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D&D Alumni: Cursed Items
D&D Alumni
Bart Carroll

W hen touring through Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium, you'll have a pleasant surprise when you see the array of magical goodies awaiting you inside. Here's a bin of Ioun stones. Over there are the wands of wonder. And who couldn't use a robe of useful items? Along the back row, however, you might come across a few trinkets of questionable manufacture and almost certain regret. We refer, of course, to cursed items.

Cursed items have been reengineered as properties that a Dungeon Master can use to booby trap a found item. You might wonder why a miscreant DM would ever dare inflict intentional harm upon dearly beloved players, though.

Of course, that's the thankless job of the DM. A DM inflicts harm all the time on players in the form of monsters, traps, and tricks. Cursed items falls into the category of tricks, and when used properly, they can instill a further sense of danger into the campaign for the players to discover and overcome, which is really the true goal of the DM, after all. As Mordenkainen's instructs:

Cursed items should never be placed maliciously in a game or treated simply as a way to thwart the players. Such items can be a useful tool for the Dungeon Master, leading to interesting roleplaying opportunities and adventure hooks.

And, as written in the 3.5 Dungeon Master's Guide:

Some DMs decide not to use cursed items because they complicate the discovery process, since all the players are nervous about having their characters try to use newly found items. Other DMs include them for a variation of the same reason: Discovering new items becomes more exciting, because there's always a minor hint of danger.

In today's D&D Alumni, we look back at cursed items in the game: where they came from and how they've evolved. And at the end, we'll also take a brief look at one more section from Mordenkainen's: hirelings and henchmen.



An Extremely Brief History of Cursed Items

We've stated in the past how many of the game's magic items have their roots in myth, legend, and folklore. Cursed items are no different. As long as stories about magic and magic items have existed, so too have people told cautionary tales of treasures not being what they seem, of being careful what you wish for, and of powerful items being misused by careless owners to their owners' detriment and occasional death.

Perhaps the most commonly known cursed item, or at least of magic gone awry, is the animated broom for The Sorcerer's Apprentice. And when it comes to wayward wishes, the best-known item is certainly the monkey's paw. (Of course, wishes in general have always been a potentially treacherous thing—just ask King Midas—a danger that D&D has embraced.) Other famous cursed items include Elric's sword, Stormbringer, which must feed on the souls it slays; the one ring and the palantir in The Lord of the Rings; the puzzle box in Hellraiser; and, I would argue, Mogwai, the cute version of gremlins, until its rules were (as expected) broken. (Have we forgotten an obvious item? Let us know.

Because D&D is not averse to plundering the legends of the world for its magic items, it was inevitable that cursed items found their way into the mix. But how have they been implemented?
Bringing Curses into the Game

Bringing Curses into the Game

Cursed items were always only one aspect of curses in the game. Curse and bestow curse were both clerical spells, with bestow curse allowing casters to devise their own effects (consulting the DM, of course); the witch nonplayer character class from Dragon #20 can also inflict curses through spell and candle magic. Thus clerics had extensive use for their remove curse spell against these curses and also against lycanthropy, alignment change, insanity, and cursed items.

Often, cursed magic items mirrored useful items (the bowl of watery death for the bowl of commanding water elementals, bracers of defenselessness for bracers of defense, the chime of hunger for the chime of opening, and on and on), so much so that it seemed like every magic item had its goateed, evil-twin counterpart.

As has been discussed, past editions had a stronger predilection for instant death traps and gotcha moments; cursed items certainly played into this style. Take the cloak of poisonousness from the 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide: woolen or leathern, the thing radiated magic; curious players eager to try out a new cloak of protection, elvenkind, or even manta ray would don the item and instantly be stricken stone dead. What looked like a bag of holding would attempt to devour you once you reached inside it. Or just take a look at the description and effects of cursed scrolls:

It is incumbent upon the Dungeon Master to do his utmost to convince players that a cursed scroll should be read. This is to be accomplished through duplicity, coercion and threat, etc. -- i.e., any scroll not read has a chance of fading in normal air, but this can be noted by the archaic wording if read in the still dungeon atmosphere.

A curse takes effect immediately; suggested curses are:

01-25 -- Reader polymorphed to monster of equal level which attacks any creatures nearby
26-30 -- Reader turned to liquid and drains away
31-40 -- Reader and all within 20' radius transported 200 to 1,200 miles in a random direction
41-50 -- Reader and all in 20' radius transported to another planet, plane or continuum
51-75 -- Disease fatal to reader in 2-8 turns unless cured
76-90 -- Explosive runes
91-99 -- Magic item nearby is "de-magicked"
00 -- Randomly rolled spell affects reader at 12th level of magic-use

Cursed items that instantly slaughtered their owner could be detected by a method of trial and error (in many cases, this is where henchmen came into play; see below). It's this concept of turning on the owner at the least opportune time that made cursed items such a true bane.

