How To Design Cunning Cursed Items
From Christopher Sniezak
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #669
Most cursed items range from lame to frustrating. They’re a hindrance difficult to remove and they make a character less enjoyable to play. When I’ve encountered cursed items that worked the GM had a plan for the item. It wasn’t a one-off joke or something they just dropped into the game. You can follow some simple steps to get great results out of cursed items in your game:
- Description: What does the item look like and what makes it appear unusual?
- The Hook: Why does the character to want it?
- Its Usefulness: How can you make it valuable early in the game so it’s a keeper?
- An Uncomfortable Situation: How does the item make the character uncomfortable?
- There’s Something Wrong: What’s wrong with the item?
- The Story: What is the item’s story and how does the character learn about it?
Breaking Down the Steps
A cursed item is almost always a magic item and there’s nothing worse than a magic item without a little bit of character. An engraving on a sword, a ring with soft moonlight glow, or a swirling red gem on the end of a rod. Choose one detail to make the item stand out from its mundane counterparts.
Use mechanics or narrative to make characters desire the cursed item. Think about each of your players for a moment and decide whether they are more numbers or story oriented. If you’re not sure, listen to how they talk and think the game. Numbers players will spend more time out of character, they’ll look at the rulebooks a lot, and they’ll be analytical. Story players will be in-character often, see and play the game through character actions instead of the numbers, and ask you questions in terms of character perceptions and thoughts.
So, depending on the player, you might have better luck with a +2 flaming longsword for a mechanics player versus a long-lost family heirloom for a narrative player.
Here are a few hooks for inspiration:
- The item is needed to accomplish a task.
- The item is desired by others who would go to lengths to acquire it.
- A loved one bequeathed the item to the character.
- Stories of greatness surround those who have possessed the item in the past.
- The item’s power saves the character.
A cursed item needs to be useful to the character to build a sense of attachment to the item. Create a situation that takes advantage of the cursed item’s useful powers as soon as possible. If the item lets a character fly, for example, break out a cliff or archers in a tower.
An Uncomfortable Situation
The uncomfortable situation foreshadows the next step. In a pinch this step can be skipped, but doing so will decrease the payoff created by the reveal of the item’s cursed nature. This isn’t a mechanical tool but a storytelling one. It keeps the internal logic of your game alive. By warning the player you avoid the appearance of being the bastard GM hitting the player with the punishment stick.
So how do you create an uncomfortable situation? Here are a few ideas:
- A subtle cosmetic change to the character: A bump or rash on the skin, a slight changing of eye color, a skin tone change, or blackening of nails.
- A change to the item that could be interpreted as sinister: The sheen on a bladed weapon reddens with a kill, a helmet emits a moan when the moon rises, or the ring becomes warm when dark magic is employed around it.
- A passive change to the character: Dreams and nightmares about doing things the character wouldn’t normally do, a realization the item isn’t ever far from them, or a whisper or audible tick they didn’t have before.
Whatever you choose, avoid beating the uncomfortable situation to death.
There’s Something Wrong
Take the uncomfortable situation and push it into the open. The trick with this is to make sure the things you seeded in the uncomfortable situation connect to the reveal of something being wrong. This fulfills the payoff of the foreshadowing work done earlier. If the ring’s bearer dreamt of committing grisly murders, then have them awaken with blood-covered hands and no memory of the night before.
The character will need to uncover the history of the item to remove its curse. The story should answer:
- Where did the curse come from?
- How does the curse work?
- Who was involved with this curse that the stories have persisted?
- What are the ways the PCs can find out this information?
- How can the curse be removed?
Let’s apply this method to a couple of cursed items: The Reality Eraser and The Murderous Blade.
The Reality Eraser
- Description: The Reality Eraser is a white gold ring with an inner luminescence. When worn it feels like it’s not even there.
- The Hook: Mechanics option: It radiates strong magic. Narrative option: Locate someone in a PC’s backstory to bequeath the ring to them.
