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The way curses are handled, is soften a bit boring and flavor-less in DnD. I prefer to see curses as a group of meta-magic spells. They can be combined with other spells or magic items and vary greatly in how powerful or nasty they are, as well as in how hard they are to resist or to break.
1.) Cursed items:
There are many variations of cursed items, and most of them are far from useless. And not all curses will detect as curses or as evil.
a) The curse is part of the items function:
Example: A sword of wounding. This is a simple +1 sword – but adds 1 point ongoing damage for 10 rounds. And the damage can only be healed normally – magical healing and regeneration do not work! For the wilder, this is a great weapon – especially against regenerating creatures. But anyone ever hit by this sword will tell you it is cursed. I figure, it is created as any other magical sword with “enchant an item” followed by “enchant a weapon” (done for every +1) and sealed with “permanency”. But instead of upping the “to hit and damage bonus” further, the enchanter added a curse, worded along the lines of: “You shall cause nasty, bleeding wounds that can’t be healed by magic or regeneration – only in the slow, mundane ways”
b) The curse is part of the enchantment and secures the item:
Examples: Nearly all the wands, rods and staffs! Previous editions made it clear, that these items usually require a command-word to activate. Other conditions (like rubbing or twisting the wand or to press it in certain places) are possible as well. Another favorite one of me is activation by key-item: The wand only works properly, if you wear this glove or ring on your wand-hand. Anyway, if you don’t do it right, the magic item…
…doesn’t work at all (this is frequently done by good/responsible mages – think of it as a magical –safety-catch)
…or the wand activates, targeting you and expending one charge (for example a wand of fireball just drops it “ground zero”, roasting you and everyone in the 20’ radius). This is obviously a bit irresponsible/evil.
These two possibilities are the most easy to use. But it can be more elaborate as well…
…like the item targets the wilder, but with reduced power. Say the “wand of fireball” burns your hand for 1 point of damage or casts “burning hands” at you. You get a saving throw (usually reflex-based for half damage). Mark you - a successful save means that you drop the wand in time or throw it away.
…alternatively, the effect could increase every time – in case, someone takes the “trial and error” approach. Like no result for the first time, one point of damage the second time, 1d6 (close burst) the third time, than 6d6 (20’ radius - all with save for half)
and after this…
…the most devastating; the wand goes nova, expending all remaining charges at once. Since this is easy abuse, I’d suggest that every charge after the first only adds an additional dice to damage and 3’ to the radius. So a wand of fireball with 20 charges, cursed to go nova if activated the wrong way would do 6d6 with the first charge plus 19d6 for the remaining charges for a total of 25d6. Radius would be 77’. You could reduce the damage by 1d6 for every 3’ over the first 20. So someone standing 77’ away from the center of the blast would only suffer (the last) 1d6 and could perhaps save for no damage at all.
c) The curse secures the item, but isn’t part of the enchantment.
Examples: A ring of 3 wishes could hold a curse as well. If it isn’t deactivated, it spoils the wishes for amusing and nasty effects. The same could be done with a scroll. Let’s say the scroll holds a “burning hands”- and a “stone-skin”- spell as well as a curse. Now, if the curse isn’t deactivated, the “burning hands” just burns your hands and the “stone-skin” turns your skin into stone (as well as your flesh) and you into a statue.
This is a good example what I mean with “meta-magic”: the curse uses the energy of another spell and just twists it. Have fun with this!
A curse can secure other items as well – a purse or a spell-book for example. My favorite one colors the hands of anyone that touches it without permission red – so you can catch a thief red-handed!
d) The creator of the item botched or was sabotaged (say by an imp-familiar)
Example: A potion of regeneration. The creator used “the essence of a troll” to pull off the regeneration effect. The potion works as it should – at first. Let’s say, the potion is consumed by a fighter that lost a hand or an arm. The limb re-grows as promised. Perhaps there are some minor flaws like he has to cut the nails of his new hand on a daily basis. But there are also good things, like he heals damage a bit faster than normal. In the end, the new limb could act like a ring of regeneration for him. At some point (after he has healed a certain amount of damage this way) there could other changes as well: The skin of the new limb becomes greenish and warty and the limb looks slightly too big -resulting in a penalty to charisma and a bonus to strength. The limb continues to eat him up like some cancer – a penalty to intelligence and a bonus to constitution could follow. And an all-consuming hunger whenever he used the new abilities. In the end, the limb converts him into a CE – troll-monster, perhaps after murdering him in his sleep and raising him as a troll.
A ring of regeneration or a ring of vampiric regeneration could work similar…
e) Like the above - but the item was intentionally created as a trap or as a temptation
f) The items has quirks …
…maybe because there were some minor flaws in the creation process or because it was secured with a curse once, that was not totally removed. Or the item was created with the quirk, because it made sense to the original user.
Examples: A wand that fires a bit to high (so you have to adjust your aim) or
a flying carpet that pulls upwards and to the left if you stop concentrating on it (so it circles safely if you fall asleep or are busy fighting an enemy) or
a ring of feather-fall that only works for 1-3 rounds (just used to break the fall) or
a one-use delayed-fireball-wand (holy hand-grenade – activate and throw at enemy)
g) The item was cursed later…
Example: weapons used to commit many crimes or to execute hundreds of innocents could acquire a curse (because of the vengeful souls/ghosts or the telltale fairy-godmother passing through)
Another famous example would be certain large gems (mined on holy ground, or costing the life of many workers) that claim the life of its owner (by accident or because he is killed by someone else who wants this gem so badly)
"Once, I was a fighter -
to conquer the heart of a beautiful lady.
Then I became a thief -
- to steal myself a kiss from her lips.
And finally, I became a mage -
- to enchant her face with a smile."
If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.
@ Panartias, I like those ideas and I'm going to talk with the guys/girl in my campaign and see if they would be interested in incorporating that into our game. If so I'll probably use one or two of those ideas just to add a little extra something for them to be challenged with, but only if it sounds interesting to them as I don't want to throw things into the game that they have no interest in.
Another item that I once used had an in-build flaw as well: A girdle of dwarvenkind. It gave you +1 to your constitution but – 1 to your charisma (those were the racial modifiers for a dwarf in 2e).
I ruled that the -1 charisma manifests as your facial hair growing 1 inch per day – even for women or elves.
This little quirk ensured that the item ended up in the hands of the right character in the end.