Take the aforementioned chime of hunger. The Dungeon Master's Guide recommended that it operate correctly as a chime of opening for several uses before its true nature became known; thereafter, when struck, all creatures in its aura would turn ravenously hungry and tear into the rations. That was comical enough, except that any creatures in the area without food would also rush to the chime to eat anyone there. Likewise, bracers of defenselessness appeared to function as bracers of defense until a dangerous opponent attacked the wearer. At that point, the wearer was stripped of all defenses, including those provided by the bracers and other sources. The same with boots of dancing, stones of weight, plate mail of vulnerability, and so on. Players were glad to have these items until they were needed. At that point, an item's true nature was revealed.

So, these items that appeared to work as expected had descriptions that carefully explained that their cursed nature would reveal itself only in actual and dangerous situations (simple trial and error would not detect them). At that point, the DM had to remember to spring the curse and do so in a way that allowed players to realize that something was afoot. This manner of using items differed from cursed items that provided only negative value behind the scenes, such as -2 cursed swords, which was a penalty only the DM tracked. In this latter case, the player had a hard time recognizing that a character was wielding a cursed item unless he or she had memorized each creature's Armor Class—not an impossible task, granted, but difficult.

The Evolution of Curses

The 2nd Edition Dungeon Master's Guide further tied cursed items to the crafting of magic items. A failure in crafting could result in a cursed item that appeared beneficial until—you guessed it—an inopportune time. Intentionally cursed items were still factored into the treasure assortment, including cursed scrolls (now with decidedly less outright deadly effects):

  • Bad luck (-1 on attacks and saving throws).
  • The character's beard grown 1" per minute.
  • The character is teleported away from the rest of the party.
  • Random monster appears and attacks.
  • The character is polymorphed into a mouse.
  • The character shrinks to half his normal size.
  • The character is stricken with weakness, halving his Strength score.
  • The character falls into a deep sleep from which he can't be roused.
  • The character develops an uncontrollable appetite.
  • The character must always talk in rhyme (preventing spellcasting).
  • The character is blinded or deafened.
  • The character is stricken with cowardice and must make a morale check every time a monster is encountered.
  • The character's alignment is changed.
  • The character suffers 2-6 points of damage.
  • The character suffers amnesia.
  • The character feels compelled to give away all of his belongings.
  • The character must save vs. paralyzation or petrification.

A mitigated look at curses also appeared around this time in the pages of Dragon magazine. As Tom Holsinger and Candy Peterson wrote in Dragon #34:

We have long disagreed with the premise of cursed magic items. Making a magic item is time-consuming enough as it is without going to the extra trouble of deliberately fashioning cursed items. The occasional cursed scroll is a reasonable means of discouraging thieves from rummaging in a wizard's library, as is the inclusion of a few vials of poison in the potion locker. But cursed swords, delusion rings and the like are just too much.

So we propose that all magic items do exactly what they are supposed to do, but sometimes they do other things as well.

They followed with a list of these other things as well, including quirks (the affected character's touch might kill plants or rot wood; they might develop foot problems or an aversion to bathing; they could be mistaken for other people or celebrities; or they could become hero-worshiped by young fans), as well as minor and full curses.

In Dragon #77, no less a personage then Ed Greenwood offered "Twenty Good Ideas for Bad Tidings," with the introduction that:

(S)ome of the curses suggested in the rules are more grim than exciting (cf. bestow curse spell description), and many others, such as those suggested for cursed scrolls and the flask of curses, are a mite too powerful for low-level characters, tending to be instantly fatal or having long-lasting effects on play. Here are some suggested curses of lesser power, for DMs who wish to be relatively fair and want to continue to be tolerated by their players...

Examples of his curses were not meant to be lethal, but hindrances and obstacles (and likely memorable ones at that) deployed against a curse-suffering player and, by extension, the rest of his or her party:

  • Most valuable magic item(s) of party (DM's choice as to which and how many) teleport away. These items should not travel far, and their new location—in the same dungeon, or perhaps in a nearby but unexplored area—should be revealed in hazy visions to characters employing augury, etc. A locate object spell would have its usual effect.
  • All drawn or held weapons are snatched from every character's grasp and levitate upward to the ceiling (if no ceiling, continue upward for 100 feet or more, at the DM's option), remaining aloft there for 1-4 turns. If a creature is hit by a falling weapon, the item should do considerable damage (5d6 base suggested, more if falling from a great height; those who save vs. dexterity on d20 by rolling their dexterity or less take no damage).
  • Reverse gravity takes effect on curse recipient (one character), lasting for 2 rounds, with attendant injury (1d6 per 10 feet fallen) unless fall avoided.