- Its Usefulness: When the wearer is attacked and would be struck down the ring flashes with a blinding white light. This causes the attack to miss and the attacker to be unable to perceive the wearer.
- An Uncomfortable Situation: At some point after the ring has been used the wearer’s skin starts to become pale.
- There’s Something Wrong: After multiple uses the wearer’s body becomes translucent.
- The Story: The ring is a way to step into the next reality. The beings who created everything left it here for those who were brave or wise enough to move on to a higher existence. There are stories of people who’ve had the ring bonded to them and survived the experience. Finding one of these people is the key because the stories of how they survived all involve their death. To remove the curse you need to die by your own hand and then be brought back to life. For example, the PC drowns himself and gets resuscitated. Death is the end of this reality and breaks the bond with the ring.
- Mechanical Components: The ring activates when the wearer is about to be rendered unconscious or killed. When it activates, the attack that would have taken the character down misses and the attacker no longer perceives the wearer of the ring in this reality. Nothing, not true sight or any other ability, can allow the attacker to perceive the ring wearer.
The ring bonds to one person. It starts to remove the individual bonded to it from reality every time the ring’s power is triggered. Seven times and the ring bearer vanishes from reality.
If the ring is destroyed or removed it reappears on the bonded person’s finger within the hour.
The Murderous Blade
- Description: This short sword has a red sheen to its blade but is otherwise unremarkable.
- The Hook: It’s an enchanted short sword that deals extra damage when used to attack from stealth.
- Its Usefulness: Provide a tough enemy for the character to dispatch from ambush to demonstrate the sword’s power.
An Uncomfortable Situation:
- When the bearer kills with the sword the red sheen on the metal becomes a deeper shade of red.
- It looks like the sheen of the blade is always a darker red when in cities and highly populated areas.
- The bearer dreams of killing people they’ve never seen before.
- There’s Something Wrong: The bearer is getting dressed for the day and finds a piece of unworn clothing with blood spattered on it.
- The Story: The murderous blade was once part of a set of magic swords that belonged to a courageous and well-loved knight. This knight had a brother who was less loved by the people and was quite jealous of the knight’s fame. The brother snuck into the knight’s tent one evening to take the swords and become the hero the knight was. The knight caught him in the act and spoke to him.
He told his brother there was a burden to carry the swords, a responsibility, and a hardship, one he didn’t wish on his brother. The brother ignored him, yelled at him, and attacked. The knight’s longsword shattered. He was slain by the short sword and his brother fled into the night. The story is well-known among peasant folk in the area.
Anyone who carries the Murderous Blade will be driven to kill when they sleep. The blade starts with strangers and eventually builds up to put people near the character in danger. The legend says the longsword of the knight was re-forged. Only by touching the short sword to the longsword and wishing to be rid of it can lift the curse.
Mechanical Components: The sword is a +3 short sword or whatever the equivalent of a magic blade is in the game you’re playing and it deals 3d6 extra damage when backstabbing or some equivalent number of extra damage when striking from surprise.
The first kill with the weapon bonds it to the wielder. Once bonded the weapon returns to its wielder as they lay down to sleep if it is lost or destroyed. It has a will of its own. As soon as the bonded wielder is asleep the will of the Murderous Blade seeks to slate its unquenchable thirst. If the blade is starved of blood it will soon interfere with the wielder while they are awake. After two days without killing anyone while asleep the wielder has a 10% chance at the start of combat to attack the nearest neutral or friendly target.
Quick Curse Generator
Here’s a Mad Lib and generator to help get your creative juices flowing. Remember, the chart and mad libs won’t make the cursed items for you but can point you in the right direction to get started. These are inspirational ideas to help you make cursed items for your campaigns:
The Family Heirloom
The [ITEM] is a family heirloom from the characters [FAMILY MEMBER] and it can [USEFUL ABILITY]. After a while [UNCOMFORTABLE EVENT] happens and if the character ignores it then [SOMETHING IS WRONG] happens. When the character looks into the [ITEM] they learn it came from [HISTORY] and then they can break the curse by [BREAKING].
