaign.

It warrants mentioning that the players, including the fine gentleman playing Morin, have taken the cursed item in stride. They roleplayed the situation memorably at the table, and Morin certainly took a fair share of jests at his expense. Not to mention he has been tortured by his fellow adventures through email for two weeks since the last session! I am certain he is ready to remove the curse as quickly as possible.

On that note, Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium lists several methods for the removal of a curse (p. 111), although the most detailed is the method I like the least. It states:

To remove an item curse, a character must spend 1 hour in study while the cursed item is within arm’s reach. At the end of the hour, the character makes an Arcana check (hard DC of the item’s level). If the check succeeds the curse is broken, and the magic item functions normally. If the check fails, the magic of the curse lashes out, causing the character to lose a healing surge, and everyone must wait 24 hours before trying to remove the curse again using Arcana in this way.

I’m not a fan of this for several reasons. First, the story of the cursed weapon in our campaign unfolded over the course of numerous sessions, which in realtime was at least two months. To have the curse lifted – and thus the story end – with a single die roll seems extremely anticlimactic and arbitrary. Second, the removal of the curse may have nothing to do with the actions of the player with the item. In our case, the Fighter got saddled with the cursed item and could not remove the curse with an Arcana check even if he rolled a 20. To have another player come in to remove the curse – even though it creates a greater sense of teamwork – just does not feel right and seems unfufilling.

Thankfully, other options for how to remove a curse from an item are presented, and some of them are very compelling. A suggestion – and one that I plan to follow – is to assign a minor or major quest to remove the item curse. In our case, I have some idea for quests that would result in the lifting of the curse (and bestow additional benefits to the item, thus granting Morin a boon for the sessions of punishment), but I am keeping an open mind. It is very likely my players will come up with an idea or three that is more interestingly tied to the plot and their characters’ stories. By making the removal of the curse a quest, it extends the story of the item and the villain that carried it.

The players may decide to travel back to Gloomwrought to interrogate Timmonen about the weapon to learn when the curse was first triggered. Where was the weapon found? Was it always cursed? Here are just a few examples of quests that could be undertaken to ride the item of the curse:

  • An elaborate religious ceremony at a specific holy site must be performed to purge the weapon of a curse from The Raven Queen.
  • The weapon must be submerged in a subterranean pool of necrotic ooze to remove the curse, only the pool is home to a vile abomination.
  • The blood of the former holder of the weapon must be obtained to bathe and cleanse the weapon.
  • The weapon must be used to slay a specific NPC or monster to satisfy The Raven Queen for the curse to be broken.

I imagine the players will also form ideas around the table on how the curse is to be lifted. I am eager to see how the players continue to interact with the weapon – and their unfortunate Dwarf companion that now seems to hit himself every once in a while!

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

15 thoughts on “Curse With Purpose”

  1. I’m not sure if this is a tangent, but have you thought about giving magical items ‘side effects’? Kind of like the drawbacks of artifacts, but less severe. Perhaps even something that starts out as merely ‘odd’ and develops into a problem over time. That might provide the best of both worlds – the PCs get to have something that’s awesome most of the time, but that still creates some interesting problems . . .

    1. I think balancing a reward with a punishment is a great idea. In my mind, the reward was getting a weapon that is +2 better than the old weapon. The punishment is the curse, and that is something that only triggers every so often.

      For your idea, I think the benefit should be more interesting than a static bonus to attack and damage rolls. I think weapons that add more personality to the player and game are a good thing. 🙂

      1. Absolutely – otherwise it just becomes a question of balancing the modifiers.

        Much better if the ring that gives the PC a hit point every time they deliver a killing blow also causes ravens and the occasional vulture to follow the PC around and watch them as they go about their daily routines. Or, if the cloak that buffs their stealth skills after sunset also causes their eyes to turn completely black.

  2. Cursed items have a history not unlike that of traps, at least for me. I’ve always been fascinated by fiendish traps and cursed items, but they scream “BAD DESIGN!” so loudly that it took me a long time to find the resources necessary to “make them work”. I figured out traps first, and have a lot more experience with them (my favorite kind, these days, is the “incredibly deadly but very obvious” kind that acts more like a puzzle with a chance of death on failure than a trap), but my favorite resource for cursed weapons so far is from Quinn Murphy’s At-Will blog (now defunct, sadly, but still visible here: At their core, a cursed weapon or other item, I think, should be powerful enough to justify a choice to take it so it isn’t a “gotcha!” (although a -3 Mace is hilarious, it’s going to earn you some angry glares), and have a downside that’s problematic, but interesting more than crippling.

    If you somehow manage to de-curse the item you’d be left with a magnificent object beyond what a person of your power might expect to wield, but until that time to get the boon you have to put up with the give-and-take. Lots of fun, in my opinion, though I’ve yet to truly use one.

    1. Intelligent items were always my favorite… They were powerful, but their attitudes made them detrimental sometimes at inopportune moments… party has to choose.. use the power and suffer the attitudes? or ditch the item and lose the power?

    2. Hydra,

      Yes, I had the At-Will post as a link in the article already. There is great advice to be consumed there. As with most things, you don’t want to overuse any one idea. So adding a cursed item here and there can be a good thing, but if everyone in the party has a cursed item – it’ll get old quick!

      And a -3 Mace would be awful!!! I’m thinking of my poor mace-weilding Rogue and shivering. heh

  3. The best example of a cursed item in fantasy would have to be the sartan knife that attached itself to Hugh the Hand in the deathgate cycle books. Everytime he tried to dispose of it, the weapon would shapeshift and insert itself back into the story as his pipe or something and he would suddenly realize he was holding it again. The use of this kind of subtle sleigh of hand was a really cool feature. Without giving your players a talking sword, it gives the item a will and hints at intent, possibly not good. If you give the weapon a clever balance of attributes beyond + or – bonuses you can manage it much better and create a riddle for the player. Just a thought from some of my old campaigns.

    1. Thanks! Yes, I think finding a good balance between “this item is really useful” and “this item has some consequences of ownership” is the best of both worlds. If that can be weaved into the characters’s story and their goals inside the campaign, even better.

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