By 3rd Edition, cursed items were suggested to be 5% of all treasure, with the Dungeon Master's Guide providing a separate category for them (as opposed to listing them alongside other magic items). Especially useful were the expanded categories of curses offered. Yes, items caused the opposite effect as desired, but new curses also included items that intermittently functioned (kind of like the Millennium Falcon's hyperdrive) or functioned only in certain situations. Other cursed items had drawbacks or requirements (harkening back to the side effects of 1st Edition's artifacts), which added a further roleplaying element to these items beyond finding out they were cursed and then figuring out how to get rid of them. As the 3E Dungeon Master's Guide stated:

Items with requirements and drawbacks force players to make difficult decisions, which makes for interesting roleplaying opportunities: "Do I want the backbiter spear, even though it occasionally attacks me?"

And Here We Are, Today

And here we come to the cursed items in 4th Edition. A shift in how magic items are presented in D&D have caused them to become more openly selected by the players, which makes the introduction of cursed items a more difficult task for the DM. In Mordenkainen's it can be done. As before, certain cursed items appear useful until such times that certain conditions are met (with the DM safeguarding that knowledge). Since we just mentioned the backbiter spear, here's how it plays out in the Magnificent Emporium:


As Mordenkainen's states, "any of the curses described here can be used 'off the shelf' or as inspiration for others of the DM's devising." Depending on your style of play, you might make them even more or less dangerous. And in the spirit of presenting more options, you might look toward implementing requirements from the 3rd Edition Dungeon Master's Guide, which we present for your use.

Requirements:

  • Character must eat twice as much as normal.
  • Character must sleep twice as much as normal.
  • Character must undergo a specific quest (one time only, and then item functions normally thereafter).
  • Character must sacrifice (destroy) 100 gp worth of valuables per day.
  • Character must sacrifice (destroy) 2,000 gp worth of magic items each week.
  • Character must swear fealty to a particular noble or his family.
  • Character must discard all other magic items.
  • Character must worship a particular deity.
  • Character must change her name to a specific name. (The item only works for characters of that name.)
  • Character must add a specific class at the next opportunity if not of that class already.
  • Character must be trained in a particular skill.
  • Character must sacrifice some part of her life energy (2 points of Constitution) one time. If the character gets the Constitution points back, the item ceases functioning. (The item does not cease functioning if the character receives a Constitution increase caused by level gain, a wish, or the use of a magic item.)
  • Item must be cleansed with holy water each day.
  • Item must be used to kill a living creature each day.
  • Item must be bathed in volcanic lava once per month.
  • Item must be used at least once a day, or it won't function again for its current possessor.
  • Item must draw blood when wielded (weapons only). It can't be put away or exchanged for another weapon until it has scored a hit.
  • Item must have a particular spell cast upon it each day (such as bless, atonement, or animate objects).

Henchmen

The original title of this article was going to be "Cursed Items and Henchmen," which would have led to an Eats, Shoots & Leaves-type of situation. The items are cursed, not the henchmen. Or are they? Hirelings and henchmen traditionally have been a needed (and often abused) component of any party hoping to walk a dungeon's corridors, open its doors and chests, and try out its magic (see Nodwick) safely.

We've written about hirelings and henchmen in the past, and now they too have returned to Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium to help aid and assist your party in all its endeavors. So as a final note, we took a quick survey of your favorite henchmen from various sources, and ask for your vote on your favorite:

 Which is your favorite henchman?  
Alfred (Batman)
Samwise Gamgee (Frodo)
Igor (Dr. Frankenstein)
Sancho Panza (Don Quixote)
Harley Quinn (the Joker)
Pinky (the Brain)
Mini-Me (Dr. Evil)
Smithers (Mr. Burns)
H.E.L.P.eR. (Rusty Venture)
Little Helper (Gyro Gearloose)
None of the above (someone else I've nominated in the comments field)

Bart Carroll
Bart Carroll has been a part of Wizards of the Coast since 2004, and a D&D player since 1980 (and has fond memories of coloring the illustrations in his 1st Edition Monster Manual). He currently works as producer for the D&D website. You can find him on Twitter (@bart_carroll) and at bartjcarroll.com.
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