- Item of Clothing
- Offensive ability
- Visions of the past, present, or future
- Time manipulation
- Elemental power
- Mental manipulation
- Alter reality
- Enhance physical ability
- Enhance mental ability
- People notice things different about the character that the character doesn’t notice
- Minor physical alterations
- Blanks in the character’s memory
- People remembering the character doing things the character doesn’t remember doing
- The character hears whispers they can’t identify
- The character’s perception of reality is shifted
- The character has fits of an emotion
- The character must have the item nearby or grow anxious
- Natural creatures become fearful or aggressive towards character
Something is Wrong
- The character wakes up covered in blood that isn’t theirs
- The character dreams of things then discovers they’ve actually happened
- The character tries to get rid of or destroy the item and finds it in their possession again
- The character suffers major physical alterations
- Something destructive happens from the item’s special ability
- The character hears voices
- The character’s perception of reality shifts greatly
- The character must have the item in hand or worn
- Ideas and ideologies the character never would have agreed with before seem like good ideas
- Natural creatures attack the character or flee
- The item is of unknown origin but there are people who’ve survived the curse know its story and how to break the curse.
- The item is of extra dimensional origin and only in its home dimension can the items story be discovered.
- The item’s story is tied to a lost kingdom and only within those ruins can the items story be discovered.
- An ancient creature knows the secret to the item.
- The story of the item and the way to break the curse is in an old book. Unfortunately the book’s pages are in different collections around the campaign setting.
- It’s the story of a family feud and only family members know the whole tale.
- The truth of the item is only know by a secret organization.
- The item’s story is jumbled in myths, legends, and histories. Only by assembling the knowledge and getting an expert’s help can the story be learned.
- The item was cursed by a god to punish a mortal, and the story is now the core doctrine of a cult.
- The story is etched in the walls of a cave deep within a cavern complex filled with monsters and dangers.
- There’s just one terrible way to break the curse. For example, thrown in the fires of Mount Doom, or bathed in Dragon fire while in magical darkness.
- Preform a specific act to break the curse: True loves kiss, die by your own hand, bathe in the waters of Elysium.
- Pass the item onto someone else who wants it.
- Survive the curse until it’s run its course.
- Discover another item that can nullify the curse.
- A difficult ritual or rite of passage can break the curse.
- A great personal sacrifice will break the curse.
- Discover specific knowledge to break or accept the curse and change it.
- A loved one must willing make a sacrifice on the cursed’s behalf.
- A powerful and magical counter-item must be crafted.
Brief Word From Johnn
Campaign Prep Begins For Murder Hobos Season II
This week I started planning the second season of my Murder Hobos campaign.
We ended the first season with a deadly dungeon crawl, rescue of surviving Rockseeker brothers, and vanquishing of the villain behind all the recent Cragmaw goblin violence – The Spider.
My planning for season two has been rocky to start. I’ve forgotten a lot of the campaign details, so I’m vowing to make full use of my Campaign Logger tool this time around to help me take swift yet awesome notes.
I also got permission from my players to use a published adventure for season two – which means some railroading – but as I started reading the top picks for adventures I fell out with the idea. I like my sandbox too much, even if it means extra work up front. Plus, I asked players for backgrounds mid-season last year, and I want to make use of them else I’ve wasted my group’s time.
So yesterday I started building Lego pieces for my campaign and organizing my notes in Campaign Logger, iThoughtsHD and Evernote.
Today I’ll take advantage of our long weekend holiday here in Canada and continue making interesting people, places, and items, like an insane chef throwing squirming ingredients into a bubbling cauldron.
Once Murder Hobos: Season II starts I’ll keep you apprised of how sessions go. Some readers dislike the session reports, others love them. I know I enjoy writing them as a way to take better notes, and to share some of my GMing ideas and processes.
Two Books For Your GM Bookshelf
This year I grabbed two GM reference books from Lulu and am glad I did. The D30 books are brimming with great ideas and generators. I made a quick video review of them this week:
Ok, on with today’s tips. Get some gaming done this week!
P.S. I have a GM challenge for you next session: Give each player at least one compliment while playing for their ideas or actions.
(Thanks to RPT Reader David who suggested making small GM challenges in the newsletter to inspire your GMing.)
Thanks to Roleplaying Tips’ awesome new Patrons: Todd Landrum and Collin Bakkie. And hearty welcome to new Platinum Patrons Hugo Mardolcar, J. Michael, and Patrick Lupiani!
10 Ways to Make More Memorable Familiars
From Jesse C Cohoon
In European folklore familiar spirits were supernatural entities believed to assist magic users in their arts. The idea of familiars has carried into the roleplaying games, but the magic and mystique of the original idea has been lost in translation. By looking at ways to use them in gameplay, add them to your plots, and give them personality you can bring back some of the old magic.
- Have the familiar connected to a place. Instead of something that travels around with them, the magician bound the spirit to the land itself so the entire area becomes a sentinel warning him of invaders.
- Have the familiar connected to some object. The familiar is bound to an object that holds their spirit, able to take over their master’s body to apply their skills and powers.
- Have the familiar on call. The magical practitioners conjure their familiar spirit only when they need assistance. When dismissed they disappear, ready to be re-summoned.
- Have the familiar be able to change the form of the caster. The familiar’s master can assume an augmented version of the familiar’s own form using the familiar’s power.
- Take a cue from real life familiar myths around the world. Choose one of the links below and base the nature of the familiar on a real-life legend.
- Have the familiar attempt to wrest control from the character. When badly injured or asleep the practitioner’s familiar controls their body.
- An unseen servant accompanies the character. The familiar’s abilities are limited but it cannot be seen or harmed.
- Familiars as supporting cast. The character’s familiar is as much an NPC as the campaign’s villain or the character’s kindly mentor. It has its own schemes and manipulates the character accordingly.
- Give the familiar different powers. The familiar’s abilities and specialty are at odds with those of its master.
- Role reversal. The players are the familiars in the campaign.
10 Familiar Plots
- A spell caster has been replaced by a look-alike and the original’s familiar tries to warn the PCs of the switch.
- A caster’s familiar has been replaced and is negatively influencing the caster, but the caster can’t put into words what’s wrong. It’s up to the PCs to find out what’s going on.
- A caster has asked the PCs to track down their mischievously missing familiar: a pigeon.
- All familiars in a certain area are acting strangely. It’s up to the PCs to find out what’s going on and why.
- One of the PC’s familiars has gotten sick and it’s up to them to find a cure before it dies.
- A magic user has paid the PCs handsomely to catalog the different magic user’s familiars. What does he want with the information and why?
- A local magic user has rejected his familiar who now seeks to become a familiar to one of the magic users in the party. Do they try to reunite the familiar with its former master or do they take it on?
- A familiar is spying on the party. Killing it could cause more harm than good. What do they do?
- A spell caster’s familiar is being controlled (charmed or otherwise) by an enemy magic user. Do they attack their former ally or do they acquiesce to the other caster’s demands?
- A familiar has gotten itself into trouble and has gone to the PCs for help, but is unable to communicate with them effectively. Will they realize that it’s asking for help or think it’s simply a nuisance and shoo it away?
Familiar Personality Generator
|1||Shy||Dislikes bright lights|
|2||Possessive||Dislikes like water/baths|
|3||Aggressive||Afraid of heights|
|4||Snob||Afraid of enclosed spaces|
|5||Fearless||Nimble fingered/light fingered|
|6||Adventurous||Loves gold and gems|
|7||Creative||Either mute or chatterbox|
|10||Disobedient||Acts as if it’s human|
|11||Picky||Brings random things to the caster|
|13||Dependable||Constantly cleaning self|
|14||Sullen||Brightly colored or camouflaged|
|18||Helpful||Knows 1d4+1 tricks|
|19||Happy||Wants to be treated as a pet|
|20||Rude||Destroys others’ property|